The Rambothon – Part 1

The Rambo series is one that I certainly knew by reputation growing up…every 80’s kid did. By the time of the third movie the name had become a catch-all for any ridiculous action movie trope, with mumbering Sylvester Stallone being a mainstay of sketch comedy. As a result I never saw the movies through to completion, aside from the original which I saw at an age to appreciate it.

Now we’re a few days away from the final part of the franchise to hit cinemas, so we’re going to try and play catch up with the final review hopefully landing Tuesday night. Time to go back to the beginning…

Title: First Blood

Released: October 1982

Director: Ted Kotcheff

Cast: Sylvester Stallone, Brian Dennehy, Richard Crenna, Bill McKinney, Jack Starrett, Michael Talbott

Plot: John Rambo is a veteran of the Vietnam war and survivor of a POW camp. When he’s picked up from a sheriff for vagrancy, Rambo suffers a bout of PTSD and launches a deadly game of survival with local authorities.

Review: in spite of what the series came to represent in the cinematic canon, this original carries a powerful message, and most of this is delivered through the character of John Rambo. For those who, like me, thought of Rambo as the quintessential mindless action hero this can come as a surprise.

Our story opens with John Rambo (Stallone) trying to reconnect with members of his Green Beret unit only to find that he’s the last one alive, the penultimate survivor having been killed by the effects of Agent Orange exposure. Heading instead to the nearby town of Hope seeking a place to rest and eat, Rambo finds himself picked up by Sheriff Teasle (Dennehy) and driven to the outskirts of town as he doesn’t want vagrants stinking up his his peaceful jurisdiction. When Rambo attempts to return to town, Teasle arrests him on trumped up charges and takes him to the police station.

It’s here that Rambo is subjected to physical and emotional abuse by the deputies, which causes Rambo to flashback to his time being tortured in a POW camp. Suffering a complete mental breakdown Rambo fights his way out of the station and heads for the hills. The stubborn and angered sheriff’s office head out after him, determined to hunt him down. Before long the situation escalate with the accidental death of a deputy. Rambo fills the land with dangerous traps, wounding but not killing his pursuers to show them that he can kill them if he was inclined but they’d be better off letting him be. Eventually Col. Trautman (Crenna), who trained Rambo, steps in to try and resolve the situation, but things continue to escalate culminating in an explosive confrontation in the centre of town.

What makes this movie work is the concept being the character of Rambo. He’s not especially complex or deep, instead acting as an avatar for the largely disregarded issues facing Vietnam veterans. Rambo was trained to be a deadly and effective killer and was released back into society with no other skills or support to make a new life. Instead he’s haunted by the torments he was subjected to, the horror his unit experienced perpetrated and the haunting spectre of death that has caught up with everyone but him. When Rambo does snap and begin his survivalist rampage through the woods and then the town he’s depicted as being completely beyond control, acting only to survive on an instinctive, feral level.

Combining this grim tale with gritty, brutal violence as Rambo makes use of his limited surroundings to craft weapons and supplies makes for an early 80s actioner that holds up over the decades. Smart, capable survivors have always been popular, but the themes of the film still hold relevance. The local media spin the story to frame the sheriff’s as brave hero holding their own against a deranged psychopath, the patriotic military culture of the US sitting in stark contrast to the mental health and social support given to it’s soldiers and the ease with which police officers can perpetrate and get away with shocking abuse are all, tragically, still common in our news cycles. First Blood serves as a reminder that a few of the biggest non-sharpie related problems of our time have gone unresolved for decades.

Stallone is mostly a brutal is remorseful killing machine for the majority of the film, but it’s his final monologue that seals his performance as memorable and a large part of his subsequent career success. The famous John Rambo breaking down in tears as he recalls his wartime experiences and the abuse he’s faced returning home is emotionally powerful and Stallone does a fantastic job in selling it without it feeling out of place with the rest of the film. The cheesy power ballad that follows during the end credits, on the other hand, feels very out of place and should not be a thing.

Rating: EIGHT out of TEN