There are few more evocative names in cinema than Rambo. The bandanna, the machine gun, the knife; Stallone’s character has become synonymous with staggering levels of violence and machismo. There’s nothing wrong with that, except it has barely anything to do with the first film. It contains those iconic elements for sure, but First Blood isn’t about a one-man army. It’s about one man being alone.
On a superficial level it’s clear to see Rambo as an allegory for the Vietnam War. A large force underestimating and therefore being outsmarted by a far smaller and technologically inferior opponent.
But look past that and you see the story of a broken man, abandoned by all levels of a society he risked his life to protect. It all comes to head when he’s literally driven out of town by Sheriff Teasle. Is some food and rest too much to ask for a decorated veteran? Seemingly so.
Rambo, Teasle, and Trautman (Rambo’s former Commander) form a terrific triumvirate. Stallone gives a career best performance, breaking down in despicably sad fashion as explains how ‘out there’ he operated millions of dollars of equipment but here he can’t even hold down a job. Teasle is a complete asshole, his need for order and his arrogance underpinned by the tiniest slither of doubt. But Trautman is my favourite. He gets all the lines – “A good supply of body bags” – plus he’s the inspiration for Roy Campbell of Metal Gear Solid fame. He’s come to get his boy, and it isn’t always clear how that’s going to play out.
The quality of First Blood feels ignored; smothered in the blood let by its sequels. But this is a strong movie, full of great performances, with a powerful message.
Far from the muscled action hero we generally bring to mind, First Blood effectively shows us a broken man, just trying to find a place in the world. The violence isn’t gratuitous and isn’t cause for celebration. He’s in constant fight or flight mode. If only people would stop pushing him.
In one scene Rambo tells a guy to ‘go home’. You know he’s trying to do the same. Is that too much to ask?