First Blood (1982)It seems incredulous to filmgoers that anybody but Sylvester Stallone would’ve even been approached to play the role of the post traumatic stress afflicted Vietnam veteran Green Beret who gets cornered into staging an impromptu one man war against an entire town after the prejudiced Sheriff Will Teasle (Brian Dennehy) and his deputies wrongfully arrest and abuse Stallone’s John Rambo as an unwanted vagrant.
Yet surprisingly, First Blood or simply Rambo I as it’s been dubbed around the world (given the enormously popular sequels that followed) was considered something of a jinxed project since various script adaptations of David Morrell’s 1972 novel had been floating around Hollywood for nearly a decade without coming to any fruition.
However, given the subtext of the film and its admittedly extreme but nonetheless psychologically potent social commentary about the mistreatment of Vietnam veterans who were spit on by Americans who judged the men sent into battle instead of the war they opposed, perhaps what Rambo needed more than anything was time to pass for some of the wounds of that horrific war to heal.
Of course, it certainly helped when (then) independent producers Andrew Vajna and Mario Kassar managed to interest Sylvester Stallone in the lead. Having struggled a bit with post-Rocky endeavors that primarily crashed and burned at the box office and with critics, Stallone’s passion for the project extended beyond his performance as he retooled every single script in the franchise, making some significant changes that directly impacted the success of the first movie with the decision that Rambo wouldn’t kill anyone and that his character wouldn’t die at the end of the movie.
Physically he’s a force to be reckoned with as he admirably carried out his own stunts including that amazing cliff dive into the trees which has to be seen to be believed. But above all Stallone knew what an audience wanted to see as well as the important humanistic lessons that can be found in the surprisingly emotionally arresting and equally entertaining first film which sadly have been forgotten over the years with the increasingly violent pictures that followed that replaced intellectual heart and brains with gory hearts and brains.
Gorgeously cleaned up in this visually stunning debris free Blu-ray presentation that easily gives you goosebumps as Jerry Goldsmith’s heroic score comes thundering out your speakers in HD, First Blood still holds up amazingly well today in an era where filmmakers have recycled so much of what they’ve seen in the film with endless rip-offs.
Overall, the most groundbreaking aspect of the first and best installment is that Stallone and director Ted Kotcheff managed to make a post-Vietnam contemporary cinematic classic which is as thrilling as it is fascinating, incorporating some of the moral overtones found in ‘70s liberal efforts like Coming Home and The Deer Hunter but infusing it with a then unprecedented action paradigm.
“Do we get to win this time?” John Rambo asks his former commander, mentor and best friend Colonel Sam Trautman (Richard Crenna) when he’s approached at a prison labor camp with the possibility of another mission in Vietnam to do reconnaissance work, tracking down missing American POWs rumored to be kept in the same area he’d escaped from back in ’71.
Reassuring John that it’s up to him and that if he completes the task successfully he might be able to swing a presidential pardon as well as possibly return to the armed forces, Rambo returns to the place he knows best as his second “home,” and where predictably, just as soon as he’s embarked on the operation things start to go very wrong very quickly.
Having told Trautman that he’s the only one that he trusts, when Rambo is left abandoned out in the jungle and Trautman finds that he’s outranked by power hungry politically minded officials, Rambo is left to essentially fight another smaller version of the Vietnam War primarily on his own.
Although originally screenwriter James Cameron had envisioned that Rambo would be joined by a “buddy” whom the filmmakers thought should be played by John Travolta, ultimately they realized that the franchise works best when Rambo works alone like the “lone wolf” he goes by as his codename.
Yet in an extremely welcome twist traditionally atypical for the action genre, Rambo discovers that his contact in Vietnam is the beautiful female soldier Co Bao (Julia Nickson). While the presence of a powerful female warrior would not be uncommon in the work of James Cameron, it was extremely surprising for the old-fashioned hero approach of co-screenwriter and star Sylvester Stallone.
And not only does Co manage to stage a daring rescue of Rambo when he’s taken captive by the Russians (hey, it was the ‘80s Cold War era) but for a fleeting moment seems like she might’ve been his true love… until, as we feared it would, disaster kicks in during a melodramatic moment.
Likewise this Razzie award winning movie is rather gleefully ridiculous in its over-the-top approach that even Stallone admits in a Blu-ray extra is “fantastical” as he manages to win the war for all the vets as the action sequences become far more supercharged with explosive firepower and testosterone in scenes wherein he drops an endless amount of bombs from a helicopter and engages in a western style duel in the sky with another chopper.
Yet despite some of the slightly laughable moments, the main man-on-a-mission hero’s journey still fires on all cylinders in ensuring that even when we don’t buy the events for a moment, we’re nonetheless thoroughly entertained.
