First Blood: John Rambo draws second blood in First Blood.
It’s over, Johnny. Rambo: Last Blood was the final nail in the Rambo coffin. This week, we look back on the first and fourth installments of Sylvester Stallone’s fivefold franchise.
First Blood (1982)
Abandoned, betrayed, and taking it on the arches, Vietnam veteran John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) is further disillusioned when a surprise visit to an army buddy’s farm brings news of his passing from exposure to Agent Orange. Rambo’s subsequent rambling eventually lands him in Hope, WA where he’s instantly given a personal escort out of town by Sheriff Will Teasle (Brian Dennehy). You might say Teasle’s message of “We don’t like smart-ass drifters in need of a bath and haircut stinking up our town” is met with resistance on the part of a hero who simply won’t take “Yes” for an answer and leave.
In no time, Rambo is booked for vagrancy and carrying a concealed weapon. And in even less time, he’s taken down half the town’s police force, clotheslined a passing motorcyclist, and is off to his makeshift woodsy hideout. The brief flashbacks inserted to establish background motivation are limited to the fist act. The answer to the question, “Who is this mystery mauler?” gives rise to the further query, “Who’s hunting who?” Unbeknownst to Hope’s hopeless Sheriff’s Department, John Rambo is a war hero, a Congressional Medal of Honor-winning Green Beret who prevails thanks to survival instincts passed down from Uncle Sam. Only his former commanding officer, Colonel Sam Trautman (Richard Crenna, doing well to keep his hands in his coat pockets), can talk Rambo down. It’s up to Teasle and his quickly dwindling posse of weekend warriors to cooperate. But Teasle is convinced that Rambo is responsible for the death of a deputy who fell out of a helicopter while removing his seatbelt to get a better shot at the renegade warrior. Further, it’s Teasel’s turf, and he’s not about to give Trautman credit for the collar.
But Rambo can’t die, hence the five-picture franchise (that should have quit at #4). Ted Kotcheff’s First Blood is one of the most underestimated action films of the 1980s. It houses a solid, at times logic-defying script (co-written, as they all, are by Stallone), expert supporting work (most notably from Brian Dennehy and Richard Crenna), and cinematographer Andrew Laszlo’s stunning use of British Columbia as a stand-in for the Pacific Northwest. (Since 90% of the film takes place outdoors, Laszlo’s use of overcast topography filmed in natural light itself adds a dimension of character.)
It was the actor’s first foray into darkness, Stallone’s Dirty Harry. The appeal of the picture is the convincingly physical performance (not to be confused with acting) by its star, cast as a near-mute animal filled with blind rage. Rambo has approximately 25 lines of dialogue, the majority of which are spoken during his climactic (and unintentionally rib-tickling) “Da legs! Da legs!” breakdown. Correct me if I’m mistaken, but if memory serves, the film comprises a pair of firsts: a veteran waging war against his country and a character self-suturing a wound. And how’s this for a punchline? Rambo is not responsible for one of the film’s innumerable deaths.
The big war right outside his own front door rages on for John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone). He’s taken up permanent residence in Thailand, and the opening crawl alerts us that neighboring Burma is in the middle of the “longest running civil war in the world.” The former Vietnam vet and retired one-man path of destruction wants no part of Burma’s bloodshed — even if violence has been good to John Rambo. Not only did it launch a profitable five-film franchise (four of which boast his name in the title), between all the wholesale acts of mayhem, Rambo appears to have had the time to master many a skilled trade. Within the first ten minutes of the film, we see our hero pounding an anvil and forging weapons, catching snakes for a local gambling venue, rebuilding a boat, and acting as a tour guide. It is while he’s wearing that last hat that the current chapter in his life begins.
A group of Colorado missionaries looks to acquire Johnny’s services to pilot them up river in order to care for the wounded Burmese. Initially, a couple of awkwardly filmed side glances and the casting of the generally loathsome Paul Schulze as the group’s leader left me doubting their veracity. Surely they are in it for diamonds or arms? Nope: not only are they the real religious deal, Schulze proved that he can play a prick even when he’s cast in the service of the Lord. These “God-suqaders” won’t take Rambo’s “F--k off!” for an answer. Luckily, Sarah (Julie Benz) is a looker, a doe-eyed dame who plunges Cupid’s arrow straight through Johnny’s heart, giving him his first Ramboner since leaving Afghanistan in 1988.
The floating mission remains peaceful just long enough for the boat to be overtaken by Burmese pirates, all lusting after the white woman. Unlike its predecessors, this is the first Rambo vehicle in which Johnny draws first blood, and the shock of the ensuing systematic slaughter doesn’t set well with the boatload of disciples. The passengers touch down safe and unsound on Burmese soil, and John returns home to his numerous occupations. The inevitable attack on the Burmese mission that follows allows audiences to witness the most enjoyable five-minute flight of non-stop carnage, brutality, assault, child dismemberment, pillaging, and excess violence that Stallone has so far committed to the screen. Released the same year as Grindhouse, not only is this brief scene more convincing, it comes closer to capturing the flavor of ‘70s exploitation, and does so without once showing any signs of snide superiority. Stallone isn’t kidding; he seriously wants to make an action picture, and perhaps even an anti-war statement to justify all the excess.
Our band of downtrodden Christian soldiers is kidnapped and held captive by rebel leader Diaz (Rey Gallegos). Diaz’s favorite sport is tossing live mines in shallow paddy water and encouraging prisoners to engage in a stacked game of Run for Your Life. With both Capt. Troutman and Richard Crenna out of commission, Ken Howard is called into service as the voice of reason. He plays the Pastor of Christ’s Church of Colorado, sent to organize a band of ruthless mercenaries to find his missing flock. Guess who they want to book passage with? As the group’s psychotic ringleader, Lewis (Aussie Graham McTavish) acts as a constant punji stick in Rambo’s well-worn combat boot. His profanity-laced pyrotechnics give strong opposition to the near-mute Rambo.
Well, maybe not mute enough. One of the great delights of the Rambo cycle is the way in which Stallone is “used.” Sly should have followed the minimal dialogue and animalistic instinct that served him so well in First Blood. The mental unrest here isn’t quite as overt and thanks to the voice-overs, there’s twice the dialogue.
The first two sequels did little more than showcase an ability to amass corpses. For what they were, the popcorn went down smoothly. Rambo has always been easier to digest than the pugilistic puffery of the Rocky series. Admittedly, we all know how both will end before going in. For me, there is something more satisfying about watching Stallone excise hundreds of faceless extras than one steroid-enhanced thug in the ring. (Is it too late for Rocky vs Rambo? Call it a Slybrid.)
With his melted wax physiognomy and manhole cover-sized neck, Stallone actually looks as though he spent the past 20 years bulking up in a Thailand hellhole. Part vanity piece, part attempt to keep a box office legend (and career) alive, Stallone did well resurrecting John Rambo. After all the high-minded, socially aware and hopelessly inept war films of late, it’s actually nice to see one without much of a conscience. What better way to remind us all what war is really all about?