Directors: Ted Kotcheff, George P. Cosmatos, Peter MacDonald
Screenplays: Michael Kozoll, William Sackheim, Sylvester Stallone, James Cameron, Sheldon Lettich
Starring: Sylvester Stallone, Richard Crenna, Charles Napier, Steven Berkoff, Brian Dennehy
Year: 1982, 1985, 1988
Durations: 93, 96, 91 min
BBFC Certification: 15
John Rambo: distinguished services cross, national defence medal, good conduct medal, combat action ribbon, Vietnam wounded medal. Trained to feel no pain and to eat things that would make a billy goat puke. Created by David Morrell, a Canadian-American writer in 1972, John Rambo needs little in the way of introduction and neither does the Rambo franchise. The character and the set of three movies between them created a whole new genre of sometimes ultra-violent movies where overly muscled heroes set about dispatching huge numbers of bad guys.
Here, the first three movies have been given a re-release, a 4K make-over and have all become the subject of more extras, more mini-documentaries and greater critical dissection. The question is, of course, what more can you say about the films that, in a way, define 1980s cinema? The answer, it transpires, is quite a lot.
Among the original three movies, Rambo: First Blood Part I is the strongest. It sets out to explore, and to show on the big screen, what being a home-coming Vietnam veteran was like for the unluckiest. America loves winners and, Rambo I shows, the country had little time for returning soldiers who were on the losing team. Rambo I is also a journey into post-traumatic stress disorder. Sure, both of these weighty topics are explored in a movie where the anti-hero goes bonkers and destroys a town. And, erroneously, that’s what Rambo is often remembered for: staggering violence. But, Rambo I should, in many ways, be taken more seriously that it is. It’s not merely Schwarzenegger’s Commando set in a different time and in a different place. Special Forces Colonel John Matrix had nothing to say about America, war, being human or history. Rambo does have something to say and, if you peel back the thick coating of violence, you’ll find it.
Rambo: First Blood Part II is built on the first film’s box office success and takes the story back to the jungles of Vietnam. Here Rambo goes back to the war-torn country to search for – and possibly to find – still-captive American prisoners of war. The second movie sees bigger everything: Stallone is much more muscular and his capacity for violence is amped up. Again, Rambo II is a little more than it might seem – but less than its predecessor. When offered the job of going back, Rambo says: ‘Do we get to win this time?’ And so, Rambo: First Blood Part II sees John Rambo set about fighting the Vietnam war again – this time with America coming out on top. With reason, you can interpret Rambo: First Blood Part II as America’s deep-seated desire to rewrite history being projected on the big screen.
Rambo: First Blood Part III is arguably the weakest of the franchises’ original trilogy. Here our hero is dropped to Afghanistan and is tasked with rescuing his old friend Colonel Sam Trautman. 1980’s Afghanistan was, of course, in the grips of a war with the Soviet Union – America’s real enemy. And, while saving Trautman, Rambo sets about giving the Soviets a bloody nose. The problem was, of course, while John Rambo was showing the commies that America was the boss, the USSR’s real life boss, Mikhail Gorbachev, was showing America’s real boss, Ronald Reagan, that Russia wanted to end the cold war. Set against a backdrop of Russian Perestroika (restructuring) and Glasnost (openness), Rambo III must, at the time, have felt a bit awkward to watch: while John Rambo was trying to win the cold war, outside the cinema it was ending itself. And so, Rambo III is very much a 1980s action movie and not much more. There are guns, explosions, deaths and that’s pretty much it. It’s not a movie, unlike the franchise’s first instalments, with much more to say.
Extras and Reissue
All three movies have been given a 4K makeover. Though we reviewed them on Bluray, they all look brilliant. You can really savour all the action, carnage, Stallone’s posing and the franchise’s increasingly ambitious action. The sound too is great – it’s pin sharp.
Now we come to the movie’s extras. Each has a good dozen and, in the main, they’re all well worth watching. The star of the extras show is Rambo takes the ‘80s. Each of the movies gets an instalment and each offers some quality analysis of the movies at their time of release and their lasting legacies. Along the way, David Morrell makes regular appearances and offers great insight.
Other extras launch forays into the movie’s making and their production. There’s also a set of small documentaries called How to become Rambo. Here, Stallone’s trainer discusses the exercises the actor did to achieve his famous physiques. You’ll also be taken on the filmmaker’s journey in a time before CGI and drones. Back in the 1980s, making action movies was very hard work indeed.
If you’ve not seen the movies in a long time and, maybe if you own old DVD copies, these discs are well worth picking up. When you get them, watch the extras first. They do a great job of adding context to each of the Rambo films. They explain why John Rambo isn’t just another generic action hero and why these aren’t just generic action movies. Along with being great fun, they are also films that can tell us a great deal about America and America’s post-Vietnam psyche. Let’s not mention Rambo IV and the mooted fifth instalment though.