Should I Watch..? First Blood
What's the big deal?
First Blood is an action thriller film released in 1982 and is based on the 1972 novel of the same name by David Morrell. It stars Sylvester Stallone as John Rambo, a disturbed army veteran who must use all of his skills and tactics to survive after running across a local law enforcement team in rural USA. It introduced the character of Rambo to audiences across the world and was so successful that it spawned a series of sequels, novels, comic books and even a short-lived children's TV animated series. The film itself received mixed reviews upon release but is now recognised as a cult classic with particular praise given to Stallone's performance. Among the Rambo series, First Blood is unique in that it is more of a chase thriller than a mindless action shooter - something that the sequels are certainly guilty of.
What's it about?
John Rambo is a former Commando for received a Medal of Honour for his service in the Vietnam war. Seven years after being discharged, Rambo travels by foot to meet up with the last remaining member of his squad but learns that he recently died due to exposure to Agent Orange in the conflict. Distraught, Rambo continues his journey into the small town of Hope, Washington when the local sheriff, Will Teasle, arrests Rambo for vagrancy, resisting arrest and carrying a concealed knife.
At the station, Teasle's men punish and humiliate Rambo until he finally snaps as his treatment reminds him of his torture as a POW during the war. Escaping into the woods, Rambo is forced to flee as Teasle and his men give chase with dogs and helicopters. But Rambo is far from outmatched - his understanding of guerrilla warware mean that Teasle and his men are fighting their own war - one that they can't possibly win...
Sheriff Will Teasle
Colonel Sam Trautman
Deputy Art Galt
Michael Kozoll, William Sackheim & Sylvester Stallone *
Release Date (UK)
4th December, 1982
What's to like?
It's easy to assume, given Rambo's subsequent habit of appearing in mindless action movies, that his first appearance would be similar but this is a very different film to the others. For once, Rambo feels like a very real person - his personality haunted by his past - thanks to a brilliant performance by Stallone. For most of the movie, he feels almost like the antagonist as he gradually begins picking off Teasle's men in gruesome fashion. Opposite, Dennehy's increasingly determined sheriff is just as unlikeable and the film's grey, stormy atmosphere underlines just how pointless this dangerous conflict really is as well as how much is at stake.
That's not to say the film is a disappointment on the action front, oh no. The pursuit down the mountain is genuine heart-in-the-mouth stuff - remember, no CG antics here - although the amount of damage Stallone appears to receive falling from such a height seems slightly incongruous. This is a rare creature indeed - an action film with just as much thought behind it. Granted, it doesn't examine the reasons for Rambo's behaviour too closely and I don't ever recall someone saying the words "post-traumatic stress disorder". It might not have all the blood and guts fans of the sequels might want but I believe First Blood is all the better without it.
- The large rotting piece of canvas that Rambo finds in the woods was not a prop. After filming ended, Stallone kept it and still has it to this day.
- A plot point missing from the films that appeared in the book was Teasle's highly decorated past in the Korean War, which most people had forgotten about at the time. The book was intended to pitch differing styles of conflict (Korean vs Vietnam) against each other but this was omitted from the film.
- Al Pacino was considered for the role of Rambo but he wanted the character to be more of a madman. Kris Kristofferson, Robert De Niro, Nick Nolte, Michael Douglas and James Garner all turned the role down.
What's not to like?
There are a couple of aspects I didn't agree with. Like most things dealing with mental health, there is a slight lack of sympathy towards the sufferer as though they themselves are somehow responsible. Rambo goes from being a lonely wandering soul to a vicious stalker of policeman and finally gun-totting lunatic - as someone else suffering from PTSD, I can't say that I've ever felt the need to go native in the woods near my house and viciously murder policemen. Only at the end does Rambo find the help he clearly needs which also brings the film to a faintly unsatisfactory conclusion.
The other thing that might jar with viewers is how very different it is from the other Rambo films. Without exception, they are brainless excuses for pyrotechnics and anonymous henchmen to die in ever-spectacular ways. Rambo himself goes from traumatised veteran in this film to being a pair of sunglasses and a leather jacket away from being the Terminator (1). For action fans, that's not a problem but anyone watching this expecting more of the same in the sequels is going to be disappointed which contain little of the characterisation or insight shown here. There is no glory to be found here - it's a cold, miserable experience but one that still provides plenty to savour along with an intelligent (if somewhat far-fetched) story. I know which type of movie I'd rather sit and watch.
Should I watch it?
If nothing else, First Blood is a reminder that Stallone can do great movies that don't involve a boxing ring. Behind his incredible performance, the film offers plenty of excitement and tension without too much of the trigger-happy nonsense that the sequels were known for. It's an action movie that stops to ask questions, an old-school blaster with a brain that I thoroughly recommend. It's certainly more deserving of your attention than any of the follow-ups...
Great For: action fans, small-town gun shop owners, travellers
Not So Great For: fans of the sequels, the squeamish
What else should I watch?
The other films in the series - Rambo: First Blood Part II (2), Rambo III (3) and the more recent Rambo (4) - are all pretty much the same in that Rambo goes back into commando-mode to take out some clichéd baddies (Soviets usually) with a staggering array of fire-power, well-timed explosions and usually yelling at the top of his voice. Rambo, the 2008 revisit to the character, only differs from the other two sequels by having ridiculous amounts of CG gore splashing about the place and the fact that Stallone's face now looks permanently stuck in a wind tunnel. In short, they're not much cop.
No, if you want Stallone in action mode these days then you've only one place to look. The Expendables (5) has now become the retirement home franchise for action heroes of yore like Sly who simply can't find the funding to continually revisit past glories (I personally can't imagine anyone foolish enough to fund a sequel to Cliff Hanger (6)). Alternatively, if you wanted to inject a little sci-fi nonsense into the mix then Demolition Man (7) is a goofy mix of cryogenics, a psychotic Wesley Snipes for Sly to beat up and Sandra Bullock paying the bills until Speed (8) came along and made her a star.
© 2015 Benjamin Cox