Monday 1 September 2008

Movie Review: First Blood (1982)

There was a time when action movies could deliver entertainment without resorting to a cartoonish computer-generated special-effects laden climax every 10 minutes. First Blood is a reminder that an action movie can be remarkably low key in its setting and character development, and yet deliver a strong punch when based on a message inspired by real events and memorable personalities.

Sylvester Stallone, when he was famous but not yet a joke, is John Rambo, a Vietnam war veteran back in the US who is devastated to find out at the beginning of the film that the sole other combat survivor from his Special Forces unit has succumbed to cancer.

In a representation of the poor welcome home afforded to most Vietnam vets, Rambo is treated badly by the Sheriff (Brian Dennehy, who puts in an excellent but slightly exaggerated performance) and police force of a small local northwest town. The maltreatment triggers the soldier to revert back to war mode in the surrounding hills and forests (the movie is filmed in and around the town of Hope, British Columbia), and soon the war expands to include the clueless local contingent of the National Guard, who are as over-matched as the police, and Rambo gradually draws the conflict back to a final showdown within the town.

Richard Crenna arrives as Rambo's field commander and mentor, and as the police and National Guard are scurrying around pretending to know something about warfare in the forest, Crenna delivers the classic line to Dennehy: "I don't think you understand. I didn't come to rescue Rambo from you. I came here to rescue you from him."

First Blood is part of Hollywood's thoughtful post-Vietnam war examination of the conflict, an era that resulted in large scale epics like Deer Hunter (1978) and Apocalypse Now (1979), as well as smaller scale films like Coming Home (1978) and Platoon (1986).

Stallone would subsequently achieve stratospheric commercial success with Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985), which while undeniably entertaining, unfortunately sacrificed nuance in favour of a jingoism.

In First Blood, Rambo is a hero who feels pain both emotional and physical, bleeds, has to tend to his wounds, tries to stop the conflict before it escalates, and spares the life of most of his enemies. Directed by Ted Kotcheff and running an efficient 96 minutes, First Blood delivers its message with uncommon integrity.

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