How ‘First Blood’ Laps Its Populist Sequels

Ted Kotcheff’s “First Blood” (1982) begins with a simple, perfect image.

We see a long shot of John Rambo, played by Sylvester Stallone, walking down a dirt road. With his shaggy hair, heavy backpack and rumpled attire, it appears Rambo has been on foot and possibly living off the land for some time.

In this introductory scene, Rambo visits a farmhouse in search of a buddy who served with him in Vietnam. The lady who lives there informs him that Rambo’s friend is dead.

We watch the life drain from Rambo’s eyes, and what seems like a deceptively small beginning is actually a big moment for this character; we’re witnessing the last semblance of hope and humanity of Rambo and his soul is crushed upon learning his friend “died last summer.”

No matter how many rides he hitched or how long on the road it took him, it wasn’t enough. Stallone has more dialog in this scene than probably the next three Rambo installments. The opening is sad and so tough to bear – Rambo has no one, and nothing left to live for.

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We then follow Rambo to the town of Hope, where’s he immediately spotted by Sheriff Teasle (Brian Dennehy). Teasle only sees a trouble-making burnout on the move and fails to make even the slightest effort to exude some compassion.

It’s the worst mistake he’ll ever make.

Teasle picks Rambo up in his car and drives him to the edge of town, instructing him to get lost. Stallone utters the key line, “Why are you pushing me?”

That’s how it starts.

The give and take between Stallone and Dennehy during the first act is crucial, and both are excellent. Rambo has done nothing wrong but, likely due to the grief he’s carrying with him, comes off as a hot head. Teasle, after all, is just doing his job by shoving Rambo out of his town, but Teasle is a jerk who deserves everything that happens next.

Teasle arrests Rambo just minutes after letting him go, as Rambo has the choice to leave Hope or, as Teasle demands, keep walking away. Rambo defiantly struts back into Hope and Teasle cuffs him and brings him to the station – you wonder if its Teasle’s or Rambo’s inability to just let it go that dooms them.

Either way, once Rambo is viciously harassed by Teasle’s lawmen at the station (one of whom is played by a very young David Caruso), it’s the beginning of the end. The more the cops beat and humiliate him, the more we see Rambo forcing himself to restrain his remarkable combat abilities. Only once the cops begin to torture Rambo does everything come to the surface.

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Why am I studiously doting on the opening scenes of “First Blood”? Because when Rambo busts out of the police station (with remarkable ease, I might add), we’re off and running with him. Once “First Blood” gets into motion, it becomes one of the standout action films of its decade.

Its notable, even humorous, how Stallone despised the film’s first cut and only believed in it after a reportedly three-hour lark became a taut 90-minute ride. As we witness Rambo’s escape into the wilderness, with Teasle’s cluster of armed morons in pursuit, we realize that, the further he immerses himself into the wilderness, the more he becomes as cruel as nature itself.

Once his warrior instincts kick in, nobody in his way has a chance.

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The first act concludes with another remarkable sequence, where a helicopter stalks Rambo as he struggles to keep balance on a steep cliff.

“First Blood” plays like a Jack London novel, but with trigger-happy humans standing in for wolves, or an extension of the final scene of “Easy Rider” (1969) but with the outsider in the weather-beaten jacket having the upper hand.

Eventually, the law enforcers of Hope learn that John Rambo is a Green Beret, a Congressional Medal of Honor winner, a Vietnam veteran and a war hero. The movie, like the 1972 David Morrell novel upon which it’s based, never shies away from the PTSD-plagued mentality of its protagonist.

At one point, Rambo stares at one of his dead victims – we hear queasy sound effects and sense the madness within. Neither Stallone nor the movie itself ever shy away from this. While we’re always rooting for Rambo, he’s a seriously disturbed protagonist, so much so, in fact, that it’s easy to see how the film could easily have been re-edited to make Rambo the villain and Teasle the hero.

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“First Blood” isn’t perfect, as some shots reveal inconsistent weather interfering with continuity. There’s also the dialog, which is often as lean and pulpy as you’d hope, like when Rambo surprises Teasle by putting a knife to his throat in the woods and warning him, “I’ll give you a war you won’t believe. Let it go.”

Fantastic.

On the other hand, Col. Trautman, played by Richard Crenna, enters the second act as Rambo’s only remaining ally, the one who trained him and the man Teasle hopes can talk Rambo out of the woods.

Crenna’s introductory line is “God didn’t make Rambo…I did.” It’s pretty on the nose, as is Stallone’s declaring, “All I wanted was something to eat. They drew first blood…not me.”

