Welcome to the slaughterhouse. 'Rambo' is a film that's impossible to digest without digesting its violence. And although that may come as no surprise given the thematic trajectory of the second and third Rambo flicks, this time around not only does the film seem to revel in its empty carnage, but at the same time it asks us to take it seriously, preaching a moral "message" that violence is a necessary evil of the world, or even more troubling, somtimes the only real way to get things done. That 'Rambo' also serves as a uncomfortable epitaph to the career of Sylvester Stallone (who looks like an aging drag queen pumped up by a few too many muscle-enhancing drugs) is particularly unfortunate, as the film's hamfisted attempts at political statement make it impossible to pass off as simply a nostalgic lark.
Having finally dispensed with the roman numerals (when you're an icon, who needs numbers?), the minimally-titled 'Rambo' finds ole softie opting for the warm confines of Thailand rather than the Shady Pines retirement home. The plot is classic Rambo nonsense, after a group of missionaries stumbles upon a group of refugees from the Burmese military. Pressed into service by the pleading Sarah (Julie Benz), Rambo overcomes the harsh terrain and wages a one-man war to save the good guys and kill all the evil baddies.
Taken at face value, 'Rambo' is really just an excuse for Stallone to end his career with a one-two box office punch, following the fairly well-received 'Rocky Balboa.' Long before it hit theaters, it was a foregone conclusion that 'Rambo' would be a cobbled-together plot rehash of the '80s John Rambo sequels, one that wants to tap into Reagan-era patriotism, even if Rambo seems to be fighting less for American values than for Darwinian ones. It's also no surprise that the good and bad guys are painted with such one-dimensional broad strokes as to initially neutralize the harsh violence. What's unexpected, however, is how determined Stallone (who also directed) seems to be to rub our noses in the bloodshed to the point where it seems we're being asked to see it as some sort of cathartic redemption for the character.
The problem here is that unlike Rocky Balboa, John Rambo occupies a much more troubled place in cinema history. This is no puppy-faced boxer looking to make one last comeback in the ring. It's always been hard to justify the one-man-war, gung ho mentality of the later Rambo flicks, especially since they so pandered to the base sensibilities of a larger macho, bloodthirsty audience at the expense of complexity, humanity and narrative logic. 'Rambo' feels more like a coda, intended to prove to Hollywood that Stallone he can still fire guns and blow shit up and stuff, than it does a genuine continuation of Rambo's spiritual journey.
To be fair, as a technical exercise, the film delivers. The cast, though largely forgettable, is competent, with Benz in particular doing the most she can with a limited role. Likewise, the sheer pace of the action is often breathless. Though I wish Stallone could have mastered a better sense of screen direction by this point, he still manages to create a palpable level of cat-and-mouse suspense. And for those wondering just how many ways there are to cut, eviscerate, shoot, stab and obliterate the human body, 'Rambo' is a crash course. That the film got by with an R rating is astounding.
The biggest shame about 'Rambo' for me is how Stallone continues to veer away from the original intent of the John Rambo character. It's easy to forget that the original 'First Blood' was a very restrained film, one less about visceral thrills than it was a serious examination of the cost of Vietnam on both America and the soldiers who fought it. In comparison, this latest 'Rambo' is nothing more than unpleasant bloodshed and numbing action -- a cipher of a movie that wastes its chance to make a statement about the character and how the cinematic (and real) world he occupies has changed in the last twenty-odd years. That may be just fine for die-hard fans of the franchise, but it ended up leaving me cold.
Lionsgate offers 'Rambo' in 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 video (at 2.35:1), and this presentation is quite excellent. It's detailed, lush, and often demo-worthy material.
The source is predictably pristine for a new release, with rich blacks and robust contrast. Some scenes go a tad overboard on the stylization with bright whites, but it certainly gives the image pop. Colors are somewhat muted to give an intentionally gritty look, but the palette is consistent and stable. There is a bit of grain, but otherwise the image is very detailed and quite three-dimensional. Drawbacks include night scenes that can be a tad dark (lessening shadow delineation a notch below the ideal). There are a also few moments of apparent posterization and noise (usually on long wide shots and slow dissolves), but all in all, 'Rambo' looks great.
'Rambo' gets a full-blown DTS-HD Lossless Master Audio 7.1 Surround track (48kHz/24-bit), and it's fantastic. I may have found most of the violence in 'Rambo' extremely off-putting, but it sure sounds great.
The power of the track's dynamics are immediately apparent. Low bass is often a stunner, with the subwoofer actively engaged throughout. Gunfire, explosions and the score pound consistently and aggressively, with clear differentiation between highs and lows. Dialogue (if you can call it that) is not overwhelmed by all of the din and is well-rooted in the center channel.
Surround implementation is also a pleasure, with the 7.1 spread offering a wonderfully immersive experience. The rear soundfield is so seamless I could rarely locate specific sounds -- it simply feels as if sound is all around you. Front to back pans are also transparent. Score bleed is similarly impressive. 'Rambo' is certainly a demo-worthy soundtrack.
'Rambo' comes to both Blu-ray and standard DVD with a boatload of extras. This package is probably more than the film really requires, but fans will no doubt love it. (Note that all of the video is presented in full 1080p, with optional English and Spanish subtitles offered.)
'Rambo' is a film that seems to exist more to celebrate the career of Sylvester Stallone than to stand on its own as a worthwhile cinematic adventure. This Blu-ray is very strong, however, with top-notch video and audio and tons of supplements. In short, fans will lap it up, but all others -- this is a pretty bad (and unnecessarily violent) movie.