Thursday, June 27, 2013

"First Blood" (1982)

Starring Sylvester Stallone, Brian Dennehy and Richard Crenna
Written by Michael Kozoll, William Sackheim and Sylvester Stallone
Directed by Ted Kotcheff
Rated R - Violence, strong language
Running Time: 93 Minutes

John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) is a drifter. He roams the country, no job, just making his own way, rejected everywhere he goes. Eventually he comes to a town called Hope, looking for an old Vietnam war buddy, but discovers that his friend has passed away from cancer. Soon enough, he's picked up by the town sheriff, Will Teasle (Brian Dennehy) who doesn't abide drifters and vagrants in his town.

But Rambo also won't abide the treatment Will gives him. So after Will drops him off at the edge of town, Rambo heads back in, looking for something to eat. Will arrests him and brings him back to the police station for processing. There, his mistreatment at the hands of Will's small-town "big-fish" police force escalates, triggering Rambo's memories of being tortured as a Vietnam POW. He escapes, setting off a dangerous chase.

Will gathers his forces, determined to take down Rambo, but soon discovers that while he's the big man in town, he and his batch of country cops are no match for Rambo's Green Beret training and hardened warfare experience.

"First Blood" is a sort of fascinating movie to watch because of the impact its own sequels have had on it. Once the Rambo character became a cartoonish killer of America's enemies, people kind of forgot his smaller origins. In "First Blood," John Rambo is merely a man mistreated by the country he fought to protect, pushed to the edge looking for respect for the suffering he's been through.

It would shock most people to learn that John Rambo doesn't even kill anyone in this movie. Certainly, he injures a number of police officers, but he doesn't kill any of them. "First Blood" is a much smaller film than its sequels. Instead of being a gung-ho, Jingoistic epic, "First Blood" is a film that indicts the concept of mistreatment of veterans, and even makes a couple remarks that seem pointed at the Vietnam war itself.

John Rambo is a tired, wounded man. He's been tortured, told he was sacrificing himself for freedom and democracy. But what he found when he returned home was a country that rejected him, people that were afraid of him, or angry at him.  When he arrives in Hope, looking only for something to eat, he finds yet more rejection. Worse, the symbol of authority in the town is actively attempting to get rid of him.

This all leads to a series of chases and encounters through the wilderness between Will Teasle's increasingly large law enforcement posse and an increasingly animalistic Rambo, who regresses into the dangerous guerrilla warrior he'd learned to be in Vietnam. Under the direction of Ted Kotcheff, "First Blood" is a fairly lean, no-frills action film. Rambo moves stealthily through the woods, setting up traps for his pursuers rather than taking them on in large-scale gun battles or fight sequences. Rambo would rather run and take his enemies by surprise than face them front-on.

The film isn't particularly bright or colorful. Much of it is spent in overcast, cloudy conditions or night time in the woods. Everything is slick with rain, and bold colors are a rare thing, fitting the film's tone and subject matter. But it's all very workmanlike, without much artistry. It presents its story and action simply but effectively. Jerry Goldsmith's score is appropriate, with his usual driving action rhythms for the chase sequences, but also some atonal suspense themes, and a sad but noble theme for Rambo himself.

Rambo is a largely sympathetic figure. Stallone does an admirable job, but your enjoyment of his performance will largely depend on how you feel about Stallone in general. The biggest surprise is Rambo's tortured speech at the film's climax as he tearfully recounts his horrific experiences in Vietnam, finally breaking down before his former commander, Colonel Trautman (Richard Crenna).

Brian Dennehy is also good as the sheriff who is absolutely sure of his position as king of the hill. He becomes increasingly frustrated with his inability to capture Rambo. But his quest is one of greed - he wants Rambo because he sees the man as a blight on his quiet little town, not because Rambo has really done anything wrong. Through the course of the film, Dennehy's performance becomes crazier and crazier as Teasle convinces himself that Rambo really is his enemy, that all of this is really Rambo's fault and not his own for being a stuck-up asshole.

Richard Crenna doesn't appear until later in the film as Rambo's friend and commander. He provides a lot of the film's cheesiest lines, suggesting that Teasle remember to bring "a good supply of body bags" when going after Rambo. And yet, there's something about these lines, as cheesy as they are, that is highly enjoyable. Perhaps this is where the Rambo concept started to go off the rails with its sequels - maybe James Cameron (who wrote the sequel) started to believe Rambo's own press.

But I digress. Crenna's performance is fairly one-note. He delivers some cheesy lines, and doesn't get to do much more than look sad that Rambo has fallen so far from the man he knew. In general, the performances in the film are suitable but range from "bad" to "okay." "CSI: Miami" star David Caruso appears as the only cop sympathetic to Rambo, but he still gets an elbow to the face. It feels like the film got a lot of TV actors, and not particularly good ones, to fill all the supporting roles.

Still, "First Blood" is a pretty good film. It gets overshadowed and overlooked because of its bigger, more action-y sequels, but it's easily the best and most intelligent of the Rambo films. If your mental image of Rambo is a machine gun-toting hero draped in the American flag slaughtering commies, get rid of it.  

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