The more the film embraces being a survivalist adventure, the more it soars. The less the characters pontificate, the better.

The strength of “First Blood” and the reason why it’s better than any of the wildly popular sequels, is that it respects and is unafraid of Rambo’s propensity for chaos in lieu of his withering humanity. The more he retaliates against the law, the more Rambo becomes a machine himself.

Rambo is like a cross between Tarzan and the shark from “Jaws.” Because the agony of the character comes across in Stallone’s performance, the film has a pathos to match its haunting character.

Like the “Lethal Weapon” franchise, which was also about a self-destructive, psychologically damaged Vietnam veteran (Mel Gibson’s Martin Riggs, who was a soldier-turned-cop), Rambo, likewise, found its troubling lead character become watered down, safer and mainstream ready with each subsequent installment.

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By the time we get to “Rambo III” (1988), let alone “Rambo: Last Blood” (2019), we’re clearly on the character’s side, but with “First Blood,” it’s not easy to cheer for Rambo, who murders dozens of men and destroys an entire town.

Another thing I love about “First Blood”: it takes place over the course of 24 hours!

What does “First Blood” have to say about America? It portrays a broken system, in the guise of the American Dream and law and order, where the wounded veteran is internally damaged, truly deranged and hunted like a dog.

The corrupt idiots who chase him down are the supposed “good guys” who wear badges. Col. Trautman exists somewhere in the middle of this, as he can play the politics as well as the rigor of combat duty.

“First Blood” is rarely mentioned alongside great films about veterans struggling to find themselves after surviving Vietnam – perhaps it’s in poor taste to put “First Blood” alongside “Coming Home”(1978), “Jacknife” or “In Country” (both 1989).

Yet, despite how the brute force and crowd-pleasing nature of “First Blood” makes it an action movie above all else, it is absolutely worthy of being a part of the discussion on films depicting Vietnam.

The most amazing, if not absurd, thing about Rambo is that, after the monster success of the far-more farfetched “Rambo: First Blood Part II” (1985), the character became a movie hero on the level with Indiana Jones and James Bond.

Whereas Stallone will likely always be connected with his lovable blue-collar avatar, Rocky Balboa, Rambo actually went the distance even further in the zeitgeist. Behold the Saturday morning “Rambo and the Force of Freedom” cartoon show (!), which ran for a single season in 1986.

Not impressed? That single season consisted of 65 episodes, which is why it felt as ubiquitous in my ’80s childhood as “Transformers” and “G.I. Joe.”

There were also comic book spin-offs, video games, dozens of rip-offs (my favorite was Martin Kove’s 1987 “Steele Justice”) and countless parodies; “Weird” Al Yankovic spoofed the character in the cult classic “UHF” (1989) but so did Johnny Carson on “The Tonight Show.”

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President Ronald Reagan put the character in a peculiar position, citing Rambo a number of times during speeches: the most notable arguably being when, in regard to the Beirut hostage crisis of 1985, Reagan stated, “Boy, after seeing ‘Rambo: First Blood Part II’ last night, I know what to do next time this happens.”

At another instance, Reagan later stated, “I’m reminded of a recent, very popular movie…and in the spirit of Rambo, let me tell you, we’re gonna win this time.”

Whether Reagan was only kidding, making a broad gesture to connect with younger voters or truly thought of Rambo as a symbol of American might, it gave the character a connection to politics. The character, as far as we know, is not a member of any political party, though it could be argued that Col. Trautman is the far more political figure, if only because, unlike Rambo, one could picture Trautman running for president.

Whereas Rambo’s actions in the second, third and fourth sequels suggest a one-man solution to a full bodied American military operation (albeit in the absolute realm of a full-fledged wish fulfillment macho fantasy), the protagonist in the “First” and “Last” in this series is fighting for himself and no one else.

Moreover, the anguish of Rambo in “First Blood,” in which the character is at war with his tortured psyche while giving into every skill and killer instinct, is a depiction of a true American, thrust into a true American nightmare.

Rambo is both the problem and solution of “First Blood,” the example of a man who is somehow both right to fight back and still completely wrong for retaliating against men who could never have contained him…though they should have known better than to try.

That’s why “First Blood” is still the best of these films. The blood drawn leaves an ugly stain and Rambo, perhaps a good man deep down in the ravages of his tarnished soul, terrorizes the town of Hope in all the ways that make him a brilliant soldier.

“First Blood” is messy and questions the nature of heroism and justice, which is exactly right.

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