We are nearing the thirty-year anniversary of the birth of an American cinematic icon. The Rambo franchise has spanned four films and raked in $700 million in theatrical runs over the last thirty years, and virtually kept Sylvester Stallone working at times. But John Rambo was birthed in a film unlike any of the other Rambo entries. First Blood is a small film with heavier themes and more things to say than any of its sequels, all concerned more with the spectacle. It is also the best of the Rambo films and it stands outside the franchise as one of the better American action films ever made.
Rambo arrives in a rain swept Oregon town searching for his Army buddy. But when he discovers his friend has died, he is left aimless, hopeless, a shadow of the Vietnam Army walking through a country filled with disdain for him. This is exemplified when he walks into the town of Hope, and crosses paths with the Sheriff, Teasle (Brian Dennehy), who makes it clear to Rambo they don't want "his kind" in their town. Defiant, Rambo does not leave, is arrested, and treated inhumanely by Teasle's deputies, namely the nearly-sadistic Galt (Jack Starrett). They push and push until he cracks, ransacking the police station with supreme ease, swiping a dirt bike and fleeing into the forest surrounding the town. First Blood then becomes Rambo facing off against the bloodthirsty Sheriff's department.
What these policemen didn't bargain for is the fact Rambo is a decorated green beret, trained to kill and kill efficiently. The police pushed him until he cracked, and the mental damage done by the failed war breaks him open. He works these deputies over one by one until the National Guard is called in. Rambo's commander in the Army, Trautman (Richard Crenna), comes in to try and lure Rambo out of the forest. He also warns the men they have no idea what they have done pushing this man. Teasle will hear nothing of it, and he presses on until eventually the conflict spills down into the streets of Hope and Rambo destroys the town; a one man army.
The performances in First Blood are firm and robust. Rambo's mask of stability slips away as he finds himself back in a war, but one he never expected or asked for. Stallone has never been an actor of great detail, but he gives exactly what he needs to the role and makes it a surprising, inward performance. The inward energy builds to a rousing final speech once Rambo is cornered and spills his guts. Stallone's inner confidence and intensity is matched perfectly by the brash and boastful turn by Dennehy as the Sheriff. Teasle is a snake and a coward and the ability for Dennehy to simply leak this through his patented smirk drives the audience against him. The director, Ted Kotcheff, mostly a television director who somehow had Weekend at Bernies in his future, never really did a directing job close to what he does with First Blood.
First Blood is moody and full of rage. The early 80s was a dark period for sentiment in this country, as the sour taste of Vietnam was being directed towards these Vets, many who would become drifters without a place much like John Rambo. Stallone shows sadness as he is loading up and taking down the city of Hope and its police force. First Blood is a response to the anti-Vet sentiment in the country, so it had something to say and a much heavier reason threads the action together. Rambo, First Blood Part II was a solid entry in the franchise. It carried the story of John Rambo forward, but it was missing the soul of the original. Nevertheless, it was a worthy sequel to a superior film. Then, it was all downhill after that.