For a film series that came to epitomize the masculine aggression of the Reagan '80s, the Rambo trilogy got off to a fairly inauspicious start. The brainchild of novelist and Canadian academic David Morrell, the character of Vietnam veteran John Rambo was first introduced in Morrell's best-selling early-'70s novel First Blood. The movie rights were snapped up shortly after the book's release, and for much of the decade, the project floated from studio to studio, attracting interest from filmmakers like Richard Brooks and Sydney Pollack, as well as actors like Robert De Niro. The project remained stillborn until the early '80s, when Sylvester Stallone agreed to star and co-write the screenplay. The production notes for 1982's First Blood—which make up only a fraction of the special features included in Artisan's four-disc DVD box set—mention that one of Stallone's goals was to make his character more likable, or, in a telling turn of phrase, "less psychotic." He largely succeeded in humanizing the character, but the result is still a long way from warm and fuzzy. A deeply troubled, monosyllabic drifter prone to fits of rage and violence, First Blood's long-haired protagonist is in many ways a creature of the counterculture, seething with resentment toward bogus authority figures and the closed-minded smugness of small-town life. Stallone encounters plenty of both in First Blood, where he runs afoul of small-town sheriff Brian Dennehy, who first tries to run him out of town, then arrests him on trumped-up charges. Hassled further by Dennehy's brutish subordinates, Stallone escapes and flees into the wilderness, where he reverts to combat mentality as he maims and brutalizes hapless law-enforcement agents before returning to town to enact final vengeance. A tight, atmospheric, and well-acted thriller, First Blood doesn't show its hand ideologically until Stallone's final monologue. That speech, which constitutes maybe half of Stallone's dialogue, lays out the myth that would become the series' foundation: that Vietnam was a winnable, just war lost by evil hippies and spineless pencil-pushers who wouldn't let proud warriors like Rambo win. Stallone is all coiled intensity and barely suppressed rage as First Blood's tortured lead, while Dennehy makes a stock character as magnetic and compelling as his counterpart's iconic warrior-god. Expertly shot by cinematographer Andrew Laszlo (The Warriors), First Blood made far less money than its sequel, but it's a much better film. Co-written by Stallone and James Cameron, Rambo: First Blood Part II presented American audiences with an offer they couldn't refuse: a cathartic opportunity to win the Vietnam War, at least on a symbolic level. "Do we get to win this time?" Stallone famously asks mentor and father-figure Richard Crenna early on in Part II, bluntly encapsulating the film's ridiculous conception of a world in which a single indestructible superhero can accomplish what an entire nation couldn't. Lurid, shameless pulp fiction, Part II sends Stallone back to Vietnam, where he coldly slaughters cartoonishly evil Russian and Vietnamese soldiers when not "wooing" a pretty native who ranks among the most perfunctory love interests of all time. Ostensibly sent to Vietnam to find and photograph POWs, Stallone takes a more active approach, sticking it not only to the Russians and Vietnamese, but also to a duplicitous higher-up (a terrific Charles Napier) who fails to live by Rambo's sacred code of honor. Even its star concedes that Part II is somewhat fanciful, but it's difficult to deny its button-pushing prowess. It may be a dishonest, xenophobic, exploitative act of historical revisionism, but it's effective, and Jack Cardiff's cinematography lends Rambo's comic-book adventures an epic sweep. The same cannot be said of Rambo III, a dull, overblown dinosaur that sends Stallone's ass-kicker to Afghanistan to fight the Russians. Anonymously directed by journeyman Peter MacDonald and co-written by Stallone and Sheldon Lettich, Rambo III turns its lead into a standard action hero, diminishing much of what makes him so compelling in the earlier films. Sluggishly paced and stiffly written, the 1988 film had the misfortune of embracing the Cold War just as it was ending, and is notable mainly for the morbid historical irony of its idealistic, fawning depiction of the mujahedin and the concept of jihad. The Rambo Trilogy DVD box set generously includes special features on each of its discs, alongside a lengthy bonus disc of short features that provide historical and cultural background on everything from the Vietnam War to the trilogy's relationship to Joseph Campbell's theories. Alternately reverent (music-video-style clip-job summaries of the films) and irreverent (a cheeky demonstration of Rambo toys), the disc includes criticism of the movies from leftist scholars like Howard Zinn, whose appearance is as welcome as it is unexpected. But the disc's most fascinating feature may be the one that explores the powerful connection between Rambo and Ronald Reagan, who giddily name-dropped the films in speeches and openly swooned over Stallone's heroic antics. Taken together, the films and bonus disc offer a compelling and multifaceted look at one of the most divisive figures in recent film history, while putting its hero in a context that leaves little doubt that history is where he belongs. There has been scattered talk of a fourth entry in the Rambo series, but the DVD box set illustrates that Stallone's pumped-up icon is best left in the decade he so thoroughly embodies.
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