First Blood comes with a massive reputation. All throughout my childhood there were a number of films that you had to have seen to be considered cool: Terminator, Top Gun, Predator etc. but top of this list on the playgrounds of my youth was First Blood, or simply ‘Rambo’ as it was better know. Now I saw all of the others; mostly at friends houses, covertly, without parental consent or knowledge, but Rambo escaped me. To this day, thoughts of Rambo take me back to being 10 years old and raptly listening to every word my friends spoke about it as they all watched it and then regaled the group with incredible stories of horrific action and a bad-ass hero. I really wanted to watch it. I never did though and ever since I heard my friends talk about it I have always associated the film, bizarrely, with childhood. This has meant it has remained overlooked until now. It was the first film I thought of when I was compiling my List of Shame and I wanted it to be the first film I watched; and so it was.
For those who do not know, First Blood tells the tale of John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone), a Vietnam veteran turned drifter who wanders into the town of Hope in search of a Vietnam buddy. Upon discovering that his friend has since died, Rambo heads into town where he is met by sheriff Teasle (Brian Dennehy) who escorts Rambo out to the town limits and warns him to carry on out of town. Rambo disobays this and heads straight back the way he came and is promptly arrested by Teasle. While being processed at the station, Rambo starts to have flashbacks of his time in the war and flips out, injuring several officers and makes an escape into the local woods. He is chased by Teasle and a group of police officers who attempt to recapture Rambo. Big mistake, Rambo gives them “a war you won’t believe”.
The first thing that surprised me about the film was the tone. I was expecting a big, dumb, obnoxious action movie but the movie is far more subdued than I anticipated. That’s not to say it is devoid of action but that wasn’t the focus. Another thing that struck me is that I didn’t know who to root for. My impression was that Rambo was going to be a real 80’s style action hero but he isn’t. Far from it in fact and I found it very hard to like any of the characters in the film. No-one’s motives are revealed to begin with and what is presented is a battle of pride between two thoroughly unlikeable people. As such, I found it hard to engage with the film and even started wishing for the police officers to catch Rambo so as to end the film early. It was really tough going. I simply didn’t understand why Teasle wouldn’t just let Rambo get some breakfast and move on or why Rambo, when warned to say away, didn’t just leave. The whole thing seemed so implausible. There is no context at all provided as to why either of the characters took the actions they did. Essentially it is all a set up for what follows. Sadly, I don’t think the action holds up to well either. Certain sections are better than others; the initial chase into the woods and lead up to the death of the first of Rambo’s pursuers is great and the section in which Rambo escapes an abandoned mine is also pretty good. The rest of it seemed like action for action’s sake and I was pretty bored by it.
The main problem for me is that only at the end of the film do we get any sort of reason for John Rambo’s actions. In a moment of candour with his former Colonel, Sam Trautman (Richard Crenna), Rambo breaks down and admits that he is finding life tough because of the war. He tells Trautman of friends who were injured and killed during the war. He is utterly disillusioned with civilian life and feels there is nothing there for him. This was the reason he snapped at the start of the film. Although he loathes it, he misses the action of the war. It’s all he seems to be able to relate to and cannot connect back into the ‘real world’.
The film is at it’s most interesting during the slower, more character driven moments and while some of the action sequences deliver the goods, many fell flat. The cast are fantastic, particularly Stallone who is terrific as John Rambo and although I found him extremely hard to like for the majority of the film, the final moments made me rethink the whole film. The scene in which he opens up to Trautman really shines light on his character which up until that point had not been explored. Had there been more character moments like this throughout the film, giving some sort of reasoning for Rambo’s actions I think I would have really loved it. Sadly what character development we do get is too little too late and as such it makes the film hard to like. I found it interesting to watch and the ending was enjoyable, but as a whole I struggled to engage with the story and the characters and because of that, it did little for me. I’m very glad I have now watched it and can cross it off my list of shame but I am unlikely to watch it again and hold little interest in the sequels.
Next up on the list of shame: