Wednesday 22 June 2011

The Rambo Tetralogy

Only The Stalloney!

Spoiler Warning! The first spoiler was for me. The second spoiler was for my country. The third spoiler was for my friend! My fourth spoiler never dies... it just reloads!

It’s been a very long time since I first saw the initial three of the four movies reviewed below... and out of all of them the only one I’ve ever actually seen in a cinema setting is the fourth one. It’s not because of my age, I was around and able to remember these things playing at my local cinema at a time when I would have been able to easily gain access with a few deceptive exaggerations regarding my date of birth... so that’s not the reason. I think it’s more about the way I perceived the first three Rambo films at the time which, to be brutally honest, was not in a good light... so I think before I get into my review proper, I’d just like to share with you why I’ve mostly in the past kept these movies at bay with a long pointy stick and why I decided to start watching them again now. So please bear with me here or... well, you know... scroll down the page a bit if you like.

When I was a kid I hated being in school but we had a film club after hours and they used to show some interesting films (in the days before commercial video tape) on a decent sized screen one night after lessons every week. I remember the caretaker who at one time ran the “cinema club” getting into trouble for showing another film which featured Stallone, Deathrace 2000, to a load of 12 and 13 year old kids (who all loved it I might add... unfortunately I was not present at that screening and had to discover it properly years later on home video). One film they showed... it must have been in 1984 when I was about 16 years old, was the 1982 movie First Blood starring Sylvester Stallone who I knew from the Rocky movies and a film I much admired at the time (and haven’t seen since) called Paradise Alley. So that was one of the rare nights I attended (the other times I went along were for Freaks, Psycho and Plague Of The Zombies) and I remember thinking to myself... mmm... okay but nothing special. Don’t need to see this again.

Then about... what?... a year later the sequel came out and, when it finally came to home video rental I hired it out and watched it and thought... okay, that was worse than the last one. Just a big dumb action movie. I really didn’t need Rambo in my life, I believed (hang in there... tastes very occasionally change). I had nothing against the star of the show... I really liked the writing on the first few Rocky’s and thought he put in a good performance and was a lot smarter than the popular public image of him (at the time over here in the UK he was pretty much lambasted a lot on various TV comedy shows)... I just didn’t like the gung-ho action movies he chose to participate in... although for some reason I hold the distinction of being one of the few people who really loved and embraced Cobra. Make of that what you will. :-)

When the third one came out it was full-on in the time when the video piracy bug had hit Britain big. Again I didn’t see it at the cinema... I saw it about a year or more before that (release windows between countries were a lot longer in those days kiddies... especially if you had the pirate copy before the US even had it at the cinema) and I remember seeing a half blurry copy with some strange subtitling on it... I didn’t go out of my way to see this, a friend had it kicking around and put it on because a couple of my mates wanted to see it. I watched with them and remember thinking that it was even worse than the other two and that I never needed to see another Rambo movie again... and I never expected I would either.

Then, not so many years ago, Sly did a sixth Rocky movie and it was actually pretty good (I’d really not thought so much of the fifth one). When they announced that John Rambo (as the fourth movie was originally going to be called before it was just shortened to Rambo) was hitting our screens soon, the wave of 80s nostalgia crept over me and I decided to go take a look in the local cinema. Two things happened to me that night... 1.) I finally got to see a Rambo movie in a proper cinema (if you can count the local dodgyplex as a bona fide cinema entertainment) and 2) I really enjoyed and was pretty much impressed by a Rambo movie. Not too shabby.

But my story doesn’t end there (oh honestly, scroll down if you’re bored, I won’t hold it against you!)... anyone who’s read my blog or who follows me on Twitter would know by now that I’m a big listener of film scores. I can’t help it, there’s celluloid in my blood somehow and to complement it I like to have music from the movies pounding against my eardrums to make me feel half alive.

