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First Blood Review

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by Chris McEneany May 27, 2008

    First Blood Review
    “They drew first blood, Sir ... not me.”

    With pecs bulging, lip drooping and a chip on his shoulder that ends up dwarfed by the mountain of lean meat it is resting upon come the third movie, Stallone's iconic super-warrior Rambo blasts his way onto Blu-ray in this, frankly, awesome boxset featuring the original trilogy buffed-up into 1080p and boasting much improved audio than ever before. It seems somewhat redundant to actually review these hyper gung-ho actioners - even tribesmen living in the lost jungles of Borneo know who Rambo is, what he stands for and how he goes about fighting other people's wars as well as his own. So, let's abscond with the trivialities and just indulge in a full-on appreciation of Rocky's more primal alter-ego.

    “In town you're the law. Out here, it's me. Don't push it ... don't push it or I'll give you a war you won't believe. Let it go. Let ... it ... go!

    Ripped from the pages of David Morrell's actually quite experimental thriller-cum-bestseller, First Blood (1972), John Rambo started his cinematic life as a very believable outcast turned fugitive. Severely traumatised by his experiences of captivity and torture in Vietnam, the ex-Green Beret (which movie rival Arnie, as Commando John Matrix, claims to be able to “eat for breakfast”) is shunned by a society too guilt-ridden to accept his hair, his stubble and the fact that he has the audacity to wear the American flag in full view of the God-fearing folks of Jerkwater USA. Sheriff Will Teasle (a terrific, barnstorming Brian Dennehy) is going to learn the hard way that it would've been better to have just let the vagrant have something to eat in his town. Even looking the way he does - as Teasle is keen to point out - the kid has infinitely more up his sleeve than just that glorious Street Thug Culture figurehead of a knife - fabulously designed by Gil Hibben and containing in its hollowed Tardis of a hilt everything you need to become the living embodiment of war, a super self-repairing surgeon ... and, oh yeah, still find your way home for tea afterwards. One celebrated jailbreak later - still the best and most adrenaline-fuelled sequence in the entire series - and Rambo, John J. is on the loose and plunging into the history books as one of modern culture's most devastating death dealers. Forget Teasle's “boring” little town - the entire world would never be quite the same again.

    “To survive war, you have to become war.”

    With the ever-trusty Col. Trautman (the ever-lousy Richard Crenna who only really acted the part in the great Rambo III spoof, Hot Shots Part Deux!!!) bailing him out left, right and centre and all manner of bureaucratic kiss-asses quick to send him to his death to do their dirty work, and then conveniently forget about him once he'd done it, Rambo is very much the go-it-alone type of soldier. Stallone very keenly plays up Rambo's estrangement and visible discomfort in the company of other people in the first two films, but allows a distinctly new inner-calm and sense of acceptance to pervade his persona by part III. After his total, and actually quite accurate mistrust of his fellow man throughout his encounters with Teasle, Galt, Ward and Orval in First Blood and Podovsky, Murdoch and Erikson in Part II, it comes as quite a relied to see his warm relationship with the Buddhist monks of Thailand and the burgeoning friendship that he kindles with the Mujahedeen in his Afghan adventure. Without a doubt, Rambo became a better person the more people he seemed to kill. But he would never be the kind of guy to welcome into your home for a dinner party. His bondings are forged in war, or violent competition - such as the incredibly brutal stick-fight or the patently ridiculous goat-hide-dragging horse race that both feature in Rambo III. He may hide away periodically to recharge his batteries in the relative calm of a monastery, but unlike Stallone's own brother, Frank, he will never find “Peace In Our Time.”

    But back to Rambo's co-stars for a moment. Crenna, as vital to the series as increasing muscle-mass, is not a good actor - as I've already said - but is so much a part of the winning formula that the initial trilogy would be unthinkable without him. His arrival in the base-camp of the man-hunt is a classic, though. Just how quotable are his lines even though his delivery of them stinks? “God didn't make him ... I made him.” Or the immortal, “An expert with guns, knives, with his bare hands. He's been trained to ignore weather like this, to ignore pain. To live off the land ... to eat things that'd make a billie-goat puke!” Or, from Part II, the unintentionally comical moment when he informs Rambo that “You're just a tool,” before finally elaborating, “We're the machine.” Crenna vowed during the promos for Part II that if there was another one, he'd take his shirt off. Of course, his wish came true ... well, almost. He certainly got to see some action in Afghanistan and, working up a sweat and letting rip with a AK-47, he even manages to remind us of his earlier days in the likes of The Sand Pebbles.

