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Review: 'Rambo' trilogy explodes onto 4K

Posted Tuesday, November 13, 2018 at 3:03 PM Central

by John Couture

I was eight-years-old when First Blood debuted in theaters in late 1982. To say that I was the key demographic for the Rambo would be an understatement.

The bombastic explosion of gaudy action films in the 1980s was driven mainly by Sylvester Stallone and his Rambo films and Arnold Schwarzenegger. These films provided the lynchpin for an entire generation's obsession with things that blow up. It probably helps explain Michael Bay. I guess not everything turned out for the best then, eh?

All kidding aside, these first three Rambo movies helped to define a generation and still stand the test of time (to varying degrees). This week, First Blood, Rambo: First Blood, Part II and Rambo III all debut on 4K UHD and it is a day that I have been waiting for since this new format was announced.

As a refresher, the franchise follows Vietnam War hero John Rambo who returns to America haunted by his past. As an ex-POW and Green Beret, you could say that Rambo has a particular skill set that he's eager to share with his would-be enemies.

Sure, there was a fourth film in the franchise released in 2018 and there's supposedly another one coming out next year, but we don't talk about them. The original trilogy is where it's at and I relished the opportunity to revisit them on 4K UHD.

Over the years, these films have suffered from a public backlash of sorts and perhaps some of that is deserved, but if you haven't seen the original First Blood in a while, then you owe it to yourself for a re-watch. Sure, the sequels ratcheted up the violence and the plot was usually sacrificed for more bullets and a higher body count, but that first film remains one of the most poignant films about the Vietnam War.

Sure, movies such as Platoon, The Deer Hunter or Apocalypse Now might come to mind more readily when thinking about influential Vietnam War films, but they all dealt with the war itself. The beautiful thing about First Blood is that it's one of the first films to tackle the aftermath of that brutal war.

If John Rambo were returning back from Afghanistan today, they would diagnose him with PTSD and give him plenty of meds. Back in the late '70s, these government-trained killers were often released back into the wild with very little or no support whatsoever. First Blood shows this side of the story and society's lack of apathy for them.

Yes, First Blood is fiction, but the novel that the film is based on was written in part as a way for the author to share the stories that his students were sharing with him after they returned from Vietnam. That war was one that truly divided this country and its impact is still felt to this day. So, the events of the film are poignant and allow the audience to feel compassion for an American hero who is treated as anything but one upon his return.

The second two films are much different tonally from the first film and as such, they do not hold up to the ravages of time as well as First Blood. Both Rambo: First Blood, Part II and Rambo III show their age as they were made before so many techonological advancements in special effects and the advent of widespread CGI.

That's not to say that these films would have been better served by better technology, it's just that they don't seem to have the same shock and awe as they did when they debuted in theaters during the mid-1980s. In particular, the changing politics of the region really make the events in Rambo III over in Afghanistan seem quaint in comparison to a post-9/11 world.

And yet, there's no doubt in my cinematic heart that if we were to send Rambo over to that region today, he would clean it up in no time. I guess that helps to explain the perceived need for the newer films in the franchise.

Overall, all three films are remastered from the original masters and the films have never looked better. In particular, First Blood is even more dreary and eery in its Pacific Northwest locale than before. The sequels also get a bump from the Blu-ray counterparts, but again, they show their age more as direct action films. There are certain scenes where the enhanced definition and HDR actually make the special effects look worse.

I was really hoping for Dolby Atmos soundtracks on the 4K UHDs, but we have to settle with brand new 5.1 DTS audio tracks. All three films certainly sound better than their previously released Blu-ray audio tracks. However, I can't help but wonder if the films would have better served with the richness and depth provided by Dolby Atmos. As it stands, it feels a bit incomplete without them.

All three films come with Blu-rays filled with a cornucopia of previously available bonus features. Each film does include a part of a brand new featurette called "Rambo Takes the '80s." The three-part documentary is a bit self-indulgent, but come on, this is Rambo what else where you expecting?

Overall, the 4K UHD versions of the films are the new standard for the franchise and are a must-buy if you are a fan. The improved picture and sound is worth the upgrade even if you currently already own the franchise. If you are more a casual Rambo fan, then I might suggest picking up at least First Blood on 4K UHD. This film really does stand up to the ravages of time and provides a unique look in the psyche of small-town American after the Vietnam War.