Being such a person, then, one of my favourite composers (of many) is obviously going to be Jerry Goldsmith and I’d realised a few months or so ago that I’d really never listened to his Rambo scores at all (although I had a barely played, cheaply bought CD of the first score on the shelf). My memory was “slyly” jogged by Intrada re-releasing the score to First Blood as a two disc complete and remastered job very recently. So I ordered it and enjoyed the Jerryism of it enough that I sought down the fullest, and in a couple of cases out of print, CDs of the scores to the other three films in the series by Goldsmith and Brian Tyler respectively. These scores are pretty great and though they all make use of Goldsmith’s original theme for the central character, each of them has a different approach to the writing style and I was wondering... now I’m here in the 21st Century... how the styles of the actual movie-making demonstrated in these four movies was, or was not, reflected in the scores themselves.

So I figured I’d take another look at them but when I looked up a boxed set it was out of print... although I could have got ahold of one for about £40. And there was no way I was paying £40 for a bunch of Rambo movies.

And then fortune smiled at me... as she does sometimes when she realises what a tight bas-... er... what a value for money kind of guy I am. When I went to the last film fair at Camden I got a bundle of the not-out-of-shrinkwrap, unplayed Rambo Trilogy boxed set along with the slipcase edition of the fourth movie (tastefully bundled together with one of man’s greatest inventions... the elastic band) all for the princely sum of... £6. Weehay! I do love a bargain.

And so here I am... now I can revisit those movies and write about my experiences in Rambo’s War and figure out if the first three movies are really as bad as I remember when I was a lot less visually sophisticated than I am now (don’t laugh or I’ll get my dad on to yer) or whether there’s more going on than met my teenage eye.

First Blood 1982 USA
Directed by Ted Kotcheff
Anabasis N.V. Region 2

Ok, the first thing that struck me straight away... and I was kinda expecting this to be honest, is that First Blood is really not an 80s movie. Sure it was released in 1982 but it’s not really got to the point where the style over substance veneer of much of the post-Star Wars movies had taken such a deep root in US cinema and in all fairness I’d have to say that this particular movie, along with a fair few from 1982, is still very much a 70s film in spirit.

That is to say there’s room to breathe in it... not every single moment on screen suffers from modern Hollywood cause and effect dynamics. If I was still a youngster and had not seen a great many pre-80s US made movies I’d probably describe the atmosphere and pacing on this one as somewhat European in tone... and in some ways that would probably not be a bad comparison to make either.

The other thing that is interesting about this first movie is that Rambo really isn’t the hero. Sure, he’s a hero in the sense that he’s a returning combat veteran and decorated war hero... but the point of this film is that things really aren’t that black and white. Certainly, the audience sympathises with him because of the obviously upstanding and fine individuals who make up the local law enforcement of the town Rambo just wants to get a cup of coffee in. Figureheaded by the always excellent Brian Dennehey, these coppers are, for the most part, painted as the bad guys to a certain extent. There are no clear cut black and white protagonists and antagonists in this movie... with the one saving grace maybe of Rambo’s old Colonel and friend played by Richard Crenna. So the police force kinda take on the role of the bad guys for a while and although this movie isn’t exactly a poster girl for character development, there’s still a lot more development on show than in most movies that get released these days and certainly both Dennehey’s character Teasle and Stallone’s Rambo are not easy people for the audience to immediately relate to... everyone except the aforementioned Crenna seem to be a little bit “damaged” in this movie. They’re just not that easy personalities to digest and there’s a certain ambiguity to the dramatis personae that this film befriends and celebrates.

The plot is very simple... a man gets moved on from a town he’s passing through when he wants to buy a coffee and his refusal to just roll over escalates the situation so he is arrested. Flashbacks to his times in vietnam while he is being brutally treated in “lock up” triggers him to violently escape and go on the run from the relentless police department, headed up by Dennehey’s Teasle. Then the deaths start and there’s no going back. It’s a nice look at how the whole “for want of a nail a shoe was lost” scenario can build up to something involving extreme violence and death from the smallest of incidents.

It’s also very interestingly filmed with lots of long shots and establishing shots languidly flowing on the screen and everything takes as long as it takes. The fast forward button is not on with any of these characters (compared to what was to come later on in the series and in 80s cinema in general) but there’s a little trick I noticed which gives it a little lift where other movies would stumble and get locked in. In most of those long takes on long shots which act almost like long establishing shots populated by various members of the cast, there’s always some movement going on... even if the camera is not following a specific person. This movie is full of handheld but it’s not just the close-up rush-follow handheld that we’re more familiar with these days, it’s like the camera is never settled on a tri-pod and is being continually moved but... and here’s the trick... unless you are paying real close attention to some of those shots, you are not going to even notice the camera is moving. Some of these shots look and feel like static shots but if you focus on the entire frame rather than a piece of action within the frame, you’ll notice there’s some very slight, very slow, almost imperceptible movement going on from the cameraman all the time... and it makes for an interesting atmosphere to the movie.