    “If you don't fly this thing right ... I swear to God ... I'm gonna kill you.”

    Brian Dennehy's egotistical Sheriff Teasle is the best villain of the series. Period. And this is simply because he is not a villain. He is a three-dimensional character translated brilliantly, although with a few alterations, from Morrell's book. He may be hard on Rambo in giving him a ride out of town and displaying a complete lack of tolerance, but he does have his reasons, as bigoted as they are. “Pretty soon we've got a whole buncha guys like you in town,” he informs the bemused Rambo, his motivation actually based around the well-being of his people, the harmony of his little enclave. Even the bully Galt down in the cell-block - played by B-movie demigod Jack Starret - is not wholly despicable. Rambo is literally infuriating the hell out of these guys with his dumb act. They just want to get him processed and go home. Both Galt and Teasle would have been fine if Rambo had just “left the ink on the hand” and let them print him. But you rile old water-sports-loving Galt and there's just gonna be trouble. I love the interplay between all the deputies, though. Kotchef ensures that these guys are real and down to earth. Teasle's pigheadedness; Galt's redneck rough-housing masking his own inferiority complex - “aww, nuthin' I can't handle,” he murmurs dejectedly when the boss comes downstairs to find out what all the ruckus is about; David Caruso's pathetically pale copper-top, Mitch, and his perennial rivalry with Chris Mulkey's gurning buffoon Ward; poor old Orval and “his damn dogs” and his anguish at Rambo's decimation of them; Patrick Stack's barkingly bonkers Lt. Clinton (“One more for Soldier Of Fortune!”) Morgan of the National Guard actually believing that his weekend warriors have bagged a Green Beret - all well rounded and fleshed-out, despite their relative ensemble status.

    The interplay between all these guys is beautifully encapsulated when Rambo begins to take out the posse one by one. The film's dialogue just becomes one long, anguished catalogue of name-calling as each deputy finds himself lost and cut off in the woods, with either a broken arm, spike-pierced legs, a knife-wound in the thigh or just vine-garrotted to a tree - “Will!” “Mitch, is that you?” “Will!” “Ward?” “Shingelton!” “Will!!!!” “Wiiillllll!!!!” - it's comical but somehow terrifying at the same time. But we are only just getting to know what this boy can do ... and it sometimes seems a shame that we don't get to see much more of these damaged guys from this point onwards.

    “Dragonfly, Wolf-den ... colourful names ...”

    Of course, Rambo's later nemesis would not come from the same stable as these hillbillies with badges. Steven Berkoff's syllable-mangling Muscovite, Lt. Col. Podovsky is the thing of pure pantomime. Strutting around his leather-skinned captive with nothing but eee-villll emanating from his beady eyes, the once-cleverly grey lines of demarcation between good and bad guy become starkly black and white. But, setting a precedent for other Russian bad-ass commanders to follow, he can also fly a helicopter. Well, I say helicopter, but those Russki gunships are more like fat, bloated prehistoric bumblebees, aren't they? Berkoff, to his credit, does effect an ice cold detachment during his big airborne chase sequence that does make him actually seem quite formidable. His big, grunting henchman, Yushin, is the type of foe that we want to see our boy go up against though. Huge, sweaty and gleefully violent, he can put the boot in whilst simultaneously tattooing a prisoner with the hot end of heated knife. Something that always tickles me is when Podovsky orders Yushin, in Russian, to put Rambo's knife on the hot coals for a spot of eyeball intimidation is that even in this foreign tongue, it sounds just like Berkoff is saying, “Yushin, roast me a knife!” Rambo may have been among Podovsky's Vietnamese comrades before, but he's learned a thing or two since then and no amount of scarring will stop him making a date with that handy ripple of dramatic thunder and flash of Universal Horror lightning as he makes “a radio call” to the typical home-grown traitor that set him up in the first place.

    “American? I want to talk to you ... who are you?”

