First Blood (1982) / Action-Thriller
MPAA Rated: R for violence and language
Running Time: 97 min.
Cast: Sylvester Stallone, Brian Dennehy, Richard Crenna, Bill McKinney, David Caruso, Chris Mulkey, Jack Starrett, Michael Talbott, John McLiam, Alf Humphreys
Director: Ted Kotcheff
Screenplay: Michael Kozoll, William Sackheim, Sylvester Stallone
First Blood is quintessential Reagan-era violent individualism, and one of the benchmark flicks that set the standard for most Hollywood action films for the next several years. Resonant in the American psyche, this first film was based on the novel by David Morrell (a Canadian, ironically), co-written by Stallone (Cop Land, Get Carter) himself, this paints a picture of the troubled veterans of Vietnam, unable to hold a job or function in a family setting, who are pushed to the edge until they become killing machines for survival.
John Rambo is one such man, who has spent years trying to track down the only family he ever really knew -- the soldiers who fought alongside him in the war. To Rambo's dismay, he finds he is all alone, as all of the rest were killed in action, or died from cancerous war-related exposure to chemicals, leaving him but to drift along the roads in search of new meaning to his life. In the small town of Hope, the local sheriff (Dennehy, Romeo + Juliet) tags Rambo as a vagrant drifter, and quickly ushers him out of town. However, Rambo defiantly tries to return, whereupon he is arrested for vagrancy, and when he doesn't quite understand why he is being incarcerated, he resists, having flashbacks of his days as a tortured prisoner of war. Rambo, an ex-Green Beret, perhaps the most lethal of them all, muscles his way out of the station and into the nearby woods, where the police are in hot pursuit. What they don't realize is that Rambo is a one-man killing machine, with raw instincts and very little to hold his fragile mentality together. He just wants to be left alone, but the police are going to see to it that he never gets his wish.
First Blood is a movie at odds with itself. The creators try their hardest to make this a serious character study of the effects of the Vietnam War on its soldiers, while also going for an over-the-top action flick. Each element is strong on its own, but together, both undermine the other. The grandiose action elements serve to make this a fun film, even when it may seem deadly serious, and the introduction of drama, particularly in a final monologue, appears disingenuous and unintentionally humorous. On the other hand, there is an earnestness in telling this tale for the soldiers that is respectable, but the action lets on that Kotcheff and Stallone want to make this an entertainment vehicle, so dramatic momentum is never achieved.
However, even taking each aspect on its own terms, it would be far from a great film. First indication comes from the weak acting. Dennehy is possibly the only actor who gives just the right effort in his performance, although in the limited role as the hothead heavy. Stallone is much more subdued, and has clearly done much better, but at least is memorable in the role, and delivers a gut-wrenching final monologue that would have worked had it not already been established that this is a movie that isn't meant to be taken too seriously, not to mention that it is unintelligible. Crenna (Sabrina, Body Heat) sleepwalks through his performance, while the cast of supporting actors can do little in their roles but act like goofy hicks.
I haven't even gone into the high BS factor involved in seeing a man take on 200 armed and trained officers and beat them at every turn, nor have I mentioned that he suffers some death-defying fights and falls with barely a scratch to show for it. The absurdity level is quite high, although not the worst I've seen in a movie of this ilk. But for the fact that it tries to be all too serious at times, I might have given First Blood a passing grade, but taken on its own misguided terms, this is just a bad film that somehow managed to strike a nerve with the American public, becoming far more popular and influential than it ever had a right to be.
-- Followed by Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985), Rambo III (1988), and Rambo (2008).
©2004 Vince Leo