Hollywood loves a good franchise. The movie-going public does too. Horror, action, comedy, sci-fi, western, no genre is safe. And any film, no matter how seemingly stand-alone, conclusive, or inappropriate to sequel, could generate an expansive franchise. They are legion. We are surrounded. But a champion has risen from the rabble to defend us. Me. I have donned my sweats and taken up cinema’s gauntlet. Don’t try this at home. I am a professional.
The Franchise: Rambo — following the turbulent and corpse-strewn misadventures of an emotionally damaged and highly skilled Green Beret and Vietnam War veteran named John Rambo. Based on the novel First Blood by David Morrell, the franchise has spanned four feature films, a television cartoon, numerous video games and comic books, from 1982-2008.
The Installment: First Blood (1982)
The Story: John Rambo has hitched his way to a rural mountain community in search of the last remaining member of his Vietnam unit, Delmare Berry. He finds Delmare’s home but discovers that Delmare died of cancer (the result of being exposed to Agent Orange). Left temporarily purposeless, Rambo wanders the area on foot. When he enters the town of Hope, his long hair and Veteran’s jacket catches the eye of Sheriff Will Teasle (Brian Dennehy), who arrests Rambo on charges of vagrancy. While being booked Rambo has a flashback to his days in a Vietnam POW camp. He freaks out, assaults several officers, and escapes. When a huge and repeatedly unsuccessful manhunt ensues, the man who trained Rambo, Colonel Sam Trautman (Richard Crenna), arrives in Hope to try and diffuse the situation before any more people die.
First Blood does not feel like an 80’s movie. In this sense I think it can be seen as the last hurrah of 70’s action cinema. But it does have its toes poking into the 80’s door a bit. It is the missing link, so to speak, between 70’s and 80’s action. And rather perfectly so. First Blood is about as sophisticated-arthouse as a meat ‘n’ potatoes action flick can get and still please the Joe Sixpack crowd.
What makes First Blood special is how easily the movie could have turned out really generic or stupid. It is a fist-pumpingly silly idea for a movie — all one-man-army movies are. But the filmmakers had the conviction (surely helped by the fact that Stallone was famous for an award-winning film) to stick with the “message movie” level emotional stuff. The fact that the film climaxes not in Rambo diving away from a bitchin’ explosion, or triumphantly saving some orphans from a teetering bus, or delivering a pun-laden one-liner while killing his antagonist, but with Rambo suffering a complete breakdown and fucking crying through a near-incomprehensible monologue — that is bold. That is crazy!
David Morrell’s novel was a contemplation on pride, using Teasle and Rambo to tell a Melvillian tale of two men who destroy each other in a pointless exorcise in machismo. In order to become a Sly Stallone hero vehicle, the film naturally plays up the Rambo character as our noble protagonist — always making sure to only injure his victims, killing but a single man and doing so defensively and by accident. But the film does maintain a bit of Morrell’s attitude, at least in Teasle. Teasle is a great villain, precisely because he feels increasingly less like a villain as the story progresses. We’re introduced to him as a good guy, leaving the sheriff station, saying “Hello” to those he passes, tossing out friendly teases to some friends. Then his xenophobia rears his head and he goes headlong into villaintown. But once Trautman arrives, Teasle starts to seem like a different kind of villain. Trautman always has a smirk on his face. It seems to amuse him witnessing these smalltown rubes getting owned by Rambo. When everyone thinks Rambo is dead, Trautman doesn’t, but keeps his mouth shut for no real reason. When Teasle, in seeming disgust, says to Trautman, “Jesus Christ, where do you people come from?” we can’t help but side with Teasle. If we can forgive Teasle for the narrowmindedness and abuse of power he displays when arresting Rambo in Act I, we can see that he is a guy who actually cares about his job — there is a lot of personal pride wrapped up in that caring, but he is the sheriff, after all. He isn’t trying to apprehend Rambo to cover up a crime or out of some personal beef (Rambo apparently genuinely smells terrible from what we can glean; Teasle’s take-a-bath-hippie posturing isn’t completely off base). He legitimately views Rambo as a menace, eventually as the villain, and only towards the very end does Teasle want to kill Rambo instead of arrest him. We know Teasle is wrong, but he doesn’t. He thinks he is a hero. In fact, only a few tweaks would need to be made to First Blood to make Teasle the hero and Rambo the crazed villain. And that’s cool.
It also helps that Brian Dennehy nails the role. He feels so believable. Plus, he’s huge, but not athletic. He is a boulder of a human. Whereas, Stallone is tiny, but lithe and muscular. In the iconic White Hat/Black Hat visual dichotomy of heroes and villains that is meaningful. When Teasle gets in Rambo’s face at the sheriff station, he all but consumes lil’ Rambo — his fist is practically the size of Rambo’s head. This contrast is a metaphor for everything to come. Rambo seems so unassuming, non-threatening to big bad Teasle. This makes the shock of what lurks inside Rambo exciting. Arnold could never have played Rambo, because who wouldn’t assume Arnold was a killing machine? Which of course leads to Stallone…
Ah, that brief period when Stallone was a real actor, before he roided out and decided to become ridiculous. Stallone is the perfect actor to play Rambo. Maybe not Morrell’s Rambo, but the film’s Rambo. In all of Stallone’s later films he tried hard to hide how small he is, which is interesting considering his two best roles – Rocky in Rocky and Rambo in First Blood – where about guys who no one took seriously. I feel like his size was a key part of that. Beyond this, Stallone had yet to become a cartoon of himself, and the believable level of cluelessness his eyes convey really works for Rambo. Rambo isn’t a smart guy in the bookish sense. This isn’t The Fugitive. Trautman trained Rambo to be instinctual. He’s like a dangerous animal now. Pushed into a corner, he lashes out the only way he knows how. I completely buy Stallone as just some guy who harbors these dangerous abilities.
