johnlink ranks FIRST BLOOD (1982)
I watched the Rambo films once, years ago, towards the end my high school life. I remember liking them, but especially being fascinated by the first installment. Years of spoofs had happened between when they were released and when I saw them (notably HOT SHOTS) and I just assumed they were all these sort of 80s action-flick blood-spattered films. I had no idea that the first Rambo movie was a nuanced character study and a 70s-style look at American society. Go figure. I decided it was time to back to these movies. I haven’t seen the newest one, so I am looking forward to getting to it after hitting up the originals.
I watched FIRST BLOOD (1982) on 1.23.13. It was my second viewing of the film, and first in a dozen years.
John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) is a Vietnam vet drifting through Washington state. He is looking for the last surviving member of his special forces group. He smiles at the film’s open as he gets to the address. It is, I believe, the last time he smiles in the entire film. He soon finds out the man is dead, and he is the last of his breed. With no place left to go, he drifts into a small town run by local Sheriff Teasle (Brian Dennehy).
Teasle has nothing personal against Rambo, he just doesn’t want him in his town. When Rambo resists suggestions that he leave, Teasle arrests him on some silly charges. After being embarrassed in prison a bit, resulting in some ‘Nam flashbacks, Rambo beats some guys up and flees into the forest of Washington State. The manhunt is on for this dangerous man. Rambo fights back, doing his best not to kill anyone.
Think about that last sentence for a second, and then think about where this series went. Rambo fights back, doing his best not to kill anyone. Because this film becomes a manhunt by a bunch of guys just doing their jobs for a man who is only marginally innocent, this film allows itself to grow organically into an interesting character study.
Supposedly, an early cut of this film was much longer, focused much more on Rambo and his flashbacks, and was intolerable to its star, Sylvester Stallone. He pressured the producers to change the film up. To shorten it, and allow others to talk about Rambo. This results in a briskly paced film in which its star is much more enigmatic than usual in a film of this type. Most of what we learn about the man is given to us by his former commanding officer, Trautman (Richard Crenna). We learn a little about Rambo from the horse’s mouth before his arrest, and the final scene gives us a little more. For most of the rest of this thing he is silent, regressing into his most survivalist and instinctual modes.
This allows Stallone to give a performance which feels restrained and nuanced. Apparently one of the flashbacks on the cutting room floor has Rambo being seen sleeping with a woman in ‘Nam, and then the movie cuts back to present day with him crying. Can you imagine that? That film which Stallone fought to have restructured most likely would have been a self-indulgent mess. What we are privy to, instead, is a very solid suspense movie about the difficulty that Vietnam vets had reintegrating into society. Obviously, this film is a heightened example of the phenomena, but many soldiers had a hard time coming back and many communities were filled with people who had argued against the war and could not separate the solider as an individual from the war he was charged with fighting.
The action in this in interesting and it is effective. But the reason this movie is a classic is because of the character Stallone creates in Rambo, and the frustratingly likable antagonist Brian Dennehy provides in the form of Teasle.
With a more critical eye than I had when I first visited this series, I’m really curious to go back and watch how it all develops. It’s safe to say I appreciate the first one even more than I did as a kid. I wonder how the others will hold up.
Oh, and I love that a 100 pound David Caruso plays the good-boy cop in this. It’s so funny to see this little Ron Howard look-alike turn into a sunglasses-removing self-proclaimed bad-ass in CSI MIAMI.
FILM: 8; MOVIE: 8; ACTING: 7; WRITING: 8
FINAL SCORE: 7.75