Director: Ted Kotcheff
Cast: Sylvester Stallone, Brian Dennehy, Richard Crenna
Plot: A Vietnam soldier (Stallone) comes back from the war to see an old friend. After learning that friend died of cancer, he is promptly picked up and hassled by a police officer, who doesn’t understand his condition.
Rambo hasn’t quite aged as well as the 80s thought he would. On paper, he looks like the perfect American superstar. The man who runs into the wild and makes it his kingdom, fending off all of the enemies the bad guys can throw at him. He quietly solves every problem that is thrown at him. He looks awesome wrapped around an American flag and holding an automatic rifle. However, he doesn’t really have too many fans and is one of the great 80s heroes that has somehow got lost in the history books. After watching First Blood again, after a gap so long I could hardly remember a thing about the original movie, I could see why. It is, quite bluntly, brilliant. A tragic tale about a soldier abandoned by his country and forced on a dash for survival that breaks his own sanity. The sequels so blindly move away from the original’s morals and themes that you might end up hating Rambo too. However, any movie fan will not hate this original.
Right from the opening shot, you know you are onto something outside of your expectations. Sylvester Stallone wanders into a quiet town, devoid of explosions or bad guys. He is looking for an army friend, he promised to meet up with when he got out of the military. Sadly, that friend died of cancer, an after-effect of his time in the poor conditions of Vietnam. It is that chirpy happiness followed by the quiet but understanding sorrow of that scene that shocks you. Where is the hero that cannot be conquered? That lets nothing get under his skin? The truth is that this movie is a clever piece of Vietnam film-making dressed as an 80s thriller. Think Deerhunter, but slightly dumbed down for a wider audience. Shell-shocked, Rambo is mistaken for a vagrant and when the police force, depicted as a dysfunctional military unit to hammer home the points Kotcheff wants to make, treat him poorly, as if he is yet another confused, stupid criminal, he snaps and launches an one-man war on the town. Its simplicity is elegant in its own way. In just a few minutes, we have covered a small window into the lives of Vietnam soldiers that have no life outside of the war. One of my main criticisms of the military system is how it drops the soldiers it has ‘used up’ and First Blood conveys that astonishingly well. First Blood could also be seen as a movie about how no one understands the heroes that fought for us in the war. The supporting cast in First Blood see John Rambo as a psychopath gunning down civilians, when really he is a tormented soul pushed to his breaking point and unleashed on this town.
It is almost a shame when the action starts. You can kind of see where the Rambo sequels got their idea for the shameless action. If you don’t care too much about the story of a struggling ‘Nam soldier, enjoy First Blood as a classic 80s action, where one man takes on a whole town of enemies and reduces them to whimpering fools. As much as I was disheartened when the intelligent social commentary slowed down to an occasional reference, I had to admit that this is a well-edited and choreographed piece of action cinema. Stallone hides out in the woods, laying traps and taking out the hunters one by one. It becomes a fun game, taking in a frame of First Blood and trying to spot Stallone camouflaged in the undergrowth before the director wants you to. In the novel that Kotcheff uses as his source material, John Rambo slowly became the villain, lost in his own insanity, but Sylvester Stallone comes on as a screen-writer and makes him a more sympathetic lead. His kills are often indirect and viewed as accidental or for his own survival. This makes First Blood much better than it could have been with the audience begging for the villains to just walk away and leave Rambo alone. If it wasn’t for the three sequels, you would assume this is a movie that could only end with the lead character’s death. The minor niggles hurt First Blood sadly. A poor end credits power ballad dillutes the emotion. Stallone shines when the script allows him to, but when he is alone, he struggles to continue portraying his character’s plight. You cannot help but wonder what would happen if DiCaprio or Hardy got the lead role in a reboot. That being said, I was more charmed by Rambo than I expected to be. As much as First Blood does evolve into a more traditional action movie, rather than a character piece, Kotcheff does allow himself to break from the formula enough to keep First Blood fresh. The villain is more of a misguided fool than a scene-chewing thug. The ending has a neat cat and mouse shoot-out, but the real pay-off comes from Stallone’s emotional breaking down. First Blood wavers in places, but the quality is there.
Final Verdict: While First Blood’s intelligence is diminished by its desire to be a shoot-em-up action, it still resonates and offers a powerful monologue from Stallone.