Ted Kotcheff isn’t a director I have much to say about, but the film has great pacing, never moving too fast or two slow, getting Rambo from one set piece to another without them feeling like a set piece until they’re almost over. This is where that arthouse/popcorn juncture is more acutely seen. The set pieces in this film are big, and often silly, yet they mostly play with straightforward believability, because there is a slow burn element to them. The first action sequence is Rambo’s escape, which turns into a chase between Teasle in his squad car and Rambo on a stolen motorcycle. It is only once Teasle has crashed his car into a ravine that you stop and think, “Wait, would Teasle really have taken the chase that far?” Too late, doesn’t matter anymore. When Rambo is hanging from the side of a cliff while a deputy shoots at him from a helicopter, that is textbook silly action right there, but there is something genuine about it that allows you to buy into the moment. The film also stays one step ahead of the audience, which is the true key to good pacing. It is only after Rambo steals a truck and heads into the city that I realized I was starting to get tired of all the wilderness action. The film is also good at working in comic relief, most notably in the form of the worthless National Guard who wind up cowering during a shootout with Rambo, responding to their orders with things like “Screw that!” “I do this parttime, I didn’t come here to get killed!” and “Come on, I gotta be back at the drugstore tomorrow!” The group scenes in the film are great, as they have a bit of that 70’s post-Altman naturalistic quality, which was soon to become completely non-existent in action films.
Though he isn’t in much of the film I think an unsung performance comes from Jack Starrett as Deputy Sgt. Arthur Galt, the only overtly evil member of the sheriff’s department, and appropriately the only man Rambo kills. Paunchy with a nasty, domineering basso voice, Starrett is pitch perfect as Galt, a man who clearly has a monster insecurity complex that makes him act like a raging hardass.
The Vietnam War did interesting things to cinema. Being a war veteran had long been used as the backstory for why a hero could kick so much ass, but Vietnam brought with it different baggage. Sure, Mike Hammer could have a short fuse because of his time in WWII, but he didn’t need to be a broken man. Westerns had tackled similar plagued-by-ghosts-of-war issues, using the Civil War, but Vietnam consumed the post-war veteran movie hero completely. Vietnam vets had to be broken men, lest the filmmakers risk making the hero seem amorally detached from what the general public viewed as the horrors of Vietnam. First Blood was hardly the first film to utilize the ticking-time-bomb Vietnam vet angle, nor the first to utilize it with sexy results (ahem, Rolling Thunder), but I think it utilized it most definitively by finding a way to do so in a big mainstream way. First Blood successfully became the template for the unhinged vet film, much like Die Hard became the template for the out-of-his-league hero trapped in/on ____ film.
What Doesn’t Work:
Nothing risks dragging the film down, but First Blood is really amazing when it is acting seriously, and this has the side-effect of making the typical cheesy “action movie” stuff stick out. I like Richard Crenna, and he suits Trautman, but he is given the cheesiest dialogue and he in turn gives the cheesiest performance of the film. He at times feels like he walked in from a different movie (Rambo II, most likely), particularly when paired with Dennehy, who never feels like less than a real person. This extends to the film as a whole too. Rambo trying to find his way out of an abandoned mine, making a torch from his clothes, is a very cool sequence and it plays slow and plausibly, but when he is suddenly attacked by hungry rats things immediately become very movie-like and calculated — which isn’t to say the entire film isn’t calculated, but it generally masks it well.
I gotta give Stallone credit for absolutely going for it during his climactic blubbering monologue, but it is hard to keep from smiling in certain parts. It is a nice speech on paper, but Stallone’s performance is as dramatic as it is unintentionally funny.
Rambody Count: 1.
Best Kill: Galt (riding in a helicopter) is trying to shoot Rambo (clinging to the side of a cliff). He is disobeying direct orders, but he wants revenge on Rambo for hitting him while escaping the jail. With no weapons, Rambo is forced to grab a rock and throw it at the helicopter. He cracks the windshield, which causes the pilot to swerve, which causes Galt to fall to his doom on the rocks below.
Most Badass Moment: The sequence where Rambo incapacitates Teasle’s entire posse – particularly when a poor deputy triggers Rambo’s crazy spiked-tree-branch trap – culminating in Rambo getting the drop on Teasle, but letting him go.
Most Ridiculous Moment: Rambo sustaining only minor injuries after he falls headfirst off a cliff into a pine tree.
Best Line About How Badass Rambo Is:
Teasle: Are you telling me that 200 of our men against your boy is a no-win situation for us?
Trautman: You send that many, don’t forget one thing.
Trautman: A good supply of body bags.
Best Sensitive Rambo Line: After Trautman tells him “It’s over.” “Nothing is over! Nothing! You just don’t turn it off! It wasn’t my war! You asked me, I didn’t ask you! And I did what I had to do to win! But somebody wouldn’t let us win! And I come back to the world and I see all those maggots at the airport, protesting me, spitting. Calling me baby killer and all kinds of vile crap! Who are they to protest me? Who are they? Unless they’ve been me and been there and know what the hell they’re yelling about!”
Best Badass Rambo Line: While pinning Teasle to a tree with a knife at his throat. “I could have killed ‘em all, I could kill you. In town you’re the law, out here it’s me. Don’t push it. Don’t push it or I’ll give you a war you won’t believe. Let it go. Let it go.”
Should There Have Been a Sequel: No. This movie doesn’t need a sequel.
Up Next: Rambo: First Blood Part II.