Leading up to the release of “The Expendables 2,” Lionsgate has released a three-disc Blu-ray set of Stallone films. Two of them (“Rambo: First Blood” and “Cop Land”) are among his best movies while the other one (“Lock Out”) seems to be tossed in for no other reason than the rights were secured. Still, for the fan of the tough guy action movies of the 80s and 90s, it’s a nice selection to check out for a fun weekend of film-watching.
RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD
MOVIE: ***** (out of 5 stars)
Made after the “Rocky” films had made Sylvester Stallone a bankable star, “Rambo: First Blood” (which was released simply as “First Blood,” gaining the “Rambo” title in subsequent video releases to remind viewers it was the first in the series) is based on the best-selling book about a Vietnam vet with his back to a wall.
The story follows John Rambo (Stallone), a green beret who had a successful and violent career in Vietnam. A victim of a prison camp, he has terrible memories that plague his life. He is also trying to find a way back into society and recover from the hell he experienced. When he wanders into a small town in the Pacific Northwest, the local law enforcement harass him to a breaking point. Rambo snaps and goes on the run, hunted by the authorities who don’t realize how dangerous he really is.
I was in middle school when mainstream American society decided it was time to start examining itself after the mess that was Vietnam. The mid-80s saw a wash of movies dealing with the leftover emotions and pain from that chapter in our history. Looking back, I realize how horrible society was for rejecting the men who came home and dismissing them. “First Blood” takes an unflinching look at how little respect they got. Today, there’s a necessary push to support our soldiers returning home from action, but the pain and hostility John Rambo feels in “First Blood” was very real back then.
While you’ll find “First Blood” in the “ACTION” section of any video store, it’s more than that. It’s a strong character drama, examining a man who doesn’t feel like he belongs. Rambo is an extreme character, but there are elements that are relateable to veterans of these wars and military actions.
It’s also not an easy story, not a neat story. Things get ugly in “First Blood,” as they do in real life. It shows people as realistically flawed, often making decisions based on naked emotion than any logic that might surround the situation.
This makes “First Blood” a powerful, complex and captivating film that serves as a blockbuster action film and a serious drama. I like the sequels, sure, but it’s this movie that really delivers a message and meaning.
The Blu-ray comes with previously released features, including deleted scenes (which has the alternative ending), a featurette called “Drawing First Blood” and the embedded trivia track “Out of the Blue Trivia.”
MOVIE: ** (out of 5 stars)
Of the three films in this collection, “Lock Up” is the red-headed stepchild of the bunch. Taken at the height of Sylvester Stallone’s glory days, “Lock Up” has more in common with the litany of weak films from the 90s (like “Assassins,” “The Specialist” and “Judge Dredd”) than with his powerful flicks (like the “Rocky” or “Rambo” films) or even his more fun movies (like “Tango & Cash” and “Demolition Man”).
The story follows convict Frank Leone (Stallone) who has only a few months left on his sentence. However, after returning from a furlough, he’s snatched from minimum security to be put in general population of a maximum security facility. He learns this was arranged by the bitter warden (Donald Sutherland) who was on watch when Leone escaped previously. Leone must deal with the warden’s sadistic torments and violent threats in order to finish his sentence and eventually return to his wife.
When it comes to movie genres, prison films aren’t my favorite. Sure, I can get into a good women’s prison movie (as long as it’s a softcore fantasy rather than a hard-hitting documentary), but aside from movies like “The Shawshank Redemption,” this genre can be very dull... especially if the entire film takes place in a prison.
Case in point, “Lock Up” simply gets boring in the middle. It’s supposed to show comradare building among the prisoners (who, by default, are hard to support since they’re in maximum security and therefore have been convicted of something heinous), but this turns into a weird element with the guys rallying behind rebuilding a car.
Sutherland makes a great villain, but rather than nailing the role as an evil warden, he’s very hands-off. There’s only two or three recurring guards who delight in the torture of Leone, but it’s handled in such a heavy-handed way, it’s hardly believable.
Stallone tries to act and deliver a heartfelt piece, but the movie’s plot ambles along, particularly in the middle, and it loses sight on what we actually want the hero to accomplish in this movie. If it were given the advice of “go big or go home,” “Lock Up” would have strolled all the way home.
The Blu-ray comes with previously released features, including a making-of featurette, a Sylvester Stallone profile, the trailer, behind the scenes excerpts and interviews.
MOVIE: **** (out of 5 stars)
Sylvester Stallone has had such ups and downs in his career that, when you look back at his films with a modern eye, it’s hard to remember where he was when he made some of them. For those who forget, remember that “Cop Land” was a major comeback for Stallone, who had become a bit of a musclebound joke with previous films including “Assassins,” “The Specialist” and “Judge Dredd.”
James Mangold got a chance to direct his script as a first-time director, and he assembled one hell of a cast to be in it. With roles handed to Robert De Niro, Harvey Keitel and Ray Liotta, “Cop Land” was a type of “Expendables” of its day, only instead of tough guy action stars it assembled gangster veterans. Stallone got a chance to mix it up with the bad boys here, and he brought himself some new respect in the movies.
The story follows a patsy sheriff (Stallone) in a New Jersey suburb where many of the NYPD cops live. He keeps the peace, but he’s basically a puppet of the off-duty police bosses of the town. However, when an NYPD cop gets caught up in a scandal and fakes his death, the sheriff must make a choice between doing the job he’s expected to do and doing the job he should do.
In the special features, Mangold describes “Cop Land” as a modern wester, which it is. It’s an exaggeration of some corruption that actually goes on, and it spotlights a lawman trying to do the right thing. The movie itself is a powerful slow build that culminates with an extremely powerful climax. Stallone shows the audience that he can be more than just the cheesy chucklehead in his whimsical pieces. In fact, we really see the chops that put him on top with “Rocky” more than twenty years before.
“Cop Land” is not your traditional action flick, nor is it your traditional gangster flick. It’s also not your traditional cop flick. It has elements of each, but these are all wrapped up in a new type of story that drips in realism and gray characters. Even though Stallone is in the midst of enjoying his comeback that started with this film, it’s still worth checking out again on Blu-ray.
The disc includes an audio commentary with Mangold, Stallone, Robert Patrick and producer Cathy Konrad, deleted scenes, trailers, a storyboard comparison and the featurette “Cop Land: The Making of an Urban Western.”