Rambo is a legend. He is as much a part of American pop culture as Coca Cola and McDonalds. An ’80s icon during a time when men with muscles took on the world by themselves and won. When Rocky isn’t a big enough movie franchise one must up the ante. Drop the boxing gloves and pickup endless amounts of ammo, a gun, a knife, a homemade bandanna and start a new, more violent mythology. I know this about Rambo, yet it wasn’t until recently when I saw my first Rambo flick, Rambo: First Blood. I hesitated all these years to watch any of the Rambo films because I thought they were likely mind numbing. I was wrong, at least in regards to the first in the series.
John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) is a former Green Beret who served his time in Vietnam. He’s trying to find his what’s left of his brigade, walking through the remote parts of Washington. He discovers his last known living member is dead due to cancer he got while fighting the war. Rambo makes his way through a small town where he is immediately confronted by the sheriff, Teasle (Brian Dennehy) and escorted out of town. The sheriff doesn’t like the looks of this straggly vagabond.
Sheriff Teasle: If you want some friendly advice, get a haircut and take a bath. You wouldn’t get hassled so much.
Rambo isn’t pleased and after the sheriff drops him off outside the city limits he heads back into town. Teasle sees this and confronts his new nemesis. Things don’t go well and the Vietnam vet is booked in jail. The town must be run by some of the worst policemen in the world. They harass Rambo until he snaps. One flashback too many from Nam and the belligerent officers experience John Rambo up close and personal. Our protagonist flees the jail, takes a motorbike, and the chase is on.
The pursuit of Rambo by the hard headed, fun to root against local law enforcement is non-stop action filled with interesting set pieces thanks to the mountainous terrain. Watching a green beret use all his tricks against guys who fancy themselves equals makes for a good time. Just when it seems he is out numbered with nowhere left to go, Rambo pulls another rabbit from his hat. He could easily kill anyone in the group hunting him down but he lets them live. Egos are often hard to heal. Egos the size of those belonging to Sheriff Teasle and his hapless crew are off the charts, which means an all out war breaks loose. And to think, all this started because Rocky Rambo wandered through town looking for a place to eat.
Colonel Sam Trautman (Richard Crenna) enters the scene when Treasle unleashes hundreds of men on the forest in all out man hunt. Trautman created Rambo. He tells Treasle to give up. These men are no match for the war machine Trautman molded. Treasle doesn’t listen and brings some more hurt on himself and those around him. If there is any misstep in a film full of archetypes it is Trautman’s character. He is there to give Rambo a voice and grow the legend even while it plays out on the screen. His hyperbolic chatter becomes almost nauseating. We want to like Rambo but his commander almost gets in the way at certain points. The action overrules the chest thumping dialogue, even if the end provides a slightly over the top monologue. Still, after all the non-stop chasing, hunting, hand to hand combat, gun fire and explosions, a shift to the quiet moment expressing deep hurt is admirable even if it is a little heavy handed.
Watching a movie so long after the main character has been established as an icon for an era is often a recipe for disaster. First Blood surprised me. In the place of camp was pure, entertaining action. Rambo may go on and disappoint me in future films. I know the drill. I’ve seen the Rocky series. But I thoroughly enjoyed the first one, which makes me wonder why I waited so long to watch it.