Forgotten Gems: First Blood

 

First Blood – 1982

Directed by Ted Kotcheff
Starring Sylvester Stallone, Brian Dennehy, Richard Crenna, David Caruso, Bill McKinney, Jack Starrett, Chris Mulkey
Written by Michael Kozoll, William Sackheim, Sylvester Stallone based on the novel by David Morrell

There was a time when Stallone didn’t need 32 costars to carry a film.  In the case of First Blood, he required almost nothing but generic character actors, Brian Dennehy and Richard Crenna.  His magnetism is not in any way muted by the passage of time and dated film stock.  The main successes he had encountered to this point had been in a couple Rocky films, along with a couple of minor box office flares in Nighthawks and Victory.  First Blood is the movie that catapulted him into a box office superstar, where he would stay for at least the next decade.

The thing that most forget about First Blood is that, unlike any of its sequels, it has a coherent plot that was somewhat plausible.  Starting off with anti-hero John Rambo walking into the fictional town of Hope, Washington, where he wants to reunite with a fellow member of his Army Special Forces Unit.  Upon finding out that his friend has died of complications from Agent Orange, he begins walking into town.  His journey is interrupted by a good ol’ boy Sheriff Teasle (played with an easy malevolence by Dennehy) who gives him a “pep” talk as he ushers him out-of-town.  Needless to say, Rambo doesn’t take the speech well and ends up in the pokey.

Once there, he is pushed over the limit by a particularly brutal cop named Galt (a wonderful, if all to brief showing by Starrett).  Breaking out, he is chased into the woods by Teasle, leading to an all out manhunt, where everyone but Teasle suffers at the hands of Rambo’s combat expertise.  As he places Teasle within an inch of his life, he tells the Sheriff to “Let it go.”

If he did let him go, it would have been a short movie, so in comes Rambo’s former commander, Colonel Trautman (Crenna) to “help.”

“God didn’t make Rambo,” he tells Teasle, “I did.”

The absurdities of the plot (like Deputy Galt threatening the life of the helicopter pilot) are well masked by solid performances by Crenna, Dennehy and Stallone.  The script is filled with decent one liners about how the cops, the troopers and military are in over their head. Dennehy shows an ability to milk every ounce of believability out of a Sheriff that should not be taken seriously.

As Rambo darts in and out of sight, his mistakes are countered by the 9-5 ineptitude of the National Guard.  Is this the kind of thing that could take place today?  The escapades of the barefoot bandit in Camano Island, among other places, tell us it could.

The best part of the performance by Stallone is that he plays it straight, with absolutely no attempts at ironic humor.  He could be any guy walking down the street.  In this manner, that his is noticed by Teasle and asked to leave is not altogether unwise.

The role of John Rambo had been offered to many well known actors, such as Clint Eastwood, Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro.  Any of them would have made the movie different, though not necessarily better.  Gene Hackman and Robert Duvall were considered for the role of Teasle, and given both’s later work, they could have done a lot for the movie.  That said, I am glad it went to Dennehy.  He does a remarkable job.

Crenna gets perhaps the most praise of any actor in the film.  Kirk Douglas quit shortly before the filming due to the re-writes to the film by Stallone that made Rambo more sympathetic and changed the ending from the original that had the protagonist killing himself.  Douglas’ inclusion would have made the film considerably stiffer.  Crenna handles the disappointment of Teasle’s stubborn ignorance with grace and the uneasy smile of knowing what they are up against.

Though the ending allowed for a franchise that, until Rambo, was worse and more nonsensical with each successive film, First Blood has almost as much resonance today as it did in 1982.  There are still nut jobs with guns.  They just do more damage to people with lower caliber weapons.

“Who are they to protest me?,” says Rambo in the midst of a verbal tirade that is an acting and writing tour de force that comes across like a Springsteen song in the same era.  It’s moving, somewhat incoherent, and more visceral than any of the scenes of violence.

There was a need for a film like this, just like the Deer Hunter, Coming Home, Born on the Fourth of July or even Platoon.  Kotcheff, Morrell and Stallone helped to show the loneliness and singularity of coming back from an unpopular war as a lonely victim of survival training.

(**** out of *****)

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