Over the course of the past few decades, the name ‘Rambo’ has become synonymous with notions of action heroes who are all brawn and no brains. They don’t do much else other than take out their machine guns, machetes and slaughter armies of faceless enemies. Add to that actor Sylvester Stallone’s inability to escape the misguided perception that he’s not the brightest bulb in the light shop (that, admittedly, is far more the fault of those who hold that idea, not his) and what one is left with is more a caricature than anything with emotional depth and psychological weight. Entering First Blood for the first time, I told myself to remain completely open to whatever Ted Kotchef’s and Stallone’s film based on the David Morell novel had to offer.
The easiest thing I could say to start things off is that I was surprised. When the caricature and spoof becomes so prevalent, one looses focus on the original subject which spawned said caricatures. I had heard, vaguely, that First Blood was different, that it did little to earn the tag of ‘mindless 80s action film’ that many of us have been guilty have attributing to it, even without having seen it (which made me especially guilty). Indeed, First Blood does not one but many things I simply had not envisioned to be capable of. ‘Surprised’ however is not the most apt word I could use however. I think I was more satisfied and relieved than surprised. When my expectations are shattered for something of superior quality, both in terms of storytelling and intelligence, than I am a happy camper. First Blood opens with Stallone’s John J. Ramob walking along a road in direction of an old friend’s house. He and this friend were soldiers during the Vietnam War. Upon his arrival however, he learns that his friend has passed way, most likely the victim of all that ‘orange stuff’ they spread around in Nam. Devastated by the news, John Rambo heads into a small town, stunned by the revelation. His past as a Vietnam War hero becomes a major force in everything that is to follow over the course of the next few days. The local sheriff (Brian Dennehy) doesn’t like the looks of Rambo very much, but one the latter shows resistance to the former’s attempt at establishing hierarchical superiority, things get out control and fast. Very soon the local police force and the army have their hands full as Rambo has a mental breakdown and terrorizes the area, both in the mountains and in the town itself. Even the soldier’s former mentor and teacher, Trautman (Richard Crenna), is having trouble controlling one of the deadliest men alive.
To put things into perspective, the character of John J. Rambo, as portrayed in First Blood, is no hero. Hold on, I may have typed that with bit too much haste. He earned the congressional medal of honour for his services in the Vietnam War, thus making him something of a hero, but he is far from a hero in the traditional Hollywood movie sense. This is a man who, due to some horrific, nightmarish experiences back during the war (some of which briefly shown via split second flash backs whenever Rambo sees something that reminds him of the torture inflicted on him as a POW) is haunted by fears, both real and imagined and whose mental and emotional stability are but a shadow of what they used to be. As a soldier, he was conditioned to fight and kill on command, but back in the United States those services are much less in demand. Complicating matters further are the terrible reputations the Vietnam War and its veterans earned during and after the conflict. No job, no future, overbearing negative public perception, post-traumatic stress disorder, Rambo is much more a mess than he is a man. When the officers in the local police department start roughhousing him, he snaps and proceeds to act out all of his aggression towards pretty much anybody who dares oppose him. His mental state reverts back to what is was in the jungles of Vietnam. When Trautman finally reaches Rambo via radio communication and tries to bring back a sense of order and discipline to the young man, Rambo coldly explains that it was the police force who drew first blood, not him. If they want to do evil to him, than he’ll fight back without the slightest hesitation. This is not a story about a psycho killer rampaging around town giving Michael Myers a bad name. It is a story about a man who, through his conditioning, by taking part in the wrong war at the wrong time, through societal circumstances that he cannot control and which are constantly throwing him to the curb, and through depression has completely lost his way in life. In essence, there are no heroes in the film at all. Rambo is a dishevelled soul and the local sheriff wants nothing more than to kill him. For the longest stretch during the movie the one character who elicits the most sympathy is Trautman, who wants to reign Rambo in.
Much of First Blood’s strength rests with these odd circumstances and characters. The movie depicts how we are all products of whatever society and situations we either grew up or were conditioned in. When the variables are beyond our control and continuously beat down on us, our reactions can be frightful and outright dangerous. Take that idea and stick in the context of a young, frustrated Vietnam war veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and the results can be repulsive. The movie takes a bold chance in placing the story on American soil as well. It isn’t as if Rambo was going crazy in the jungles of Vietnam (although his issues may have begun just like that). He is a war hero terrorizing his own country when said country has turned its back on him in the vicious way. Regardless of where one’s politics lie, there is something undeniably compelling about such a plot. As a Canadian, I am a bit of an outsider looking in on matters involving the Vietnam War, although Canada’s current involvement in the country of Afghanistan is strikingly similar, down to the reality and fewer and fewer Canadians support the country’s military presence in Afghanistan. Rambo isn’t a ‘good’ character at all, but he is endlessly fascinating and, while the film takes the intensity of his actions up some notches too many in the latter stages of the film, there is a ring of painful truth to a lot what Rambo is experiencing. Men can and do return from war as different, and sometimes, in the saddest cases, the changes to their behaviours are considerable downgrades in mental and emotional stability. I think the film goes a little bit overboard in the final scenes when Rambo attacks the town at large, blowing up gas stations, corner stores, gun shops, etc. I can see how those scenes represent, metaphorically, the full extent of Rambo frustrations, but it felt a bit too stretched compared to what transpired earlier, not to mention that the viewer is led to believe that after all the havoc Rambo has wreaked, only one person perished. I didn’t need Rambo to go on an intentional killing spree, and he does stop short of killing people when he stands face to face with them, but just the fact that he’s blowing the town to high heaven must have meant that he knew he was probably going to vaporize some innocents. Is he so good that he knows how to blow the shite out of a town and not kill a soul?
Regardless, those scenes were not enough to sour my viewing experience. In fact, the final few minutes when Rambo pours out his feelings and frustrations through words rather than guns and knives made for a very solid conclusion. I sincerely mean it when I say that people should seek out First Blood. If any of you reading this review and who have not seen the film believe it be an 80s version of The Expendables, go watch it now. It is balances grit and violence with sophistication and intelligence in some bold ways that command respect.