Friday, July 30, 2010

John Rambo Review (Blu-Ray)

Director's cuts are more often than not excuses for the distributor to simply milk extra money from the consumer enticed by an additional 3 minutes of unnecessary footage. More extended cuts than a true reflection of the director's original vision with few examples. Ridely Scott's Blackhawk Down and Blade Runner, Payback: Straight Up Edition, the Apocalypse Now Redux, Tony Scott's Revenge being the only examples of so called director's cuts where the product is notably different as well as improved that I can come up with offhand. This isn't about those films, though.

2008 saw the final appearance of Sylvester Stallone's Rambo in a fit of ultra-violent rage and amazingly venomous commentary on the state of war in Myanmar. A condemnation of genocide and violence but conveyed with an ultimately mixed message. While I loved the film due to the conviction and bravado that Stallone put into it, it was still noticeably rushed with some sloppy editing and seemed to glorify the very violence it sought to condemn as one of the most disturbingly over the top graphic films of the decade.

Earlier this week, Lionsgate released a new version of Stallone's 2008 labor of love. Marketed simply as an extended cut of the movie with 9 additional minutes, a lot of people may question the purpose of the film coming about. It's clear that Stallone has issues with the original cut that was released theatrically, and has spent much of his free time restructuring the movie. What he and Lionsgate have given us is not just an extended version of 2008's Rambo, but a completely recut, re-edited, and even retitled film. John Rambo is like an entirely different movie than the version most people will be familiar with.

Rather than a simple excuse to add more violence to the film and throw the unrated label on it, some graphic imagery is completely missing and other scenes have been spliced back in. These additional scenes, as well as the altered pace of the film help it to flow more consistently and more importantly, cement the original point that Stallone sought to make with his final Rambo film. It's still a strong condemnation of violence, but it accepts that at times violence is necessary in order to see any peace. Yes, it's still unrelentingly brutal and jaw droppingly over the top, but it no longer seems exploitative which in my opinion was the original cuts ultimate flaw. It's an excellent display of a topic that is obviously important to Sly and makes one of the strongest statements against the genocide that has taken place in Burma while unrepentantly depicting the violence that goes on there for a public that's generally blind to it.

The performances are fine, and Stallone himself holds the show together. Rambo's developing anger and learned control for the outrage that is unleashed at the film's climax is fascinating to watch. He literally carries the film, and utterly throws himself into the role of Rambo more convincingly than he has any other character. Julie Benz is also affecting as one of the missionaries that Rambo initially escorts into Myanmar, getting under Stallone's skin and pushing his character to stand for something he's seen as non-existent since his time in Vietnam. She's vulnerable and defiant here, and a great compliment to the strong silence of Stallone's John Rambo. There are plenty of other strong supporting characters in the film, who pull their weight during the extent of the film. Wisecracking mercenaries help to lighten the tone and remind us that we're ultimately just watching an action movie, no matter how significant the underlying message.

The true costar of the movie, though, is the action. Once it kicks in, the pace is relentless and the action realistic and gritty. Films this hard-hitting and remorselessly brutal are rare, where the action is either cartoonish or inconsistent. Here, however, it's never unrealistic and will continually cause the viewer to flinch whether it's a .50 caliber round punching a melon sized hole through someone, or a child skewered by a bayonet and thrown into a fire. Not for the squeamish.

Picture quality on the new blu-ray, thankfully, is just as outstanding as the original 2008 cut proved to be. The landscape is reference material, to impress friends with your 1080p toy. Detail is stunning and revealing and you will see textures that looked obscured in the theater. Black levels are deep and and for the most part, grain is left intact to please the purists out there seeking an experience equal to the film being fed through a reel. My only complaint is that there are a few scenes where grain is overwhelmingly apparent, which results in some fog and halo effects that the movie would have been better off without.

The audio is also phenomenal as well, HD sound that will test the limits of the system outputting it. The mastering is beyond competent, with dialog clear and crisp and never muddled with complimentary sound effects that accentuate all of the bits of the movie you want to hear to enjoy it. I'm not an audiophile, though, but I can still recognize great sound in a film when I hear it. John Rambo is balanced evenly, never too loud even when the guns start shooting and never too quiet regardless of how low the voices of the actors.

As far as supplements go, there's only one here which is Stallone's personal production diary spanning the length of the shoot. Just over 40 days with close to an hour and a half of material, it's a great feature, and much appreciated with this cut of the film. Since I had already picked up the previous release of 2008's Rambo, between both discs the supplements are some of the best devoted to any movie on video store shelves, but if you're just now picking it up, you may be disappointed by the lack of other bonuses on the extended disc even though it is an excellent feature length documentary showcasing the passion Stallone had going into this project, and shedding a lot of light on the type of person he is.

If the write-up hasn't made it completely clear, I love this movie. It was one of the best of 2008 and a fine return to form for the Rambo character that we've grown to know and love. It's never campy in spite of itself, though over the top is another story altogether. Weaving one of the most graphic tales told in Hollywood in sometime, it both educates and entertains, and works as the condemnation of violence and war that Stallone intended. Phenomenal video quality and outstanding audio quality, along with one one of the best production diaries you're ever likely to see, I can't not recommend this version of the disc. Completists and collectors will obviously want both versions, but if you've been wanting to pick up this flick you now have no reason not to.

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