There’s also a couple of sequences which I suspect were pretty influential in both the future course of the Rambo movies and in 80s cinema in general. One is the stalk and slash sequence... and I won’t say anything about that on this part of the review, I’ll leave it for the second movie. The other is what I’ll call the self-administering scene. Rambo is hurt bad... bad I tells ya! His arm is all ripped up so he sews his wound back together and we see the blood running out as he does this... and this almost became a trend in 80s cinema after that. Big action heroes would often have a scene where they could be seen “taking care of themselves” and fixing their wounds... usually in the most painful manner their actions-speak-louder minds could figure out. Schwarzenneger does this in the first Terminator movie with the “then” notorious eyeball scene, for example (granted he was the villain in the first movie but I believe he was of iconic enough status in that film as a protagonist to warrant the inclusion of the scene) and of course this is something which is taken further in later Rambo adventures.

Goldsmith’s score is classic Goldsmith and the film is spotted* in a typical fashion by the composer who was not afraid to let some sequences breathe for themselves and would often talk a director into not going for the wall-to-wall musical accompaniment which can be found in most films these days. The whole score throughout the entire movie lasts just over a half an hour... and it’s all good classic Goldsmith with some reflective moments, some pulse pounding piano based action cues and a Rambo theme which can be used to great effect in different orchestrations and even has a brilliant, cheesy vocal version on the end credits... “It’s A Long Road”.

At the end of the day, though, First blood is about a combat veteran who comes home to find, like many of them did in real life, an uncaring country (which they fought for) and all their friends dead or as crazy or depressed as they were. John Rambo cracks up impressively towards the end of this movie. It is very much a movie about a human being and not a war machine... which brings me to...

Rambo: First Blood Part Two 1985 USA
Directed by George P. Cosmatos
Anabasis N.V. Region 2

Okay... so the success of the first movie led to a sequel which is unusual because at the end of the original novel that First Blood was based on, written by David Morrell, John Rambo gets killed. I know this because my cousin was a big fan of the Rambo series and he had Morrells original novel and he also had Morrell’s “movie tie-in” novel of the second movie which was based on his characters from the original novel. Which is kind of a strange thing if you come to think of it. A guy writes a novel in which the main protagonist dies, he doesn’t die in a movie adaptation of that novel and comes back in the sequel and then the writer of the original source material is asked to write the tie-in novelisation of the second movie. I remember my cousin showing me the “novelisation” of the second movie, specifically the introduction where Mr. Morrell comes clean about there being no way of bringing Rambo back credibly, so the reader will just have to “imagine” he didn’t die in the first book and take things from there. And I bet the tie-in sold by the bucketful back in the 80s too!

It’s really interesting how the people behind the camera on this second installment manage to have their cake and eat it by re-inventing the John Rambo character from the first movie while still retaining familiar elements and recycling them for the second. The biggest returning element is the aforementioned stalk and slash sequence from the first movie, where Rambo lays in wait for his captors like a violent and patient chameleon and takes them out one by one, either up close and personal or with specially made traps he’s constructed. This John-Rambo-as-ninja sequence in the first movie is one of the few hints we’d have at how the character would be re-familiarised for subsequent sequels and the basic reprise of it here would have been an audience pleaser for the people who were fans of First Blood but it actually does lose a lot of its punch because Rambo is a much more, clear cut and defined American hero in this movie. He is not “on the edge” and he is recruited from clearing rocks in prison as restitution for his crimes in the first movie to go and do reconnaissance in Vietnam to prove there are still prisoners of war being held captive.

