Generally speaking, Sylvester Stallone seems to have two extremes on his acting spectrum. On the one end you have Rocky Balboa, the kind-hearted boxer who wants to woo the love of his life. Then at the other end of the spectrum you have John Rambo, the one-man army who will play chicken with an attack helicopter while driving a tank in the Afghan desert. Rambo’s movie franchise has been pretty uneven, with the character becoming more and more of a ruthless killer with no personality with each awkwardly titled entry: First Blood, First Blood Part II, Rambo III, and Rambo. The first entry however stands out by introducing the character as a remnant of the Vietnam War with nowhere to go now that the fighting is over.
The character has become so synonymous with being the ultimate badass that I more or less knew what Rambo stood for before seeing any of the movies. The image of Stallone all jacked up with that bandana on his head while holding a machine gun became emblematic in the 1980s. It was in turn effectively parodied in the 1990s by Charlie Sheen in Hot Shots: Part Deux, and there is indeed a lot to parody here. The name alone oozes machismo. RAM – BO: the word is like a battering ram. It’s hard to imagine a mild-mannered accountant with that name. Before the (supposedly) last chapter came out in 2008 I started renting the other movies in the franchise while at the University of Sherbrooke, and even the DVDs are all pumped up. They aren’t just Special Edition DVDs, they are Ultimate Edition with special “Survival Mode” that allows the viewer to see details about Rambo’s guns and how he analyzes a threat. I should have brought this to University’s film club so we could make fun of it like an episode of Mystery Science Theatre 3000.
Made in 1982 and directed by Canadian Ted Kotcheff, First Blood starts off rather peacefully with Vietnam War veteran John Rambo entering the small town of Hope, Washington, to find a friend from the war. His dishevelled look attracts the attention of Sheriff Will Teasle (Brian Dennehy) who takes him for just another drifter. He gives Rambo a lift out of town and advises him to hit the road, but when Rambo disobeys he arrests him for vagrancy.
At the police station Teasle’s deputies (including a young David Caruso) give Rambo a hard time when he refuses to cooperate. Their bullying evoke flashbacks of him being captured and tortured in Vietnam, until he finally snaps and beats up everyone in the room. He escapes into the woods and from there the chase is on. After Rambo accidentally kills one of Teasle’s men, the sheriff vows to take him down.
However Teasle soon realizes Rambo is no mere drifter. Using guerrilla tactics and booby traps, Rambo easily disables his men, so Teasle calls in the state police and even the National Guard. Enter United States Special Forces Colonel Sam Trautman (Richard Crenna) who warns him it might be safer to let Rambo cool off. Trautman trained Rambo, not just as a member of the Special Forces, but as a guy you send to rescue the army when there is no one left. Undeterred, Teasle decides to press on. It’s his funeral.
As an action movie, this is truly a product of its time with the actors shooting on location in the Canadian woods and amazing stunts such as Stallone hanging off a cliff while a helicopter takes shots at Rambo. The third act goes all out with Rambo perforating the town with an M60 machine gun as he declares all out war.
If the screenwriters, one of whom is Stallone, were trying to say war veterans should not be tossed aside, they were not being too subtle about it. If anything this movie could give civilians nightmares about super soldiers going at war in their small towns when the P.T.S.D makes them snap. This is probably why in the next movies Rambo was once again dropped in war zones so he could unleash hell on the bad guys and not on the home front.
Still, the stunts are old-school, Stallone is in top physical shape, and he makes you care about Rambo when he finally opens up about the horrors of the war. The Rambo franchise might be uneven, but First Blood is appropriately locked and loaded.