I’m continually fascinated by how drastically a film genre changes over the decades. The 'Rambo' sequels are such a distinct product of the ‘80s that the series' most recent entry feels positively ancient compared to other modern twenty-first century actioners. Unfortunately, the sequels introduced an internal tonal shift that reimagined the dark, dramatic anti-hero of ‘First Blood’ as a shirtless mass of invunerable rage that could stride through streams of bullets as if they were water. This new direction robbed the series of its tension, relevance, and believability. Fans of the entire series may argue that this was precisely the point, but as a fan of the original ‘First Blood,’ I can’t help but feel slighted.
Sent to prison after the events of the first film, Vietnam veteran John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) is offered a pardon by his commanding officer (Richard Crenna) if he agrees to return to Vietnam for one last mission. Instead of fighting for himself, Rambo is tasked with investigating a POW camp to see if the straggling Vietcong are still holding US soldiers against their will. After gaining entry to the jungles of Vietnam, Rambo teams up with a female freedom fighter (Julia Nickson-Soul) and uncovers an alliance between the Soviet military and the Vietnamese army that not only threatens the surviving POWs, but the stability of the entire region. Armed with more firepower than God, a full set of exploding arrows, and enough testosterone to breed a small army of his own, Rambo must free his American brothers, defeat overwhelming enemy forces, and confront the corruption of the operation’s US commander, Marshall Murdock (Charles Napier).
’Rambo: First Blood Part II’ is all about one thing -- proving it’s got bigger cojones than its dramatic predecessor. Explosions come easily and frequently, lighting the night sky and splaying corpses across the jungles of Vietnam. Rambo coats himself in mud to kill a soldier, drops from a tree to kill a soldier, shoots arrows to kill a soldier, uses his knife to… well, you get the idea. From beginning to end, director George Cosmatos (‘Cobra,’ ‘Tombstone’) seems uninterested in any scene that doesn’t involve the blood-n-guts hilarity the series has become famous for. Quiet conversations between Rambo and his potential Vietnamese love interest are interrupted by violence, brief developments in the character are halted by ambushes, and a stirring speech at the end of the film is undermined by wild gunplay. In all, the film racks up a body count and a collection of spent cartridges that seems to outnumber the words spoken by the principal characters.
I know there are plenty of ‘80s action junkies who eat this sort of thing up, but I can’t get over the differences between ‘First Blood’ and this grating sequel. Taken on its own accord, I might be more forgiving -- but viewed as a follow-up to a classic actioner, ‘First Blood Part II’ seems out of place and out of touch. Everything that made the first film so special is abandoned in favor of ridiculous scenarios that involve Rambo charging into plain sight to mow down literally legions of baddies. Almost every scene devolves into a predictable parade of death that prevents Stallone from having any legitimate resonance as an actor. By the time the credits roll, the film has established itself as an exercise in banality that will only appeal to those looking for a good laugh or a nostalgic Friday night.
All in all, I suppose I can appreciate ‘Rambo: First Blood Part II’ for what it is: a pulpy, over-the-top product of a simpler time in cinematic history, when the bad guys were soulless and the heroes were invincible. I just wish I could appreciate it outside of its era. Remove the brash sensationalism of American might, the varied collection of death scenes, and the complete disregard for everything that made the original ‘First Blood’ so great, and there’s nothing left to discuss when it comes to this hollow, brainless follow-up.
After bracing myself for the shortcomings of an aging print, I was pleasantly surprised to discover ‘Rambo: First Blood Part II’ features a capable 1080p/VC-1 transfer that only suffers from a few technical mishaps. Colors are vibrant and fleshtones look fantastic -- Stallone only appears flushed when exerting himself, the orange bloom of explosions is impressive, and the varied greens of the dense jungle allow foreground objects to pop. On that note, the level of fine object detail really caught my attention. I could easily count the leaves in nearly every shot, the miniscule air bubbles in the mud, and the smallest indentations on the Vietcong’s tattered weaponry. In fact, there were quite a few shots in which the clarity and depth of the 23-year old image genuinely shocked me. To top it all off, black levels are notably strong, contrast rarely flutters, and delineation is solid.
That’s not to say the image is without fault. As expected with any catalog film of its era, the transfer slips from time to time whenever soft shots, crushed shadows, or source noise invade the picture. Several scenes also suffered from hazy edges and spiking grain fields. Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy Lionsgate didn’t resort to edge enhancement or DNR, but a more thorough remastering could probably have alleviated these inconsistencies. More importantly, bizarre blue blips flashed across the screen on a handful of occasions, leaving me to wonder if these glitches are present on the original print or if they’re evidence of a technical hiccup on the Blu-ray disc. Regardless, the transfer defied my expectations and delivered the best-looking version of ‘Rambo: First Blood Part II’ I’ve ever seen -- fans should definitely be satisfied with the results.
Despite a rather remarkable video transfer, the audio on this BD is a letdown. Lionsgate presents ‘Rambo: First Blood Part II’ with a lossless DTS HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track that never truly engages the senses. First and foremost, a proper remix should create a convincing soundfield and transform a flat sonic experience into a three-dimensional magic show. Sadly, the majority of the soundscape still resides in the front channels, pulling the soundfield forward and foregoing the benefits of a modern surround setup. Making matters worse, treble tones are often tinny, dialogue is occasionally lost beneath the chaos, and the booms and thooms of the LFE channel are rarely as aggressive as the on-screen explosions and gunfire. While it certainly sounds better than the muffled DVD audio tracks that have preceded it, this is merely an average lossless presentation that doesn’t match the audacity of the film itself.
Thankfully, all is not lost. Dialogue is generally more stable than it’s been before, fidelity is decent, and the rear channels inject some limited ambience into the jungle environments. Pans are a bit stocky for my tastes, but they’re more transparent than those found on less engaging BD audio tracks. Passable in every way, but revolutionary in none, this DTS HD MA mix merely gets the job done.
’Rambo: First Blood Part II’ arrives on Blu-ray with the only two previously-released DVD features of merit. Completists may miss a useless EPK from the film’s first DVD release and some minor text-based material, but I didn’t. On a positive note, Lionsgate dropped the 2004 Ultimate Edition DVD’s annoying “Survival Mode” enhancements (which attempted to transform the film-watching experience into an arcade game of sorts).
A brash product of American action filmmaking in the ‘80s, ‘Rambo: First Blood Part II’ is merely a shadow of the original ‘First Blood.’ Aside from a few laughs and some lucid flashbacks to my childhood, this sequel never registered as anything more than a nostalgic cash-in. As far as this new Blu-ray release is concerned, fans will be happy to see the results of the studio’s impressive video transfer, but will probably find its lossless audio track and weak supplemental package to be entirely underwhelming. Overall, this BD release will only appeal to fans of the series -- everyone else should give this one a rent long before making a purchase.