FIRST BLOOD (1981)
**/**** Image B+ Sound B Extras A-
starring Sylvester Stallone, Richard Crenna, Brian Dennehy, Bill McKinney
screenplay by Michael Kozoll & William Sackheim and Sylvester Stallone, based on the novel by David Morrell
directed by Ted Kotcheff
RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD PART II (1985)
*½/**** Image A Sound B+ Extras A-
starring Sylvester Stallone, Richard Crenna, Charles Napier, Steven Berkoff
screenplay by Sylvester Stallone and James Cameron
directed by George P. Cosmatos
RAMBO III (1988)
**½/**** Image A+ Sound A Extras B+
starring Sylvester Stallone, Richard Crenna, Marc de Jonge, Kurtwood Smith
screenplay by Sylvester Stallone and Sheldon Lettich
directed by Peter MacDonald
by Bill Chambers Ted Kotcheff's melancholy First Blood opens with Vietnam vet John Rambo looking up a fellow soldier and discovering that the man has died. Sullen, he hits the road, only to be harassed by the town sheriff (Brian Dennehy), who sees long-haired drifters wearing surplus jackets and thinks: Troublemaker. Possessed of a disposition similar to that of Bill Bixby's David Banner, Rambo 'Hulks out' after being stripped of his dignity in the bowels of the police station, escaping his jailers' clutches and squealing off into a mountainous region of the Pacific Northwest on a stolen motorcycle. His mission is one of self-preservation; Rambo doesn't start committing premeditated murder until the sequel. (Unlike in the David Morrell source novel, where Rambo is a veritable serial killer, however justified his rage.)
All of which transforms First Blood into a black comedy of sorts as the sheriff's men continually miss their target and Rambo refuses to take the bait. The film was made prior to the dawn of political correctness, but it does reflect a new compassion towards traumatized veterans of the Vietnam conflict and thus stands as an example of the distorting effects that oversensitivity can have on tone. When the secondary antagonist plummets to his death from a helicopter while firing on the too-noble-to-strike-back (and bulletproof) Rambo, it's an unfortunate throwback to Monty Python before the Rambo franchise developed a bona fide sense of humour about itself--before there was a franchise begging to be subverted, period. Also ill-suited to the gloomy tenor of the piece is Richard Crenna--a last-minute replacement for Kirk Douglas--in the role of Rambo's mentor, Col. Trautman. Crenna delivers such ominous and megalomaniacal lines as "God didn't make Rambo--I did" the way a new retiree might say, "I was in real estate" to his neighbour's wife with a few cocktails in his bloodstream.
Devotees of Joseph Campbell embrace First Blood because it has clear mythological roots, but recognizable art isn't always valid art, which is why I find the Campbell crowd suspect: they essentially play a very sophisticated game of "Where's Waldo?", allowing a work's classical underpinnings to stand as an assessment of its quality by virtue of trainspotting its archetypes. (I am reminded of a passage from Walter Murch's indispensable editing guide In the Blink of an Eye wherein he writes that films and dreams function in a like manner--but that this tells us nothing useful about either films or dreams.) First Blood, which I once considered the best Rambo movie, bends over backwards to keep the blood off Rambo's hands (read: the already-beleaguered hands of Vets) as he unleashes hell (at one point, he confirms a building is empty before blowing it up) until we lose respect for it. Stallone, however, hits his climactic breakdown monologue out of the park: Sweet and moving and mildly incomprehensible, it belongs in a better picture.
Rest assured, I don't consider 1985's Rambo: First Blood Part II an improvement. Co-written by James Cameron, who more or less recycled the structure of his Aliens screenplay, the film is beautifully shot (by Powell & Pressburger DP Jack Cardiff) but incredibly tedious. With a directorial hand heavy yet undistinguished, George P. Cosmatos sits at the helm of a big-bad-government tale that proposes the Redemption of Rambo, here sent in to photograph those P.O.W.s lingering in Southeast Asia. As an ex-Green Beret, Rambo may be able to fashion a crossbow from a tree branch, but one for Kodak Moments he's not, and so he takes it upon himself to rescue his caged comrades--much to the chagrin of a bureaucrat, natch, Special Ops man Marshall Murdock (jut-jawed Charles Napier).
