July 28, 2010

You’ve got to give Lionsgate points for chutzpah. The Rambo movies are all already available on Blu-ray, but with The Expendables heading to theaters and a vault full of action flicks to exploit, the studio is fearlessly shotgunning genre fans with a stack of reissues. And since it would be kind of lame if all they had to show for their catalog holdings was a hi-def version of Lock Up, here’s Rambo: The Complete Collector’s Set, which bundles all four chapters in the John Rambo saga into a bloody, brick-shaped chunk of righteous fury.

As examples of egregious double-dipping go, The Complete Collector’s Set isn’t so bad. Lionsgate is clearly trying to take advantage of heightened interest in all things Stallone, but to the studio’s credit, no exclusive content has been added to any of the movies in the box — if you already own any of these titles on Blu-ray, you don’t need to worry about missing some new featurette or commentary track. In fact, this set doesn’t include the extended cut of the fourth film that you get with the standalone disc. What you’re left with, in essence, is a cheaper way to own the series, so even if it doesn’t exactly live up to its name, it’s tough to quibble too much with The Complete Collector’s Set.  More after the jump:

One of Sylvester Stallone’s signature characters, John Rambo was the brainchild of novelist David Morrell, who brought the battle-scarred Vietnam vet to life in the 1972 novel First Blood. After spending nearly a decade in development hell, the project fell to Stallone, who used some of his post-Rocky clout to bring it to the screen — and slowly change it from a dark indictment of American attitudes toward war into an orgasmic celebration of bloody violence.

But first things first. First Blood (1982) is almost universally held up as the best of the Rambo movies, and for good reason — even if some of the elements of the story never quite add up, it’s an unusually thoughtful action movie. Here, Rambo drifts into a small Washington town, and even though he opens the film having clearly seen better days — he’s traveling on foot and he’s either wearing or carrying everything he owns — things get a lot worse in a hurry. For reasons that never really make a lot of sense, the town’s sheriff, Will Teasle (Brian Dennehy), quickly decides Rambo is a troublemaker and tries to run him out; when Rambo resists, he’s thrown in jail, where a pack of sadistic guards quickly trigger the ‘Nam flashbacks that send him kicking his punching his way out of jail and into the Pacific Northwestern wilderness.

Having single-handedly escaped custody, Rambo becomes a news item, and the embarrassed Teasle sets about trying to flush him out of the woods, even after he learns Rambo is a decorated veteran — and receives an urgent warning from Colonel Trautman (Richard Crenna), Rambo’s former commanding officer, letting him know he isn’t dealing with any ordinary escaped prisoner.

It all seems a little heavy-handed now, but when it was published, First Blood represented one of the earliest attempts to try and use mainstream fiction to bring attention to the shoddy treatment suffered by a lot of Vietnam vets — and although it was used as the cornerstone for a series of progressively more violent films, there’s a lot less death here than you might remember. Rambo incapacitates his pursuers, but he only kills one of them, and that’s accidental. He’s a fascinating character here, and even if Teasle makes for a distractingly cartoonish villain, Rambo is really easy to root for.

Unfortunately for Hollywood, he wasn’t supposed to be franchise material. In the book, Morrell killed him, and while Rambo survived onscreen, First Blood didn’t include an easy sequel setup. Undeterred, Stallone (along with co-screenwriter James Cameron) decided that if the first film acted as a purgative for the way vets were treated when they came home, the sequel should be a big revenge fantasy where we go back and kick some Vietnamese ass.

Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985) opens with the resplendently mulleted Rambo in prison, where he’s pulled from rock-breaking duty for a visit from Trautman, who offers him the chance to head back in country: turns out the government is interested in finding out whether the camp Rambo escaped from still contains any POWs. Lip curled just so, Rambo utters the famous line “Sir, do we get to win this time?” — and just like that, you know what kind of movie this is going to be.

Thus stripped of his most interesting character elements, Rambo returns to Vietnam. Given that what happened to him there haunted him so deeply in First Blood, you might think he’d experience some sort of internal struggle in Part II, but mostly he just runs around the jungle killing Commies and blowing shit up. There’s a sort of half-hearted subplot about a native (Julia Nickson) who helps Rambo, but his code name is Lone Wolf for a reason — no sooner does she lock lips with our melancholy hero than she’s gunned down.

Of course, it isn’t enough to have Rambo fighting the enemy in Vietnam — he also has to deal with betrayal from within, in the form of the double-dealing Murdock (a chin-jutting Charles Napier), who isn’t interested in rescuing POWs and proves it by stranding Rambo and the escapees in the jungle to die. It all adds up to plenty of enjoyable, if rather transparently low-budget, action — but watch Part II after First Blood, and you see a meaningful story go completely off the rails. In the first film, John Rambo just wants to live; in the second, he just wants to kill. And while it makes perfect sense that being re-submerged in the nightmare of his captivity would trigger his bloodlust, Rambo isn’t really a person in Part II — he’s just an empty vessel, a way for ‘80s audiences to get some kind of post-Vietnam catharsis. Watching it now, it’s a little troubling that a movie this transparently hokey resonated as deeply as it did.

