Tuesday, January 16, 2018

FIRST BLOOD (1982) - ***1/2

Rated R
Running time: 93 min.
Release date: October 22, 1982

A troubled and misunderstood Vietnam veteran must rely on his survival and combat skills in order to combat the members of a local police force in First Blood, starring Sylvester Stallone in what will eventually become his signature big-screen role. First Blood kicked off a franchise that includes Rambo: First Blood Part II, Rambo III, Rambo and even an animated series. However, even before all that occurred, First Blood saw its beginnings in the pages of a novel written by David Morrell. It went through most of the 1970s in development hell until eventually coming to the big screen in 1982, where its financial success was both a surprise and influential, as it kicked off a series of post-Vietnam action pics that included films like Missing in Action. First Blood is more than just an action film, though; the cast does an exemplary job of giving the movie plenty of pathos.

Several years after being discharged from the military, John Rambo (Stallone) is walking cross-country to find the one remaining friend he has left from his tour of duty days. Unfortunately, he finds that he is still alone in the world, as his last remaining friend has died from cancer caused by exposure to Agent Orange during the war. Without a place to call home, Rambo ends up in the small northwest town with the ironic name of Hope. There is no solace in a town with that name, however, as Sheriff Teasle (Brian Dennehy) takes one look at this drifter and decides to escort him out of town. Rambo won't let the man push him around, no sir. He defiantly starts to walk back toward Hope, where Teasle arrests him for vagrancy, resisting arrest and possession of a concealed weapon: a pretty cool knife that Rambo claims is for hunting. "Hunting elephants?" jokes one of the deputies during booking. The deputies, especially Galt (Jack Starrett), treat Rambo like a terrorist as he suffers abuse not unlike the ones he suffered in Vietnam, which triggers flashbacks. These flashbacks take a violent turn as Rambo proceeds to force his way out of the police station in tumultuous manner, and flees into the nearby forest. This don't get any better when a search party is sent after him, and Rambo puts his survival instincts to work, creating traps that are designed to hurt or maim, rather than kill. A deputy is accidentally killed, unfortunately, and that turns the tensions up to eleven. The state police and national guard are called in, but Rambo's highly-skilled ways are way too much for these weekend warriors. That's the cue for Col. Trautman (Richard Crenna), Rambo's leader from his Green Beret days, to try and talk him down from the ledge, so to speak. We get plenty of tension between Teasle and Trautman, as Trautman reveals that Rambo is more than just a Green Beret -- he was trained to kill to fight his way out of sticky situations. It all climaxes in a showdown back in the town of Hope that may come off as a little over-the-top, maybe even ridiculous, but is made all the more acceptable because of the tensions built-up and the great work of the cast.

Director Ted Kotcheff has a resumé that includes Uncommon Valor, Weekend at Bernie's and North Dallas Forty but is probably best known as executive producer on the long-running crime drama series Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. Kotcheff shows skill in filming in the outdoors, showing that the Pacific Northwest is indeed a cold and damp location. He also throws in a bit of humor, as in a scene where the National Guardsmen are hesitant to approach Rambo and then celebrate when they believe they have cornered him. Their lack of skills versus Rambo's highly-developed skills is a great contrast provided by Kotcheff. Things go from highly probable in the beginning to downright improbable in the last twenty minutes, as Kotcheff really wants to turn this into a cartoonish action film. The screenplay by Michael Kozoll, William Sackheim and Stallone himself does not allow that to happen and is able to reign it in somewhat, saving the film from going off the rails with the action scenes.

Stallone is the embodiment of John Rambo. When you think about it, it is hard to fathom anyone else in the role. This is a highly physical role and Stallone is up for the task mightily. Don't let the physical performance distract you from the dramatic performance, however. There is a scene at the end of the film where Stallone provides some of his most dramatic work since Rocky Balboa in the first Rocky. It pretty clearly shows that, for some, the war in Vietnam never truly ended. Brian Dennehy also turns in a great performance as the sheriff of his small town. He goes from showing disdain for someone he believes is just an aimless drifter, to realizing that he's in over his head with a Green Beret and how he realizes who he is up against, but needs to save face by proceeding with his chase. Richard Crenna arrives on the scene with tales of Rambo's acumen in the face of war. The final scene with Stallone and Crenna is touching, and you can see in Crenna's face that his Trautman is both sympathetic toward Rambo but also hesitant in reaching out to him. If the last scene doesn't work, this film fails, but Stallone and Crenna make it work very well.

First Blood may be classified as an action film, and rightfully so. It works on that level to a tee. But there is a message in the film, one that has been told several times before First Blood, as in Rolling Thunder, Coming Home, The Deer Hunter, etc. Those other films probably conveyed things better than First Blood does, but First Blood keeps things moving with high energy until the final scene, where it goes out with a whimper, but not in a bad way. It ends in an emotional way and that makes First Blood a little more than your average action film.

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