First Blood (1982)

2010 #44
Ted Kotcheff | 93 mins | Blu-ray | 15 / R

Ah, Rambo. Rambo Rambo Rambo. The only Rambo film I’ve seen is Son of Rambow. And, it turns out, the only Sylvester Stallone film I’ve seen is Judge Dredd. (He had an uncredited cameo in Men in Black, apparently, but I don’t think that counts.) Quite how this has happened (or, rather, hasn’t happened) I don’t know. Anyway, with the Rambo series apparently over, it’s as good a time as any to begin catching up.

“Rambo” has become a byword for violent excess. But, as many film fans know, the first film has marginally nobler aims: here, the not-yet-titular hero is a Vietnam vet dealing with a mixture of PTSD, unresolved service issues, and poor treatment from the ‘folks back home’. Taken in by an unreasonable police department, he finally snaps… Is it realistic that he then wages a one-man war against a small town? Actually, to an extent, it is; certainly more so than what he gets up to in the sequels (from what I’ve read). If you want to try to claim it’s totally real reality, of course that’s stretching credibility; but as action movies go, it errs on the more plausible side.

What this the setup creates — aside from an excuse for shoot-outs and explosions — is an interesting dichotomy. Rambo is clearly the hero — the police department out to get him is full of abusive good-for-nothings — but there are whole sequences where the camera, and so the audience, is placed with the bad guys, wondering where Rambo’s lurking, what he’s planning, what his next move will be. It’s like a horror movie, only the stalker is the good guy. But (thanks to Stallone’s intervention, reportedly) the film’s never in any doubt of misplacing our sympathies: Rambo has been mistreated and is more or less in the right; he needs help, not execution.

Stallone is perfect for the character: suitably calm and ‘everyman’ at the beginning; muscular and mostly silent as the trained assassin; and even an actor capable of pulling off the final breakdown, when the horrors of war spill over. It’s difficult to imagine most muscle-men action stars pulling off Rambo’s closing speech. Throughout, Rambo’s PTSD is made obvious without being overdone: brief flashbacks suggest all the horror we need to know, topped by his final outburst. Rambo isn’t the beast, the men who made him that way are, along with those he did it for who fail to appreciate what he’s been through.

And if psychological insight isn’t your thing, don’t worry, there’s not too much of it, and there’s plenty of action and a couple of nice big explosions to keep you happy.

4 out of 5

First Blood is on ITV4 tomorrow, Friday 25th, at 10:30pm.
First Blood is on ITV4 tonight, Saturday 1st February 2014, at 10pm.

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