(Note that all three titles are presented on individual discs, and are identical to the stand-alone editions. For complete specs of each individual release, click the linked movie titles above.)
The name Rambo is as ingrained in our cultural consciousness as the names Superman, Luke Skywalker, and Indiana Jones. In fact, mention the ‘80s R-rated action hero to anyone, young or old, anywhere, here or abroad, and you’ll find that nearly everyone knows the name. Developed and propagated by series star and producer Sylvester Stallone, the character has become an American icon to people, regardless of whether they’ve actually watched the ‘Rambo’ films or not. To be honest, I can’t think of many other cinematic mainstays whose names are as instantly identifiable.
It all began with ‘First Blood.’ Based on the novel of the same name by writer David Morrell, the film opens as veteran John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) returns home after his involvement in the Vietnam war. Passing through a small town on his way to visit old friends, the quiet soldier is harassed and arrested by the local sheriff (Brian Dennehy). When abuse at the hands of the police triggers severe flashbacks, Rambo escapes and leads the pursuing authorities on a statewide chase. Relying on his survival skills, military training, and war experience, he evades the police at every turn and brings the fight to their doorstep. As Rambo struggles to regain control of his own mind, a visit from his former commander, Colonel Trautman (series regular Richard Crenna), is his only hope.
In my humble opinion, ’First Blood’ is an action masterpiece. Director Ted Kotcheff understood that intense action requires an investment from its audience -- one that’s only achieved when viewers connect to the characters at the heart of the tale. From the opening moments of the film to the first lyrical appearance of Rambo’s theme, it’s clear that human tragedy is fueling the pace of the film rather than its procession of action scenes. Quiet conversations between Rambo and the men who despise him reveal a warrior longing for peace and a society that fears its own soldiers. The story’s resultant tone doesn’t rely on the eventual eruption of violence between Rambo and the townsfolk, but rather on the brother-vs-brother conflict of a society divided. It delivers compelling social commentary about a country that sent its soldiers to war only to rebuff them upon their return.
In that regard, ‘First Blood’ is one of the more effective Vietnam films Hollywood ever produced. It doesn’t focus on the war itself, but on the consequences of turning ordinary men into killing machines. It also doesn’t take a pro-war or anti-war stance -- it merely presents the attitudes and convictions that were brought to the surface when the veterans returned home. Unlike its sequels, ‘First Blood’ presents Rambo as a victim of unjust circumstances forced to come to terms with his new role in the world. By the time the story reaches its final minutes, our battleworn soldier is subjected to a heart-aching psychological catharsis that caught me off guard. The raw emotions swirling behind Stallone’s character pour onto the screen and intimately capture the frustration of an uncertain era.
As far as I’m concerned, ’First Blood’ should be on everyone’s shelf. Regardless of your enjoyment of the tonally defunct sequels, this series opener tells an incredibly poignant tale of a society’s unwarranted rejection of a reluctant hero. It deftly combines drama and action in a manner that’s often been copied, but rarely been reproduced. Despite my distaste for the ‘Rambo’ sequels, I wholeheartedly recommend this first entry in the series.
’First Blood Part II’ finds Rambo serving out a prison term for his role in the events of the first film. Soon after his incarceration, Colonel Trautman arrives and offers him a full pardon if he’ll join a rescue mission in Vietnam. 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.
Hopped up even further on the series’ new cocktail of adrenaline and absurdity, ‘Rambo III’ continues the saga as Colonel Trautman approaches our reclusive hero in a Bangkok monastery. Trautman asks Rambo to join him on a mission to deliver weapons to Afghani rebels resisting hordes of invading Soviet forces, but the world-weary warrior refuses. However, when Rambo learns of the mission’s failure and Trautman’s subsequent capture, he makes his way to Afghanistan to rescue his friend, assist the rebellion, and administer his particular brand of justice to the Soviets responsible for a number of heinous atrocities.
Suffering from an anxious pace, unintentionally hilarious gore, and a ludicrous series of action beats, ‘Rambo III’ feels more like a parody of the series than a genuine entry. Stallone’s character hasn’t evolved in the slightest -- early glimpses of his new life in Bangkok are little more than a setup for the fighting skills utilized later in the film. He still relies on explosive arrows, reams of bullets, and pure, unadulterated brawn to save the day. Even the strategies he employs in his assault are paper thin -- the cavernous terrain of Afghanistan could have provided a wealth of new battle scenarios, but the filmmakers merely recycle familiar scenes we already caught in ‘First Blood’ and ‘First Blood Part II.’ Worst of all, the film’s underdeveloped script strives to generate empathy for the Afghani rebels, but never really develops their role in the story. They’re only used as a means to rekindle a bit of Rambo’s humanity, dying on cue and offering stories of their struggles that allow him to invest in their plight.
