Fabrizio del Wrongo writes:
The 1982 “First Blood” has much in common with the Kirk Douglas vehicle “Lonely Are the Brave,” made 20 years earlier. The heroes of both movies are veterans and pariahs, and they duke it out with the establishment in the backwoods of America. Broadly speaking, both works are anti-authoritarian, but whereas “Lonely” exhibits the self-pleased hopefulness one expects of writer Dalton Trumbo (“I’m Spartacus!”), “Blood” is stewed in indignation. One might say the attitudes of the later film have been curdled by the ’70s.
At the center of “First Blood” is John Rambo, an elite soldier who fought in Vietnam, was tortured by the enemy, and then abandoned to civilian ignominy. He stalks the backroads of the Northwest, his sunken mien rebutting the Albert Bierstadt magnificence of his surroundings. When he alights in a small town, the authorities shoo him off, anxious to be rid of him, as though he were an itinerant character out of a Woody Guthrie song. Rambo, of course, won’t leave easily; he walks back towards the center of town. Like fellow folk hero Tom Joad he has something to communicate, but perhaps not in words. His message is inseparable from his physical presence: he wants our acknowledgement.
“First Blood” occupies an interesting place in the history of American genre movies. In one sense it’s the inheritor of the exploitation tradition of the 1970s, the spiritual successor of down-and-dirty drive-in pictures like “Rolling Thunder” and “A Small Town in Texas.” But it’s also a forerunner of the big-budget action movies that dominated Hollywood in the later ’80s and early ’90s. Many of these movies — “To Live and Die in L.A.,” “Aliens,” “Die Hard” — are among the best American films of that period, superior in terms of craftsmanship to many a prestige-loaded Oscar winner. (Raise your hand if you think “Rain Man” is better than “Die Hard.”)
If “First Blood” doesn’t reach those heights, it isn’t for lack of trying. The movie is a taut piece of work: in the early sections in particular, you can feel the concentration that director Ted Kotcheff and star Sylvester Stallone bring to bear on the material. There’s a seething quality to these scenes, a sense that an explosion is imminent. Kotcheff is similar to his contemporary John McTiernan in that he’s able to impart psychological weight to his visuals. (This can make his movies feel like macho art projects.) And like McTiernan he’s an ace at weaving together action and topography.
The latter talent is on display during the movie’s justifiably famous centerpiece, a long manhunt set in a mountain forest in which Rambo neutralizes several men and a helicopter using nothing but a knife and his wits. (The setting and the hunt-or-be-hunted vibe anticipate McTiernan’s “Predator.”) It’s a terrific sequence, but it doesn’t lead to anything. It’s a climax stranded in the movie’s middle, and afterwards “First Blood” feels bloodless. The screenplay, by Michael Kozoll, William Sackheim, and Stallone (it’s based on a novel by David Morell), has Rambo attack the town, but it fails to provide him with the motivation necessary to maintain narrative drive and suspense. When Rambo blows up a gas station, you wonder: What does he have against gas?
Stallone does a nice job of communicating Rambo’s resentment and disenfranchisement via non-verbal means. Often mocked for his mush-mouthed elocution, Stallone has never been properly appreciated as an actor. His talents are those of a character actor. And, unsurprisingly, his legacy is founded on characters, namely Rocky and Rambo. In this he’s fundamentally different from his counterpart Arnold Schwarzenegger, a born star who executes variations on his outsized personality in role after role. Stallone’s personality is smaller and less twinkling than Schwarzenegger’s, but its modesty has advantages: Schwarzenegger could never pull off the deranged monologue that Stallone gives near the end of “First Blood,” an unnerving howl of despair that wouldn’t be out of place in Greek tragedy.
Brian Dennehy provides Stallone with an apt foil; he brings a lot of exploitation-style juice to his depiction of, in Rambo’s words, a “king-shit cop.” And as a sadistic deputy, drive-in movie legend Jack Starrett is frighteningly physical. The one bad performance belongs to Richard Crenna, whose woodenness and exposition-heavy dialog make him seem as if he’s auditioning for a part in a Zucker-Abrahams spoof. His big moment comes when he says:
You don’t seem to want to accept the fact you’re dealing with an expert in guerrilla warfare, with a man who’s the best, with guns, with knives, with his bare hands. A man who’s been trained to ignore pain, ignore weather, to live off the land, to eat things that would make a billy goat puke.
With lines like that, who needs Leslie Nielsen?
It strikes me the First Blood really is the beginning of a kind of golden age of Hollywood action cinema that probably ended, for whatever reason, with Die Hard: With a Vengeance (which has a mediocre script but, I would argue, is the LAST skillfully-made action movie).
Crenna actually played the same role in Hot Shots: Part Deux, a parody of the Rambo series starring Charlie Sheen.
Brian Dennehy makes the film. You’re right about the “exploitation juice” he brings: a whole wealth of film associations comes onscreen with his face.
Crenna: You did everything to make this private war happen. You’ve done enough damage. This mission is over, Rambo. Do you understand me? This mission is over! Look at them out there! Look at them! If you won’t end this now, they will kill you. Is that what you want? It’s over Johnny. It’s over!
Rambo: Nothing is over! Nothing! You just don’t turn it off! It wasn’t my war! You asked me, I didn’t ask you! And I did what I had to do to win! But somebody wouldn’t let us win! And I come back to the world and I see all those maggots at the airport, protesting me, spitting. Calling me baby killer and all kinds of vile crap! Who are they to protest me, huh? Who are they? Unless they’ve been me and been there and know what the hell they’re yelling about!
Crenna: It was a bad time for everyone, Rambo. It’s all in the past now.
Rambo: For *you*! For me civilian life is nothing! In the field we had a code of honor, you watch my back, I watch yours. Back here there’s nothing!
Crenna: You’re the last of an elite group, don’t end it like this.
Rambo: Back there I could fly a gunship, I could drive a tank, I was in charge of million dollar equipment, back here I can’t even hold a job *parking cars*!
***God, I love this movie!!!***
Dennehy is one of cinema’s great character actors. Another is M. Emmet Walsh. A third is Yaphet Kotto. You should do a series of posts on some of film’s great character actors.
Stallone enters the discussion on the history of steroid use in Hollywood at Sailer’s, e.g. in this comment. The consensus of those in the know (yeah, squishy terms) seems to be that Stallone had started using “Vitamin S” by Rocky (1976) or Rocky 2 (1979). So, well before First Blood started filming.