First Blood, especially, reveals a level of detail and clarity that places it leaps and bounds above any of its home video predecessors. The forest looks amazingly well-delineated, with crisp leaves, branches and foliage offering great levels of detail and pinpoint shadow accentuation. But, for me, it is the depth of the blacks and the overall shadow definition that impressed me the most. Having done a fair bit of exercise with the Royal Marines in just such an environment I can testify to how dark it can be, even when there is still some daylight left above the treetops. 99 per cent of the time, movies, understandably, get this completely wrong, with lighting and post-production tinkering a necessary evil if the makers want the audience to see what is happening. But with this transfer of First Blood, there is a genuine impression of the thick shadow that engulfs the ground, with the odd lightning flash suddenly, and very authentically, revealing the terrific detail that was there all along. Another nice, and slightly surprising element that is particularly pleasing for a film this old, is the three-dimensionality offered. Early scenes, especially, seem to produce a picture that is full of depth - Rambo by the lakeside or on the road as trucks pass him, then when he enters Teasle's inhospitable town and the views down the main road etc. The pivotal bridge - a metaphorical and physical boundary - also offers a distinct level of depth that I hadn't expected. And the initial chase sequence between Rambo on the stolen motorbike and Teasle's cop-car looks mighty fine indeed - even when Rambo pulls a wheelie to mask the fact that it isn't actually Stallone riding the bike during that shot!
But it is the strength of the blacks and the rock-steady contrast that makes First Blood come alive. With so many scenes set in subdued or extremely low light, this is a real treat.
Rambo: First Blood Part II offers a wealth of tight detail, with close-ups looking quite spectacular. Colours are great and vivid, with skin-tones, the greens of the jungle, the reds and oranges of the explosions and the skies looking quite attractive. But the image is still fairly soft around the edges and doesn't quite pop from the screen as much as I thought it would. There are still some great looking shots, though - Rambo firing at the trucks on the bridge, or running through the stair-filled village, or when he is about to meet that dumb-ass NVA officer by the waterfall. But there are several instances when blue lines appear on the image that I have not seen on any previous version of the film. They are nothing too damaging, but they do distract for their brief duration. These occur at various different stages in the film and are a slight shame to a transfer that is, otherwise, clean and un-afflicted by edge enhancement or bothersome noise.
Rambo III is, possibly, the best transfer, with very crisp tight edges, deep colour saturation and far more detail than seen previously. Rocks, equipment, shrapnel, wounds, muzzle-flashes, faces, clothing etc, etc all look much more intricate. There is a thin layer of grain to the film, but this looks fine to me. Edge enhancement and noise are scared to raise their ugly heads, but blacks, which are terrific for the majority of the film, can occasionally lose some of their depth and, during the night-time raid, merge a little too easily with the otherwise excellent midnight blues. Skin tones are very ruddy, however, but the film has always looked this way to me so I cannot blame the transfer for this. Hollywood health, you could call it. Contrast is spot-on and there is nice tightening of the white glare from spotlights, the blue glow from, well, Rambo's blue light and the infra-red visions have more uniformity and detail than before. Explosions are bright and vivid, whether seen in the daylight or, more spectacularly, during the night.
One now-obvious thing is the matte-painting depicting the Afghan mountains that Rambo and his guide look out on from a ridge. But, otherwise, the landscapes are far better defined than before. Far off shots may tend to soften, but fore-to-mid-grounds elements look very nice indeed. Fast action is extremely well maintained and the scenes of large-scale pandemonium - the attack on the camp, Rambo and Troutman taking on an entire garrison and armoured brigade at the end - look quite impressive with a decent sense of depth and stability to the chaos. In fact, it is in the third entry where you will find the most convincing three-dimensionality of all the films presented here.
Definitely much improved over prior versions, these hi-def transfers do the series justice with the minimum of fuss, damage or encoding problems. Far less to complain about than I'd feared.
Rambo: First Blood Part II takes a slight step up from Part I in that it now features a DTS-MA 5.1 lossless track. Now, although this is far more aggressive than I have heard it previously, this is still far from glorious. For a movie that broke the mould for aural intensity and wham-bam detail when it first came out, this sounds quite lacklustre when you think about what could have been done with a full-blown multi-channel remix. The action and the score come over with plenty of presence but rarely spread the chaos behind you in a way that makes you go “wow!” There is activity in the rears, but it is subdued and few and far between. Naturally, the frenzied battles during the last act are the most emphasised and this is still a great thrill ride regardless of the apparent limitations of the source track. The audio can be flat-sounding compared to more recent fare and I would probably say that First Blood, given its lesser commitment to all-round explosive immersion and greater investment in dialogue and atmospherics comes over better than its immediate successor. But, for fans, this is still better than the rather boring-sounding original DTS mix that adorned the previous Special Edition.
