|by Jack Sommersby
With their knockout special-edition DVDs of "Basic Instinct", "Total Recall", and "Glengarry Glen Ross", Artisan Entertainment has outdone themselves with this comprehensive, fully-loaded goodie guaranteed to keep you as riveted to the featurettes as well as the films themselves!
For you die-hard fans out there, Artisan Entertainment's newly released Rambo Special Edition DVD Trilogy should cause that adrenaline to start pumping. Actually, a good many will have already attained all three of the Rambo films, which were previously released by Artisan and boasted first-rate picture transfers, dynamic sound, and great special features. What's being served up this time around is a four-disc set that comes packaged in a super-cool slide-out tin case. The three films are presented in their original 2.35:1 widescreen aspect ratio, with a director's audio commentary (excepting First Blood, where author David Morrell does the honors), a brand new documentary, production notes, cast and crew information, and the theatrical trailer. The fourth disc offers up six (of seven advertised) featurettes, three documentaries, and a trivia game. But this bonus disc is only available as part of this new special-edition box set with a retail price of $59.98. The films can be bought individually for $19.98, with the same updated special features included minus the bonus disc.
Video & Audio
Before the godsend of DVD, viewers were forced to endure First Blood in the form of horrendously cropped VHS copies which severely compromised director Ted Kotcheff's beautiful widescreen compositions. In a two-character scene, for instance, if each character was situated at opposite sides of the screen, instead of seeing both at the same time, you'd see only one as if he were talking to dead space, and then a cut to the other responding, and then back to the first. Just as maligned was Andrew Laszlo's complex cinematography, which came off as murky, and the image quality was awash with grain and video noise. Even though there's still some mild grain (which is likely inherent from the original print) the picture quality on this DVD is simply stupendous. Flesh tones are more accurate, there's no bleeding when neon signs are displayed in the background in certain shots, and the darker scenes (like those in the forest) are glossier, with more shadow detail and deeper, glossier blacks. Audio-wise, you can go with DTS, 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround, or 2.0 Dolby Surround Sound (the latter of which is extremely tepid).
The audio commentary by author David Morrell, who wrote the book the film was based on, is as entertaining and informative as any director's. And though there were a lot of changes in the book-to-film adaptation, he doesn't really jump on the filmmakers for this. He comes across as a caring, very intelligent man who'd make good dinner company.
The real treat is the featurette Drawing First Blood: Creating John Rambo, which offers up a real wealth of invaluable information. Samples:
-- twenty-six script drafts were submitted to three or four studios.
-- Kirk Douglas was originally cast as Col. Samuel Trautman, but he left the project when the filmmakers refused to go with the original ending of him killing Rambo. ("But it's artistic!", Douglas insisted.)
-- in a dark tunnel scene, the cinematographer taped two matches together, ignited them, and announced, "Okay, we're lit!".
-- the distributors went crazy after a screening. For the first time with an American film at the time, there were different distributors for the theatre, video and cable rights.
-- when released, the film set a box-office record as the biggest October release.
Rambo: First Blood Part II
Video and Audio
Top-notch on both counts. Veteran Jack (The African Queen) Cardiff's luscious jungle cinematography is enhanced with a stiletto-sharp image. The film was Oscar-nominated for Best Sound Effects Editing, and the tip-top audio perfectly compliments it.
Director George P. Cosmatos is an energetic conveyor of endless information in his commentary. But his rat-a-tat enthusiasm can wear you down fairly quickly, and at the thirty-minute mark I had to take a short break from it. Still, you can't really be too down on a filmmaker who obviously loves what he does and isn't shy about sharing his love for the medium with whoever'll listen.
We Get to Win This Time: The Rambo Phenomenon is certainly watchable, but you occasionally have to endure such self-deluded statements as "...a Rambo more hell-bent on re-writing his own history.", "Rambo is symbolic of one who rises against oppression.", and Stallone insisting that this isn't a violent film, but a war film. (Uh...yeah.) Others:
-- before Sylvester Stallone re-wrote it, James Cameron's original screenplay started the story out with Rambo in a mental asylum.
-- while the film took place in Vietnam, it was actually shot in the tropical locale of Acapulco, Mexico.
-- there were lots of problems with snakes, flooding and the heat during the shoot.
-- a high overhead shot of Rambo yelling "Nooooo!" after his love interest dies was excised after a test audience immediately went dead silent.
Video and Audio
In the documentary on Artisan's previous Rambo III DVD, it was revealed that debuting director Peter McDonald started out as the second-unit director of the film but was promoted when Highlander's Russell Mulcahy left due to creative differences. This turned out to be a blessing, for MacDonald's work here is simply astonishing. And the wide letterboxing not only benefits the action sequences, but the quiet and intimate character ones as well. This is a director who loves actors, and, when possible, he opted to shoot them conversing in a one-shot rather than cutting back and forth and having them direct their lines off-camera. The letterboxing retains the lovely visual and dramatic flow of the material. The audio, like on the previous two, is near-perfect with dexterous use of the back channels.
The audio commentary by director MacDonald isn't quite as perceptive as David Morrell's, but you'll likely have little in the way of questions pertaining to the logistics of the shoot when it's over.
If the absence of the previous featurette deprives one of some interesting behind-the-scenes info, then at least the new one, Afghanistan: Land in Crisis, is more than welcome in that it couldn't be more timely after the September 11th terrorist attacks. In fact, this stands as a staggering piece of work that puts just as much focus on this country's history than the film.
-- a lot of the filming was done by the Dead Sea, which is the lowest point on the planet (130 feet below sea level) and where the temperatures got so hot (in the 130 degree range) that the film would melt inside the cameras.
