‘And the Best Actor Oscar goes to Sylvester Stallone!’ With films like ‘Stop or My Mom will shoot!’, ‘Cobra’, ‘Over the Top’ and other such dreck it’s difficult to believe that back in 1976 this almost happened. But that would be unfair because even the greatest actors have utter pony in their back catalogue, just look at DeNiro in the toe curling career low that was Bad Grandpa. Stallone though had created one of cinemas great undedog’s in Rocky, the story of a boxer from getting his shot at the heavyweight title. A box office success with Oscar nominated kudos to match (Stallone was also nominated for his screenplay) it would be a film that would also inform the public’s image of the actor and was cemented further six years later in 1982 with the release of First Blood. Rambo was born.
Based on the 1972 book by author David Morell it was a reaction to the height of the public’s nausea to stories of US troops purportedly committing all kind of atrocities in the Vietnam war and coming home not to warm open arms but the public’s utter revulsion. It was a topic that had been touched on by the Oscar winning The Deer Hunter in 1979 but Morrell’s book had taken years to get to the screen with a number of actors attached to star including at one point Al Pacino. It was director Ted Kotcheff, veteran director of a number of TV series having moved into films with the comedy ‘Fun with Dick & Jane’ and had taken a shine to the Rambo script and had opted to make it until the studio got cold feet and pulled the finance. It was fledgling producers Andrew Vajna and Mario Kassar (who would later go on to produce Total Recall, Die Hard 3 and Evita) who optioned it with Stallone on board on the condition that he could rewrite it.
Stallone for all his public persona is far sharper than audiences give him credit for and could see that the original script that he was given had the Vietnam vet John Rambo laying waste to civilians on a kill rampage and it hardly made him the character, who was suffering from PTSD, sympathetic. Stallone radically altered the script because despite what the perception of Rambo is now due wholly to the gung-ho second film, here in the original he kills no one merely wanting to be left alone after returning from a tour of duty having endured all manner of atrocities perpetrated on him as seen in flashback. Rather than being chased out of town by a overzealous sheriff what he really needed was treatment for the PTSD.
First Blood was a mixture of action and pathos as seen when Rambo has a full on breakdown in front of his old colonel played by Richard Crenna and here the disc includes the original ending where Crenna kills him. It was an ending that test audiences hated understandably so because the message it sent out was that this soldier having returned from a hellish experience could only look forward to being shot dead in his own country by the military that he served. In fact Crenna who became synonymous with the role was originally cast with Kirk Douglas who at the time was a bigger star internationally than Stallone but he wanted to keep the original ending despite not having any script approval but kept insisting on it until Kotcheff and producer Buzz Feitshans gave Douglas an ultimatum. Do the script as written or leave. Douglas walked.
With the film shot and the original more upbeat ending added the distributors went into a bidding war and the film was a success making $125m worldwide off its modest $15m budget. First Blood is part of a re-release of the original trilogy all given a 4K scan and restoration and is arguably the best of the three and includes a number of featurette’s such as ‘Rambo takes the 80’s Part 1’ with several worthy contributor’s and a ‘Making of’ EPK from the 2002 disc . Inevitably it includes the trailer and an incongruous single scene out take of Rambo getting jiggy with a Vietnamese girl and a blooper of the final unused scene. The disc also includes separate audio commentaries by both Stallone and author Morell and are engrossing as part of a compare and contrast exercise as to the various changes that were made from book to screenplay.
Inevitably the huge success of First Blood warranted a sequel and it was a far, FAR different film and arguably it was the one that cemented in the minds of the public the persona of Rambo as a one man killing machine. The poster for the sequel was probably the clearest indication to prospective audiences of the path that this second film was to take. With Stallone now stripped to the waist, musclebound and gripping an enormous bit of artillery it was quite different from First Blood’s poster. It was hardly surprising though as the script had been co –written by an upcoming writer director called James Cameron who was about to release his own pumped up sequel this time for Alien, another military mash up. Cameron’s script apparently had been toned down but nonetheless it was still a very different beast from the original film.
