First Blood (1982)

4 Mar

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“First Blood” is a movie about a Vietnam vet/war hero who fights in a new war—this time, in the woods outside a small town against its police force. That premise alone sounds like it’d make an intriguing action film while also making for some legitimate drama, and for the most part, “First Blood” succeeds. Sure, there’s implausibility in many of its stunts and tactics, but they work mainly because Sylvester Stallone, acting as the hero, makes it work. Already making his mark as the physical-type title role in “Rocky,” Stallone also made his mark as one of the great physical actors. In “First Blood,” we can believe that he can escape an entire police force in their station simply because he wills it. That leads to the chase outside of town, into the woods, and into a situation he shouldn’t be able to escape. Even that, no matter how implausible it is, seems believable enough because that’s how Stallone plays it.

Stallone is easy to catch our attention in “First Blood”—he owns the screen. He plays John Rambo, a drifter who is also a returned Vietnam veteran that we learn later has experience in survival. He’s just passing through a small town, hoping to meet one of the people from his troop only to discover that he died of cancer. Realizing he’s the lone veteran in his troop, he walks sullenly through town. However, the local sheriff Teasle (Brian Dennehy) is suspicious of him. He stops Rambo and gives him a ride to the town limits, hoping he’ll go away and non-subtly hinting that “his kind” aren’t welcome in this town. But Rambo doesn’t want to leave just yet without getting something to eat, and Teasle places him under arrest.

This is where things get pretty intense. Rambo’s interrogation is not handled well and the cops’ behavior evokes painful memories from his experiences in Vietnam, so Rambo escapes and makes his way outside the town and into the forest, with the police force in pursuit. However, what they didn’t count in was Rambo’s resourcefulness. He’s able to make things miserable for these people, and he does this because they deserve what they get coming to them. He wasn’t even a threat to them before, and yet they treat him as such. Even when Rambo unintentionally kills one of them and tries to give himself up so no one else will die, they continue to open fire at him. Sheriff Teasle will not let it go, but Rambo’s skills turn out to be too much for his men. And so, the military arrives, led by Rambo’s former commanding officer in Vietnam, Colonel Trautman (Richard Crenna).

The first half of “First Blood,” in which Rambo lives off the land and uses his skills to nab the hunting police, is well-done. We feel sympathy for Rambo and anger for Teasle and his men. We want Rambo to give it to these jackasses. There are many ways Rambo is able to outsmart them—even by camouflaging himself (in a hurry, I’d guess) in the green so he can strike and then sink back into invisibility.

But the second half has its problems. For one thing, the action isn’t as intense or even as interesting as two other main elements it has to it. One of those two elements is the character of Trautman, whose loyalties are in question. He wants to help the man he trained into this fighting machine, but at the same time, he’s in charge of those looking to bring him down as Rambo starts his own war with them. This is intriguing irony and makes for some good moments. The other element that I felt was very strong was Rambo’s final speech to Trautman about how he’s haunted by his nightmares of Vietnam, but will never survive in this society because of what he was taught. He feels like he belongs in a world of war, not in a peaceful society. That’s a powerful speech, but it was followed by an action sequence that wasn’t particularly well-done as Rambo finally raises all hell on the town. It’s not that it isn’t shot right or anything, but it’s that it’s mainly just executed as a bore, especially compared to the stimulating first half.

Mostly though, “First Blood” is a good movie. It’s not merely about an action hero walking around, kicking ass. It’s about something more than you’d expect from hearing about it—how one chooses to live through one society after the nightmares conveyed by the past. It’s treated with more intelligence than you’d expect. Stallone’s great, but also, Richard Crenna is strong and Brian Dennehy plays the sheriff character as so hateful that you anticipate his comeuppance. “First Blood” is a well-acted, well-paced action film.

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