6.01.2008

Rambo Trilogy: First Blood (1982), Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985), Rambo III (1988)

DIRECTED BY
Ted Kotcheff (FIRST BLOOD - 1982)
George P. Cosmatos (ghost-directed RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD PART II - 1985)
Sylvester Stallone (directed RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD PART II - 1985)
Peter McDonald (RAMBO III - 1988)

STARRING
Sylvester Stallone - John J. Rambo
Richard Crenna - Colonel Trautman
Brian Dennehy - Sheriff Teasle (FIRST BLOOD)
David Caruso - Mitch (FIRST BLOOD)
Charles Napier - Marshall Murdock (RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD PART II)
Julia Nickson - Co (RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD PART II)
Kurtwood Smith - Griggs (RAMBO III)
Marc de Jonge - Colonel Zaysen (RAMBO III)

FIRST BLOOD Score - 4 Howls Outta 4
RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD PART II Score - 4 Howls Outta 4
RAMBO III Score - 2.5 Howls Outta 4


When it comes to the name Sylvester Stallone, you think of two things. No, not "old" and "has-been". I meant Rocky Balboa and John J. Rambo. Stallone was a huge star in the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s with these two characters, becoming one of the biggest and most influential action stars of all time. However, Stallone wasn't able to keep up with the times and some of the politics and issues he presented in his films in the 1990s and most of the 2000s didn't register with the public anymore. Plus Stallone's choice of films weren't that great, except for maybe CLIFFHANGER and COPLAND. Many of us thought that Stallone's star faded for good.

In 2006, Stallone made one of the biggest comebacks in cinema history by reprising his role as Rocky in ROCKY BALBOA, the sixth installment of the ROCKY saga. It made a decent amount of cash and the film was pretty damn good. It put Stallone back in the spotlight, due to the fact that Stallone was game to use his age to his advantage. And now, Stallone is back bringing the next installment of RAMBO. Will the fans respond to it and welcome the war hero back? I'm not sure really, but the marketing has been everywhere for it. But before anyone discusses RAMBO, there are three other films that must be reviewed. And those films are considered the RAMBO Trilogy: FIRST BLOOD (1982), RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD PART II (1985), and RAMBO III (1988). It's been over 20 years for these films. Do they still hold up? Or have they aged just as quickly as the star himself?

PLOT
In FIRST BLOOD, Vietnam vet John J. Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) arrives at a small town to meet an old buddy from the war. However, he learns his friend has died from cancer. Depressed, Rambo heads into town for a bite to eat. However, the town sheriff (Brian Dennehy) is on a power-trip and doesn't want a drifter like Rambo destroying his town. So the sheriff arrests Rambo for vagrancy [bullshit charge actually] and books him. Rambo, reminded of his time being tortured in Vietnam, refuses to be a prisoner again and pretty much destroys the local Police Department one by one. Rambo escapes as the sheriff and other authorities hunt down Rambo to take him down.

In RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD PART II, Rambo serves time in prison for his activities in the first film. However, his old Colonel and mentor Trautman (Richard Crenna) offers him a way out of jail: joining a special covert operation in Vietnam. Meeting a government officer named Murdock (Charles Napier), Rambo learns that he must go to Vietnam to take photographs of missing POWs, if there are any. He can't engage with the enemy. Is this dude watching the same movie I am? Rambo finds the POWs, gets betrayed by Murdock, finds love with his partner Co (Julia Nickson), and shoots and kills all the Vietnamese soldiers that cross his path all by his damn self. Go Rambo!

In RAMBO III, Rambo is in Asia living a peaceful life and having stick fights with locals for cash until Trautman and government official Griggs (Kurtwood Smith) arrive. Trautman wants Rambo to go with him to Afghanistan to fight off the Russian influence there. Rambo refuses, so Trautman goes off alone. However, Trautman is kidnapped and tortured for information. Rambo learns of this, leaving his paradise and going to Afghanistan to find and save his mentor. There, Rambo destroys the Russian enforcers pretty much solo, blowing shit up along with some Afghani rebels.

REVIEW
FIRST BLOOD
, based on a novel by David Morrell, is a very well made thriller that has action mixed in to keep the audience pumped up and interested. Unlike a lot of action films, there is a political message going on here. Apparently, when many Vietnam War vets returned to the United States after losing, they weren't welcomed back too kindly. As a matter of fact, many treated them rottenly which didn't help the trauma most of these vets experienced from the war. John Rambo is a victim of the post-war experience and his lack of finding his place and sense of home again is the centerpiece of FIRST BLOOD.

