The Rambo series is the worst engineered film series of all time for a title standpoint. It’s just ridiculous, half thought out and silly. The films are usually called Rambo, but actually, it’s the First Blood series if you want to be technical. The first film is called, First Blood, the second is called, Rambo First Blood Part II. No colon, no coma and a “part II” tacked on in a bizarre fashion that makes no logical sense. How can you have a second, first blood? Is it the second drawing of first blood? Is it what happens after one draws first blood? IMDb grants the film the dignity of a colon in the title, but none of the DVD materials, nor any of the posters feature this punctuation. By Rambo III the producers had all but given up on the concept of title continuity. The movie is just called, Rambo III. There is no Rambo 1 or 2, Just Rambo 3. It’s not even Rambo Part III. It’s just, Rambo III. And then there is Rambo 4, which is called, Rambo. Complicating things more, there is a director’s cut coming, allegedly called, John Rambo, which will be really confusing since the film was already released under that title in much of Europe.
All of this is messier than figuring out the timeline of George Romero’s zombie films. But, I guess you can figure it out by measuring the length of Rambo’s knife. It gets bigger with each successive film.
A successful film can be a signifier of an important moment or dominant thought in society. A film series is even more likely to display something important about the era that created it. Easy Rider was a defining film of its’ moment, The Breakfast Club too. Similarly, the Freddy and Jason and Michael sagas said much about their moment in history as well. And then there is Rambo. Rambo, Sylvester Stallone’s a 4-part, multi-decade spanning war series displays as much about the American psyche as it does about the American film market.
But really, to take John Rambo without Rocky Balboa would be foolish. The Rocky films were about the American dream, quintessential Horatio Alger myths. The Rambo films, however, are about the dark side of that same dream. They are about what happens to those who don’t make strike it rich, to those who society forgets or rejects. It’s no mistake that Stallone embodies both men; they could easily be each other.
The first Rambo film is about a rejected special ops solider who just wants a warm cup of coffee and some human interaction. The second is about a man who is still fighting an internal war that he cannot win because he has been told that the external war is over. The third film is about history repeating and the fourth is about what happens when a man who has spent his whole life killing has to die. However, even with these seemingly weighty subjects in tow, the Rambo films are light, breezy, often stupid affairs that celebrate violence and American fascism as an effective tool for peace keeping.
Rambo is not really a character so much as a cipher for the mood of the country. In 1982 when First Blood premiered, America was deep into a recession. The mood was grim and the world seemed at war with itself. America’s history was coming back and it seemed like it was time to pay the piper. So, Rambo became a hero of that time. He was a rejected solider. Taught to kill, but not to live. Consequently, he killed when he was pushed too far.
This first film displays a more complex Rambo. The man is scared, sensitive and has the emotional state of a lost puppy. Yes, he carries his signature hyper-machismo, outsized biceps, huge knife, and curly locks, but the Rambo of First Blood is distinctly human where his persona in the sequels is that of a superhero. The film beautifully films Stallone running through dense forests that represent his inner turmoil from the war he fought and lost. He is being chased by the man at every turn and internally cannot escape that wish that he had died fighting, on his feet, like a man.
By Rambo First Blood Part II, Rambo was already a superhero. Rambo II is commonly referred to as the one where he goes back and single handedly wins the Vietnam War. America was in full Reagan swing and the fascist-lite aesthetics of that ends-justify-the-means regime seeped into the movie. Whereas in First Blood Rambo was forced into violence, which was clearly a bad thing, here the violence is shown as positive. With joyous aplomb Rambo slices and dices and blows up 56 faceless, soulless, pointless commies. It’s all expertly rendered, but it’s also more than a bit boring. There is a reason that Schwarzenegger is not the main character in the Terminator films, a cold-blooded killing machine is not that interesting. Rambo First Blood Part II is a case study in that theory.
It’s of some note that James Cameron takes a credit on this film because it’s clearly written from the exact same template as Aliens. In fact, they’re basically the same movie structurally. The set up of Ripley being pulled back in to win the war against those who killed the people she cared about, The double cross from the corporation, the single-handed victory. And, the level of racial sensitivity here is about on par with that one would expect to see when dealing with faceless alien creatures that exist to produce slime.
The difference between Aliens and Rambo First Blood Part II is Newt. Newt, in Aliens plays a vital role; she humanizes Ripley. Rambo has to deal with POWs. These men simply do not work as well as Newt. Consequently, the entire film drags because it lacks an emotional core. Compassionate Conservatism indeed.
