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Review: First Blood (1982)

First Blood (1982)

Directed by: Ted Kotcheff

Premise: Disillusioned Vietnam veteran John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) is unjustly harassed and arrested by the sheriff (Brian Dennehy) of a small town police department. Rambo breaks out of jail and hides in a nearby wilderness, where he begins waging guerilla warfare on the town.

What Works: Although the Rambo character is often associated with over the top violence and large action set pieces rife with explosions, First Blood is a very lean thriller that has surprising energy and intelligence and notable restraint it its violence (especially compared to later films like Lethal Weapon or Braveheart). Some of the action set pieces of the film, such as Rambo’s escape from jail and his stalking of the police officers, are shot and edited together very tightly. Director Ted Kotcheff uses the natural settings very effectively and the pacing of First Blood is also impressive. Acting performances in action films are not generally celebrated but there are a few notable roles here that are worth mentioning because of the way they fly in the face of the machismo of First Blood’s contemporaries and imitators. Sylvester Stallone plays Rambo but in this first film he is quite different from the super soldier he would become in the sequels. The Rambo of First Blood is a survivor who does not know how to do anything except fight and at some level he is aware of that and unhappy about it, and this gives the character a tragic dimension that is different from the roles that Stallone played in other action films. As Sheriff Teasle, Brian Dennehy is also interesting to watch, as the actor inserts moments of vulnerability that keep his character from becoming a cliché villain and makes Teasle a sort of father figure to Rambo, although an antagonistic one. A third notable role is Richard Crenna as Colonel Trautman, Rambo’s former commander. Trautman is also a father figure and Crenna veers away from the abrasive R. Lee Ermy-like military presence with a much more nuanced approach. Between these three men, First Blood captures a crisis in manhood and in America’s self image from the post-Vietnam era as Rambo acts out in exactly the way he was trained by Trautman but is punished for it by Teasle. The growing conflict spirals toward a violent climax that ends up destroying the town and, symbolically, the very institution that spawned Rambo. First Blood’s themes and agendas are furthered by its adoption and redressing of the Western, with Rambo as the lone gunslinger with a frontier ethos who restores justice to the town. But this film does not follow through with the traditional politics of the Western and First Blood suggests that some of the traditional expressions and rituals of masculinity might actually cause problems for men and for the culture further down the line. 

What Doesn’t: Years after its release, First Blood almost plays like a straight drama rather than an action film. The comparatively small scale of the set pieces may bore viewers accustomed to the large scale action sequences of a Michael Bay film.

DVD Extras: There have been several releases of First Blood on DVD. The Artisan release has a commentary track by David Morrell, the author of the novel, and trailers. The Lions Gate DVD has a commentary track by Sylvester Stallone, deleted scenes, and other extras embedded in the film as a type of Easter Egg.

Bottom Line: First Blood is a high watermark for the action genre because of its tight pacing and fun action sequences combined with compelling characters. What gives the film its lasting power is its ability to address issues about war and its strong dramatic center.

Episode: #40 (February 20, 2005); Revised #290 (May 30, 2010)