Beautifully captured by The Red Shoes cinematographer Jack Cardiff and directed by George P. Cosmatos (often rumored to let the lead actors do their directing a la Kurt Russell in Tombstone), while it was enormously more successful than the original, vastly superior film, Rambo II is perhaps best memorable for not just letting a woman kick some ass but also fully establishing the foreign war movie style structure to which the subsequent sequels would adhere.
Rambo III (1988)
Perhaps timed a bit too late to make the continued fight against the Russians earn the same hurrahs that the previous film encountered, nonetheless the third Rambo picture sends Stallone’s hero voluntarily back into battle as he sneaks across the Pakistan border into Afghanistan to rescue Colonel Trautman from his Russian kidnappers.
Although it seems pretty out of character to see Rambo on horseback, despite the fact that his character hails from Arizona, and particularly strange to witness the stoical soldier cracking jokes especially in an increasingly preposterous final act that must include about four possible opportunities to end the film in yet another showdown, it nonetheless makes a great entertaining companion piece to the second movie.
Statistically director Peter MacDonald’s effort again co-written by the lead actor became infamous as the most violent film ever released as cited by the Guinness Book of World Records, before of course other pictures including Stallone’s fourth incredibly carnage fueled 2008 Rambo entry surpassed it.
And while the movie does feel like a far cry from the first in the admittedly cartoonish style of explosions and James Bond like quips to villains, history has made this movie far eerier than the other three considering some of the dialogue spoken by Trautman and others concerning the futility in waging war in Afghanistan as neither Alexander the Great nor Genghis Kahn were able to conquer the country which has “never given up to anyone.”
Warning the Russians that America had already had their Vietnam and now Russia will have their own, Trautman’s words about the country wherein America now finds itself at war seems especially powerful, even if above all, the goal of MacDonald’s movie is to first and foremost entertain.
Thus, unintentionally given not only his excellent dialogue but the fact that the film centers on Rambo’s devotion to his character, the third Rambo film became an ideal last triumph for actor Richard Crenna and one of his most iconic characters as the actor passed away before the latest (and most dismal installment).
Although he needed to replace Crenna’s role as the character who repeatedly calls Rambo to action leading to each movie’s obligatory Joseph Campbell style Hero’s Journey inciting incident, Stallone knew he’d never recast Trautman. Therefore in the fourth expedition which is incidentally dedicated to the memory of Richard Crenna, the film’s co-writer and director decided to recruit the franchise’s second major female character in the form of Colorado Christian missionary worker Sarah Miller (Julie Benz).
Hoping to rent Rambo’s boat to bring them into Burma to bring much needed aid to the Karen people being exterminated in the longest running civil war in the world that’s become a monstrous site for genocide, Sarah tries to assure Rambo that trying to save a life means you aren’t wasting yours.
Her words and fierce dedication to humanitarian duty manages to stir up some long forgotten feelings in the now more humorless Rambo and after predictably Sarah’s group gets abducted by the Burmese, Rambo ends up aligning himself with a group of hired mercenaries brought in by the church’s pastor to bring the Americans back.
And even though the antisocial ex-soldiers just want Rambo to simply stay with the boat, obviously having never seen the first three movies they’re completely unprepared for his militaristic instinct to come flooding through as he tracks the mercenaries and manages to find Sarah as well.
Primarily as an actress it’s Benz’s job to mostly look anywhere from concerned to frightened by screaming, covering her eyes, gasping or reacting to the many rather outrageously gratuitous amount of excessive gore, guts and blood sprays that fill the screen in the movie’s shakily hand-held war docudrama look. Iregardless, it was overall a wise decision by Stallone to bring her onboard since her compassion inspires his own and in a scene that harks back to the second film she gives him a cross necklace which recalls the Buddha necklace he’d received from Co.
Unfortunately, the film is one wherein for the most part Stallone’s decisions and instincts don’t seem to come across as overly wise throughout. For, even though he admirably explains that the endless violence and carnage was meant to realistically call attention to the Karen people’s struggle and that the movie he directed was filmed as though it was actually Rambo setting up the shot list to keep everything off balance, it just doesn’t play that way.
In the end the only thing that comes across is just how coolly detached the picture feels from real life as unlike some of the other movies, we remain numb to the events onscreen because so much emphasis is placed on blood that so little time is spent on character development or the type of education about the Burmese situation that Stallone had intended.
More monosyllabic than ever, Rambo is also completely out-of-character from both the strained jokey version we saw in the third film as well as the passionate patriot since at one point he says “f*** the world,” in a sentiment that would’ve most likely sent the Rambo of the first two pictures flying into a rage since repeatedly all he’d wanted was his country to love him as much as he loved it.
And while as I write this there are rumored plans for a fifth installment to the franchise that will involve both Benz and Stallone’s Expendables co-star Mickey Rourke which he’d been quoted as saying would be inspired by The Searchers, I can only hope that instead of this bleakly nihilistic effort, it will find inspiration in the origins of the character from First Blood rather than just recycle the hopeless man in the jungle routine.
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