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When people talk about the Rambo series, the discussion is usually colored by Rambo: First Blood, Part II and its cartoon-lunatic excesses. The more knowledgeable of action fans will naturally be quick to point out that the series didn’t begin that way. In fact, if you look back at series debut First Blood, you’ll discover that this film and what it had to say about America was downright subversive compared to the jumbo-size machismo of the second film.

First Blood takes its basis from a dark, thoughtful novel by prolific writer David Morrell. The anti-hero protagonist is John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone), a Vietnam vet-turned-drifter passing through the Pacific Northwest after a failed search for an old army buddy. When he crosses into a nearby small town on foot, he arouses the suspicions of Sheriff Teasle (Brian Dennehy). Rambo resists the Sheriff’s attempt to shoo him off and gets arrested.

Teasle soon realizes he’s made a mistake when his overgrown-bully deputies antagonize Rambo, prompting a PTSD-inspired freakout. Rambo breaks out of the jail and escapes into the nearby mountains, prompting a violent, rapidly escalating game of cat-and-mouse. The Sheriff soon finds himself trading barbs with Col. Trautman (Richard Crenna), Rambo’s former commanding officer, who shows up and informs him that Rambo is a skilled Green Beret.  Teasle is too proud to back down and this sets the stage for a brutal, explosive endgame.

If you want to take First Blood at face value as an action/thriller, it works perfectly well on those terms. The script builds the escalation of the conflict in an intelligent, character-driven manner but delivers plentiful action, including a memorable moment where Rambo is stalked by helicopter, an intense scene where Rambo reveals his knowledge of booby traps and a variety of exciting chases and fight scenes.

However, First Blood becomes more rewarding when you notice how it uses its thriller structure and scenes of conflict to offer commentary on post-Vietnam War America. Rambo’s treatment by the sheriff is a microcosm of how the U.S. treated traumatized Vietnam veterans, rejecting/vilifying them when they couldn’t fit back into “normal” society. Such hostility is reflected in the dialogue between Teasle and Col. Trautman, with Teasle showing an open contempt for the military’s inability to win the war or handle its soldiers afterwards.

The film also critiques the side of law enforcement where the job is treated as an extension of macho pride, with Teasle and his men recklessly escalating and creating a problem that didn’t need to happen. Like the “weekend warrior” reserve soldiers who appear in a memorable scene in the film, Teasle’s crew likes the idea of having power but are reluctant to risk themselves or their comfortable lives the way men like Rambo did.  The action fuses with these themes in an unforgettable way during the finale when Rambo brings the horrors of war back to the small town, forcing Teasle to confront the kind of fear and danger that Rambo saw during wartime.

This combination of commentary and action works thanks to thorough craftsmanship from the filmmakers. Director Ted Kotcheff was a journeyman whose c.v. includes everything from Wake In Fright to Weekend At Bernie’s but he had a gift for social critique that served him well here. He also shows an adeptness at suspense here, staging a barrage of exciting sequences here with the aid of a talented crew: cinematographer Andrew Laszlo makes excellent use of the scenic mountain locale and Jerry Goldsmith provides a score full of percussive cues for the action.

Most importantly, Kotcheff gets strong performances that fuel the film’s conflicts. Stallone gives a complex performance here as a quiet outsider who hides deep reserves of pain and anger beneath his scruffy surface. Dennehy is fantastic as the sheriff, using his everyman persona in a subversive manner to create a territorial bully who leads others into danger with his dumb pride.  Crenna is a delight to watch as the sardonic Trautman, using a uniquely musical delivery to puncture the sheriff with putdowns and creating an aura of subtle, genuine toughness that offsets all the fake machismo around him.  The backing cast offers an array of familiar faces like Chris Mulkey, Bill McKinney, a young David Caruso and erstwhile director Jack Starrett, who is unforgettable as the most cruel and dumbly violent of the sheriff’s subordinates.

To sum up, First Blood is an impressive, serious piece of work that stands apart from the more outlandish franchise it spawned, underpinning its tight thriller storyline with a dark view of America and the trouble it has in coping with its psychological scars. Even if you turn your nose up at the Rambo sequels, you might be surprised at what a daring film this is.