So already we have two big differences to the character in that he is not a wandering vagrant who has no clear goal... here he is recruited by his old boss, again played by Richard Crenna, to do a specific mission after his name has been computer selected out of three possible candidates to be one of the few who would be able to do the job (oh yeah, Our Man Flint springs to mind). We’re in a very different and less interesting scenario than in the first movie. And this movie is very much an action movie with a capital A.

The second big shift from the first film is that the main character and the supporting cast have very much lost their sense of ambiguity in this one... you know who the good guys are and who the bad guys are... no room for subtlety as we have to get another explosion in sometime soon.

Yep... this is Rambo reinvented as James Bond... he even starts making little quips to comment on things that have just happened... he really isn’t the same character. He even has some love interest for a fair amount of the film and former Bond villain Steven Berkoff reprising his role from Octopussy (almost) as a dodgy Russian heavy.

The style of the film is much more 80s by now too. No more the dawdling long shot with a camera lazily following the action around... this is short shots cut together and carefully framed to maximise the mayhem for you as it happens.

And of course Jerry Goldsmith steps up to the baton and composes a full-on action score with loads of patriotic percussion hits and an orchestra heavily augmented by prominent use of synthesisers in the score. Although the use of synths does kind of date this movie, Goldsmith was very much a pioneer in terms of using synthesisers in film scores. Not in the same way that Walter/Wendy Carlos was but he certainly knew how to make use of the synthesiser as “just another part of the orchestra” and use them to highlight certain areas of the music and give the score a very rich texture to it. It’s interesting actually that the more blandly the films were shot (in the second and third movies) the more the music starts getting more ferocious to compensate. First Blood was a film very much about the movement of a shot and the different textures within those shots (lots of trees, rocks, caves and light) whereas in the second and third movies, the texturing all comes from the scoring... well that’s how I see/hear it anyway. Also, there seems to be a lot more score written for the second one... it’s a lot closer to how it would have been scored today... but, while continuous listening of wall-to-wall action cues can sometimes be a drag to listen to in one go (outside of the context of the film itself) and probably even more boring to write for as a composer (Goldsmith had got really tired of writing action cues towards the end of his life) the score services the visuals nicely and also makes use of the original Rambo leitmotif at key points.

Rambo III 1988 USA
Directed by Peter MacDonald
Carolco Region 2

This time it’s for his friend. Bwahahahahahaahahahahahaha! Pardon me while I wipe a tear from my eye. It’s easy to make fun of this kind of marketing copywriting as it’s become such a terrible action-movie cliché but what any youngsters reading this should remember is the old.. um... cliché that clichés are clichés for a reason... they work, quickly and efficiently. It’s why they became clichés in the first place. You have to realise that this was pretty much the first time we’d seen this kind of “this time it’s personal” marketing for a film. This was new. This was bold. This was in yer face because you knew that if Rambo was doing this... “for his friend”... then he would go to whatever country he was told to go to and not just kick ass... he’d kick double ass in double quick time and then slice and dice his enemy like he was a human cheese grater... and then stamp on all the little left over bits and then shove it down his throat like his enemy is his cannibalistic picnic lunch and he’s “game on” for dessert. That’s what “for his friend” meant to a generation who’d not heard all that twaddle before!

And that’s just what he does. In a film which is the next logical point from the second movie and about as far from that first movie as you’re going to get. Don’t get me wrong, there’s some nice character stuff established for Stallone at the start and some of the gentle reminders of the war-torn Veteran he used to be... but yeah, he’s still “the hero” and when his former Colonel, again played by Crenna, gets taken prisoner by... well, you know... bad guys, it’s dessert time for Rambo!

The film continues the tradition of key Rambo set pieces though with both a stalk and slash scene (this time in a cavern) and a much more gruesome, action hero fixes himself up scene... but that’s really all they are in this movie... set pieces.

What I’m trying to say here is this... another one of the reasons why I see the original First Blood as more of a 70s movie is because it has a story... or at least it has a series of events that rise fluidly from a narrative thread and escalate from and with that story. By the time we’ve got to Rambo III (and Rambo: First Blood Part 2 is also guilty of this) we’ve got a series of designed set pieces which are then hung onto something which resembles a narrative framework, but doesn’t really serve much purpose other than to give those sequences something to hang from. Now you may like to argue that all storytelling is like that and I might be willing to go down that path with you to some extent and I’d certainly agree the majority of large, modern blockbusters are put together in exactly the same fashion, but I think these things do tend to lack a certain amount of heart or, as Bruce Lee might put it, “emotional context” when it comes to serving the narrative... the narrative serves the set-pieces for some reason, not the other way around.

And it’s a pity in this case because the first quarter of an hour or so of Rambo III actually works quite well. There’s a strong sense of emotional depth to the John Rambo character which is pushed to the fore for a while... and you can tell the writers have thought about the character a little and brainstormed the ideas... but ultimately it’s an interesting prelude to bunch of action set pieces. It’s an okay watch but I could have probably done without it... oops.

Sorry, the third one is definitely my least favourite of the movies and it even has a “tough kid” in it to sprain his ankle (okay, he takes a bullet but that’s, like, the Rambo equivalent of spraining your ankle) so we can end one action set piece and then have an excuse to take the kid out and go back for another series of action pieces later. Not the best writing out there but... aw, heck. I’m sure these things are pretty much written in committee and although Stallone obviously had some major input (and I do admire him as both a writer and a director), this movie does seem a little like everybody probably had a finger in the pie and it had to tick all the boxes for everybody. That just happens sometimes I guess.

Goldsmith’s score takes a different tack yet again on this one. Again it’s wall to wall action cues but the synths have been knocked back (possibly even excluded) and instead we have the kind of action writing that is not a million miles away from his Our Man Flint/In Like Flint days in structure. Again, a brilliant score for an entertaining but not completely soulless action flick. It’s not a good movie... but it’s not completely terrible either.

Rambo 2008 USA/Germany
Directed by Sylvester Stallone
Lionsgate Region 2

Okay... so 20 years later they decide to do another one... and this is the one that really impressed me at the cinema and I have to come clean here and say that, while I watched it again for this article and enjoyed it just as much, I’m having a hard time identifying why I liked it.

Gonna have to think about this and work through it as I’m writing I think.

Okay... the least interesting aspect of a Rambo movie for me is the violence and action sequences to some extent... but in this one movie, seriously... they rock. They are impressive. Stallone really knows how to direct a movie (yeah, laugh at me all you want, I’m gonna defend him on stuff like this, he’s good at it) and the action sequences in this are absolutely superb... and possibly contains some of the most violent footage I’ve seen outside of a samurai movie. The action sequences all appear to be shot on the same kind of high speed (non-blurry) film that the action sequences of Saving Private Ryan were shot in... so every detail can be seen and the blood and viscera (which I’m assuming involves some impressive CGI in some places) is like nothing you’ve seen done with gun play. This one shows what really happens when you shoot people up with a machine gun... bodies cut to bits and arms and legs flying in different directions before your very eyes. I rarely get that excited about violence on screen (and please don’t try this at home kiddies) but the sheer in-your-face attitude of the violence and, more importantly, the repercussions of violence, add a very interesting layer to this movie.

I think films like this and certain movies of people like Pekinpah and Tarantino should be shown widely because, frankly, although at some level this stuff does tend to glorify the violence on screen... it also makes you very aware that guns and weapons are not things you want to get involved with. You will fear and respect these terrible inventions after watching something like this... and I believe Stallone’s smart enough to know that these kinds of sequences work on two levels so... okay I’m sounding like the guy has paid me to write this article now but, seriously, power to him for doing such a good job with the action sequences.

And with the rest of the movie too... it has to be said. Rambo is a little lighter on words in this one, which sees him rescuing a group of Christians from war-torn Burma, but the true power and humanity of the character shines through like it never did before in the previous three movies. We got glimpses of it in the first one but the emotional heart of John Rambo can be found in this movie.

Now it’s true we’ve got some clichés in this one again... like the bunch of alpha-male mercenaries Rambo acts as a guide for before outshining them all. But that’s okay because, as “oh-my-gosh-are-they-really-going-to-act-like-this-all-the-way-through-the-movie” as this gets, the harsher and more brutal realities bounce off these kinds of scenes and in some ways, this very familiar macho wordplay (with a sequence which almost but not quite strays into Bruce Lees “fighting without fighting” sequence from Enter The Dragon) is a very necessary antidote or safety valve for the audience when juxtaposed with some truly gruesome goriness!