    “I'm your worst nightmare!”

    Rambo III's roster of antagonists don't fare nearly so well. John Peel lookalike Marc De Jonge's Sector Commander Zaysen is even less believable than Podovsky. He may be able to fly one of those mighty choppers and even likes to play a very personal part in his command's various attacks on the local rebels, but his motivation is strictly governed by numbers. He merely wants to ensure his weekly quota of kills and reputation as head honcho of the most ruthlessly efficient Russian stronghold in the whole invasion force. Having the unlucky Trautman as his guest down in Blow-torch Boulevard is not something that he needs, yet no amount of cigar smoke in the pesky Yank's face is going to make him talk. Harrumph-ski! Still, he's got the hulking, monstrous sidekick of the bear-like Spetnatz leader and the pretty-boy, shouty mouthpiece of a helicopter whiz-kid who looks like the English ac-tor Christopher Cazenove, at his disposal. The casting of varied ethnic groups in the third film was actually quite illuminating, as well, Stallone and Mario Kassar and Andrew Vajna very keen to play up certain realities in order to convince us that we are in Afghanistan, whilst obviously kicking sand in the face of most physical science, ballistics and human levels of endurance.

    “What is this?”

    “It's a blue light.”

    “What does it do?”

    “It turns blue ...”

    Whilst Part II established that Rambo still had an eye for the ladies - although, once again, this was a bond that could only be proved with the delectable Julia Nicks' jungle-babe Co first proving her mettle in combat - the makers were quick to realise that having a woman at his side was only going to slow him down. Thus, no sooner had Rambo discovered that he might not have been so “expendable” after all, love is swiftly obliterated in a hail of rather plastic-sounding automatic fire, prompting the mother of all vengeance sprees. It is worth noting that the fourth instalment (reviewed separately) also initiates a relationship with a woman - the hugely attractive when not bedecked in mud and blood Julie Benz - whilst the third virtually eradicates all feminine presence beyond a gaggle of refugees. Rambo was not exactly crafted to be a sex symbol, although he would go on to become a very unlikely gay icon. By the way, does anybody remember the rumours that flew around during Rambo II's theatrical run that Sly was in possession of a slightly bionic body? Some very odd tendons and ligaments connecting his arms to his torso caused this amusing speculation. It is not up for debate that Sly pushed his body to somewhat grotesque extremes throughout the series though. By the trademark bandanna-tying at the start of Rambo III, it was clear that he had grown to implausibly huge proportions, his out-of-scale physique curious to say the least ... but still immensely inspiring to knuckle-headed wannabes like me!

    “Chopper on our tail!”

    No s**t, Sherlock ... have you seen the size of that thing?”

    As big as Stallone got to fill the role, the stunts and action just got bigger. Where it seemed totally feasible to have him take a death-plunge off the side of Chapman Gorge in First Blood - indeed the damage it inflicted upon him and Stallone's terrifically convincing performance of unbearable agony makes it one of the greatest action gags of all time - and outwit a police posse and then turn the whole town into Swiss cheese, there is a straining for effect when we witness him take on entire armies (two of them, no less, in the immediate sequel with both the North Vietnamese and the Russians gunning for him), fly gunships, drive tanks and virtually blow himself up in an attempt to cauterise a nasty wound that would have effectively been the ultimate in body-piercing. Then again, if you had received several hundred volts of Russian-inflicted electricity, as in Part II, you would probably be energised for another couple of movies too! But, as preposterous as these middle instalments in the series wound up, there is something exceptionally exhilarating about seeing Stallone running, diving, lunging, and grappling his way through the escalating set-pieces. Big ol' Arnie smashed his Austrian Oak-sized frame right into the heart of the action genre with his Rambo-riff Commando - a camp classic that I used to adore, but can now hardly bare to watch - but there is no way on God's good Earth that he could compete with Stallone. He may have had muscles more than twice the size of Sly's, but he couldn't fight his way out of a paper-bag, his action scenes totally lacking in style, agility or credibility. He could barely run and you would hardly ever feel your pulse racing as he progressed through ranks of cannon-fodder goons in anywhere near the same fashion as you would seeing Stallone hot-footing it across rocky cliffs beneath beer-barrel-sized bombs that are about to drop on his head, or leap (however implausibly) from a lagoon to pluck a hapless Russkie from the door of a hovering helicopter. Rambo's M60 rampages are justifiably the stuff of lock 'n' load legend. The bullets may never run out, and he even falls over just out of shot in Part II under the weight of the damn thing (look for it ... it's there, all right) but, second only to his Native Indian-style prowess with a bow and a cluster of explosive-tipped arrows, you couldn't ask for a more overblown, sabre-rattling poster-boy image on the route to policing the world's hot-spots.

