Retro Review: First Blood

“First Blood” still stands up. It might be about Vietnam and the horrors of that war but at it’s core it is really about what happens to veterans when they return to their countries in peace time.

Based on the novel “First Blood” by David Morrell, John Rambo is a Vietnam vet who isn’t sure where his home is after the end of the war. He finds out that one of his best friend’s has died and wanders into the small town of Hope, Washington. There he butts heads with the local Sheriff Teasle (Brian Dennehy) who offers him a ride out of town if promises never to come back. Sheriff drops him off and Rambo walks back into town. It’s another 30 miles to the nearest diner outside of town and Rambo is hungry.

The Sheriff arrests him for vagrancy and resisting arrest. The abusive sheriff and his deputies put Rambo through the ringer and the abuse sets off Vietnam flashbacks for Rambo which causes him to freak out and escape police custody. He takes off for the woods and a full scale standoff begins.

The movie was also the first of it’s kind in the 80s and launched a whole new genre of action films. It also launched many, many Vietnam infused action films such as Chuck Norris’s “Missing in Action” series. But what is probably the most memorable about the film is that it also launched the “one man war” action film and that changed the face of action films. Schwarzenegger, Die Hard, Under Siege and countless others all should be thankful for “First Blood”.

So what made it so revolutionary? Well the story for one thing, “man vs. society” is not a foreign concept but it was in this genre. Westerns had this concept way before but “First Blood” was the first one to bring it the modern action film.

The original cut of the film had way more Rambo and way more flashbacks. In fact, Stallone hated the first cut of the film so much he tried to buy it for himself. He was only paid $2 million for the film and almost lost his life at least three times during some of the crazy stunt work he insisted on doing himself. Because he had shed so much blood and sweat in the movie he wanted to turn the movie into something stronger. Eventually he relented but asked that the movie let Rambo be more mysterious and let the people tell the story. David Caruso’s character said it best: “We’re not hunting him. He’s hunting us!” And that is the tone that Stallone wanted.

This wasn’t the only interesting story coming out of “First Blood”, the movie also was originally going to star Kirk Douglas as Trautman. His son Michael was even considered for Rambo. Douglas dropped out of the movie at the last minute after the producers refused to use the same ending as the book, where Rambo dies. (Spoiler: One of the deleted scenes does include Trautman killing Rambo). Richard Crenna was cast just before the film began principal photography. Can you imagine this film if it would have starred Kirk and Michael Douglas?

Stallone is amazing in this role. He has said that he compares Rambo to Frankenstein’s Monster and Trautman as the doctor. You can see this in his vicious yet subdued performance. The trauma, resistance and pure power that Stallone exudes in this movie is amazing. Not to mention that final scene in the police station, where he falls to pieces. It is no wonder the character became such a cultural icon.

Underrated is Brian Dennehy’s corrupt cop, this is a great performance and proves once again that Dennehy is one of Hollywood’s great character actors. He has been good for so many years. I like how the character believes to the bitter end that Rambo has no place in his world. And even if he did go about it the wrong way, he is completely right. Rambo is a one man war machine and completely unstable, who in their right mind would want him in their town.

If it wasn’t for the abuse scenes in the beginning of the film and the final scene with Trautman, Rambo could be considered the villain of the film. It is amazing how close the movie comes to painting Rambo as a worthy villain. That blurred line is what makes the movie so compelling.

I can’t really give Richard Crenna credit in the movie but in the sequels, Crenna gets better and better. It’s through his eyes that we see the value in Rambo even if he is just a killing machine. In the first film, he just seems like Yoda delivering his powerful one liners.

“First Blood” is one of the greatest action films of the early 80s and probably the 4th best film of Stallone’s career.

4 out of 5

So Says the Soothsayer

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