Part II was a huge success, racking up more than $300 million worldwide, so 1988’s Rambo III was pretty much a foregone conclusion. At this point, Rambo had acted as a surrogate for misunderstood vets all over the country and gone back to finish off the Vietnam war, so there really wasn’t much left for him to do except become a soldier for hire. At least, that’s the viewpoint expressed by Trautman as the movie opens; he’s about to lead a freedom-fighting mission in Afghanistan, and wants Rambo’s help delivering weapons to the Soviet-fighting mujahedin. Rambo, living in a Thai monastery and stick-fighting for money, wants no part of it — so naturally, Trautman gets captured and Rambo has to go in and kill a bunch of people to save him.

Aside from the clear fact that Crenna was much too old to be leading secret missions, Rambo III’s biggest problem was one of scale. Finally armed with a blockbuster budget, Stallone and his crew used it to deliver a jaw-droppingly over-the-top action thriller — one that might have worked well enough if it hadn’t been a Rambo movie, but as a First Blood sequel, represented a complete break with the character. Early in the film, Trautman tells Rambo that he needs to come to terms with the fact that he’s a killing machine, and just about everything Rambo does for the next hour and a half proves Trautman right — he’s a one-man execution crew, laying waste to legions of screaming Commies led by the evil Colonel Zaysen (Marc de Jonge).

Does this mean Rambo believes Trautman? Does he struggle at all with all this killing? Just what does he believe in? Aside from a few bits of speechifying, you don’t really know — at this point, Stallone had fallen back on playing Rambo as a dead-eyed maniac. About the only time he shows any emotion other than suspicion or rage is during the (admittedly nifty) sequence when he yanks a sliver of shrapnel out of his side and cauterizes the wound by dumping gunpowder in it and lighting it on fire.

Understandably, audiences had gotten pretty bored with Rambo at this point, and just as understandably, Stallone wasn’t satisfied with ending the saga on such a flat note. Enter Rambo (2008), which finds our hero looking remarkably pretty much the same as he did 20 years ago, and still living in Thailand — but as we quickly discover, he’s a whole lot angrier. Approached by a band of missionary relief workers who want a ride to Burma on his boat, Rambo snarls and yells a lot about how what they’re doing is useless, but he eventually agrees to ferry them over. Of course, not long after he drops them off, the village where they’re working is slaughtered by the Than Shwe army, the missionaries are kidnapped (or worse), and Rambo has to go in and save the day.

More than most action franchises, the Rambo movies are pretty grim and angry, and Rambo is the darkest, angriest, and most violent of them all. At this point, the character had been painted into such a goon’s corner that he had almost no way of believably expressing himself verbally, but Stallone does a fairly remarkable job of showing the self-loathing behind all the killing. It’s that added depth, along with the deeply visceral nature of the onscreen violence, that ties Rambo to First Blood in a way that the second and third chapters missed.

Ultimately, all the carnage suggests that Stallone either believes some disturbing things about human nature or simply hasn’t thought very deeply about the implications of Rambo’s overall story, but if you don’t think about it too deeply, Rambo is a pretty satisfying action thriller, and Stallone’s commitment to using the character to highlight human rights crises is commendable. Like Rocky Balboa, it’s a fitting sendoff to a character who’s been mistreated.

Given the age of the first three films, their comparatively low budgets, and studio greed in general, the audiovisual side of The Complete Collector’s Set is fairly impressive. As you’d expect, First Blood is the worst-looking of the bunch, and Rambo looks great — but even in the older movies, you’ll see a lot less of the usual dirt, scratches, and DNR smudge than in other releases from the era. (Compare First Blood with, say, the Wayne’s World Blu-ray, and you’ll see just how much care was taken with the former.) The first two films’ soundtracks are dated — Part II is particularly loaded with the canned-sounding explosions and sound effects of the era — but again, given their age, the opening chapters in the Rambo saga sound fine.

The bonus features, all ported over from the standalone editions, are plentiful; even Rambo III gets a commentary track, deleted scenes, and a featurette. From making-of documentaries to reminiscences from cast and crew (particularly Stallone, who opens up about all of the movies), the added content will tell you everything you ever wanted to know about Rambo, and probably more.

While it should be stressed again that owners of the previous Blu-rays have no reason to own it, Rambo: The Complete Collector’s Set offers all four films and a ton of bonus features for under $60. If you’re any kind of Rambo fan and you haven’t gotten around to owning these movies yet — and you don’t care about owning the Rambo extended cut — this is the way to go.

Jeff Giles is the editor-in-chief of Popdose and Dadnabbit, as well as a frequent contributor to Bullz-Eye and an associate editor at Rotten Tomatoes.

Latest News