John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) is an ex-Green Beret Vietnam veteran, drifting around the US, trying to track down his remaining comrades. A stop in the town of Hope sees him thrown in jail on a vagrancy charge and tortured by the Sheriff's deputies. However, Rambo decides to fight back – but can one man succeed against the town's entire police department, the state police, and the National Guard?
First Blood has a number of assets that raise it above the normal standard for action exploitation films. The script, co-written by Stallone, has its fair share of absurdities and logic lapses, (Rambo's physique looks like he spends his life in the gym not on the road, and a fall from a great height onto jagged rocks leaves him just a few scratches). However, this is not unusual in films where the emphasis is often more on spectacle, and if you simply must have a film with no plot holes or unlikelihood, then maybe action is not the genre for you. What First Blood does have is a tight and well thought out story structure with clear goals for the hero, progression, and sufficient pace to gloss over the absurdities. We learn enough about Rambo, his past and his present to understand and empathise with him before the action kicks in, and when it does, it is relentless, as Rambo breaks free from his captors and turns the tables, taking the fight to them. He is on the enemy's territory, but they are the ones who seem overwhelmed by their environment.
The villains are easy to boo, being the archetypal gun toting small town cops. The two exceptions to this are the fresh faced kid cop Mitch, played by a very young David Caruso and the sheriff, played by Brian Denehhy. The former is torn between wanting to please his peers and be part of the crowd, but also knowing that their behaviour towards Rambo is wrong, and not having the confidence or power to stop it. The latter is not a bad person, (the torture takes place without his knowledge), but instead is somebody who has let their ego and stubbornness lead them into a situation that spirals out of their control.
Aside from the script, the other big asset is the star himself, who switches gears from quiet mumbling to white hot unstoppable physical rage in a completely convincing manner, so that we are caught up in the moment, and overlook some of the more implausible scenarios. The only ally Rambo can turn to is his former commanding officer, Colonel Trautman, played by Richard Crenna, who brings a presence and depth to what could have been a two dimensional grizzled warrior soldier. When faced with his protégé breaking down and sobbing, he looks convincingly uneasy with having to confront the consequences of the sort of dehumanising warrior building that is his life and work. Trautman is a man who can face the worst wartime situations, but cannot handle another man's emotions, and this is conveyed in an understated manner by Crenna, an underrated actor.
Director Ted Kotcheff has had a wildly eclectic career, ranging from episodes of the BBC TV Play for Today series, to the truly disturbing Australian outback exploitation classic Wake in Fright. His talent with cast and camera also goes some way to raising this above a standard action thriller. Kotcheff throws in some almost Expressionist touches, especially out in the woods where the overwhelming landscape and angry flashes of lightning make the scenery almost feel like a character in itself, a foe nearly as hostile as Rambo.
The Vietnam War film is as distinctive a genre as any in modern cinema and the war veteran unable to adjust to civilian life is a similarly distinctive sub-genre within this. If First Blood does have a message, it is that perhaps Governments should take better care of the men and women they send to fight their wars for them. There is certainly no discussion of the rights and wrongs of the Vietnam conflict, politically or morally, and while Rambo resents the anti-war protestors who greeted his return home and called him a “baby killer”, he does not seem to have thought of it as anything more than following orders and doing the job he was trained for.
First Blood is a film steeped in the history and myth of the Vietnam War and as the real life Vietnam veteran William Adams said the war "...is no longer a definite event so much as it is a collective and mobile script in which we continue to scrawl, erase, and rewrite our conflicting and changing view of ourselves."
Whether intentional or not, there are parallels between the events on screen and those of the war that forms the backdrop to them, or, indeed of many wars throughout history. The Sheriff is the one whose poor judgement and bad luck arguably drive Rambo to his violent vengeance. However, others are the ones that pay a price for Teasle's decisions and actions, whether it is his "troops", the deputies who come back maimed or in body bags or the civilians who have to flee for their lives as the town goes up in flames, watching their homes and businesses destroyed.