I wonder if Lionsgate understands the irony behind using its upcoming Stallone: Three-Film Collector’s Set Blu-ray to promote the theatrical release of The Expendables 2.  To wit: the first Expendables was a sloppy, stupid action goulash, and I mean that as a compliment – it had improbable heroes doing improbable things for ninety minutes, and it slathered those things in gore and a minimum of boring downtime.  I enjoyed it, is what I’m saying, and if The Expendables 2 offers more of the same, I’ll be a happy cat.

Now, I get that the Stallone: Three-Film Collector’s Set exists solely to maximize viewer anticipation for The Expendables: Part Deux; Stallone’s mug puts butts in seats, so having him wage a two-front marketing war doubles the financial takeaways.  Here’s the thing, though: The Expendables is a bad movie.  It’s a highly enjoyable bad movie, but a bad one all the same, yet the three films in the Blu-ray box set rank as three of the best movies with which Stallone has ever been associated.  First Blood, Lock Up, Cop Land: these are unironically and unaccidentally solid pictures containing artistic merit that exceeds anything in The Expendables.

That quality is present in the first frame of the set’s oldest feature, the 1982 adventure First Blood.  First Blood introduced the world to tortured Vietnam veteran John Rambo, but anyone expecting the hyperkinetic action thrills (and Stallone’s absurdly pumped physique) of Rambos 2 – 4 is in for a surprise.  John Rambo barely speaks because he doesn’t know how to communicate with the world around him, and Stallone deserves credit for playing the part like a profoundly damaged war survivor as opposed to a taciturn killing machine.  He’s struggling to cope with lingering PTSD, and you get the sense he’d be happy forgoing all human contact and disappearing into the film’s Pacific Northwest setting (actually Hope, Canada).

The only thing Rambo is good at is combat, and after some brutal treatment at the hands of a small-town police department, his combat instincts find him slicing through local law enforcement like a razor blade.  These scenes are exciting but more-than-a-little scary – First Blood‘s key setpiece finds Rambo picking off cops like the villain in a slasher movie – and we appreciate the delicate balancing act that Stallone and director Ted Kotcheff have pulled off.  On one hand, First Blood is a visceral, white-knuckle adventure story about the perils of the wild (Rambo’s fingernail-scaling of a mountain ridge and his trek through a flooded mining tunnel are the film’s queasy highlights), and on the other, it’s a parable about the plight of the American war veteran, and what horrors can spring from our government’s mistreatment of them.

1989’s Lock Up isn’t quite as good as First Blood, but it has no such pretensions.  This is a mean, tough little B-movie, the kind that would have starred John Garfield or Jimmy Cagney if it came out in the 1940s, and for nearly 80% of its runtime, it maintains an impressively fatalistic tone.  Stallone is a criminal trying to walk the straight-and-narrow during the last months of his incarceration in a minimum security prison; he’s looking forward to getting out, giving up the life, and marrying his best girl (‘80s moll Darlanne Fluegel).  However, we’d have no movie if everything went hunky-dory, meaning that when Donald Sutherland’s sadistic prison warden has Sly transferred to a maximum security hellhole for the remainder of his sentence, we begin to see the problem: if Stallone misbehaves in any way, Sutherland will have his sentence extended, but the only way Stallone will able to survive the litany of abusive guards and psychopathic inmates is to let loose a little bad behavior.

Director John Flynn (of Out for Justice and Rolling Thunder fame) doesn’t shy away from the brutal realities inside the jail, and he lets his supporting cast shine in vivid character parts (first among equals: Sutherland, Frank McCrae, John Amos, Sonny Landham, and Tom Sizemore).  Best of all, he grounds Stallone, makes him seem human and vulnerable in the face of the many threats surrounding him.  Only in the last act does Lock Up abandon its heightened realism in favor of more conventional – and bland – action heroics (the end will surprise no one, and that’s the problem), but until then it stands as one of the most underrated entries in the Sylvester Stallone oeuvre.

And then there’s Cop Land.  I’ve written about Cop Land before, and a recent rewatch only cemented my feelings about it: this is the best movie Sylvester Stallone has ever appeared in.  Some soap opera-y histrionics aside, Cop Land is a near-perfect fusion of Sidney Lumet-style cop dramas and Howard Hawks-ian Westerns.  Wearing the black hats – the corrupt NYPD officers lording over the Manhattan suburb of Garrison, New Jersey, like feudal tyrants.  Wearing the white hat – Freddy Heflin (Stallone), Garrison’s sensitive, chubby sheriff who can no longer stand idly in the face of massive corruption.

As that description suggests, Cop Land reaches for (and attains) the mythic grandeur of the best Westerns – it even ends in an O.K. Corral-esque showdown – but what gives it particular resonance are the characters’ shifting moral codes.  You sense that chief baddie Harvey Keitel and his flunkies were not always bad men, that the grind of the city forced ethical compromises upon them, just as you can’t help but think that Robert De Niro’s tenacious IA investigator is a self-righteous prick who gets too much satisfaction from chasing bent cops.  Even Freddy, for all his sweetness and physical limitations (his weight, his hearing loss in one ear), is no innocent; he idolizes the dirty cops living in Garrison despite finding himself increasingly unwilling to stomach their criminal activities.  In a sense, that moral dichotomy links the three Stallone protagonists in this Blu-ray bundle: they all want to do the right thing, even as they’re in the middle of doing the wrong thing.

Lionsgate’s three-disc edition is pretty straightforward; it just repackages the previously available First Blood, Lock Up, and Cop Land discs.  The lack of new material isn’t such a big deal because these movies work well sandwiched together, and there isn’t a dud in the package.  It’s a surprisingly satisfying arrangement, and the fear, then, is that the Stallone: Three-Film Collector’s Set ends up tarnishing Expendables 2 expectations; anyone expecting that the new film will be half as good as these three is almost guaranteed to feel disappointed.  No matter what happens, this Stallone: Three-Film Collector’s Set is an attractive package for fans of Stallone and/or above-average action-adventures.  Even if The Expendables 2 doesn’t work, we’ll always have these.

The Stallone: Three-Film Collector’s Set streets next Tuesday; click HERE for Amazon’s listing.  Also – The Expendables 2 hits theaters on Friday, August 17th.