"Rambo 1-3 Boxset" Blu-ray Review
May 28, 2008 by Zach Demeter
The eighties were a violent time for moviegoers. Not only did Terminator find its way to the screen and attempt to destroy humanity, but we saw Rocky get a fair amount of beatings as well. As if that wasn’t enough, First Blood smashes on screens in 1982 and has two sequels within six years. Without a doubt the eighties produced some of the most beloved action films (as well as some of the most despised) and it was a good time to be a ripped bodybuilder, especially if your last name was Schwarzenegger or Stallone.
Despite starting out as a film about a soldier suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, the Rambo series eventually degraded into a series of shoot-em’-up’s, which is what the series seems to be known for. Between the first three films we see the character go from a lonely soldier whose teammates have all passed on to a soldier who merely blows stuff up. The films were never known for any deep characters or character complexity and it’s really only the first film where we see the effects of war on Rambo, so in essence the other two films in the series are really just mindless action movies that attempt to form some sort of plot and/or story around the character. Oh but who cares about that crap, let’s just watch Rambo drive a tank into a helicopter!
I’ve never seen the Rambo series until recently (and by recently I mean a few hours before writing this review), so I had no idea what I was in for. I expected the films to be mindless violence with loose plots, but that didn’t come until later in the series, as First Blood was almost as dramatic as it was action packed. A lot of First Blood I found to be completely unbelievable, as the whole police-after-Rambo thing only happened because the sheriff was a jerk to Rambo in the first place, but I guess the film needed its catalyst to start it all off.
Quite honestly I was ready to write First Blood off as another 80s action movie I didn’t like (I’ve said it before in other reviews, but I really hate a lot of 80s movies), but it was the final minutes of First Blood that clinched it for me. We rarely heard from Rambo in the entire movie and instead only saw his actions, but when he started his dialogue about Vietnam, the movie shot up in score for me. The action that preceded it was, to me, a bit dull (the tinny sound effects may have something to do with that), but the dialogue at the end of the film really clinched it and I could see why it was loved by so many.
Moving onto Rambo: First Blood, Part II (not sure who decided to use this as the official title, but they should be shot…by Rambo) we find Rambo locked up chopping away at rocks until Col. Samuel Trautman (Richard Crenna) comes to his aid and offers him a mission overseas. The mission eventually finds Rambo attempting to free POWs that were still being held even after the Vietnam War ended. While the story somehow revolves round Rambo falling in love with at Vietnamese Rebel named Co Bao, she dies almost instantly after they profess their love for one another, which I admittedly started immediately laughing at. These movies are nothing if not absurd and the whole affair of it all just becomes ridiculous as Rambo takes it upon himself after Bao’s death to kill everyone in sight. He still focuses on freeing the POWs, but it’s all hate-filled rage being unleashed upon the Vietnamese now as opposed to a form of deep-seated rage that just existed because he’s Rambo.
Admittedly after First Blood I expected the rest of the series to be as dramatic as the first, but it’s really these later films in the original trilogy (it’s now a quadrilogy, obviously) that turned into the mindless slaughter fests, so while I was taken aback by First Blood, I then had to readjust my idea of the series again for the sequel. Kind of jarring, but the second film really as so slipshod that my desire to ever watch it again is minimal; sure there’s torture and high body counts, but First Blood, Part II is still quite a dull film, even with the myriad of bullets flying (although that final Rambo outburst in the US HQ warehouse was pretty wicked).
Rambo III (yeah it’s named that, but there was never a Rambo II technically speaking, so what the hell?) is…well, it’s more of the same, but the opening to the film is a bit different. While we see Rambo still fighting, he lives up in the mountains with the monks where he helps keep things in repair. He’s rather peaceful (aside from the stick fighting, which he kicks ass at) and when Trautman shows up again with another missions, poor Rambo is pulled back in. While he refuses at first, when he hears that Trautman went forward with the mission himself and ended up getting captured, Rambo decides to head into Afghanistan to rescue his mentor and father figure. The film pretty much goes into a downhill slide from here, as the plot becomes negligible once again just so we can see Rambo blow away a ton of people.
By the third film, however, I was used to the series bouncing back and forth and I began to care less that Rambo III wasn’t going to have a plot and instead I focused on the mindless violence, which is really what I expected all along. Despite being the lowest rated of the three films by IMDb goers, I honestly thought this was actually a pretty decent film, as far as relentless violence goes anyway. It attempts to add a bit of political commentary to the mix and it’s quite the exciting film at times, what with all of the helicopters exploding and shooting things up.
The biggest set piece of the film was the big battle at the climax of the film. After Rambo pulls the pin on some grenades on an enemies vest and ties a rope around him, causing him to explode mid-air in a cave (yeah, it was as awesome as it sounds) Rambo and crew begin shooting and grenade launching projectiles into everyone and everything. One nice thing about these films is that Rambo isn’t like other war heroes where they never get shot; no, Rambo does take some bullets and he just gets up and keeps going anyway. Why? Because he’s Rambo and there’s no other reason needed.
And the coolest sequence to behold in this film (and, really, the entire series)? Rambo inside a tank playing chicken with a helicopter. There’s no logic to this scene at all, as I’m pretty sure both vehicles should have exploded in a fiery mess, but dammit, I don’t care. Rambo rammed a helicopter with a freakin’ tank and it was awesome. By this point in the series I’d begun to fully embrace the violence, but unfortunately for me the trilogy was over and Rambo returned home, never to be seen again…until Sylvester Stallone needed money.