I think FIRST BLOOD gets thrown into the action genre because of Sylvester Stallone starring in it, plus he does use a lot of guns and traps to stop his opposers. But it really isn't an "action" film. I see it more as a drama of a man who has no idea how to come with the realization that the war he fought so hard in was a failure and returning home back to a normal life after witnessing the horrors of Vietnam isn't really possible. And through his anger, resistance to authority, frustration, and physical and psychological scars, Rambo displays that trauma very visually well. Rambo only knows how to fight in a war-like situation. And when these cops push his buttons, he reacts the only way he knows how. There are no real villains in this film. It's all a case of misunderstanding for the most part. Too bad a lot of people get hurt for that to come to the surface.

The direction by Ted Kotcheff is excellent. It's everything we want in an action film - suspense, tension, great scenes where people get hurt [only ONE person dies in this film from my knowledge] - it's a great visual piece of cinema. I especially enjoyed the scene where Rambo was stuck in the shaft with the rats and dirty water. It's just well lit, well shot, and it keeps you on the edge of your seat. And the final confrontation between Rambo and the sheriff is awesome. You could tell this sheriff, who was in the Korean war, was no match for the Green Beret. It just kept building and building, making you wait to that point where you knew the sheriff was gonna get his ass shot to shit. And boy, was he shot alright!

The acting is also very good here. Brian Dennehy is a great actor and does much as he can with the sheriff character. He's cruel in a sense for wanting to pursue Rambo for such a stupid reason, but you get a sense that there's something deeper going on inside of the man. We're never really given the full scope but it's definitely there if you look hard enough. Richard Crenna as Trautman is great as Rambo's mentor. He's Rambo's conscience whether Rambo wants it or not. He's never been a one-dimensional character, which is why Crenna is so respected for his work on these films. And Sylvester Stallone is excellent as John Rambo. He IS Rambo. Not only is he a physical presence, but there's a vulnerable quality about him that makes you care and want to know about the man. The scene at the very end where he blows up about his feelings after returning from the war is probably the most famous from this film and it gets to me every time I watch it. You can hardly understand a word he says but you can feel the power and effectiveness of his monologue, making you think that while we fight for our country, our country doesn't want to fight for us. The ending to the film is not the same as the book [Rambo dies in the book - an alternate ending was filmed but the happier ending was used] but when you can see a potential franchise coming out of a story, you gotta milk it for all its worth. I don't mind the change at all. Just an excellent job here.

And the action stuff is great, such as the cliffhanging scene and that rat sequence in the shaft. Jerry Goldsmith creates a memorable score as well. Just a very good film.

In RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD PART II, all character development and realism is pretty much thrown out of the window for a straight-forward action film. And it works extremely well - so well that this is my favorite of the bunch. Here is where the iconic Rambo character is created, with the bandana and the necklace and that explosive arrow weapon he constantly uses. He's larger than life here like some military superhero who's gonna destroy the Commies and help the U.S.A. win the Cold War [remember this was 1985]. Rambo is no longer a vulnerable character. He's an angel of vengeance, willing to protect people who have been betrayed and corrupted by their government. His words don't matter but his actions do. And Stallone plays Rambo perfectly here. You can see and feel every emotion from the man. I wanted him to kill those soldiers. I wanted him to hurt Murdock for betraying him [great job by Charles Napier by the way - I wanted to knee him in the gonads - what a son of a bitch]. Just a great portrayal. You can definitely see why Rambo became a pop culture icon.

FIRST BLOOD PART II is where I think the action film really became the cool film to make in the mid-1980s. It's just so larger than life than its predecessor, creating elaborate set pieces where people get murdered and shit explodes over and over again. It's so manic and so over the top that it's beautiful to watch. We get jungles, wooden shacks, Asian babes, guns, explosive arrows, helicopters, everything you can most likely think of in a setting like this. And it all works because of Jerry Goldsmith's theme through it all. It gets your blood pumping and you actually cheer when Rambo kills these bastards, especially after he loses the woman he grew really fond of [tragic love story indeed]. This film is immortal because all action films after it pretty much copied a lot of things that this film did. It's loud, in your face, and probably not possible. But no one can say that it ain't fun to watch. FIRST BLOOD PART II was the biggest grosser in the box office for any RAMBO film, making Sylvester Stallone an iconic star as this and ROCKY IV [which was released in the same year] were two of the three biggest films of 1985 - both behind BACK TO THE FUTURE. This film is the shit.

And while George P. Cosmatos is credited for directing the film [he would later direct another Stallone flick, COBRA], it was really Stallone who directed this film. And he does an excellent job. It's fun from beginning to end. It's suspenseful, violent, funny - it's everything an action film should be. He also co-wrote the script with James Cameron, who would become a famous director himself. Yeah, there's no character development like in the first one, but who cares? Rambo's blowing shit up with arrows. We know enough about these characters to have an opinion of them. I'm fine with it. Just wonderful stuff.

However, RAMBO III shows that sometimes lesser is more. And RAMBO III doesn't have that quality, I'm afraid. It's like a big cartoon with Rambo killing over 108 people and having 221 acts of violence with at least 70 explosions. It's in the Guinness Book of Records as the most violent film of all time. No shit. I'm surprised anyone survived Rambo's onslaught here. Good lord. It reminded me of HOT SHOTS PART DEUX [one of my favorite action spoofs - which actually makes fun of FIRST BLOOD PART II and RAMBO III alot] where Charlie Sheen is shooting people and that Body Count Clock shows up. You never really get to attach yourself to people because they're getting killed the moment you meet them. I mean, that's great in action films because we expect people to get killed. But it's not as dramatic or suspenseful as the first two installments.

I do like the fact that instead of Trautman saving Rambo, it's the opposite way this time. I think it actually defined their relationship in a way that the first two films didn't. Seeing them act as friends and help each other out make their union a lot more believable for me in RAMBO III. But then we get them bantering and acting like Laurel and Hardy, making me wonder what happened to that serious John Rambo we saw in the first two parts. Luckily, the banter is very funny as they try to one-up each other. However, Rambo loses something because of it.

What also hurts the film is that RAMBO III is pretty much set up in the same way as FIRST BLOOD PART II. The action pieces are very well constructed as usual, with heavy amounts of explosions and gunfire displayed on the screen probably 85 percent of the time. The film is never boring, thank God. Director Peter McDonald is a fine visual storyteller and keeps most of the pacing intact. But the middle part where Rambo tries to save Trautman is kind of boring at times and could have used editing. And while the recycled Jerry Goldsmith theme still kind of pumps you up, RAMBO III feels dated at this point and too cartoonish to be believable. Which in a sense is due to the fact that the Cold War was pretty much over by the time this film was released. Plus the Russian occupation in Afghanistan that the film protrayed was over by the time of the film's release. So it already had things going against it. Plus the kid sidekick was NOT needed [he kind of annoyed me personally] and that final confrontation where Rambo pretty much takes out a whole group of soldiers that could fill a third world country by himself is more funny than anything. And I didn't like the villain either. Not that Marc de Jonge played him badly because he didn't. He just wasn't an interesting character and seemed like no match for Rambo from the moment you see him. Definitely my least favorite of the three, but still highly watchable.

THINGS I'VE LEARNED WHILE HAVING 'NAM FLASHBACKS

1. Rambo had cuts and bruises on his body. Those are probably all the whippings he took from critics for making STOP! OR MY MOM WILL SHOOT! Totally understandable.

2. David Caruso should have been in charge of finding Rambo. According to the CSI: MIAMI theme song, he'll never get fooled again!

3. Rambo hanged onto a mountainside to evade the cops and have a shorter distance to fall into the river. Who knew Stallone would be rehearsing for CLIFFHANGER 11 years before its release?

4. Rambo destroyed a gas station and all the cars around it. Rambo no like high gas prices.

5. Rambo was told not to engage the enemy. They should've told him this before he married Brigette Neilsen. His bank account probably would have been thankful for the advice.

6. Rambo's partner for the mission is a beautiful Asian woman. Man, Rambo must be sweating due to a case of yellow fever. I don't blame him.

7. Few of the soldiers got killed by arrows, thanks to Rambo. They must have been all Geminis.

8. If you're Russian, don't mess with Sylvester Stallone. Learn from your comrade Ivan Drago. You have no fuckin' chance.

9. Rambo stick fights for money in Bangkok. So does Lance Bass. However, I'm not sure if he's there to stick fight or to bang kok.

10. Rambo used a blue glow stick to find his way through the compound. Keep your blue light, John. I'd rather party where there's a red light.

THE FINAL HOWL
John J. Rambo has a very recommended trilogy of films that everyone should see before RAMBO. FIRST BLOOD and RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD PART II are mandatory buying and watching for any action movie freak. RAMBO III is a very watchable rental, but worth a buy if it's part of a collection or if you just happen to like a silly action film where 100+ people get slaughtered by one man. Rambo said in FIRST BLOOD PART II: "For our country to love us, as much as we love it...that's what I want." Well Rambo, I think your country loves you. And I, for one, welcome you back onto the movie screen and our homes.

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