Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 1 hour 33 minutes
MPAA Rating: R
Directed by: Ted Kotcheff
Written by: Michael Kozoll, William Sackheim & Sylvester Stallone
(based on the novel FIRST BLOOD by David Morrell)
Starring: Sylvester Stallone, Richard Crenna, Brian Dennehy, Bill McKinney, Jack Starrett & Michael Talbott
Years after Sylvester Stallone cemented his boxing reputation in Hollywood, it was time for another, entirely different Stallone character to be born: John Rambo! As opposed to strapping on boxing gloves and telling an inspirational story, Stallone opted for a dirtier, more violent approach in 1982’s FIRST BLOOD (the first of four titles in the RAMBO franchise). This film’s plot is rather bare bones, but still packs some potent punches and is all about the execution (pardon the pun) of its wild, action-packed premise.
Vietnam vet John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) is having a bad day. He walked miles to visit a friend…only to discover that his buddy died of cancer (Agent Orange is nasty stuff). Depressed, dirty, and without a happy thought in sight, Rambo trudges through the ironically named Hope, Washington. As opposed to finding hope in this titular town, Rambo instead stumbles across the loud-mouthed, hot-tempered Sheriff Will Teasle (Brian Dennehy). This arrogant law enforcer sees Rambo as someone who simply doesn’t belong in his tight-knit community and arrests him for vagrancy. Faced with Teasle’s equally abusive officers, Rambo begins to have flashbacks to his days as a POW in Vietnam and snaps. This leads to a long, violent showdown between the aggressive small town law enforcement and the hardened, combat-ready Rambo. They drew first blood from him and he’s about to draw more from them.
One thing that can instantly be appreciated about FIRST BLOOD is that it executes its story with style and attention to detail. The film doesn’t necessarily have a massive body count, but instead builds itself on rising tension and a thick atmosphere. The tree-covered landscape, where Rambo and his enemies battle one another, instantly adds a sense of danger as the natural elements prove to be as threatening as bullets from a gun. Some of the film’s most intense moments come from Rambo making a claustrophobic trek through a collapsed mine with only the light of a torch to guide him.
The story’s violence is executed with grittiness and feels slightly more “real” as a result. Some of the film’s most cringe-worthy moments come early on from Rambo using his Vietnam knowledge to set up makeshift booby traps to halt the Sheriff’s cronies. One of these particular traps actually made me wince, even though it didn’t show a close up of the gory details. In spite of its title, FIRST BLOOD isn’t about blood and guts, but uses the power of suggestion to add a bit more brutality to its action. As a result, FIRST BLOOD is probably the most exciting action film with a single digit body count that you’ll ever see.
Neither of these qualities would matter much if the characters weren’t interesting to begin with. Stallone plays John Rambo as a damaged man pushed to his breaking point. He’s a war hero who was punished for no reason and finds himself in an ever-escalating conflict. Rambo is crazy enough to the point where a former Colonel (Richard Crenna) needs to be brought in to deescalate the dangerous situation. However, he’s also nice enough to go out of his way to avoid killing where he can help it. Though the film uses some flashbacks to Rambo’s Vietnam torture that could be seen as slightly cheesy, these further cement the character as a damaged guy who’s been placed into a desperate scenario. The final ten minutes pack a powerful speech from Rambo that shines as one of Stallone’s best acting moments ever. As a result, John Rambo is someone to be feared, to root for, and to feel sorry for.
As far as supporting roles go, two characters stand out. The first is the mysterious Colonel Sam Trautman who shows up as the sole living connection to Rambo’s past. While Trautman could be seen as a character who exists primarily for delivering exposition, Richard Crenna’s line delivery and subtle nuances show him as someone who’s more complex than that. As the film’s antagonist, Brian Dennehy is perfectly smarmy as the corrupt Sheriff Teasle. The way in which he smirks and seems to have instant disdain for everyone around him make the character into someone instantly despicable. Still, Teasle is an entertaining scumbag as he desperately wants to take on Rambo face-to-face…even if it winds up being the death of him.
FIRST BLOOD may have a rather simple plot, but sticks out as something special when compared to many other 80’s action films. It has actual social commentary and a sympathetic hero at its core. The first RAMBO installment is an entertaining ride with good performances, a fun cheesy factor (specifically in the closing credits song), brutal violence, and an overall well-executed atmosphere of escalating tension. FIRST BLOOD is an 80’s action movie with more on its mind than just a body count and over-the-top explosions.