It’s sad how quickly misconceptions can take hold, and this movie has suffered from many of these. Sylvester Stallone’s acting chops are frequently mocked, while he may be regarded with a bit more respect than Arnie, Sly is often dismissed as just another action hero but while he’s made some meatheaded clunkers along the way, it ignores the fact that he has also had some great performances. Similarly, due to the witless sequels the character of Rambo has become a synonym for gung-ho, gun happy action bombast.
The thing is, while the sequels did slide that way, this first outing for the character is a much more interesting, darker and less clean cut affair, and boasts a fine performance from Stallone at it’s heart.
This isn’t the story of a gun wielding hero blazing through hostiles and saving the day, this is a bitter story about the way soldiers can carry the horrors of war long into peace time and the possibly dangerous qualities of leaving veterans without support or rehabilitation back into the civilian world.
Stallone plays Rambo, a former special forces soldier who served during the Vietnam War. Years after the conflict he has become a drifter and visits an address given to him by an old comrade, only to discover that the man has died of cancer due to the chemical weapons used by the US in the conflict.
Rambo moves on and reaches the small town of Hope, where he hopes to get some food before moving on. The local sheriff Teasle (Brian Dennehy) spots him and due to his unkempt appearance decides to drive him out of town, giving him a ride to the town limits and dropping him off. Rambo, however, turns around and heads for town, at which point Teasle arrests him.
While in custody Rambo remains silent and uncooperative, suffering abuse at the hands of deputy Galt (Jack Starrett). When they hose him down one of the deputies, Mitch (David Caruso), expresses concerns over Rambo’s scars and expresses concern over Galt’s conduct.
Rambo’s abuse causes him to flashback to his treatment as a PoW during the war and he fights off the deputies, injuring several before he escapes and flees into the mountains.
Pursued by a helicopter Rambo attempts to evade them, but comes under fire by Galt, who is ignoring Teasle’s orders no to shoot, Rambo defends himself and in doing so Galt falls to his death from the chopper.
Teasle and his men give chase, but the highly skilled Rambo makes short work of the subduing the inexperienced deputies and warns Teasle to back off, before vanishing once more.
This sequence is handled very well by director Ted Kotcheff, who captures the disorganization and panic of the deputies as Rambo appears and disappears in the undergrowth and deploys booby traps. Throughout this there’s a sense of danger and Stallone captures the character’s ruthless, cold approach to combat.
The national guard and state police arrive to aid in the manhunt, and Rambo’s former commanding officer, Colonel Trautman (Richard Crenna) arrives, urging the sheriff to call off the chase and let Rambo go, believing that he will be captured with less trouble at a later date. Teasle rejects this and doesn’t believe Trautman’s claims that Rambo is more of a threat to the men than they are to him.
Crenna does very well in this role, and while he’s largely here to big up Rambo’s skills (“A man who’s been trained to ignore pain! To ignore weather! To live off the land! To eat things that’d make a billy goat puke!”) a role he would continue in the next two films, with hyperbole building Rambo’s legend. But it’s more than that, Trautman is an enigmatic figure, with hazy motives- is he really there to help Rambo, or to get rid of him. And by helping does he mean merely recruiting to fight once more? Crenna handles it all well, and has a charismatic confidence throughout. Towards the end of the film he shows more humanity and sympathy for Rambo, coming to understand what the situation is, with sympathy replacing his initial rage and dissatisfaction.
The reckless National Guard soldiers engage Rambo in a gunfight at the entrance to a mine, and blow the mine using a rocket launcher, believing that they have killed Rambo. However, he has hidden in the mine and escapes, hijacking a National Guard truck and heading back to the town, where he quickly begins taking out the power and wreaking havoc, while Teasle holes up on the roof of the station, awaiting him.
What I love about this movie is that despite watching it half a dozen times when I stumbled on it last week I was quickly engrossed and saw things I’d missed. Originally I just thought it was about a battle scarred veteran who’s pushed too far and snaps, but watching it again it blurs the lines even more.
Trautman accuses Rambo of actively seeking the fight, which I’d previously dismissed, but there might be something to that. Does Rambo decide to return to town because Teasle driving him out seems unjust? Or does he actually want a fight? Coming from finding out another of his squad has died, does he just want to unleash his rage and do the only thing he can remember how to do?
Similarly, his final assault on the town may just be an attempt at suicide, a desire to go out fighting rather than fade away. Is this his motivation? Can he think of no other way to proceed, other than to pursue the glorious death he was denied during wartime?
Halfway through the film I almost tweeted that First Blood is one of very few films where the good guy kills a dog (the only other example I can think of is The Rookie, because stuff like I Am Legend or other mercy kills don’t count) but the more I thought about it, the more I wondered- is Rambo the good guy?
Stallone ensures he’s a sympathetic character, and the protagonist here, but a good guy? A hero? Its not clear. There are heroic qualities, he wounds the deputies and gives Teasle the chance to back off, but why doesn’t he slip away after the mine explosion? Why head for town and declare war on it?
He’s not a hero, but he’s definitely an anti-hero. His treatment from the law enforcement officers, from the rude and dismissive Teasle to the actively abusive Galt is troubling viewing, and while others object none actively intervene. His motivations are murky, but the backstory, and the flashbacks reveal that the war has left it’s mark on him, mentally as well as physically.
It’s here that Stallone’s performance is a triumph. His face is impassive for much of the film, in fact the only time we see him smile or light up is when talking about his old army buddy at the start. As soon as this friend’s death is revealed his demeanour changes, and he becomes closed off, as though his final shred of humanity and hope has been killed off and he is now an empty husk, deadened by the horrors he witnessed.
Stallone nails the thousand yard stare and quiet pain of the veteran, and for much of the film this is kept restrained. When he first speaks to Trautman on the radio it’s still there, the dull, ache of grief and loneliness. It only comes to the surface at the end, where the cornered Rambo finally breaks down, crying and yelling as he recounts a war story to Trautman. It’s a powerful scene, with Stallone pitching it just right, and while it might seem OTT to some it works, because it’s someone finally opening the floodgates after years of silence and despair.
What makes the scene even better is Crenna’s reaction to it. The colonel watches his man break down, realizing the extent of the damage and in the end embraces him, and they leave together.
The ending is left open, with the audience not knowing what the future holds for Rambo, but the hope that he will finally receive the help he needs.
It’s a fantastic, moving movie and proves, along with the first Rocky movie in particular, that Stallone was a proper acting talent.
Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.