Before the cartoon patriotism and exploding arrow heads consumed the franchise as it crept deeper into the 80’s there was First Blood; quite possibly the most tonally original action movie of it’s decade.
Already a huge star thanks to that loveable pug Rocky Balboa, Sylvester Stallone put that cast iron physique and those lazy lidded, soulful eyes to further good use and gave us the tragic tale of one John Rambo, a Vietnam vet scarred both inside and out by the trauma of fighting for his country in a war nobody wants to remember. As he plods into a small Washington town a directionless drifter looking for an old army buddy, Rambo finds himself first hustled out of town, then arrested for vagrancy by a bullish, police force headed by Brian Dennehy’s petty Chief Teasle. Turns out that might be the mother of bad ideas as as he faces violent treatment by an especially sadistic deputy, Rambo suffers a full on, honest-to-God flashback of the tortures he endured at the hands of the Viet Cong and freaks out harder than Indiana Jones in a reptile house.
Busting out of the police station (and cracking a few heads while he’s at it) Rambo hauls ass deep into the woods and utilises his survival skills in brutal fashion when a man hunt is launched to bring him to justice which results in an accidental fatality. When the man hunt turns into a desperate war of attrition which leaves virtually all of Dennehy’s men in the hospital with knife shaped holes in various parts of their bodies it comes out that John is, in fact, a Green Beret who comes complete with a congressional medal of honor.
Enter Colonel Trautman, John’s handler during the war, who turns up as an advisor to help bring Rambo to justice while delivering a nice line of one liners that spell out exactly how much everyone should be shitting their pants at any given moment (“I didn’t come to save him from you, I came to save you from him.” is one such snippet of his unhelpful doomsaying wisdom).
Eventually Rambo comes down from the mountains for a one on one showdown with Denehey utterly convinced he’s the good guy, but will sanity prevail or can Trautman stop being John’s publicist for two seconds to prevent further bloodshed?
A remarkable fusion of thoughtful character drama and survivalist action movie (think The Deer Hunter with way more car stunts), First Blood has telling things to say about unwavering masculinity and what it means to have your sense of duty perverted even though you’re convinced it’s for the right reasons. Witness the bravura sequence where Teasle’s deputies are gradually whittled down one by one in the forest and and then him breaking down into tears after being held at Rambo’s mercy at knife point, utterly “emasculated” by another alpha male. Both Rambo and Teasle think they’re upholding their principles despite the growing piles of wounded around them, both unwilling to stop until the other has been vanquished. “They drew first blood!” rasps Rambo over a radio in explanation, seemingly thinking this absolves him of any wrong doing.
The parallels between Rambo and Stallone’s other iconic character, the Italian Stallion, are fascinating. The latter a big hearted, rambling motor mouth, the former an emotionally wounded introvert who Wade’s through extended pain like modern day Kirk Douglas, the two could literally not be further apart and yet not only are both played by Stallone, but both are written by him too in a script that’s as lean and sinewy as it’s lead’s BMI.
The direction by Ted Kotcheff is direct and to the point with achingly beautiful shots of Rambo working his way through a hauntingly misty wilderness and even though some of the dialogue is a bit on the nose (a Stallone specialty) Jerry Goldsmith’s remarkably balanced score steers it through any rough spots.
The sequels (and for some reason an animated series) gradually dulled the fact that Rambo (originally the very definition of an anti-hero) is actually a very sick man who needs vast amounts of psychiatric help and by the third movie he had pretty much turned into a mulleted superhero who’s special powers include being armed with an M60 machine gun and a knife the size of my thigh bone, but original is a gripping, action packed character study (Stallone’s climactic meltdown may be melodramatic but it’s also a timely reminder on how combat can chew up even the toughest souls) which serves up a welcome dose of social conscience with it’s thrills and spills. Shame about that song over the end credits, though…