First Blood stars Sylvester Stallone, Richard Crenna, and Brian Dennehy and was directed by Ted Kotcheff. It’s based on David Morrell’s 1972 novel of the same name and tells the story of John Rambo, a Vietnam War vet played by Sylvester Stallone. While traveling through a small Washington town, he’s arrested for vagrancy and harassed by the local law enforcement. Irritated by his treatment, Rambo escapes from the police station into the woods, leading to a quickly escalating manhunt. First Blood is a war movie without the war. Or at least a war movie not set during a war. Over the years, Rambo has become a name that’s synonymous with action. The character’s such a part of pop culture now that even people who’ve never seen a single Rambo movie know exactly who you’re talking about.
There’s something really cool about that, but at the same time, that degree of recognizability makes it easy for overgeneralizations and character misunderstandings to become pervasive. As a result, people who’ve never seen First Blood already have preconceived notions about it.
Between the reputation of the Rambo character, Sylvester Stallone’s typical output, and the expectations of 80s action movies, it seems like it’d be easy to write the film off as a shallow action fest. At its surface, First Blood is a pretty typical 80s action movie, full of gunfights, car chases, and explosions. But, just under that surface, there’s a lot more to this film. It’s much heavier than you might expect, dealing with issues including profiling, PTSD, and life-after-war. The film is bookended by two very poignant and impactful scenes that really touch on these darker themes.
Rambo’s brief visit with Delmar’s family sets the tone for the movie and his emotional, borderline unintelligible monologue to Trautman closes the film on a very downbeat note. Although a somewhat overused plot device now, the short flashback sequences were an effective means of visually informing the audience of John Rambo’s PTSD from his time in Vietnam. This not only provides some background for the character, but it also makes you sympathize with him, which is really important given the events that ensue over the course of this movie. By clearly establishing Rambo as the sympathetic victim of the story, it makes it extremely easy for the audience to excuse the things he ends up doing.
Because, despite the heavier themes and overarching messages, this movie still is an action movie, and a pretty intense one at times. The foggy, rainy forest setting that’s used for much of the film is great and really highlights the gritty, guerilla style of both the filmmaking and Rambo’s fighting. The brutality and efficiency with which he incapacitates his pursuers disguises the darker cinematic subtext by focusing on the bloody, visceral action, but the fact that Rambo never kills anyone during the entire runtime is very telling. As exciting and meaningful as this movie gets, it does have some pacing issues around the three quarter mark. But, perhaps the biggest fault this film has is contained within the story itself.
Even when I first saw this movie as a kid. I was always a little taken aback by how overreactive the police were, especially Sheriff Teasle. Now obviously I wasn’t alive during the post-Vietnam era to see the anti-soldier, scapegoating attitudes. But, I’ve always felt that the entire plot of this film hinged on a very small moment that escalated far too quickly until it became the uncontrollable guerilla war we witness in the woods and streets of the ironically named Hope, Washington. I suppose that might be part of the point of the movie – showing how inconsequential and, frankly, stupid issues can blow up and quickly become big problems. Plus, I guess this would have been a really short movie if Rambo had just walked off towards Portland. Alright, let’s talk about the pros and cons.
Pro number one is the gritty realism. Even though this movie set the stage for hundreds of action movies to come, it retains this unique feel to it. Maybe it was the on-location shooting or the fact that Stallone did many of his own stunts (some of which resulting in broken bones), but the movie has this weirdly natural feel to it. You get cold just watching Rambo run around the woods in the middle of winter wearing a tank top. You wince at the aftermath of some of the brutal traps he sets. There’s no doubt that the action is exciting, but it never has that movie-action polished feel to it. It’s grimy, it’s bloody, and it’s intense.
The second pro has gotta be the themes and messages of the film. I know the term “message movie” probably doesn’t come to anybody’s mind when thinking about First Blood, but maybe it should. The action’s what everybody remembers or what people who’ve never seen it expect, but it’s also a really interesting and impactful exploration of the post-war consequences of Vietnam and PTSD in general. Like I said, the opening and closing scenes of this movie are way more poignant and heavy than you’d expect from an action movie. On the con side, my biggest issue with the movie is the absurdly fast escalation of it all.
We go from Rambo walking down the road minding his own business to him impaling police officers with spear traps in the woods in like 30 minutes. In the context of the story, it makes sense and while you’re watching it you’re so caught up in the action that you don’t think about how absurd it all is. But, at least for me, by the end of the movie, I always can’t help but think about how insane and brutal it all gets so quickly for very little reason. I’m gonna give First Blood 3.5 out of 5 paws. The action’s great and the messages are impactful, but there’s just something a little off about the story for me, especially with regard to the escalation of it all.
I would recommend First Blood to pretty much anybody who likes action movies. It doesn’t have the polished stuntwork and CGI that modern action films have, but if you like the gritty this-actually-seems-kinda-dangerous style of 80s action movies, this should please you. It’s almost a war movie, but not quite and the darker themes add some emotional drama that brings a little bit of depth to the movie. If you liked First Blood, I would obviously recommend the other movies in the Rambo franchise, especially the fourth installment, aptly named Rambo. Obviously it’s another Rambo movie, but I think it’s also the most thematically in-line with First Blood, despite being released 26 years later. Plus Rambo’s still a badass and gets to put his skills to use in a jungle.
If you liked the Vietnam aspects of this movie, I would recommend that you check out The Deer Hunter for another movie that illustrates the emotional and mental toll the Vietnam War took on soldiers. And if you just want another 80s action movie, be sure to watch Commando. It might not have the impactful subtext of First Blood, but it does have some crazy and entertaining one-man army action. Alright, a couple questions for you guys. Number one: Have you seen First Blood? If so, what’d you think of it? And number two: What’s your favorite life-after-war movie? Be sure to leave your answers in the comments below so we can get a discussion going.