All in all while it wasn’t what I expected, the Rambo trilogy was still a great time to be had. The drama from the first film is as strong as (I imagine) it was back in 1982 and the subsequent films, while gradually getting worse as it went along, still managed to entertain. The only thing that really disturbed me in these films was just how much more muscular Stallone got with each ensuing movie…by the third film I thought he was going to hulk out of his own skin. Still, it’s Rambo and that alone means the trilogy is Recommended.
Each of the Rambo films are available by themselves, but Lionsgate has opted to release a three-pak of the first three films (why not a four pack? No idea. There’s a DVD four pack, but alas). This review is of said three-pak, which houses the three films in their own standard Blu-ray cases inside of a cardboard slipcase. Nothing fancy about this box set aside from the slipcase, as the releases are identical to the single releases you’re going to find by themselves.
Menus for each of the films are different, with each being inspired by the films specific surroundings. They’re well laid out and easy to navigate, although the special features menu for First Blood is kind of one giant mess. Still, they show off the Blu-ray menu style rather nicely and Lionsgate seems to be a big supporter of this format, going so far as using Profile 2.0 features on the Rambo (the fourth film, in case you’re wondering) release, although the first three films get nothing quite so fancy.
For each of the films we get a wide arrange of video/audio transfers. While all three films feature DTS-HD MA tracks, it’s really only the third film that actually sounds like it is using the stream. First Blood sounds like it’s center channel focused only and none of the sound effects have any oomph to them, instead sounding like they were recorded inside of a metal container. It’s rather disappointing, as once Rambo unleashes the big guns at the end I would have liked to feel the thumping of each bullet, but instead I received a lifeless audio mix. First Blood: Part II fared a bit better with a bit more channel separation and subwoofer usage, but it wasn’t until Rambo III did we really feel any effect of the onscreen mayhem. I realize older tracks means older effects, but surely if you’re going to do DTS-HD MA track you would make it worth your (the production studio) and the audiences time.
Like the audio, the video varied as well. First Blood looks like some kind of un-sharpened print that lacked any sort of crispness or detail. It looked nice for its age, I suppose, but it was such a smeared looking transfer that I had a hard time believing it was a Blu-ray transfer I was watching. It was simply too smoothed over to really offer any details and when watching the high-speed bike sequence, I wondered if it was really Stallone on the bike, but even with a 1080p transfer the motion blur was so great that I couldn’t make out anything when the film was paused aside from what resembled to be a hairy man on a bike. The next two films sported much cleaner transfers that boasted a lot more detail and well-defined grain than First Blood and, like the audio, got better with each film (unlike the series, which received a poorer reception with each installment. Funny how that works…). AVC was used to encode the first film, while VC-1 tackled the final two of the trilogy.
Each of the three films has their own unique extras, but they also share similar bonuses as well. All three films sport a 1080p trailer for Rambo (the new one) and an “Out of the Blu” trivia track on each film. First Blood’s track seems to be researched and includes a lot of tidbits not available elsewhere on the set, but for the two movies after it just quotes information from the commentaries as it’s being said. Some of the trivia bits take up a decent chunk of the screen at times and can be kind of distracting if you’re trying to watch what’s going on screen…but if you’re trying to do that you shouldn’t turn the trivia track on. A drawback of this then would mean you’re watching the film with the trivia track only casually and some of the trivia flies on and off screen so fast you might have to rewind to check it out if you aren’t paying complete attention.
Moving on, First Blood houses two commentaries, one with Sylvester Stallone and another with David Morrell. I was shocked at how good Stallone’s track was, as whenever you hear someone talking about him they can’t help but imitate his “mumble”, but here he’s loud and clear, offering up jokes and recollections from the set with ease. It’s a truly wonderful track and one that I enjoyed more than the film itself. Screenwriter Morrell’s track is less eventful, but it still manages to pack on plenty of neat information that you otherwise might not know. Of the two, Stallone’s is the strongest, but they’re both worth listening to.
Finishing up First Blood is a round of deleted/extended scenes (5:33) which includes the controversial “Rambo dies” ending. Awesome to see, but then we wouldn’t have received any other installments of the series…which some may say would have been a good thing, but still. “Documentary: Drawing First Blood” (22:35) is the making-of for this disc and it fills the job nicely, harvesting a wealth of cast and crew interviews as they recount their time on the First Blood set.
First Blood: Part II has director George P. Cosmatos on tap for commentary, but he seems about as interested in the film as I was, as he offers very little interesting information about the film, not to mention his heavy accent forces you to strain to hear what he’s talking about. “We Get to Win This Time” (20:04) is, once again, the films making-of doc with cast and crew interviews.
Rambo III director Peter MacDonald makes up for Cosmatos’s dullness by infusing the Rambo III commentary with candid discussions about directing the film after the first director quit. Occasionally MacDonald will veer off topic or tell us what’s happening on screen (I hate it when they start that), but overall his track’s solid…but it’s hard to beat Stallone’s track on First Blood, so any commentary for these films that came after that one is going to seem weaker in comparison. “Afghanistan: Land in Crisis” (29:48) is, you guessed it, the making-of documentary for the film, although it packs in a lot of discussion about the Afghanistan conflict in the near half-hour run time. It would have made more sense if they split this one into two separate featurettes, since it changes topic so quickly when it shifts its focus towards the production of the film.
Unfortunately there are extras from previous releases that didn’t make their way onto this release, but it’s still a solid release regardless, not to mention it’s got a low MSRP so you should be able to find it for cheap if you’re lacking the Rambo films from your collection. While the trilogy is a veritable mess in terms of content and quality (in more ways than one), it’s still a classic and one worth checking out at least once. Recommended.
Rambo 1-3 Boxset is now available on Blu-ray.