    “You may scream ... there is no shame ...”

    Whilst the action would increase exponentially from first to third bloods, Rambo's outrageous combat would still find time for both wit and stunning imagination - cracker-jack editing throughout all three films making even the most eye-bogglingly OTT stunt or death innately entertaining. The North Vietnamese officer's smoking boots standing on the rocks - all that remains of him after chewing on the fizzy end of an explosive arrow. The big Russki bear's eyes bulging as he realises he is dangling at the end of a rope with only a couple of hand grenades, minus their pins, for company. I also love the look on Rambo's face after he has sent this guy tumbling through the hole - there's a real sense that our hero is knackered now and could really have done without that last tussle. His slamming of the M60 into Martin Kove's stomach by way of a greeting to the treacherous merc, Erikson, in Part II and delicious knife-thrusting intimidation of a wide-eyed and sweaty Charles Napier - “You know there's more men out there. Find 'em ... or I'll find you!” An eyeball opening in a wall of sloppy mud behind an unsuspecting enemy soldier; a tremendous double-dose of neck-breakage in Zaysen's mountain top stronghold - the cliff-edge sentry and then the charging fool viciously clothes-lined down in the cell-block - awesome stuff. But for sheer daftness you can always count on Crenna. The surging sprints that take Trautman way ahead of Rambo during their escape in part III are hysterical. Every time Rambo, an acknowledged superman, gets to the top of a hill, there's Trautman, an acknowledged old man, proudly atop the next one shouting, “Come on, John!” This is even more giggle-inducing when Rambo, having taken out what he thought was an entire squad of Spetznatz commandos down in the caves, surfaces into the glaring sunlight and comes face to flame-blackened face their brutish Kap-itan whilst Uncle Sam Trautman is half a mile away and unable to crack off a shot. Has this guy got a jeep hidden somewhere, or what?

    Just as Bond has his theme-tune and Indy has his fanfare, Rambo has his signature musical phrases. Composed by Jerry Goldsmith at the absolute zenith of his creativity, Rambo's theme is one of the all-time greats. The song “It's A Long Road” was brilliantly conceived to be adapted from wistful tragedy and pathos to strident, defiant heroism in the blink of an eye, and it would follow Rambo from the “small hick towns” of the US back into hell he calls home of Vietnam and then on to Afghanistan. Goldsmith's eighties trademark of beautifully integrated electronica gives the Rambo series - especially parts 2 and 3 - a wildly distinctive combination of rousing percussion and brass combined with multi-layered ethnicity. Scores for the first two film have already been reviewed in-depth, and the other two will follow, but it is interesting to note that, just prior to Part II's theatrical release, the Goldsmith-scored Baby: Secret Of The Lost Legend had come out carrying what was, inarguably, the template for what would become Rambo's bigger, more kinetic action cues. The fourth instalment, sadly now without any fresh input from Goldsmith, carries on the theme with ultra respect to the initial creator from composer Brian Tyler, but the first three tours of duty that the screen Rambo endures perfect the quintessential action score dynamic and they would, perhaps, be simply laughable without it.

    “Why would you be carrying a knife like this?”


    “Don't be a wise guy. What do you hunt with a knife?”


