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.
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
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
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