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Sunday, August 31, 2014

First Blood (1982) review



Sylvester Stallone (John Rambo), Richard Crenna (Colonel Trautman), Brian Dennehy (Teasle), Bill McKinney (Kern), Jack Starrett (Galt)

Directed by Ted Kotcheff

The Short Version: Sylvester Stallone drew box office blood with his second most popular character behind Rocky Balboa. FIRST BLOOD feels like one of its 70s 'Crazed Vietnam Vet' brethren, but with a lot more polish; and aided and abetted by a strong Jerry Goldsmith score. It's a taut action thriller that intermittently touches on the topic of the Vietnam War and its effects on those who fought there. The rest of the time Kotcheff's movie loses itself in action movie tropes while building one of the 1980s biggest macho icons. Based on David Morrell's novel from 1972. 

John Rambo is an emotionally scarred Vietnam vet traveling on foot to visit an old war buddy. Upon learning his friend has passed away, John drifts into a small town only to be harassed by a local sheriff. Arrested and humiliated, the horrific memories of the war surface and set the disturbed man off. After a violent confrontation, he escapes the police station leading the cops on a manhunt to capture, or kill the crazed, yet provoked veteran. Soon after, Rambo's old commander shows up, and he's the only man who can bring an end to Rambo's war at home.

The director of Aussie thriller WAKE IN FRIGHT (1971), the testosterone fueled war film UNCOMMON VALOR (1983), and the comedy WEEKEND AT BERNIE'S (1989) set the film world on fire with this searing, suspenseful story about a troubled war veteran attempting to re-integrate with society, and society just won't let him. It's a damn near perfect action movie with some great performances, snappy dialog, and a lot of subtext brewing just under the surface.

The fantastic Canadian locations are awe-inspiring. The Fall shooting schedule added a great deal of atmosphere at the cost of putting the cast through extremely cold temperatures. The sprawling mountains overlooking the small town is one helluva sight giving DP Andrew Laszlo (THE WARRIORS, THE FUNHOUSE, SOUTHERN COMFORT) lots of room to work his photographic magic; as well as turning a wilderness into an archaic, almost medieval setting.

The first in this popular (so far) quartet of action films is a return to the 'Crazed Vietnam Vet' sub-genre that proliferated in the 1970s. There's also shades of Southern Gothic style thrillers in the vein of MACON COUNTY LINE (1974), A SMALL TOWN IN TEXAS (1976), and MOVING VIOLATIONS (1976). Of these, there's one other motion picture FIRST BLOOD shares a far more striking resemblance to -- the obscure action-comedy-drama, RUCKUS (1980), aka RUCKUS IN MADOC COUNTY, aka EAT MY SMOKE. 

In that film, Dirk Benedict was a war vet who, like John Rambo, wanders into a small town for a bite to eat and is immediately hounded by townsfolk and law enforcement. A young lady (played by Linda Blair) helps him out as the town mounts a search for the war hero who must use his special forces abilities to stay ahead of his oppressors. In another similarity, the cops remark how bad Rambo smells; and in RUCKUS, Kyle Hanson (Benedict) looks like he's just crawled out of a mud hole. However, RUCKUS is much more laid back than FIRST BLOOD, and far less serious. It also was pretty much forgotten about save for cult film fans (foreign releases used Rambo-like artwork for home video) while the Stallone film, armed with a bigger budget and lead star, has laid claim to a permanent spot in the pop culture lexicon.

FIRST BLOOD was based on David Morrell's 1972 novel of the same name. That same year, the film rights were reportedly passed around to various studios, and continued for the next ten years. Umberto Lenzi's IL GIUSTIZIERE SFIDA LA CITTA, a crime picture under various names like SYNDICATE SADISTS and RAMBO'S REVENGE came out in 1975. Tomas Milian's main character is named Rambo. Aside from that, and unlike the above-mentioned RUCKUS, there's no similarities between the book and Lenzi's movie.

