Monday, September 16, 2019

Summer School: 'First Blood' (1982)

Once again, I'm looking back at previous installments of some of this summer's big returning franchises.

The first movie in the Rambo series doesn't even have the character's name in the title, and bears little resemblance to the cheesy, over-the-top jingoistic violence that forms the franchise's pop-culture reputation. First Blood is actually quite critical of America and American policy, especially the way that veterans are discarded and mistreated. Far from an indestructible action hero, Sylvester Stallone's John Rambo is a broken man suffering from severe PTSD, abandoned by his government and without any friends or family. The Vietnam veteran literally wanders into a small town in Washington after discovering that the only other survivor from his unit has succumbed to cancer.

All Rambo wants is something to eat and maybe an honest day's work, but the intolerant sheriff (played to asshole perfection by Brian Dennehy) doesn't take kindly to long-haired drifters in his town (although Rambo's hair is barely long enough to qualify him for a .38 Special cover band), and he hassles Rambo the moment he sets foot inside the town limits. When Rambo exhibits quiet defiance to the unlawful order to leave town, the sheriff arrests him for vagrancy, taking him to a police station where the small-town cops take sadistic pleasure in their abusive power trip over a seemingly helpless vagrant.

Despite his fragile emotional state, though, Rambo is far from helpless, and when the cops' treatment triggers flashbacks to his experience being tortured by the Viet Cong, he snaps, attacking the officers and fleeing from the police station, eventually establishing a strategic position in the dense forest outside of town. He just wants them to leave him alone, but the sheriff is now consumed by vengeance, enlisting the help of the state police and the National Guard to flush Rambo out and capture him. The title refers to Rambo's assertion that the cops were the ones who drew "first blood," and throughout the movie he goes out of his way not to kill anyone, even when he's not afforded the same courtesy. The only law enforcement death is accidental, caused at least as much by overzealous bloodlust as by any of Rambo's actions.

Stallone (who also co-wrote the screenplay, based on David Morrell's novel) makes good use of his limited acting range as a taciturn, traumatized loner. Rambo barely speaks until an emotional monologue at the end, which could seem a little overwrought but works as an expression of all the pent-up emotions that this trained killer has been keeping inside for way too long. The middle stretch of the film, as Rambo hides out in the woods, taking out the ill-prepared men chasing him, is tense and stark and full of well-crafted action, with Dennehy and Richard Crenna (as the military officer who trained Rambo to be a deadly weapon) sparring sharply over what to do about the situation.

Even before the final monologue, the climax goes a little too broad, as Rambo comes into town and starts exploding and machine-gunning everything in sight (even while scrupulously avoiding endangering any civilians). But Stallone and director Ted Kotcheff keep the focus on Rambo's expression of mental trauma, and the violence is always an outgrowth of that. Rambo lashes out at both protesters and the law-enforcement establishment, showing how alienated he is from all sides of the political spectrum. First Blood isn't liberal or conservative; it's just about human frailty, something that anyone can understand and sympathize with, regardless of their political perspective.

No comments: