First Blood (1982) – Film Review

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Director: Ted Kotcheff
Cast: Sylvester Stallone, Richard Crenna, Brian Dennehy
Certificate: 15

By Roger Crow

In theory, all John J Rambo needs at the start of classic action thriller First Blood is a big hug. If some kind soul had opened their arms and brought the poor guy in for a minute of back-patting, all of the ensuing chaos could have been avoided. There’s even a grieving widow at the start of the movie who could have made some of that pain go away. She’s about the only noticeable woman in Ted Kotcheff’s movie, an adaptation of the David Morrell 1972 page-turner which apparently features some notable diversions between page and screen.

But on second thoughts, would a good hug have erased all of those flashbacks triggered by the sight of a cut-throat razor in a police station? Possibly not. He definitely needs a good cry, that’s for sure. All that pent-up emotion. The poor guy is grieving for his lost mate, who we discover at the start of the film has been killed by the effects of Agent Orange. That makes Rambo the last of his team. We’re not quite sure what team until later in the movie, and by then it turns out Rambo (as we all know now) is a one-man army.

Back in 1982, First Blood, like Die Hard a few years later, was a template for countless action thrillers that followed. The rules are simple: one guy stripped of most things that could help him against enemy forces, whether it’s vengeful cops or Euro thieves with guns. Oh, and it helps if the guys are called John.

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Sylvester Stallone has always been a better thesp than many give him credit for, and in the first few mins we’re treated to some of that pretty good acting, even if Vietnam veteran Rambo looks like he’s just stepped out of an LA hair salon. (Perfect hair was a recurring problem in other eighties movies, including Return of the Jedi, and Lethal Weapon 2).

Anyway, John’s peaceful wander through a Washington town (the British Columbia backdrops are stunning) does not go down well with local sheriff Will Teasle (the excellent Brian Dennehy). He’s not happy with Rambo’s look, and literally drives him out of town. That could have been that, but Rambo wants some food, and decides to pop back into town, much to the chagrin of Teasle.

Before long, John has been arrested for vagrancy, his huge knife is understandably taken off him, and he’s being hosed down so he can look nice for his court appearance. As you may have gathered, most of the police do not come off well in this movie. Only a fresh-faced David Caruso, years before NYPD Blue and CSI Miami, comes across as being empathetic. (The masculinity in First Blood is so toxic, it’s a wonder the cast weren’t wearing Hazmat suits).

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“Weekend warriors”

Which brings us to that dry shave with a cutthroat razor. That’s the trigger which forces Rambo into action as he’s reminded of being tortured by enemy forces. Before long, cops are being defenestrated with a pleasing stock sound of breaking glass; the sort Nick Lowe would approve of. And after grabbing his huge knife, Rambo, in his vest, is out of the station, onto the streets, and relieving an innocent biker of his ride. He’s smart Rambo, but not smart enough to grab a coat before he leads pursuing cops out of town and into the mountains. Either that or he prefers to make his own clothes with his mighty knife and an old tarpaulin (which must have been soaking/freezing/mouldy) and a bit of string.

Before long, all the local cops and weekend troops are trying to find the poor guy, and naturally they fail at every turn, until he takes refuge in a mine.

Wisely there’s some light humour to alleviate the tension as weekend warriors argue about who should tackle Rambo. They’re keen on doing their part, but are basically North America’s answer to Dad’s Army. By this point, despite being threatened, Will Teasle is obsessed with finding the man who dared not die when being shot at from a chopper, and will stop at nothing to see him brought to justice or killed. Rambo, meanwhile, has emerged from his mine, jumped aboard a military truck, and in scenes reminiscent of Raiders of the Lost Ark, he gets rid of the driver and grunts a lot, possibly like Clarkson at an Amazon Prime code of conduct meeting.

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“Glorious dialogue”

The third act is basically John shooting up the town with a massive gun, and Will Teasle quaking like a man who, all too late, has realised the error of his ways.

Thankfully throughout most of the second and third acts, Rambo’s old trainer Trautman (Richard Crenna, who replaced Kirk Douglas) is on hand to guide the authorities in what they’re dealing with. Some of the most glorious dialogue in any action movie, so arch it borders on spoof.

Among the best lines are between Dennehy and Crenna. Example:

Teasle: Are you telling me that 200 of our men against your boy is a no-win situation for us?
Trautman: You send that many, don’t forget one thing.
Teasle: What?
Trautman: A good supply of body bags.

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Crenna probably has more terrific lines than anyone in the movie, because he’s the exposition Stallone’s hero needs. Like Mad Max, less dialogue really is more, because when Rambo does let rip with a monologue of misery, it’s a mess. Heartfelt maybe, but sadly laughable and incoherent.

(Rambo dies in the novel, so the end of the movie does feel a bit fudged together).

At the heart of the film is Jerry Goldsmith’s terrific score: suitably militaristic, grandiose and epic.

First Blood is a post-‘Nam Western, and the bad guys are US forces who shunned their own troops. Yes, it tapped into the unresolved issues that affected many veterans of a pointless war, as did the sequel, which gave Stallone and co-writer James Cameron a chance to re-write the wrongs of Vietnam.

The stunts are great, and that wince-inducing make-up when John sews up his bleeding arm is not easily forgotten. Unlike the sequels, when Rambo turned into an invincible superhero, First Blood is still the best of the bunch. Yes, that ending is a bit of an anti-climax, but at a lean 90-plus minutes, it’s also one of those cinematic delights that never outstays its welcome, unlike the troubled hero in that picturesque Washington town.

First Blood is currently streaming on Prime

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