The Rambo Series
First Blood (January 21/08)
Though the Rambo series has come to be associated with copious amounts of violence and bloodshed, it's certainly interesting to note that First Blood primarily comes off as a relatively tame survivalism flick - as much of the movie follows Sylvester Stallone's John Rambo as he attempts to outwit, outplay, and outlast a series of increasingly pig-headed law-enforcement officials within a dense jungle setting. The story kicks off after Rambo, a Vietnam vet with a troubled past, rolls into a sleepy little community ruled over by Brian Dennehy's smug Sheriff Will Teasle and consequently finds himself forced to lead the town's few cops on an arduous chase that eventually winds up at that aforementioned jungle. Screenwriters Michael Kozoll, William Sackheim, and Stallone - working from David Morell's novel - have infused First Blood with a spare, decidedly plotless sort of vibe that's admittedly fairly intriguing for a while, yet there does reach a point at which the viewer can't help but crave a more substantial storyline. The lack of a concrete villain only heightens the feeling that First Blood is, first and foremost, a character study of a deeply disturbed individual, with the action-packed third act seemingly at odds with the comparatively restrained opening hour (this is despite an absolutely exhilarating sequence near the outset in which Rambo wreaks havoc on Teasle's police station). It's only with the arrival of Richard Crenna's Sam Trautman that Rambo begins to take on the almost mythical qualities that one has come to associate with the character, as Trautman - Rambo's former superior officer and the man who trained him - refers to his ruthless protege using dialogue that's nothing short of hyperbolic (ie "I didn't come to rescue Rambo from you. I came here to rescue you from him!") Having said that, First Blood - anchored by Stallone's effective, surprisingly low-key performance - is generally an engaging piece of work that ultimately doesn't have a whole lot in common with its increasingly cartoonish follow-ups.
Rambo: First Blood Part II (January 22/08)
Picking up shortly after the events of its predecessor, Rambo: First Blood Part II follows Sylvester Stallone's John Rambo as he embarks on a mission to confirm the presence of POWs deep within the jungles of Vietnam. After learning of a double-cross by a sleazy military man named Murdock (Charles Napier), the iconic character eventually decides to ignore his orders to steer clear of the enemy and launches into a full-scale rescue mission, with the latter half of the movie revolving around his efforts to singlehandedly battle both the Vietnamese and Russian armies. Director George P. Cosmatos has infused Rambo: First Blood Part II with a distinctly broad sensibility that proves to be entirely apt, as screenwriters Stallone and James Cameron (!) place the emphasis on moustache-twirling villains and larger-than-life action set-pieces - ensuring that the end result is a film that's far from plausible but undoubtedly a whole lot of fun. And despite the inclusion of a third-act speech in which Rambo laments the treatment of war veterans by the U.S. government, it's clear that Stallone and Cameron have no loftier goal than to offer up an almost insanely over-the-top actioner rife with memorable kills and gloriously broad bits of dialogue (most of which, once again, come courtesy of Richard Crenna's Sam Trautman, who, in addition to referring to Rambo as a "pure fighting machine," offers up this choice nugget: "what you choose to call hell, he calls home"). The relentless action and mayhem that makes up the film's third act occasionally borders on overwhelming, admittedly, yet there's no denying that Rambo: First Blood Part II succeeds as precisely the sort of unapologetically brutal piece of work that's sorely missing from contemporary multiplexes.
Rambo III (January 23/08)
Though the film is ultimately just as effective (and violent) as its immediate predecessor, Rambo III has clearly not aged all that well in the years since its 1988 release - as the film's portrayal of Afghan rebels as noble heroes is, within a contemporary context, awfully tough to take (the film is even dedicated to them!) The story - which finds Sylvester Stallone's John Rambo reluctantly forced to head into battle once again after his mentor (Richard Crenna's Sam Trautman) is captured by evil Russians during a mission in Afghanistan - is probably as interesting and fleshed-out as anything within the series, yet there's little doubt that the overtly deliberate build-up ultimately puts a damper on the movie's overall effect. And while the final half hour is devoted almost entirely to action sequences, one can't help but lament the absence of hand-to-hand brawls between Rambo and his plethora of enemies (the emphasis is instead placed primarily on big explosions and over-the-top stunts). Stallone's expectedly stirring performance certainly goes a long way towards smoothing over the film's rough edges, and it's clear that - despite its flaws - Rambo III remains an entertaining, sporadically electrifying piece of work that makes up in thrills what it lacks in relevance.
Though there are admittedly a few lulls in the narrative and the film moves a little slower than one might've liked, Rambo is a clear return to exactly the sort of overblown, uncompromising, and distinctly R-rated actioners that essentially defined the 1980s - ensuring that fans of the genre flat-out owe it to themselves to check out the movie theatrically (if only to encourage the studios to quit making watered-down garbage like Hitman and Live Free or Die Hard). As the movie opens, Sylvester Stallone's iconic John Rambo's peaceful yet dull existence as a Thailand-based snake wrangler is interrupted after a group of missionaries (including Paul Schulze's Michael and Julie Benz's Sarah) cajole him into transporting them to a nearby Burmese village. After things go horribly wrong, Rambo reluctantly steps into his killin' shoes and - along with a team of hardcore mercenaries - embarks on a rescue mission deep within the jungles of Burma. Director and co-writer Stallone has infused Rambo with a gritty, downright brutal sensibility that's nothing short of refreshing, as the filmmaker punctuates certain sequences with appreciatively over-the-top bursts of gory violence (ie heads are chopped off, throats are ripped out, etc, etc). Stallone's emphasis on periphery characters - including the aforementioned missionaries and mercenaries, as well as a few villains - leads to a less-than-enthralling midsection, and one admittedly can't help but grow impatient for Rambo to take center stage and just do what he does best. Stallone's reliance on varied shutter speeds notwithstanding, the final conflict is certainly worth the wait - as Rambo and his cohorts inflict unspeakable damage on an army of hapless Burmese soldiers in a protracted sequence that's as bloody and savage as anything contained within the film's three predecessors. The conclusion effectively brings the John Rambo saga full circle, and there's ultimately little doubt that Rambo stands as a fitting conclusion to an admittedly uneven series (although it sure would've been nice to find out what happened to Richard Crenna's Sam Trautman).