The two Rambo sequels that followed in 1985 and 1988 were very different in tone; they were all-out action pictures while FIRST BLOOD was more dramatic. It addressed the plight of men who came home from the war in Vietnam -- only to receive a less than hero's welcome. As the film draws to its conclusion, it turns into a private little war between Rambo and the sheriff. It all culminates in a bravura final sequence between Stallone and Crenna where Rambo figuratively spills his guts about what's eating away inside of him. All those years of torment gush out in a matter of minutes, and the one-man army reverts to an almost child-like state in the face of his one trusted friend, Colonel Trautman.

Sylvester Stallone is a much better actor than he gets credit for; in addition to his duties writing and directing other films in his career. His aforementioned speech at the end of FIRST BLOOD is a powerful, memorable oration; and elevates Kotcheff's movie to a level above your typical macho escapism. In the original ending, after Sly's speech, the finish was a darker one wherein Rambo commits suicide. Thankfully, the filmmakers went with the less pessimistic of the two. He walks out alive, and a few years later, into a more outrageous sequel that attempts a similar closing speech, but one peppered with musclebound bluster and the sort of patriotism you just don't see anymore.

1982 was a great year for the actor. He had another hit in the already profitable ROCKY series, and was cultivating another box office crop with the Rambo production. ROCKY 3 had come out in May of that year, and FIRST BLOOD followed in October. Stallone would significantly surpass this success with the same two franchises in 1985.

There are so many memorable moments in FIRST BLOOD. One of them would have to be the section of the movie where a posse of police heads into the woods to find Rambo. What they don't initially realize is that Rambo is hunting them. There's a tinge of horror to this sequence; with an air of tension as thick as the forest the officers become trapped in. Rambo incapacitates them one by one using his Green Beret skills; these consist of assorted traps and his hunting knife -- a knife that, by 1985, everybody wanted to own; and one that would start a trend of scary looking movie knives a la COBRA (1986) and CROCODILE DUNDEE (1986). Saving Teasle for last, he tells the contentious cop that he'll "give [him] a war [he] won't believe"; and he does, too.

Aside from action, there's a fantastic dialog exchange between Colonel Trautman and Sheriff Teasle in a bar. It speaks on a few levels; on Vietnam and being a lawman, and how the lines between doing what's right, and what you think is right becomes blurred; and sometimes blurred with blood. Teasle states he was so mad he could kill that kid; to which Trautman responds, "It can get confusing at times"; he continues that in Vietnam "you can bet Rambo and I got pretty confused"; stating they were told, "We had orders... when in doubt, kill". This conversation is the one and only time Teasle comes off like a compassionate human being.

Richard Crenna obtained the role of Trautman after Kirk Douglas passed on it when certain details in the script weren't to his liking. FIRST BLOOD will likely remain the film Crenna is most associated with. His numerous, aggressively catty remarks to the lawmen about Rambo's superiority go far in building the character; successfully transforming him into the superman Rambo would become in the second picture. Trautman is also something of a father figure. There's a bond between the two men -- almost like those who were in 'Nam are part of a secret club. They both know what the other is thinking, and what the other is going to do.

Fans of director Jack Starrett will get a kick out of seeing the Texas born filmmaker playing a brutish cop. Starrett directed some of the best Drive-in style movies of the previous decade including THE LOSERS (1970), SLAUGHTER (1972), CLEOPATRA JONES (1973), RACE WITH THE DEVIL (1975), the aforementioned A SMALL TOWN IN TEXAS (1976), and FINAL CHAPTER: WALKING TALL (1977). He often appeared in small roles in his own movies, and in the films of others.

Armed with high powered weaponry, some fantastic suspense, action, and a riveting soundtrack, FIRST BLOOD revamped a forgotten 70s sub-genre for the 1980s while simultaneously laying the groundwork for a new, if highly stylized, exaggerated style of action picture. Oiled up, musclebound men with heavy artillery blowing things up left, right and center became an 80s staple, and one that was parodied in the 1990s. A unique action drama, everyone involved in drawing FIRST BLOOD (1982) created a franchise juggernaut spearheaded by one of the decades most popular actors.

This review is representative of the Lionsgate Blu-ray.

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