The surprising achievement of First Blood (1982) gets lost or forgotten due to the decreasingly worthwhile & unintentionally burlesque Rambo sequels. But that first film was based on a sensitive action novel by David Morrell, about a special forces Vietnam vet. Like Billy Jack for an an earlier decade, Rambo captured something greater than its parts.
Right off the bat there's the look of the film. It's beautifully photographed. Today when even a sissy wuss like Tom Cruise can be made to look like an action star with phony looking computerized FX putting him in situations that he couldn't possibly achieve, it is a marvel to see what good photography & a physically fit actor can achieve without technology.
John J. Rambo has attempted to visit the only other man in his group who survived from his unit, only to discover that his friend died from an Agent Orange related cancer the year before. So Rambo's the only survivor, a man truly alone.
Sylvester Stallone as Rambo, a youthful & big-eyed rugged beauty, begins walking down the highway from his friend's house, grief in his heart, friendless in a world that never appreciated his sacrifice. Just before he reaches the next town in the foothills of the Pacific Northwest, a small-minded small-town cop (Brian Dennehy) pulls up along side him & in a "friendly" way offers him a ride through town & out the other side.
All John wanted was to get something to eat & continue on to Portland. So when the "friendly" cop lets him go at the edge of town, he turns around & starts back. So he's arrested on trumped up charges, all this for no reason other than the length of his hair.
He does not do much to resist but even so, in small ways, he manages to increasingly annoy the bubba cops. The police abuse him pretty severely until he's had enough, then he bashes his way out of the police station with considerable ease, & heads off for the forest.
By the time the police find out they have been harrassing a war hero, they're committed to their wrongful path. Before it's over they will have mobilized the national guard, every available police officer, a helicopter, a rocket launcher, some instantly doomed tracking dobermans, & plenty of heavy duty firearms. Rambo started out with nothing but a knife, but that's plenty; he's way better prepared for this.
Rambo's field commander (Richard McKenna) turns up "Not to save Rambo from you, but to save you from him." No one has the sense to listen even though now & then someone questions what the hell is going on (including a young cop played by David Caruso who thinks none of this has been a good idea).
Rambo has tried to stop what the police have put into play because he does not want to hurt anyone. But they are by now totally irrational in what I find to be a totally believable way. When Rambo tries to give up with his hands over his head, they open fire on him without any provocation.
So Rambo finally commits himself to this battle, by which time even his commander from Nam won't be able to stop him. He will single-handedly overcome all odds & when he circles back to town, he'll blow up a good bit of that while he's at it.
It's not great art but for an action film it rises far, far, far above the norm & it is art. For all the extreme action, Rambo remains a sympathetic presence, an underdog whose teeth turned out to be mightier than all the bullies on earth. As a symbolic presence, he avenges not just all the wrongs done to Viet Nam vets who returned home unappreciated, but really he is avenging anyone & everyone who ever felt the boot of injustice & bullyhecs on our necks.
It's too bad a usually-competent actor like McKenna turns in such a phony wooden performance. It's a little unfortunate that in order to justify Rambo's acts the cops have to be depicted as the most heartless soulless sadistic morons on earth.
And the last scene in which Rambo delivers a wackily dumbass speech about how he has suffered in battle & seen his best friend blown up by the shoeshine boy & then came home to be spit on by protestors, jezisskrist in a handbasket. That wacky speech was Stallone's imposition on the script. He gets third billing on script credits for having tinkered with what should've been left alone.
Rambo should've remained the strong absolutely silent type, quietly suffering right to the end, rather than reveal that he's really only a misguided actor with delusions of writing skill. But as soon as the awful speech is finished, he reverts to character, & is led out of the carnage by his commander, big eyes still sad & alert, credits rolling. Sly's physicality as Rambo is not only iconic, it's holy.
Even with the film's last-minute faults, it manages in total to be everything an action film is supposed to be plus it layers in a fine dose of humanity, while at the same time fullfilling the almost universal fantasy that it is possible to get even.
copyright © by Paghat the Ratgirl