Ironically, I found myself enjoying the historical conflict at the core of ’Rambo III’ more than the film itself. I was terribly amused to watch Rambo participate in a slice of history I only recently learned about in ‘Charlie Wilson’s War.’ While I doubt Charlie had a one-man killing machine to thank for driving the Soviets out of Afghanistan, it does add an entertaining layer to an otherwise tedious, repetitive actioner. That being said, I can’t imagine my reaction to the film had I simply evaluated it on its own merit. Fans of the series and other ‘80s action extravaganzas may revel in the film’s gratuitous bloodbath, but I felt the experience was dated, preposterous, and unworthy of its association with ‘First Blood.’
All in all, each entry in this uneven series will appeal to completely different people. ‘First Blood’ is an action masterpiece that will appeal to fans who enjoy drama with their explosions, ‘Rambo: First Blood Part II’ is an over-the-top comicbook that shoot-em-up action junkies who don’t care about plot will embrace, and ‘Rambo III’ will register with anyone who thought the second film needed more carnage. It’s tough to reduce an entire series into one score, but I personally think the ‘Rambo’ saga as a whole is a disappointment. I’ll stick with ‘First Blood’ and leave the rest of the sequels to the people who actually enjoy them.
As I unwrapped the ‘Rambo’ Box Set, I braced myself for the worst. Considering the collection’s low price and the age of each film, I expected to find a trio of dull catalog transfers slapped together to net Lionsgate a quick buck. Thankfully, that isn’t the case. While the 1080p/VC-1 transfers featured in the set aren’t perfect, Lionsgate has done a good job remastering each film with the sort of care every catalog title deserves. (Note I've included individual ratings for each of the video transfers below. The overall rating is a composite score for all three presentations.)
The oldest entry in the ‘Rambo’ series could have been an outdated eyesore, but I can’t imagine ‘First Blood’ looking any better than it does here. While the palette is as bleak as the story itself, the print has held up well over the years and the BD image is more stable than its DVD counterparts. The first twenty minutes are a little rough around the edges as Rambo strolls into town under the gray hues of an overcast sky, but the darkness that dominates the rest of the film isn’t hindered by the sort of oppressive artifacting, source noise, and black crush I thought I’d encounter. As it stands, ‘First Blood’ benefits from a natural, filmic picture that offers fans a welcome level of depth and plenty of detail. I could read the posters in the police station, see the stitching on Rambo’s duffle bag, and practically feel the coarse underbrush in the forest. The transfer excels at navigating the typical pitfalls associated with the lighting conditions of the murky cinematography -- the film’s darkest shots look crisp and its interior scenes are often stunning.
Aside from a few soft scenes and a bit of wayward contrast wavering, the only considerable problem I had with the transfer was that it occasionally resorts to heavy-handed DNR (Digital Noise Reduction) to patch up noisier shots. While it eliminated inconsistencies in the grain field, it also reduced clarity and hindered the on-screen textures. I would love to see ‘First Blood’ without such artificial makeup, but I doubt another remaster is in the cards for at least a few years. All in all, ‘First Blood’ looks good enough to ensure a new generation of high-def action fans will uncover this ‘80s classic.
My score: 3.5 (out of 5).
Rambo: First Blood Part II
The second entry in the ‘Rambo’ series is almost as remarkable as the first, boasting vibrant colors and fantastic fleshtones. 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. The level of fine object detail really caught my attention as well. I could easily count the leaves in most shots, 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.
My score: another 3.5.
Cleaner than ‘First Blood’ and sharper than ‘Rambo: First Blood Part II,’ ‘Rambo III’ can lay claim to the best high-def visuals of the original trilogy. The palette is warmer this time around, but skintones are still natural and nicely saturated in spite of shots dominated by hotter whites. While shadow delineation takes an intentional hit as the cinematographer ramps up the tension of the caves, the transfer doesn’t fall prey to significant noise or troublesome crushing. In fact, black levels are deep, contrast is spot on, and the image showcases plenty of three-dimensional shots that don’t show the film’s age. Best of all, fine object detail is more apparent than it’s ever been on DVD -- the rocky terrain, the sweat on Stallone’s brow, and the slightest stubble is generally crisp and well rendered.
Typical of a twenty-year old film, there are some imperfections in the original print. A few scratches, a handful of soft background elements, and a bit of seemingly random damage toward the end of the film hold the transfer back, but rarely distract from its overall impact. Beyond that, the only slight problems I could find were fairly inconsequential -- contrast wavering rears its head on a half dozen occasions and a hint of edge enhancement pops up from time to time. Regardless, ‘Rambo III’ looks much better than I expected. Fans of the ‘Rambo’ films should really be pleased with the love and care Lionsgate invested into even the series’ most critically-reviled entry.
