Directed by Sylvester Stallone
Aspect Ratio: 2.40:1 anamorphic
Running Time: 91 minutes
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1 EX English
Subtitles: English, Spanish
MSRP: $ 34.98
Release Date: May 27, 2008
Review Date: May 20, 2008
After successfully resuscitating his iconic Rocky Balboa character for a celebrated return to the big screen, it made perfect sense that director-writer-star Sylvester Stallone would dredge up his other popular series character, John Rambo, for another go-round. Sad to say, where Rocky Balboa was a sweetly nostalgic return to a tried and true formula that still held some allure after years away from it, Stallone’s new Rambo is no advance on the cartoonish Rambo III of twenty years ago. Well, that’s not quite fair. Stallone has taken a tragedy of epic human proportions (the decades-long civil war in Burma) and raised our consciousness about that terrible circumstance before telling his grisly tale against that bloodbath of a backdrop. The film is so unremittingly violent, however, that the information about the sad state of affairs in Burma seems almost exploitive; the main crux here seems to be about killing people in the most creative ways possible. The desperate plight of Burma and its people aren’t the focus.
John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) has spent the last twenty years of his life living in Thailand as a snake catcher and wrangler. As before, he’s a man of few words and fewer friends, so when a missionary group headed by Dr. Burnett (Paul Schulze) and his fiance Sarah (Julie Benz) comes to him asking for his help in guiding them to the Burmese interior so they can provide the Karen people with medical help and religious guidance, he at first refuses. Later he relents and they begin their trip up river, but Rambo must massacre a group of Burmese pirates before getting the mission group safely to their destination. Naturally, the pirates have friends, too, and the missionary troupe is later captured by the most savage of the pirate tribes. The church who sponsored the missionaries hires some mercenaries to go in and rescue its people, and the mercenaries need Rambo’s help in getting them to the drop-off point. You can easily imagine what happens next if you’ve seen any of the Rambo films, particularly the second and third installments.
First Blood, the first Rambo film, was a sometimes thoughtful and poignant tribute to fighting men deeply scarred by their Vietnamese war experience. Later entries turned the character into a single-minded killing machine, useful in combat when conventional methods haven’t produced results. Here, Rambo is touched by the innocence and sincerity of Sarah (she has given him a crucifix on a strap which he wears as a bracelet), and it‘s his desire to save her that prompts his involvement. Once there, of course, it’s carnage to the nth degree with all manner of eviscerations, decapitations, and immolations.
One has to respect the pure physicality of this role for Stallone at his age, and combined with his writing and directing chores for the film, the man must be made of steel. Paul Schulze has brought a dry conviction to every role he’s played, and he’s no different here, even at the moment when he realizes that action is necessary even for a Christian man intent on saving lives rather than taking them. Julie Benz radiates the purity that endears her to Rambo, and Matthew Marsden as the most likeable of the mercenaries also stands out from the pack. Graham McTavish and Tim Kang play mercenaries who are more braggadocios than their fellow fighters.
The final action set piece is a blur of activity (though many probably won‘t care as long as there are buckets of blood flowing and lots of body parts flying around; you get plenty of both), and a chase through the jungle that precedes it has been sped up and looks almost laughable. There are some beautiful shots of the jungles (filming was done in Thailand due to the permanent danger of Burma) and some quiet moments on the river on the way to their destination where the steel blue sky and reflective water meet is haunting in its beauty. Most of the film, though, is not beautiful but rather bruising, brutal, and bombastic, all of which wears out its welcome even in a film that runs only an hour and a half.
The film’s 2.40:1 aspect ratio is delivered here in an anamorphic transfer. Sharpness is not a strong point in the transfer, and color seems smeared in the many vistas on display. Flesh tones are too brown, and the sometimes desaturated look of the image is ugly and unappealing. The film is divided into 28 chapters.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 EX soundtrack has music and sound effects and bass galore, but the audio mix isn’t as well rendered as it could have been. Those rear surround channels are basically wasted with very little in the way of effective pans around the soundstage. It's loud, but it's not especially creative in its use of all that noise.
Director-writer-star Sylvester Stallone provides an audio commentary for the film. Though there are gaps when he‘s silent, he takes a serious attitude about the process of making the film explaining choices in plot, casting, editing and states everything clearly.
All of the featurettes and deleted scenes in the bonus section are in anamorphic widescreen with a few caveats.
“It’s a Long Road: Resurrection of an Icon” is the longest of seven featurettes on the making of the film. It’s 19 minutes describing, among other things, the different scenarios for the story which were floated before the final Burma plot was hatched, the difficulties of location shooting, the three months of location work in Thailand, and Stallone’s process of directing himself and the other actors in a scene together.
“A Score to Settle: The Music of Rambo” introduces us to composer Brian Taylor who planned his score as an homage to the late Jerry Goldsmith who had scored the other Rambo films. This featurette runs 6 ½ minutes.
”The Art of War: Completing Rambo: Editing” gives film editor Sean Albertson and second editor Paul Harb a chance to discuss their hectic work process with the overwhelming amount of footage which Stallone shot, and how they expected an NC-17 rating due to the heavy violence in the film only to be shocked with the R they received. This feature runs 6 ¾ minutes.
”The Art of War: Completing Rambo: Sound” is a too-brief 3 ¼ minutes on Stallone’s ideas for using sound in the movie, especially his wanting to remove music from the final battle sequence and realizing it would be too relentless without it.
“The Weaponry of Rambo” has prop master Kent Johnson taking us on a tour of his artillery room and discusses the decisions made for selecting the specific state of the art sniper rifle and armor piercing gun used in the final attack sequence. He also describes briefly the boot camp which was held to get the actors playing mercenaries in shape for the grueling shooting schedule. This featurette runs 14 ¼ minutes.
“A Hero’s Welcome: Release & Reaction” covers the Las Vegas premiere of the film with the actors describing the audience’s visceral reaction both there and in regular engagements they attended the opening weekend. Filmed in both 4:3 and anamorphic widescreen, this vignette runs 9 ½ minutes.
“Legacy of Despair: The Struggle in Burma” is a mini-civics lesson about the horrific conditions in Burma presently and how Stallone and the other film participants hope the film’s showing the atrocities there might increase worldwide awareness of the state of emergency that exists. This feature is also presented in a combination of 4:3 and widescreen and runs 10 ½ minutes.
4 deleted/extended scenes are presented in anamorphic widescreen but reformatted in 1.78:1. They can be played in one 13 ¾-minute chunk or played individually. Though there is no director’s introduction or commentary with them, Stallone mentions each of them in his own commentary track and refers listeners to this part of the DVD.
The original theatrical trailer is presented in anamorphic widescreen and runs 2 ½ minutes.
The second disc in the set offers a digital copy of Rambo which can be downloaded to PCs or Macs in either iTune format or the Windows Media Player.
The DVD offers previews of Hamburger Hill and all of the previous Rambo films.
The concern over the terrible situation currently in Burma is evident in every frame of Rambo, but the film is first and foremost a search-and-destroy movie. The carnage is as violent and visceral as a hard R rating will allow it to be, so be advised.