First Blood (United States, 1982)

March 10, 2009
A movie review by James Berardinelli
First Blood Poster

When one thinks about Sylvester Stallone, two characters come to mind: Rocky and Rambo. However, while the underdog pugilist is the Italian Stallion's best-loved screen alter-ego, during the '80s, Stallone was more strongly identified with the ex-Green Beret Vietnam vet. It wasn't Rambo's initial outing that catapulted the character to iconic stature - that would come later, with Rambo: First Blood Part II, a testosterone-and-adrenaline cocktail that struck a chord with Cold War weary movie-goers. The first installment, First Blood, while not precisely more thought-provoking, at least acknowledged that viewers might have functioning brains. The screenplay was smart enough to recognize that Rambo's appeal was not limited to his huge biceps and ability to mow down legions of bad guys with a really big gun.

First Blood arrived in theaters in October 1982, some seven and one-half years after the end of the Vietnam War. Veterans' rights were still a significant issue, although their prominence was waning. With its message about how returning soldiers had been marginalized by a divided country in desperate need of healing, First Blood sought to bring more to the table than the story of an unhinged survivalist lashing out at a bunch of close-minded bigots. Based on David Morrell's novel, the screenplay by Michael Kozoll, William Sackheim, and Stallone sought to mix politics with action. As established by the movie, Rambo wasn't merely the target of a group of small-minded local law enforcement officials, but the pawn of a system that created him then set him adrift and, in a larger sense, of a society that had no use for him beyond the soulless business of warfare. In First Blood, Rambo is a victim. In the three sequels, he is "redeemed" and transformed into a hero. First Blood has a moral compass; the subsequent entries in the series do not.

When the film opens, Rambo is passing through the town of Hope on a long journey the end of which he cannot see. He's alone in the world and trying to re-establish himself in a country of people who prefer to look the other way when they see him coming. Hope's sheriff, Will Teasle (Brian Dennehy), doesn't look the other way, though. He confronts Rambo and offers him a lift to the town limits, hinting strongly that "his kind" aren't welcome in these peaceful parts. When Rambo politely declines Sheriff Teasle's suggestion that he make himself scarce, he finds himself under arrest. That's when things start getting ugly. Rambo is not well-treated by the cops but he escapes and heads off -road, with the entire police department on his trail. When his skills prove to be too much for Sheriff Teasle's men, the military arrives - led by Rambo's former commander in Vietnam, Colonel Trautman (Richard Crenna), whose loyalties are divided between the man he trained and those seeking to bring him down.

First Blood is directed by journeyman filmmaker Ted Kotcheff, whose career reached its peak with this production. Arguably, Kotcheff's greatest contribution to the movie is his ability to generate sympathy for the protagonist and to turn the antagonists into individuals whose comeuppance we crave. By the time Rambo turns the tables on the cops and begins taking them down one-by-one, we're thoroughly on his side, rooting for him to win each match and achieve victory over Teasle. The best part of the movie is the sequence in the woods in which Teasle's posse is gradually whittled down by the ghost who strikes suddenly then melts back into the greenery. It's a tense and effective piece of filmmaking. Once it's over, the odds get longer for Rambo and, while there are more battles to be fought, none have the same intensity.

At the time of its release, First Blood was widely criticized for its bloodthirstiness. However, while it is undeniably violent and features its share of grisly moments, the body count is actually quite low. In fact, there is only one unquestionable death (Jack Starrett's Galt); three men possibly killed in a car crash are never confirmed to be dead. David Morrell, who wrote the novel, is on record as saying they died, but Kotcheff is noncommittal. It is worth noting that the estimated number of deaths in First Blood Part II, Rambo III, and 2008's Rambo are 67, 108, and 256, respectively. The most obvious "non-death" is that of Rambo. In the book, Trautman, his mentor, kills him. The ending of the movie deviated from that of the source material because it was deemed to be "too dark." At the time First Blood was made, there was no thought of sequels, but the filmmakers believed the audience had made too much of an emotional investment in the main character's survival for him to be eliminated, especially at the hands of Trautman, the only person he trusted. When the film made enough money to justify a continuation, the executives at Orion must have been delighted that Rambo had been allowed to live. (Then again, if he had died, the film's gross would likely have been substantially lower.)

Stallone, whose career was in descent at the time he accepted the role of Rambo, was not the first actor considered, but when he came on board (reportedly after Al Pacino and Dustin Hoffman turned it down), the script was tailored to fit his macho, action-oriented persona (hence, the writing credit for Stallone). In retrospect, it seems impossible to imagine anyone other than the taciturn muscleman in the part, and his capabilities as an actor should not be dismissed. There is power and emotion during the pivotal interaction with Trautman when he reveals how hurt and betrayed he feels by a country that shaped him into the ultimate killing machine and now wants to wash its hands of him. Crenna is adequate as Trautman, but not especially memorable. The fourth film in the series, 2008's Rambo, was able to move forward without Crenna and not miss a beat. Brian Dennehy does what Brian Dennehy does best: make his character so detestable that audiences love to hate him. There are only a few actors who can do this, and Dennehy is one of them. Long before NYPD Blue or CSI: Miami, David Caruso has a small part as one of Teasle's deputies.

It is perhaps too easy to dismiss First Blood on the basis of what the Rambo series would become, but this movie is significantly different, and better, than its sequels. The darker tone, somber subtext, and generally non-exploitative violence allow viewers to enjoy the film not only as an action/thriller but as something with a degree of intelligence and substance. Ultimately, people watch the film to see Rambo kick ass - that is, after all, what he's good at. But there's more here than meets the eye, and certainly more than was retained for First Blood Part II, Rambo III, and 2008's Rambo.

First Blood (United States, 1982)

Run Time: 1:33
U.S. Release Date: 1982-10-22
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2:35:1