By Rambo III, also known as Rambo Single Handedly Solves the Middle East Crisis (Or the handy acronym RSHSMEC), all reality is gone. Rambo is little more than the cartoon character that the movie inspired. He runs around with an 18 inch blade and pecs the size of LiLo’s breasts while reductionist 1-dimensional images of Arabs discuss how wonderful Jihad is. Were it not for the amusing latent homoeroticism of it all, and the irony of our current political situation, this movie might be unwatchable one of the worst action films I’ve ever seen. From the silly opening where two white guys fighting in the middle of Asia to the inclusion of Rambo’s old Army boss for a third time. Nothing works here. It’s all boring, rehashed and pointless. Rambo II is a lesser film than the first, but Rambo III is just unforgivably bad. Career endingly bad. Franchise killingly bad.
Well, almost a franchise killer.
Shockingly, Rambo is not an embarrassment. In fact, it’s easily the best film since the original. Rambo’s morose nature is more befitting and his hulking, steroid added visage is something to behold. The film plays as a sort of greatest hits collection, recreating some of the series biggest set pieces, but they feel more fresh and vital with the aged Stallone in the lead. The danger that was missing when Rambo was simply a robotic killing machine is present because of his age. Also, all of the side characters are better written than they were in the previous installments.
But, just because Rambo is an exciting and well executed does not mean that it is perfect. Rambo is a sort of revisionist version of the earlier films. It tries desperately to show the consequences of violence, but it isn’t willing to go all the way. Yes, we see extreme suffering and real amputee children, and it does hurt to watch. But, you can’t show the amputee children as a moral plea and then have scenes where landmines are played as a joke.
The film tries to have its cake and eat it too. Violence is shown to be bad, but then Rambo kills over 250 people. It just, it comes off as pandering at a point. And this is really a shame because it’s clear that Stallone wants to make a point about the situation in Burma. For years the man has brought up all the research he has done on the conflict in Burma. I don’t think it was an accidental backdrop. But by making the action exploitive, the film ends up being basically identical to the others, if a bit better made.
The Rambo series is creepy to me. It’s pretty messed up on a basic moral level. The message of each sequel is that violence is not just an acceptable answer, it’s the only answer. Anyone who tries to discuss things or work things out will only be killed, and they will deserve their death. This is fascism. Pure and simple, John Rambo is a fascist hero. Moreover, there is also a healthy dose of American imperialism on display and more than a few moments that seem to be pro-Vietnam.
While I find these elements grotesque, they also make for an interesting story. No other movie has the guts to be pro-Vietnam and I’ve never seen another film series that was so totally and happily fascist. There are subversive and unsettling elements to be sure, but they do make for interesting storytelling because they are so unusual.
The Rambo Box Set is absolutely jam packed with extras. It even comes in a pretty cool looking metal case complete with a giant embossed blade running down the front cover. Inside, there is one of those nifty fold out cases that has a space for each of the set’s 6 discs. It’s all very well put together, and with the exception of the garish back cover, the set is a good display piece. Be wary though. Like the Alien Quadrilogy set, the actual DVD holders are held on by glue that doesn’t always stick. My set is a week old and already, some of backing is coming undone.
The first 3 film in the series all come with an odd extra feature. They are designed to look like military intelligence updated with 3D maps and diagrams of the tanks and helicopters. It’s an interesting idea, but anyone who cares about this stuff already knows it. These extras aren’t all that easy to navigate either. But there is a lot of information here. I don’t know exactly how to describe it. but it’s similar to the “Follow the White Rabbit” feature on the first Matrix DVD. If you like military stuff, you’ll likely get something out of these.
First Blood comes with commentary by Stallone and deleted scenes including a franchise killing alternate ending. Of these only the alternate ending is really of consequence. It’s interesting to hear Stallone’s thoughts on his first Rambo adventure before he was able to make a 4th one. This track is actually rather excellent.
NOTE: THE DVD LISTS A SECOND COMMENTARY FROM THE SCREENWRITER BUT NO SUCH COMMENTARY IS PRESENT.
Rambo First Blood Part II is less stacked. It has only a director’s commentary from George C. Cosmatos. Who has a really interesting voice, even if it is slightly thick. Passable. If you love the film it might interest you, but there is nothing that will shock fans to be found here.
Rambo III gets a director’s commentary from Peter McDonald and deleted scenes. It’s often interesting to hear what directors think of old movies that didn’t really find an audience upon initial release. Peter McDonald sounds proud of his work, thought not blind to its’ flaws. Rambo III was a big movie to have as a directorial debut as a replacement director, things can get complicated. Lots of info, even with the quiet spots.