My score: a solid 4.
While the audio packages included in this Box Set aren’t significant selling points like the visual presentations of the films, I was nevertheless pleased with the results. The films don’t have the sonic wow factor or the technical polish inherent to many modern action releases, but they still have plenty to offer fans of the series.
’First Blood’ doesn’t have a DTS HD Master Audio track like its sequels, but its DTS HD High Resolution and Dolby Digital EX 5.1 surround mixes manage just fine. Dialogue is clear and nicely prioritized against the action, the LFE channel is subdued but naturalistic, and the rear speakers have some showcase moments for a catalog title of its age. The original source definitely pulls the soundfield toward the front channels, but the heft of the remastered soundscape helps keep things sounding better than they should. Even so, the edge easily goes to the DTS HD 6.1 track for its dimensionality and directionality -- pans are more transparent, sound effects are more accurate, and the depth of the soundfield is more pronounced.
There are problems, but the film’s age admittedly helps temper expectations. Treble tones come across with a shrill ‘70s vibe (despite its ‘80s origin), the music doesn’t swell as hauntingly as its themes demand, and dynamics are generally flat across the board. However, I was relieved that I didn’t find a single “deal breaker” issue on either track. ‘First Blood’s audio quality surpasses ‘Rambo: First Blood Part II’ and nearly trumps ‘Rambo III’ -- its subtlety and tone are integral to setting the dramatic mood that would be abandoned by the film’s flashier sequels.
My score: a 3.5.
Rambo: First Blood Part II
‘Rambo: First Blood Part II’ comes fresh with a disappointing lossless DTS HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track that fails to truly engage 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.
Luckily, all is not lost. Dialogue is 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.
My score: 2.5.
‘Rambo III’s lossless DTS HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track outperforms the audio tracks Lionsgate mastered for the first two films in the series. The biggest improvement lies in the rear speakers -- whereas the previous films were marred by a front-heavy soundfield, ‘Rambo III’ spreads its firepower around the room to create realistic attack helicopters, cavern echoes, and crowd chatter. Ambiance is still limited by the film’s uninvolving sound design, but it’s at least a more substantial element of the soundscape this time. Rounding out the sonic experience are stable treble tones, decent LFE support, and rather forgiving prioritization. Explosions still sound a tad weak in my opinion, but they certainly pack a greater punch than they did in ‘Rambo: First Blood Part II.’
If I have any serious charge to level against this DTS HD MA track, it’s that it isn’t as consistent as other catalog audio tracks I’ve reviewed. Pans are transparent one moment and stocky the next, directionality is accurate when it comes to battle scenes but uninvolving during conversations, and the rear channels occasionally take a break at inopportune moments. Still, ‘Rambo III’ has plenty of action to keep the track pounding along from beginning to end. While I doubt it will turn any heads, it should leave fans with little to complain about.
My score: 3.5.
The original ‘Rambo’ trilogy has been released on DVD countless times over the years, but ‘First Blood’ is the only entry that’s received solid supplemental attention. While the discs in the Set don’t include every special feature available on DVD, Lionsgate has made a series of wise decisions with each title, cutting out all of the mundane content that’s been released in the past while retaining everything of value.
’First Blood’ includes a comprehensive collection of supplements from a variety of previous DVD releases. While I’m a bit disappointed with the studio’s exclusion of the film’s trailers, I had a great time digging through what remained.
My score: a 3.5.
Rambo: First Blood Part II
’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).
My score: 1.5.
’Rambo III’ may not have a lot to offer, but that’s because Lionsgate wisely excluded most of the mediocre content featured on the film’s standard DVDs (a dated EPK quickie, a bit of text based material, and the 2004 Ultimate Edition’s migraine-inducing “Survival Mode” enhancements). The only missing material of value is a collection of deleted scenes that should have been ported over.
My score: another 1.5.
The ‘Rambo’ Box Set is perfect for anyone who enjoys every entry in the original trilogy. While I didn’t respond to the left turn the character took after his exceptional introduction, ‘80s action fans will probably be pleased with the set as a whole. Likewise, the Blu-ray editions included in this set also have their ups and downs, but will ultimately satisfy most people. The video transfers are impressive, the audio tracks are decent, and the supplemental packages are thorough. As it stands, the only problem I have with the Box Set is that it doesn’t include the fourth film in the series (2008’s ‘Rambo’). Admittedly, this isn’t a huge problem since each disc comes in its own case, but I’m sure quite a few completists would have preferred to nab all four flicks in one convenient package.