There’s also a wonderful cliché used in the earlier stages of the film to remind the audience that Rambo is still actually a bad ass in a fast-draw Western style shoot out with a bunch of pirates which seems almost lifted from Clint Eastwood’s first gunplay scene in A Fistful of Dollars. It works though... and I didn’t hear anyone else in the audience at my first showing groan nearly as loudly as I did.

This is a really worthwhile action movie which raises some questions about “turning the other cheek” and doesn’t make the mistake in trying to wade through to a definite answer for you. It’s quite clearly labelled as a grey area and no “black and white” glasses are even attempted to be worn on this one. It is what it is and asks what it asks and doesn’t care that there’s no comfortable answer to the issues raised... which is a great thing for the writers and director to do. There’s also a nice little coda at the end where Rambo gives up eking out a hard living in Thailand and is seen returning to his fathers house, back in the United States, to see if his father is still alive or not.

And the absolute kicker which makes all this work as much as it does is... and you knew I was going to say this didn’t you... yup, Brian Tyler’s excellent score, which brings a lump to the throat every time he quotes Jerry Goldsmith’s original John Rambo/It’s A Long Road and which, again ascends to its own kind of action scoring to service a very different kind of movie to its predecessors. Tyler’s percussion within a scene really helps drive the action like Jerry Goldsmith would and not just comment on it or illustrate it. Ive really gotten into this composer lately and anyone who’s still on the fence about Tyler should probably check out both this score and the absolutely gorgeous score he composed for Battle: Los Angeles... they really work.

So there you have it. That’s me pretty much done. I actually really enjoyed catching up with these movies again. The first one holds up surprisingly well and while the second and third parts are a little dull, they are interesting exercises in how you can reinvent a character to be something a little more heroic than he was in his original form. And, basically, the fourth one double-kicks major ass and then... oh yeah, you know how that one goes now. This is not a series of movies I would ever have expected to find myself ever taking seriously... but I did and it seems to have turned up my longest blog review to date, which is kinda interesting considering I didn’t think I had anything to write. I’ll possibly check these movies out again in another ten years time and see if they’ve dated anymore since the time of this writing. Thanks for reading.

*A spotting session is where the director and the composer sit down together to review the film and work out how much music should be in the film and where each musical cue should start and end. Goldsmith was a past master at this very necessary part of the process.

NUTS4R2’s Astonishing Trivia Treats: Although, as mentioned earlier, the original novel First Blood finished with Rambo dying, Stallone suggested that he be allowed to live at the end of the movie... not because anyone realised that the film would prove to be successful enough to earn a sequel, but because he didn’t want to send out such a negative message to returning Vietman veterans.


  1. Ha! I bwahahahaed through this review from first to last. Thanks for reviewing these--I've avoided them myself, in trying to avoid the gung-ho part of the American war drums, but the first one did show a murkier side to the situation. That the last one would also? I raise my brows in skepticism, but if someone with celluloid in one's veins tells me it is so, roger wilco!

  2. Oh, and Brian Dennehey has Never Ever disappointed me. Never.

  3. Yep. Brian Dennehey is perfection and his best movie... Belly of an Architect!

    Thanks for the kind words... you're one of only two people now who have actually visited this page specifically for this article. I guess Rambo isn't as popular as 13 Assassins which is still getting huge traffic?

    Thank you.

  4. Here is another piece of trivia, the original First Blood was offered to Steve McQueen but he passed on it at the time! Aside from First Blod and John Rambo the middle two just don't cut it for me, if you take them literaly then Rambo won both the Vietnam War (as an afterthought) and the war in Afganistan without the help of the Mujahardeen, love it! Shame the USA don't have him in Iraq or Pakistan, those wras would be won in 3.5 days.
    I like the labour of love analysis of the 4 films, once again you are a credit to the film bloggers universe!


  5. Thanks for that Jake.

    Not sure I'd call the Rambo films a labour of love. Like you, I only really thought the first and last were okay. But I do have a lot of respect for the man in the headband... even if he doesn't choose the kinds of movies I'd neccessarily go and see.

    Again, thanks for the comments and for the McQueen trivia!