Friday, December 31, 2010

Review: Rambo: First Blood (1982)

Director: Ted Kotcheff
Starring: Sylvester Stallone, Brian Dennehy, Richard Crenna

"I could have killed 'em all, I could kill you. 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."

I am not predisposed to talk about war, and I often feel guilty for doing so, like one of those horrid bleeding-heart liberal fanatics who talks about things he doesn’t really know about first hand. It makes me feel slimy. But I do like talking about movies, and Rambo: First Blood, even though it’s about war and one of the rawest and most heartfelt tales about such that I have seen. It’s not a tale from the front-lines, which is unusual enough, but rather from the dust of the aftermath. This is a tale from the Back-Home, after war, the effects of a war that didn’t really end well for anyone. Or so I’m told, as I wasn’t there myself.

Sylvester Stallone portrays Rambo, a Vietnam vet who is back home and searching for one of his old army buddies, who he’s told passed away from the cancer spread by Agent Orange. He travels down the countryside some more until he reaches a little country bumpkin town run by perhaps the most intense sheriff and police force ever to exist in the deep south – I mean, these guys take it so personally, the events that transpire in this film. It’s downright scary to think I could go through a small town and be harassed and abused like this by the lawmen. What are you even supposed to do in that situation?

Rambo is abused because he was in Vietnam. That alone was enough. The cops were a bunch of small town rednecks looking to impose their small-brained vendetta on someone and Rambo was in the wrong place at the wrong time. This is perhaps the most interesting and dynamic element of the film; that a chain reaction starts from this abuse. Whatever the cause of Rambo’s war – and I will get to that later – he fights back, and he fights back hard. The film that started as a case of a bunch of guys whose fathers probably never loved them beating up on this poor guy ended up turning into an explosive microcosm of the war in this Southern town (and man was it cool – but that’s also another paragraph). It is the definition of a chain reaction, and watching it unfold, growing larger and larger in the magnitude of its conflict, like a blossoming rose of fire. Beautiful in its own dirty, rough way.

When I first saw the movie, I said that Rambo had reverted to some primal instinct, a thought guided by the flashbacks he had when the guys were cornering him in the police barracks. He simply snapped and started fighting back exactly as if he were in ‘Nam again. There is another scene where the General, Trautman (Richard Crenna), talks to him over the radio just like he would have in ‘Nam, giving him battle orders and everything. But really, he was completely lucid the entire time, and knew exactly what he was doing. This is a reactionary film, with one guy sick way beyond his capacity of all the crap he’s taken just because of the war, people blaming him for it and putting him down. He’s bringing the war back to the place where it went unsaid, where it needed to be fought for different reasons. First Blood is really not a subtle movie. It hits with the force of a jackhammer to the face. But it is raw – to use that word again; it so very much fits – and the passion really shines through so much that it doesn’t matter how subtle the message is.

Plus, the lack of subtlety is actually one of the film’s strongest points, because the bluntness gives way to some of the BEST ACTION SCENES EVER LAID DOWN. They are unbelievably tense, gripping masterworks of heart-pounding, jugular-tearing adrenaline. The atmosphere in the scenes where the police hunt Rambo in the woods is so thick it’s malleable – by none other than a cast-iron sledgehammer. The ways Rambo picks off the officers, including breaking bones, shooting them and even a row of spikes to the crotch area. That’s just harsh. But the execution…is flawless. Fake lightning and all, it’s just flawless. The shadows and contrasts are stunning, the setting horrific and the attacks actively surprising and chilling. The whole sequence puts most every slasher ever made to shame, bar maybe Halloween. And even then, it’s a close call.

The other great action scene in this movie is the last one, in the city. Rambo takes his guns and just…goes to town on the town, for lack of a better expression, cutting off every lifeline they have and rendering them totally helpless. His plan is to cut off the town’s light sources first, which he goes about doing quite efficiently, soldierly, as is to be expected. Plunging the town into darkness, he intends to give the cops a war just like Vietnam, a miniature portrait, and to finish what they started. I just really like how orchestrated and methodical Rambo is at executing this whole plan. It’s just so surreal and yet so visceral at the same time that it’s like nothing else I have ever seen. The final outcome is so chaotic and yet it’s set in a very familiar looking 1980s city setting. I found myself wondering how this whole scenario played itself out in Rambo’s head. The wiring of his brain really fascinates me here, and makes me want to read his thoughts and find out what the process was. Such chaotic militance – a strange oxymoron – is something to be admired.

Another thing that works really well here is the interactions between General Trautman and Sheriff Teasle, played by Richard Crenna and Brian Dennehy respectively. The two serve as semi-narrators to the film, providing the bulk of the dialogue and exposition with their excellent tradeoffs, negotiations and arguments while Rambo lurks in the shadows. They have a mutual acquaintance in Rambo from very different angles, and while Dennehy wants him brought in, Crenna is more of a silent cheerleader. He wants Rambo brought in too, but he understands the situation more than Dennehy, and isn’t surprised at all that Rambo snapped, given his training and the circumstances. He wants to help but at the same time seems secretly proud of his old protégé. Crenna and Denehy make an excellent on-screen team and their acting is another reason why the film is as immediate and intense as it is. A good story is only as good as the people that tell it, after all, and these two guys are sort of telling the story of this film with how they play off one another.

Well, that’s Rambo. It’s incredibly raw, incredibly powerful, incredibly action packed and just all around incredible. It’s an action flick with a message, and one of the more somber and solemn you’ll see compared to a Lethal Weapon or a Die Hard, coming from one of the Big 80s Action Dudes nonetheless. Rambo is an artful, visceral film that doesn’t pull any punches and works well as a social statement and a blow-‘em-up action flick alike. Check it out if by some miracle you haven’t already, or die! That’s an order, private! March as fast as you can to the nearest video rental store!