Monday 25 July 2011

Someday this war's gonna end

Sometimes a film surprises you. I expected First Blood (1982) to be a big, dumb action film. I didn't know anything about it before: nothing more, in fact, than the cliché of Rambo in pop culture. Instead, First Blood turns out to be one of the finest thrillers I have ever seen. I expected big, shiny and shallow; I got small and gritty, with surprising depth.

In the winter of 1981, Vietrnam War veteran John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone, who also co-wrote the script) sets out to visit a friend from his unit in the town of Hope, Washington (portrayed by the town of Hope, British Columbia). Finding out his friend has died from the after-effects of Agent Orange exposure, Rambo sets out to leave town, but is harassed and eventually arrested for vagrancy by local sheriff Teasle (Brian Dennehy), who doesn't like Rambo's scruffy appearance.

In custody Rambo is abused both verbally and physically by police officers including Galt (Jack Starrett) and Mitch (a young David Caruso). When ill-treatment leads to flashbacks of torture in Vietnam, Rambo attacks the policemen and escapes into the mountains. He is pursued by Teasle and his posse, but fights them off, injuring several men and inadvertently killing Galt. Teasle calls in the National Guard and begins a large-scale hunt for Rambo in hostile mountain terrain, although he is warned by Rambo's former commander, Colonel Trautman (Richard Crenna), that Rambo may be too experienced in guerrilla warfare to be captured.

It's been said before, but it's worth stating that Stallone is some manner of genius. He can't always be accused of the best judgment: in a career that includes Rocky and First Blood, he also made Over the Top (the armwrestling film!) and the much-maligned Judge Dredd. His attempts to hide his short stature are legendary. But at his peak he had creativity and determination, and it's Stallone the actor that is First Blood's greatest strength. His John Rambo is a man who hides his war and post-war scars beneath a bland exterior, a drifter both literal and metaphorical in an America that appears to have turned its back on him. And Stallone absolutely nails his character's crucial scene, a monologue at the end that is both riveting and harrowing.

Its focus on the treatment of Vietnam War veterans ultimately makes First Blood into political cinema. This was a near-ubiquitous trope in the aftermath of Vietnamese victory: Taxi Driver (1976) and The Deer Hunter (1978) dealt with the mental scars war inflicts, while Bruce Springsteen's 'Born in the USA' (1984) lambasted the United States' failure to reintegrate their veterans into society ('Went to see my VA man / He said, "Son, don't you understand?"').

That an arrest over vagrancy turns into a deadly manhunt is symptomatic of a failure to make peace - not just between Vietnam and the American empire, but also between veterans and society at large (Rambo: 'Nothing is over! Nothing! You just don't turn it off! ... Back there I could fly a gunship, I could drive a tank, I was in charge of million dollar equipment, back here I can't even hold a job parking cars!') Rambo is a man perpetually at war, and - without giving away too much - the ending is perfect in recognising this as the film's central theme.

Next to all the implicit and explicit politics, however, First Blood is also a brilliant action thriller. For starters, at 97 minutes it is absolutely fleet, without an ounce of padding. The action is brilliantly choreographed and shot and surprisingly realistic, particularly in the early and middle part of the film (towards the end it's a different story). And, in another validation of the old rule whereby an action film's quality is inversely proportional to amount of bloodshed shown* there is only one certain death. In 2011 as in 1982, an entertaining but thought-provoking action film that packs a punch like this is a rarity.

*Let's call it Q = k 1/b, where Q = quality, k = a constant I have yet to discover, and b = bodies.

1 comment:

  1. I agree completely. Because the subsequent Rambo films descended into comic book absurdity, it's easy to forget that First Blood is as good as it is. (With that being said, I love the other films in the series as well; they're gloriously stupid movies that never fail to entertain me.) I would rate this performance as one of Stallone's finest; his monologue at the end is quite poignant. It's worth noting that director Ted Kotcheff made another intelligent and sensitive Vietnam-themed action film a year later, Uncommon Valor, starring Gene Hackman as a father who stages a desperate mission to rescue his son from a P.O.W. camp.

    Nice blog.