Rambo: First Blood Part II is the first follow-up provoked not by the box-office success of its predecessor, but by its predecessor's performance on home video. And such was Part II's ultimate popularity that President Reagan latched onto the titular hero as a primary symbol in his public addresses--in a famous snapshot, Reagan is holding a sign that reads "Rambo is a Republican!" This indicates both a complete ideological reversal of First Blood (hunted to hunter) and, leaving aside the political corruption at the centre of the film (Republican congressmen tend to envision themselves as the guy in fatigues rather than as the guy in the suit sending the guy in fatigues to slaughter), Rambo: First Blood Part II's bipartisan morality. Rambo was doing the emotional right thing but the intellectual wrong one in First Blood. Rambo: First Blood Part II, on the other hand, contrasts men of action and men of inaction, doers (Republicans?) and thinkers (Democrats?); it's a film that deals with the Cold War as opposed to a civil war, and just to ensure there's no confusion of loyalties, Rambo's love interest (Julia Nickson) is gunned-down in cold blood by a Commie bastard, something even the slithery Murdock would never do.
The third and final--and bafflingly titled--instalment in the saga of John Rambo, Rambo III, is the silliest but most engaging of the trilogy. "Dedicated to the gallant people of Afghanistan" (specifically those who, oops, would become the Taliban), the film finds vagabond Rambo stick-fighting in Thailand between gigs as a temple architect--or maybe it's the other way around. Declining Trautman's offer to join him in fighting invading Russians in Afghanistan (no wonder, as Trautman shows up with his invitation with slippery Kurtwood Smith in tow), Rambo soon recruits himself to rescue a kidnapped Trautman, one of the many ways in which Rambo III is the mirror image of First Blood.
Given that it is, for all intents and purposes, Rambo's last screen hurrah, I like the film's sense of symmetry, as well as its satirical bent: in its climax, Rambo and Trautman are ordered to surrender by the Russian cavalry, to which an unfazed Rambo responds "Fuck 'em" before pulling the trigger of his MK-123456. Within nanoseconds, he has wiped out every Bolshevik in sight. (In the denouement, Trautman utters the immortal insult, "Rambo, I think you're going soft.") The film seems to drop the sinister shroud of the other Rambos. It's lighter, campier. It leaves you pumped-up but unhostile.
Y'know, they're kinda poetic, these Rambo pictures. Not enough so, perhaps, that the character's namesake Rimbaud isn't tossing and turning in his grave. But First Blood, Rambo: First Blood Part II, and Rambo III have their rhymes and refrains (Rambo attending to his own mortal wounds, for example), and they often choose imagery over expository dialogue; they're not given their due credit for how coherent--narratively, if not politically--they are with a minimum of dialogue. (At a certain point, Rambo III harks back to the silent era in its speechless depiction of conflict.) And then there is the sight of Rambo himself, a Homeric ode to the masculine ideal: all molten, scarred flesh coating an obnoxiously chiselled physique, one which is offset by a pair of slouching eyes that mourn the loss of his innocence and pre-emptively apologize for the pain he's about to inflict. The Rambo Trilogy is, if I may be so bold, almost pure cinema--just not particularly good cinema.
Available in a mental-encased four-pack from Artisan Entertainment (there is a bonus disc), The Rambo DVD Trilogy: Special Edition's arrival in video stores eludes Memorial Day by 24 hours but coincides with the theatrical release of the latest Jack Ryan flick, The Sum of All Fears. Three of the four platters are DVD-14s (meaning a double-sided combination of dual and single layers) containing 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen and pan-and-scan options, with your choice of Dolby Digital and DTS 5.1 soundtracks plus film-specific supplemental material. In quick summary, Rambo III features the finest video and audio of the three, though Rambo: First Blood Part II is stunningly clear. First Blood suffers from a lack of shadow detail in many of the damp exteriors, and the sonic impact of its explosions is inconsistent in either DD or DTS, as if someone kept forgetting to flick the switch for bass. Although they're gorgeous and pristine like their letterboxed counterparts (if dimmer and grainier), avoid the headache-inducing cropped transfers at all costs. Aside: only Rambo III is preceded by a studio logo.
Brian Dennehy is one of the few First Blood participants absent from "Drawing First Blood" (23 mins.), which retraces the development of Morrell's book into a studio-hopping film property with care. Kotcheff recalls one preview card that read, "If the director is in the audience he should be strung up on a lamppost." Production notes, cast and crew bios, a block of two trailers, and a courteous feature-length commentary from Morrell round out the presentation. The process of adaptation intrigues Morrell, and he attempts to decipher the changes made to the page from the collective point-of-view of the filmmakers. A novel yak-track, no pun intended.
Rambo: First Blood Part II
In "We Get to Win This Time" (20 mins.), we learn that Cameron's script began with Rambo in a mental institution, but that Stallone retained his basic floor plan in retooling Cameron's draft. Julia Nickson, meanwhile, remains a dish, Napier speaks of a General at the Acapulco location who threatened to cut the production's electricity unless Stallone dined with him, and editors Mark Helfrich and Mark Goldblatt have a gay old time remembering Stallone's suggestion for the arrow-shooting sequences. (This is the best doc of the set.) Production notes, cast and crew bios, a block of two trailers, and a relatively interesting commentary from George P. Cosmatos round out the presentation.
After establishing how uncomfortable he felt replacing Russell Mulcahy at the helm of Rambo III, director Peter MacDonald runs out of things to say in his commentary track for the film--unfortunately, this anecdote comes before Rambo III's opening credits have finished. "Afghanistan: Land in Crisis" takes a different approach to the making-of, using its half-hour to educate us on past and current conflicts in the multi-cultural nation. Intelligent and objective, "Land in Crisis" is slightly tarnished by Stallone's use of Rocky aphorisms. ("[Afghanis were] willing to go the distance," he tells us. "Right over might." Oy vey.) Here NYU's Ella Shohat criticizes Rambo III's casting uncensored, remarking that the dialects you hear throughout the film belong to regions in Israel and other territories surrounding Afghanistan. Production notes, cast and crew bios, and a block of two trailers round out the presentation.
Rambo Trilogy: Supplemental Materials
There are nine featurettes on this disc of varying depth. "The Real 'Nam: Voices From Within" (27 mins.) has more to do with posterity than with Rambo, gathering the views of veterans and activists alike some thirty years removed from the Vietnam conflict. "Guts & Glory" (27 mins.) hears from folks for and against the Rambo ethos, with Crenna staunchly defending Rambo and Stallone for the umpteenth time in these discs. "The Forging of Heroes: America's Green Berets" (10 mins.) asks and answers what do Special Forces do. In "Rambo-Nomics" (3 mins.), Screen International's Michael Goodridge charts the profit margin for each film. "Suiting Up" (9 mins.) is a montage of Rambo's artillery, replete with vital statistics. Laura Nix's "Selling a Hero" (5 mins.) hilariously re-enacts bits from the Trilogy using actual items in the Rambo line of toys. "First Blood: A Look Back" is First Blood condensed to four minutes; "Rambo III: Full Circle" the same for Rambo III, only in six minutes. (How ridiculous!) And finally, Morrell and author Christopher Vogler talk Joseph Campbell in "An American Hero's Journey: The Rambo Trilogy" (25 mins.). A trivia game that grows tiresome fast and sneak peeks at the upcoming Reservoir Dogs, Dune (2000), and Van Wilder DVDs round out the disc.
Housed in the new-style digipak is a handsome booklet with liner notes by Morrell and a flyer for JVC. Artisan brings more than a touch of class to the DVD release of a trilogy that is, like the box set in question, functionally a souvenir of the 1980s. Originally published: May 29, 2002.