At the height of the Ronald Reagan Republican era the line, ‘Do we get to win this time?’ encapsulated that administration’s policies with Rambo this time getting a chance to return to Vietnam to rescue POW’s who had been forgotten and / or overlooked. So what followed was an all out onslaught orchestrated by the late director George P Cosmatos (Escape to Athena) who amusingly in the featurettes has changed radically in appearance from the ‘Action in the jungle’ featurette where he is a dashingly handsome, swarthy and moustachioed as opposed to the featurette, ‘We get to win this time’ where he appears to have ballooned into a beach ball with two black eyes. Cosmatos would be the first to admit that his approach was purely visual whereas Kotcheff’s had been more intellectual and this second film was complimented by the legendary cinematographer Jack Cardiff.
Shot in of all places Acapulco doubling for Vietnam the production were beset with all manner of problems ranging from floods to filming permit problems to equipment being held in lieu of some dodgy back hander payments to authorities to mad military generals insisting that the stars meet them. Rambo First Blood Part 2 did stratospheric box office business becoming one of the 2nd biggest film of the year behind only Back to the Future. The disc of the second Rambo film includes the 2nd part of ‘Rambo takes the 80’s’ featurette as well as a behind the scenes footage and the original trailer. It includes a commentary by director Cosmatos plus featurette, ‘The Last American POW’, interviews with Stallone and Crenna plus the second part of How to Become Rambo’.
Six years after 1982’s First Blood , Rambo III appeared but by now with the Eighties drawing to a close the political landscape was radically beginning to change. Reagan, who had cited Rambo 2 as how he should deal with certain problems, had now forged an alliance with reforming Russian President Gorbachev and Glasnost was well under way. The third film decided to take up what was effectively Russia’s Vietnam, Afghanistan, where much like today their forces had been given the run around by an enemy that frankly were getting about on horseback albeit with weapons overly supplied by the US. By now though the cinema landscape was also changing and whereas both Stallone and Schwarzenegger were established as bona fide action heroes every other actor who fancied hopping on the band wagon joined in regardless of whether their credentials had only been a punch up outside the pub on a Friday night . To that ends we had every one from Jean Claude van Damme & Steven Seagal to Michael Dudikoff &…..um…..Gary Daniels appearing in usually straight to video guff. The world was changing and first time feature director Peter MacDonald was only too aware but against this background Rambo III appeared. Macdonald had replaced Russell Mulcahy due to ‘creative differences’ and the film was the most expensive of the three and went through three cinematographers in the process. Of the trilogy it is the weakest with a face off between a tank and a helicopter encapsulating just how far removed it had become from the first film but it was not without its moments with a glimmer of a sense of humour with one scene where Stallone, up against hundreds of tooled up soldiers is asked, ‘What should we do?’ replies, ‘ Well I guess surrounding them is out’.
The third Rambo disc includes Part 3 of ‘Rambo takes the 80’s’ as well as an alternate beginning to the film and several deleted scenes and another interview with Stallone from the 2008 disc. There’s also bizarrely a featurette called ‘Full Circle’ which is montage of the whole film wound up in five minutes. This disc, perhaps to make up for the lesser of the films, has a heap of extras that includes ‘A hero’s journey’, ‘Rambo’s survival hardware’, ‘Afghanistan: a land in crisis’, guts and glory, BTS, the restoration, TV spots and Macdonald’s incisive commentary as well as an Easter egg.
The Rambo trilogy of films were very much of their time but still compare favourably with many of current action films. Even today Rambo has become synonymous with gun wielding macho men due solely to the second films massive international success but the third film was a little out of time and made only $189m worldwide. But the film leapfrogged Stallone’s other creation, Rocky, with the Rambo franchise which he laid to rest for 20 years until the fourth film cropped up in 2008 called well… Rambo…. with one of the most astonishing ten minutes of bullet riddled carnage committed to celluloid since Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch and ten years later Rambo 5 will soon be with us but the trilogy, especially the first film, is reminder of where it all began.
RAMBO trilogy is out on DVD & Blu Ray on 12th November 2018
Here’s the trailers for the first three Rambo films…….