There’s a common image of John Rambo from pop culture that’s stuck with me despite having never seen a Rambo film. The iconic shot has a beefed-up and shirtless Sylvester Stallone holding a giant gun while mowing down scores of bad guys. He’s intense and solely committed to his mission in the jungles of Vietnam. That perception actually comes from Rambo: First Blood Part II, the second film in the series. It expanded on the more personal story of the movie that introduced us to the former Green Beret. Released in 1982, First Blood reveals a broken man who’s just trying to stay afloat and is a time bomb just waiting to explode. It just takes some hassling from the local police in Hope, Washington to push Rambo back into the fight.
First Blood is a gritty action thriller, but much of the fighting is pretty standard. The dim-witted police officers and part-time National Guard members underestimate the skills of a man built to kill. It’s easy to view this movie as a direct source for many films with single guys taking out baddies with their particular set of skills. A movie like Under Siege loses the PTSD but has a similar tale about a military superstar who can’t be stopped. I also couldn’t help but think of Surviving the Game, a less effective but strangely amusing story of a homeless man hunted for sport by wealthy businessmen. These are two of many examples of the continued legacy of our first adventure with Rambo.
Despite the over-the-top action, it’s a much simpler image that sticks with me after seeing this film. The haunted look in Stallone’s eyes is quite moving, and the actor never rings a false note. Rambo is more than just a world-weary vagrant with bad luck. When he looks at the cruel cops, he sees his much nastier captors in Vietnam. Sheriff Teasle (Brian Dennehy) misjudges Rambo because of his own preconceived notions about homeless veterans. What he doesn’t see is the horror lurking behind Rambo’s eyes. It doesn’t take much to unlock the weapon inside his mind. Like Rambo says in his final monologue, you don’t just turn it off.
I’ve neglected to discuss the action scenes, which stay grounded thanks to straightforward direction from Ted Kotcheff (North Dallas Forty). A tense standoff on a cliff (resulting in the movie's only certain death) stands out, but most of the fights happen in the dark woods. There’s a claustrophobic feeling to the forest where Rambo hunts his prey, and that only increases when he’s trapped inside an old mine. The scariest moment for him involves not humans but hordes of rats attacking him. This film’s modest budget ($14 million) fits with the tone of the story. It’s more about personal horror than any real action spectacle. Jerry Goldsmith’s score reveals a feeling of increasing dread instead of excitement. It says a lot that the climax is a sad and angry rant and not a fight.
It doesn't feel like a stretch to read the Rambo character as a symbol of America following Vietnam. There are more connections with paranoid '70s thrillers here than the jingoistic action films of the '80s. This world is chaotic and on the brink of destruction; there are no real heroes. We're aligned with Rambo, who doesn't purposely kill anyone. On the other hand, he inflicts a great deal of punishment and destruction. Rambo is a tool of this wicked age, and there's little optimism after Vietnam. Even when he steps down, there's little sense Rambo's inner torment is over.
Another factor in First Blood’s success is the work of the two key supporting actors — Brian Dennehy’s Teasle and Richard Crenna as Rambo’s former leader Colonel Trautman. Teasle initially feels like a one-note villain who enjoys tormenting outsiders. He’s not a good guy, but there’s a more complicated resentment behind his moves. The story only hints at why he’s so committed to killing Rambo. Trautman is the kinder figure, but it’s too easy to look at him as a good guy. He created a killing machine with no place at home. Trautman offers hints at remorse, particularly during the final scene. The somber look on his face while Rambo lashes out reminds us this is a tragedy. It’s no surprise that Crenna returned as Trautman for two sequels, and it became his signature character.
First Blood was my first experience with this franchise, so the entire series is a blind spot for me. I’m curious to check out the sequels but less excited because of how different they become. You don’t get the feeling that this film was designed to start a franchise. It was adapted from a 1972 novel by David Morrell that nearly became a movie many times over the years. The story is quite bleak, and there’s a reason that action was emphasized more in the much larger sequels. Along with his recent performance in Creed, it’s another reminder that Stallone can shine in the right role. He’s much better as a tormented everyman than as your standard action hero. Rambo is a skilled fighter, but it’s Stallone’s grim intensity that makes him such a classic character.