The Mount Rushmore of Man Movie characters has to have a space reserved for John Rambo. The elite killing machine and survivalist soldier was first created in a book by David Morrell, and brought to the big screen by ultimate manly man Sylvester Stallone in 1982’s “First Blood.”
Like his trademark “Rocky” series, Stallone would co-write and help to produce the film. Action, suspense, and drama are crammed into its 1:33 run time and accompany fantastic acting and memorable characters, cementing its place as an all time great.
John Rambo (Stallone) is 7 years removed from the Vietnam War, and struggles with depression and post traumatic stress syndrome in its aftermath. An apparent vagrant, only bits of Rambo’s backstory are revealed, keeping his character shrouded in an enigmatic fog, as we see him barbate and in tattered clothes, wandering into the small town of Hope, Washington.
Today’s generation has little understanding of the true horrors the Vietnam War inflicted upon those involved, and even more so the perils that awaited those upon their return home. In our present day and age of overly ambitious support of the troops, its tough to comprehend a war hero like John Rambo being unwelcome.
Stallone looks the part from a physical presence alone, but his real strength lies in the pain and suffering the viewer sees in his eyes as he struggles to live a peaceful and normal life. Rambo doesn’t speak much, and its all for the better; he lets his emotions do the talking. Stallone is often underrated in acting ability, playing cartoonish characters with little depth, but he shatters that notion with this role, right up until the very end when he delivers one of the more powerful and heartbreaking performances in a single scene you will ever find.
With the absolutely gorgeous backdrop of the Pacific Northwest, Rambo inadvertently rubs elbows with the Hope town sheriff, Will Teasel, immediately after arriving. “Is there any law against me eating here?” Rambo asks politely after Teasel advises him to leave Hope. “Yeah.” The sheriff coldly responds. “Me.”
Brian Dennehy is one of my all time favorite actors, and it comes specifically from this performance. Sheriff Will Teasel is not the typical antagonist; like Tommy Lee Jones’ memorable character Samuel Gerard in “The Fugitive,” Will Teasel is not a villain but an arm of the law (though a bit of a jerk from the onset who relishes in abusing his authority). A benign confrontation with Rambo quickly escalates to violence, with the war veteran fleeing into the nearby woods and Teasel leading his posse of small town cops close behind.
Brian Dennehy has the uncoachable ability to ooze smugness and sinister undertones with little effort, and it makes the character of Will Teasel a perfect opponent to the maverick Rambo. Teasel is a big fish in a little pond, and that’s the way he likes it. “I get paid to keep it boring.” He says of his duties as small town sheriff. His band of hick cops are saddled with perfect names that one would expect from a ragtag bunch; Mitch, Lester, Orval. It doesn’t get more small town than that.
“First Blood” is a standard action movie, but its deep and soul searching plot makes it so much more. The tones are dark. It takes place during the Christmas season and holiday lights and trees are perfectly interrupted by grisly and harrowing flashbacks of the Mekong Delta, bloodshed, and torture.
There’s car chases, gun battles, and genuine old fashioned fisticuffs. But there’s also sorrow and regret. The one man that can control Rambo is his former unit Colonel Sam Trautman (Richard Crenna) who is brought in for a peaceful surrender. Colonel Trautman knows Rambo’s skills as a Green Beret. He also knows he’s a decent and isolated man. “They drew first blood.” Rambo tells him when they speak. Rambo isn’t a monster bent on mayhem and destruction – and this line solidifies that fact. The entire confrontation would have been avoided if he had simply been left alone.
Of course, even after discovering Rambo is a former Green Beret, Sheriff Teasel refuses to back down on his lust for vengeance. The chase through the woods is a gripping confrontation. The early 80s film and color make it even more sinister. One chilling part shows Teasel screaming up after Rambo, his angry words echoing across the mountains. As the story probes deeper, we learn that Rambo is not only squaring off against Teasel, but against his own personal nightmare.
“First Blood” is a must own Man Movie. Its a perfect story that’s superbly acted and presented in a thrilling and epic manner. Its December backdrop makes it a perfect non-Christmas Christmas movie (think “Die Hard” or “Gremlins“) and a classic that deserves its exulted status.
by – Matt Christopher