    Effectively statement-driven, Rambo's exploits would dovetail into what would become occasionally crass sentiment as emotional epilogues saw Sly spilling his guts to a wobble-chinned Trautman. Whereas this worked incredibly well in First Blood which, to a lad who had never even seen his own father, a war-veteran himself, cry, was a profoundly moving and indeed shocking experience, it would become pompous and trite by Part II's over-labouring of the point. “Then what is you want?” asks a clearly exasperated Trautman of his sweaty, bandanna-topped creation. “I want what they want,” demands an impassioned Rambo, “For our country to love us ... as much as we ... love it.” The message was clear and the motivation sincere, but the virtual product-placement of such a sentiment just reduced audiences to tears of laughter. Although a harder film, Rambo III actually softened this final denouement, with both of America's top warriors riding off into the Afghan sunset as though eloping like Omar Sharif and a beefcake concubine to a Bedouin encampment on the horizon. The irony being that Trautman virtually bullied his favourite “full-blooded combat soldier” into taking up arms again right at the start and is responsible for his pet's upheaval from relative peace and harmony with the monks. More and more, it becomes clear that Trautman is the one who keeps getting Rambo into trouble. He took him, he trained him - sorry, he “just chipped away the rough edges”, didn't he? He created a monster, that's what he did. Even languishing in prison couldn't save him from Crenna's nudge, nudge, wink, wink approach to persuasion. Still, as patently daft as their set-up is from Parts II to III, few could argue that the Rambo/Trautman double-act is worth its weight in gold. I may not rate Crenna as an actor, but I simply cannot imagine Sly's Rambo without his rugged top brass confidante from Fort Bragg winding him up and setting him loose throughout these three classic adventures.

    “Nothing is over! You just don't turn it off! It wasn't my war - you asked me, I didn't ask you!”

    Inevitably, the law of diminishing returns creeps into the series. The ideas and situations became sky-high and almost as overblown as Sly's pumped-up physique, but I find it an amazingly witty move that a reviled hippy fugitive from the law should become a towering, nigh-on indestructible one-man-army out to tackle the issues that plague - or rather plagued - the US administration. First Blood is an angry film. David Morrell did not necessarily write the original book as a swiping backhand accusation of his government's ill treatment of returning soldiers, he simply wanted to pitch two men - two war veterans from different wars and generations - against one another to see whose tactics, willpower and strength of spirit would persevere. Whilst Kotcheff's film adaptation watered-down the psychotic and unbelievably violent tendencies of its aggrieved warrior (Rambo kills almost everybody in the book!) in favour of a downtrodden hero only reluctantly “showing off his stuff” in order to simply survive, the character, and his battle with the belligerent, intolerant system, struck a chord that appealed to gung-ho politicians sick of red tape and pansy-assed liberals, soldiers sick of the politics that bound them and a general public who wanted to believe so much that one man could make a difference. John Wayne had done it from the saddle and the landing craft. Clint had taken the baton from him and then done it, himself, with both a six-shooter and then a .44 Magnum. Even Mad Max had done it with just four wheels, a dog and a severely angry disposition. The eighties took on the new standard of indomitable, muscle-clad war machines because this is what the world - well, the western world anyway - wanted. If anything, the theme of Rambo is not the alleged right-wing hard-line that detractors so love to cite, it is the faith system that the individual can rise above the system, surmount any obstacle and save the day under their own strength, guile and cunning. Cardboard, scapegoat villainy aside, the Rambo films totally envisage this ethic and, perhaps, lead the way in this new religion of self-preservation, self-confidence and stop-at-nothing self-believe. Oh, and unbelievable vanity for a great many workout warriors like myself, too!

    “Back there, I could drive a tank, I could fly a gunship. I was in charge of million-dollar equipment. Back here, I can't even hold down a job in a f*****g garage!!!!

    Potent words for an action hero.

    Whilst First Blood is a thoroughly classic motion picture, a dyed-in-the-wool challenge of triumph over adversity, the sequels' degeneration do nothing to besmirch its status at the top of the heap. Confusing titles aside, the middle two movies are classics of a different breed. You love Rambo - you must do or else you wouldn't have read this far - so you owe it to yourself and, arguably, the greatest action hero of all time to pick up this devastating boxset and reward yourself to almost five hours of total mayhem, extreme bloodletting and finger-in-the-eye sermonising from an icon so enduring that even in his sixties he could still outrun, outfight and outwit Arnie in his prime.

    One thing is for certain ... with the full set of Rambo films now available on Blu-ray, we all “get to win this time.”

    Although Parts II and III drop the standards set by First Blood, these action extravaganzas still warrant a solid 9 out of 10 just for being in the same box as the original. So there.