Rambo III, also equipped with DTS-MA 5.1, takes the fight dynamics on a bit from its predecessors by actually engaging the rear speakers a lot more, but even here, the actual validity of the surround channels is neither as convincing, nor as sustained enough to really place you in the middle of the action. Explosions carry some oomph, but only a tad more impact than in Part II. The rumble of tanks and other heavy vehicles is a little more involving, with some floor-trembling supplied by the sub. There is a nice sizzle afforded Goldsmith's snaring synths and the score, in general, is well-treated despite director MacDonald's insistence on dropping much of the composer's new stuff in favour of the tried and trusted motifs fashioned for Part II. The clanging of metal grating in concrete, bullets smacking off steel and the odd blast from the horrible flamethrower/blow-torch down in the dungeon are better presented with more clarity than I've heard. But the best moment, for me anyway, is during the stick-fight, with the impacts weighty and painful, the ritualistic clashing of the sticks at the commencement of the duel and Goldsmith's simply awesome music cue beginning in the front left speaker and then eventually, with the instrumental additions, filling the frontal soundscape with vigour. It is worth noting that the music gets dialled down during the fight, but this is intentional and has always been present. Dialogue is also clear and discernable throughout.
So, all in all, the three movies here definitely offer a serious upgrade from their prior incarnations. Just don't expect them to come anywhere near the aggression, directionality and impact of the fourth film, or the vast majority of more recent fare.
Two excellent commentary tracks, folks, that are both well worth your time.
We also get the 22-minute retrospective documentary Drawing First Blood which brings in the creative team behind the beginning of the legend - Stallone, obviously, David Morrell, producers Andrew Vajna and Mario Kassar and director Ted Kotcheff. The saga is discussed from its literary source and the film's conception takes in alternate castings that almost were - Kirk Douglas as Col. Trautman !!!! - and huge creative alterations made to the character and the situation, particularly the ending. Played beneath Goldsmith' score, this feature is frank and revealing about the intentions the makers had for the movie and the controversy that surrounded its original ending. Kassar also reveals the worrisome, flying-by-the-seat-of-their-pants financing via his own godfather that also resulted in one of the grandest profit-making cash-cows in Hollywood history. Everyone likes to assert that Rambo, in this first movie, doesn't actually kill anybody Well, whilst this is basically true, I still harbour severe doubts about the chances of survival for the cops whose car he helps to slam into a parked vehicle during the truck chase. Somehow, I can't see them climbing from the wreckage and rubbing their sore heads, A-Team-style. Sly is on fine form, witty and sincere about the damage he sustained during the shoot and Kotcheff is a pure live-wire - I wish he could have had his own chat-track, to be honest. Excellent stuff, although this should have gone on for a lot longer.
Rambo: First Blood Part II offers a commentary from director George P. Cosmatos that is painfully dry and, as far as I am concerned, pretty darn boring. His thick accent doesn't help, but he tends to go technical without any passion and the whole thing left me uninspired and sighing itching to skip ahead (which I did - sorry).
Also on offer here is the familiar documentary We Get To Win This Time. Lasting for 20 minutes, this is a fair bit more puff-pastry and EPK, but still fairly interesting with retrospective interviews with cast and makers about the phenomenon in general and how Rambo got to become a household name.
Rambo III gets a commentary from director Peter MacDonald that doesn't actually fare a great deal better than that from Cosmatos. He offers an anecdote here and there and succinctly covers the quite troubled shoot, but he drifts into simply watching the movie far easily and, consequently, the track falls silent for much of the time. There is mention of the previous director getting the heave-ho for creative differences but, once again, it is the big guy, himself, who we really want to hear from. He injects so much personality into his commentaries and heartfelt insight that it would have been far better to have heard his intentions behind Part III and his reactions to its more divisive reception.
We also get a 29-minute documentary called Land In Crisis that quite heavy-handedly plays up Rambo's part in making the - well, America - sit up and take notice of what the Russian invasion of Afghanistan was really doing to the population. Featuring interviews with the filmmakers and with Sly, himself, this gains points from the extensive history of the region and detailed analysis of the conflict that the people suffered at the iron fist of the Communist regime. We learn of the real reasons why Russia went in - Afghanistan's strategic location meant an Asian gateway to the sea - and there is lots of footage from the struggle. It does, however, seem somewhat ironic to be hearing the praises sung about the Jihad-loving freedom fighters, the Mujahedeen, out there in view of the current climate and our own troops' inevitably untenable situation there. Foreign forces do not win in Afghanistan.
Finally, both Rambo: First Blood Part II and Rambo III carry trivia pop-up tracks entitled Out Of The Blu, which are ok if you like this sort of thing. And all three discs carry trailers for further BD releases.
Well, of course, what is lacking here is a proper full-on comprehensive documentary charting the whole saga and its historical, cinematic and cultural resonance. But, without a doubt, the set is well worth it for the movies themselves and the extras that come with First Blood.
This boxset is essential for fans of the series. It does seem a shame that Lionsgate didn't place the fourth movie in here too, but I can still testify that they all look on the shelf together. Threadbare of meaningful extras apart from those found on First Blood, the presentations of all three movies is much better than I expected and they definitely prove to be a worthwhile upgrade from the SD versions that I have seen. An official 8 out of 10 for the full set - but you know the score ... unofficially, First Blood gets a devout 10, and for sheer dumb-fun and carnage, II and III get 9 and 8, respectively. A quiet night in? Not with this feller around.
”That Rambo guy ... he's on the loose again!”
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