As one does at the fire station after a long, hot morning of fighting fire in the sweltering late July southern Missouri heat, I recently reclined in one of the easy chairs in our fire station day room, and savored the ultra-sweet flavor of an Andy’s Key Lime Pie Concrete. A Concrete is like a Dairy Queen Blizzard, in which chocolate or vanilla frozen custard is blended with ingredients ranging from cookies, brownies, or hot fudge, to fresh fruit. In this case, my Concrete consisted of frozen vanilla custard mixed with a small piece of key lime pie, and injected with a dollop of caramel for good measure. I digress, however, as this is not a review of an Andy’s Concrete (A+), but rather, of the movie “First Blood.”
So, there I was basking in the artificial and bracing chill brought on by the air conditioner and the frozen custard, and what should start on the TV before me? Well, none other than “First Blood” (1982), the very first of the Rambo series of action movies, and by far the superior film of the franchise. I determined to settle in for the duration, hoping that a call would not interrupt this post-Vietnam era action classic and my attempts to bring my body temperature back to a normal 96-98 degrees.
Now, “classic” is a generous term to ascribe to “First Blood.” Let us dispense with that qualifier at the outset. The adjective “classic” is allowed in this case because the movie launched a new genre of action films, and set the stage for a number of imitations, including “Missing in Action” (“First Blood” with Chuck Norris!), “Predator” (“First Blood” with aliens!), and even, eventually “Die Hard” (“First Blood” at a Christmas party!).
Sylvester Stallone co-wrote the script for the 1982 film, which was based on a 1972 book by David Morrell of the same name. Stallone’s acting in the movie received mixed reviews, with most praising his performance and assessing that he added much needed depth and sympathy to the character. Let us not forget, John Rambo spends the majority of the film maiming and assaulting a bunch of a-hole local sheriff deputies in a backwoods town, before hosing down a large portion of main street’s shops and buildings with an M-60. To secure audience buy-in for this outlandish behavior required the audience to feel for Rambo (Stallone deserves credit for this, as both a writer and actor), and to despise the local lawmen.
Credit for the latter sentiment belongs mainly to actor Brian Dennehy, who plays the dickish Sherriff Will Teasle, who runs a small town sheriff’s office filled with sadists and nincompoops, none of whom expresses much of an objection to hauling Rambo in for “vagrancy” as he attempts to merely pass through town and have a nice breakfast. Once they arrest him, physically beat him, blast him with a fire hose, and then attempt to dry shave him (ouch), Rambo snaps, driven to violence by both the abuse and his war-induced PTSD.
The audience knows from the start that John Rambo’s psyche is on a knife’s edge (Rambo’s famous huge knife pun intended!), mainly due to Stallone’s intense stares and hollow eyes at the start of the film. ‘There’s something off about that boy,’ we think. While I found those icy stares and steely silences to be a bit cheesy, I get what Stallone was conveying through them, and I allow myself to buy into it because I know where this is heading. I let the film take me where it’s going, with only minor derision.
Dennehy does a bang-up job embracing his inner small town tough guy, and you even feel a hint of sympathy for him as the film goes on, and he comes to realize that John Rambo was a bit too big a bite for him to chew up and spit out. His role in the film is the best acted, in my opinion. You can almost find yourself thinking, ‘yea he is a total brute and bully, but hey, he’s doing his best for the town!’
Conversely, lots of reviewers at the time — and later — credited Richard Crenna’s portrayal of Colonel Sam Trautman as the film’s best role. Trautman makes his appearance soon after Rambo has gone full-on Special Forces mad dog crazy in the woods surrounding the town. In an overly-dramatic and slightly ridiculous speech to Teasle, Trautman — in full dress Army uniform complete with Green Beret — proceeds to explain to the sheriff (and the audience) that he created John Rambo — trained him, equipped him, led him — and that Teasle and his men are in for far more than they can handle with the off-the-rails former Green Beret.
Trautman is my least favorite character in the film. He is like a weird father figure-cum-commanding officer to Rambo, and later in the film, somehow talks him into surrendering before doing any more damage to the town. Maybe it is just Crenna, and not the character, that annoys me, but I just don’t like the guy. Sure, he gives us some memorable and affecting facial expressions throughout the movie. The best follows Rambo’s stirring and tortured speech about his PTSD, in which Crenna simply listens, fraught, and hugs Rambo. For the most part, though, Trautman just gets on my nerves.
The speech by Rambo, right before he surrenders, is Stallone’s best moment of the film, and he really pours it on thick, with tears and a contorted, anguished face. This scene really lifts the movie from glorified shoot-em-up to something more. It is the scene likely most responsible for securing “First Blood’s” box office success and midwifing a rash of imitations to come.
Is “First Blood” the best action movie to come out of the 1980s? No. Is it completely believable and full of deeply-drawn characters? Again, no. However, you should absolutely watch it if you have never seen it. It offers a unique (at the time) exploration of one Vietnam veteran’s response to his home country’s rejection of him after he gave so much on behalf of that same country. It is violence and mayhem underscored by pathos and sentiment. There is at least an attempt to interject depth into the chaos, blood, and destruction. That’s really all you can ask for in a classic 80s action movie.
Here’s to you, John Rambo. I might not approve, but I get it.