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First Blood (1982)

Review

Before single-handedly taking on the Vietnamese and Soviet armies in the big-budget sequels, John Rambo was a tormented Green Beret who only wanted a little something to eat. First Blood, which introduced Rambo to an audience hungry for a ‘real American hero,’ hearkens back to the time when Sylvester Stallone was taken seriously as an actor. Remember, he’d taken home an Academy Award for Rocky a few years earlier (not for acting, but it was a feather in his cap nevertheless).

This lean, mean fighting machine strolls down the street, unassuming and weary in his army jacket, having just found out that another of his veteran friends who made it through ‘Nam died shortly after coming home. Guy just wants to brood for a little while. Cut him some slack. A few minutes later, our unlucky hero gets hassled by a mean-spirited small town sheriff (the inimitable Brian Dennehy) who advises him to take a bath and clean himself up. What would you do if a smug local yokel hiding behind a badge told you to get out of town when you didn’t even do anything? You’d pull a Rambo and get arrested for… for… for walking back into town. ‘Okay, now you’re resisting arrest!’ the sheriff gloats.

It’s not Crime and Punishment by a long shot, but Rambo is as sympathetic as a whipped dog. Like man’s best friend, he shows a stubborn resolve until the day he bites.

The movie’s just getting over the hump when he beats the hell out of a room full of cops, and when they track him through the woods he threatens, ‘Don’t push it. Don’t push it, or I’ll give you a war you won’t believe.’

But Stallone doesn’t have to talk very much, playing up his image as a killjoy Marlon Brando. Dennehy makes for a formidable enemy — not in the best physical shape, it’s Dennehy’s arrogance that makes him Rambo’s best villain ever.

The rest of First Blood alternates between explosive comic book and long-winded ‘Rambo’s coming to get you and he’s the best!’ dialogue for Richard Crenna, playing Rambo’s trainer, Colonel Sam Trautman. The last half hour runs like the well-oiled machine it is, to the point where it almost feels credible having Rambo out-maneuver 200 weekend warriors of the National Guard. Call it macho crap. Call it mindless escapism. Call it Stallone’s grand posturing. In fact, call it all of the above. That doesn’t change the fact that the darn thing still works.