Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Friday, August 12, 2016


After the perpetual underdog Rocky Balboa, emotionally disturbed Vietnam veteran John J. Rambo is the character most associated with Sylvester Stallone. "First Blood," a film adaptation of David Morell’s violent 1972 novel, had spent a decade in development hell. Multiple notable stars – Clint Eastwood, Robert DeNiro, Paul Newman, Al Pacino, Powers Boothe, John Travolta – had been attached over the years. When Sylvester Stallone entered the project, he naturally rewrote the script. Buzz Feitshans and Mario Kassar were credited with the screenplay. Ted Kotcheff, whose other films include “Wake in Fright” and “Weekend at Bernie’s,” directed the picture. Despite his numerous creators, Rambo belongs the most to Sly. His rewrite made the character more sympathetic, his star power made the film a hit, and his devotion made Rambo into a franchise.

Rambo enters Hope, Washington looking for the last living member of his platoon. Instead, he’s faced with the news that his friend has died of cancer. Wandering the town, distraught, he’s accosted by the local sheriff. Arrested for vagrancy, Rambo is abused by the power mad police officers. Triggering a PTSD flashback, Rambo becomes violent. He goes on a rampage through the countryside, using his considerable combat skills to evade capture and attack the cops. His old commanding officer, Troutman, is brought in with the hope that he can stem Rambo’s rage.

In the early parts of his career, Sylvester Stallone’s films outside the “Rocky” series weren’t successful. “First Blood” finally provided Sly with a non-pugilism themed hit. Rambo has some similarities to the simple-minded boxer. Both are outsiders, motivated more by instinct then intellect. Rambo, however, is unstable. He’s haunted by his memories of the war and is spurned by a modern America eager to forget. Though he’d eventually evolve into a commie-blasting action hero, the first film portrays Rambo as strictly an anti-hero. He has his honor, and he’s not as murderous as his literary counterpart, but he’s hardly a lovable guy. Stallone’s acting, meanwhile is sweatier, more intense then his performances in the “Rocky” films.

Another change employed to make Rambo more sympathetic is making the cops in Hope huge assholes. Brian Dennehy’s Sheriff Teasle endlessly badgers the guy for the crime of walking around town. Deputy Galt, played by Jack Starrett, is a straight-up sadist, actively enjoying beating Rambo. Dennehy is very good, managing to find some humanity in the part despite the character’s shitty behavior. The cops are pricks for another reason. Later in the film, Rambo screams about being called a “baby killer,” being spat on by protestors. (Reported events like this are more or less urban legends.) This represents Stallone’s growing conservative politics, as he used the film to criticize an America that he believed didn’t honor the sacrifice of its soldiers. This streak would eventually grow out of control, manifesting in the boneheaded vigilantism of “Cobra” and the Reagan-era aggression of “First Blood Part II.”

As far as tone goes, “First Blood” balances between thriller and action. There are numerous exciting beats in the film. John’s acrobatic escape from the sheriff’s department, which involves both leaping and sliding kicks, concludes with an exciting motorcycle chase across town. Later on, a police car is tossed into the air after colliding with a truck. A bazooka is fired into a cave and Stallone makes a spinning jump into a valley. However, other scenes are more focused on generating darker thrills. Rambo kills three dogs, though thankfully off-screen, and spears a boar. A cop is sliced with a hand-made boobie trap. A long sequence is devoted to him crawling through a rat infested sewer. When he blows up half the town and goes nuts with a M60 machine gun, it’s decidedly not cathartic. The long scenes devoted to John’s silent brooding clarify the character’s ambiguous loyalties.

Its politics may be potentially ham-fisted but “First Blood” still features some steering stuff. Col. Troutman, played by a sarcastic but steely Richard Crenna, makes it clear that Rambo is a monster that was made, not born. As violent and unhinged as Rambo is, his behavior is brought about by his conditioning during Vietnam. The climax of the film is not so much the face-off between Rambo and Teasle. Instead, it’s when Troutman reaches Rambo. The soldier breaks down, weeping and bellowing. The shouting and yelling doesn’t help Stallone’s traditional mumbled delivery. However, the moment shows undeniable heart. When Rambo, so strong and unstoppable throughout most of the film, is huddled on the ground, a true vulnerability is shown. Though potentially ridiculous, what with the cried bellows about an exploded friend, Stallone’s acting makes the moment work. The scene is effective enough that it makes up for the movie leaving Rambo alive, when he probably should’ve ended up dead.

Further cementing “First Blood’s” classic status is Jerry Goldsmith’s unforgettable score, equally sweeping and mournful. The orchestration is good enough that even the overly earnest version of the main theme, sang by Dan Hill, works. “First Blood” lacks the discipline and relatability of “Rocky.” However, it’s an effective film in its own right. Stallone’s performance is good, the action direction is well done, and the British Columbia scenery is beautiful. Rambo would return, more roid-tastic then before, but “First Blood” remains an entertaining and emotional thriller. [7/10]

[X] Frank Stallone or Frank Stallone-esque Inspirational Music
[X] Incapacitates or Kills Someone With His Body
[X] Shows Off Buffness
[X] Social Outcast [Traumatized Veteran]
[X] Sweaty, Veiny Yelling

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