-- Stallone (who co-wrote the script) had always been conscious of the genocide going on in Afghanistan at the hands of the Russians for ten years.
-- the film suffered at North American box offices because the central villains were Russians, and the film was released right about the time the Cold War ended. (Stallone says he knew they were in trouble upon watching Gorbachov kissing Nancy Reagan on national television right before the film opened.)
-- Russia invaded Afghanistan in 1979 and supported the country's pro-Communist regime to gain access to the sea.
-- Russia's well-equipped army finally left in 1989 after losing 15,000 troops to the poorly armed peasants.
-- when the United States pulled its forces out immediately after the Russians ceded, Islamic faith in the U.S. waned.
-- according to a UCLA political science professor, Afghanistan is now the chief exporter of terrorism.
The trivia game here pales in comparison to the really enjoyable ones available on Artisan's first-issue Rambo DVDs. When you answer correctly, a clip of Rambo killing someone is shown; when answered incorrectly, a clip of Rambo getting hurt is substituted. Ho-hum. (At least on those trashy Troma DVDs you're rewarded with clips of gorgeous naked women in exchange for correct answers.) And two of the featurettes, First Blood: A Look Back and Rambo: Full Circle, are simply padding material: They're just compilations of clips from the first and third films without any voice-overs or anything. Rambo-Nomics is short, consisting mostly of bar graphs of the three films' budgets and domestic and worldwide grosses. But it is interesting to learn that with the second and third films the studio was able to make such lucrative deals with independent distributors for financing that a profit was made before the films even went into production.
The Forging of Heroes: America's Green Berets is an informative look at this elite military force whose members assert that, while they're proud to be regarded as heroes and patriots, they like to think of themselves as "quiet professionals" whose true mission "is to be teachers, to help a nation that's being overwhelmed and legitimize their own existence." The ability and willingness to work as a team member is a Green Beret's greatest strength, according to its retired members, and the viewer comes away with a new perspective that it takes more in the way of brains than brawn to make it on this particular force.
Suiting Up plays out like an Infomercial without the prices as each of Rambo's weapons are singled out, brought center screen, and described. Examples:
Sly Bowie Knife
Make: lile knives
Blade: d2 stainless steel
Length: 9 inches
Handle: treated nylon, hollow lugged guard with compass in cap.
(and, my favorite, which actually provides a bit of a history lesson)
Invented in Finland, 1939
First used against Red Army
Gasoline, sand, soapsuds, burning rag
There's also the hilarious Selling a Hero, which showcases all of the action figures and vehicles of destruction derived from the films along with their price tags (the mock-ups of Col. Trautman are a scream!). Hard-driving action music and blue screens are used to give these the illusion of motion without strings or hands moving them around. Just too funny.
The Real Nam: Voices from Within is a documentary that takes pro- and anti-Vietnam views from veterans of that very same war. One has turned into an activist who can't recount any of his horrible experiences without breaking up after the first sentence or two; and then there's his polar opposite: a man with a middle-of-the-road mindset who doesn't see the need to regret any violent actions he may have inflicted on civilians over there -- he claims that if there was a hooch to burned, he'd jump right to it. Judgment isn't passed here, just a spelling-out of some horrific ordeals and the emotional ramifications which took their toll on so many of these vets.
Guts and Glory comments on the Rambo phenomenon on American culture. Stallone says he never expected to see himself on pencils and lunch boxes, while Richard Crenna (who plays Col. Trautman) keeps defending the films as being artistically sound. A former U.S. congressman relays that he used Rambo: First Blood Part II to persuade Congress to bring a close to the matter of those missing-in-action (MIA) in Vietnam. Even then-President Ronald Reagan is shown during a press conference citing the films in his pressing for less governmental control. An entertaining featurette, this.
(There's a curio, though: The featurette Those That Wanted More listed on the box set's back cover menu isn't available on the bonus disc. Artisan should be more careful about product slips such as this.)
So the bottom line is this: the Rambo Special Edition DVD Trilogy is worth owning. It's really that rare collection where every film in it is good and worth the dough. Usually, there's a weak link in the series, at least one that's the bad apple that doesn't spoil the lot but dissipates your overall view of it. Not in this case:
First Blood is an obvious but smashing piece of exploitation. It's a celluloid protest, a clenched-fist damnation of those who never gave America's Vietnam vets the proper respect for their grueling tours of duty and sacrifice. The film doesn't exactly get off to too convincing a start -- the local hick cops' hounding of drifter John Rambo seems completely trumped-up for the sole sake of jump-starting the plot -- but the majority of it is beautifully realized.
Rambo: First Blood Part II is like the character of Rambo himself: a well-oiled and efficient machine with very little in the way of panache. It's totally lacking in imagination, but the execution of the material is solid and well-done, with Stallone valiantly holding things together with a limited but vivid characterization which is stoically winning and underplayed.
Rambo III is the best of the series -- a comic book-like action extravaganza with as much color and energy as any Hollywood actioner. Extraordinary action sequences and breathtaking directorial aptitude are just a couple of the film's numerous merits, with its arsenal of amusing one-liners an unexpected delight:
Arms Dealer: "I've never seen this before."
Rambo: "It's a blue light."
Arms Dealer: "What does it do?"
Rambo: "Turns blue."
(and when hundreds of Russian troops have cut our heroes off right before the border)
Col. Trautman: "Any ideas, John?"
Rambo: "Well, surrounding them's out."
For those who already own Artisan's previous Rambo releases, I see no pressing need to go out and purchase this new box edition. But for those new to the DVD medium, this box set is definitely the way to go. I can't see how it could be improved upon. To quote Stallone from Rocky III: Go for it.
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originally posted: 01/07/03 17:35:35
last updated: 07/17/14 18:04:05