Rambo is the best stacked of the discs. It has a commentary by Stallone, which nicely counterpoints his commentary on First Blood. He is proud that he got to make Rambo at all. And it is honestly a bit amazing that this film exists. It’s an okay listen. But not really a must for causal fans. He talks about his affection for the character a lot, which his more interesting than it sounds. The disc also has a collection of 4 deleted scenes as well as featurettes on the music/a tribute to Jerry Goldsmith, a featurette on editing, how Rambo was brought back to theaters, sound, weaponry, a premiere party doc, and a piece about Burma. Of these, only the piece on Burma and the “Resurrection of a Legend” pieces are worth attention. Though, the music stuff is nice too.
Rambo comes with a second disc dedicated to a digital copy of the film. neat for those of us with I-Pods that play video.
The set also comes with a 6th disc of bonus material exclusive to this set. This disc is really not fitting of the rest of the discs or of the series. The Real
GUTS AND GLORY begins with Ronald Reagan and Rambo slamming into each other and becoming a single person. It’s weird. Again, this isn’t entirely praising. “These films promoted militarism” says one talking head. Lots of Rambo toys. It’s creepy. Again, a very good doc. Stallone does a good job defending his films, but I don’t know if I buy it all. But again, this is a much deeper little piece than one would expect. The essence of why Rambo is popular is here dissected. 30 minutes.
Next up is a 10-minute advertisement for the military. I suppose it’s informative, but it’s an advertisement for war.
Following this is the sublimely titled, Rambo-Nomics which details the monetary elements of the series. If you’re interested in the film business this is really worth watching, a bit short though at only 3 minutes and change. It doesn’t detail Rambo III’s massive budget overrun, nor even the existence of Rambo.
Selling a Hero is a video of the collected Rambo toys. Horary for conspicuous consumption. In an acid trip moment, this feature is a series of vignettes of the toys recreating action scenes from the movie. I have no idea why this exists. But it’s hilarious to watch. 4:30.
Suiting Up details Rambo’s various weapons. It amusingly graphs the increase in size of the weapons. Almost a parody. Rather amusing. A bit long at almost 8 minutes.
An American Heroes Journey: The Rambo Trilogy. Details the evolution of Rambo from a character in a novel, to a character on serial boxes. Lots of talk from the Novel’s author and the screenwriters. Actually fairly cool. 26 minutes.
Drawing First Blood is about the origins of the film and how it came from the author’s experience with Vietnam veterans. Somehow, it doesn’t feel redundant even with a lot of material covering similar ground on the disc. Apparently the film was the most optioned property in the history of Hollywood at the time. 22 minutes.
We Get to Win this Time starts with a quote from the director to Rambo II saying, “I didn’t see it as an action movie, I saw it as an action movie.” Which to me seems patently absurd. The doc goes on to explain that the director of First Blood was more intellectual than the director of the sequel. Really, George C. Cosmatos comes off poorly. This goes into detail mostly on the first Rambo sequel and how cool it was to honor our troops with an exploitation movie. Unintentionally funny. 20 minutes.
Closing out the disc is Afghanistan: Land in Conflict, which I think is a real no brainer.the dunderheaded politics of Rambo III are here expounded upon. This documentary is also ironic as it begins with a quote saying that Afghanistan was a good setting because it is clear who the enemy is…a statement painting the Taliban as a great friend to America. But, this documentary is actually surprisingly informative, even if it is a teeny-tiny bit outdated. 30 minutes.
Also, there are trailers for each film included.
The number of special features surprised me until I discovered that these aren’t new. Most all of these features came from the out-of-print Rambo Trilogy Special Edition DVD set. Which makes sense because almost all of these features neglect that the fourth Rambo film, IE: the reason this set exists.
The DVDs of the first 3 films are identical to the previously released Rambo Ultimate Edition set. The bonus disc is just special features from another DVD release. So, if you have those, the 2-disc edition of the 4th film is all you’ll need. The bonus disc here isn’t worth the extra 30 bucks, especially because it’s all previously released material.
However, if you liked the Rambo films, or only saw the new one and want to go back and see the earlier films, this is probably the best way to do it. By no means is this a perfect set, but it is pretty okay. That said, the Rambo series seems to be getting a new DVD treatment ever few years, so don’t be surprised to see another version of any of these films soon.
And, if you’re a fan of commentary tracks, you might want to wait for the second pressing of this set as the advertised commentary from First Blood’s screenwriter is missing.
Recommended, with reservations.