While his breakout hit Rocky will always be a timeless masterpiece, not all of Sylvester Stallone’s ensuing starring vehicles have aged gracefully. Cobra, Tango & Cash, and even some of the Rocky sequels were panned by critics and promptly swept under the rug by audiences.
But 1982’s First Blood, the intimate first installment of the Rambo franchise revolving around a small-town police manhunt, is a masterfully crafted thriller that still holds up today. A few key elements make this movie a cinematic gem that warrants countless revisits.
10 Sylvester Stallone’s Understated Performance As Rambo
Since Sylvester Stallone is primarily an action star, he doesn’t get a lot of appreciation for his acting skills. But his gritty performances in Rocky, Cop Land, and indeed First Blood have proven that he’s more than capable of bringing authentic edge and nuance to a multifaceted character.
Stallone doesn’t pronounce Rambo’s psychological torment or overplay his rage. The power of his performance comes from how understated it is. The character doesn’t have a lot of dialogue, so Stallone conveys the emotions of almost all his scenes nonverbally.
9 Rambo Doesn’t Directly Kill Anybody
The sequels to First Blood would recharacterize Rambo as a remorseless killing machine who guns down legions of soldiers without flinching. But in the original movie, Rambo doesn’t directly kill a single person. A police officer falls to their death from a helicopter, but only because they put themselves in a precarious position to shoot at a defenseless Rambo on the side of a cliff.
As much fun as it is to see Rambo wielding an automatic machine gun with one hand, the character was much more relatable and human when he only acted in self-defense.
8 The Dark Tone Still Packs A Punch
The screenplay adaptation of First Blood – credited to Michael Kozoll, William Sackheim, and Sylvester Stallone himself – changes a lot of major plot details from David Morrell’s source novel, including the ending, but it maintains the book’s dark, gritty tone.
A lighter tone, or a more conventional Hollywood action movie, would’ve detracted from the powerful political messages. First Blood manages to be more hard-hitting than any of its sequels with a fraction of the on-screen violence.
7 Brian Dennehy’s Unsympathetic Turn As Sheriff Teasle
One of the most acclaimed character actors of all time, Brian Dennehy stars opposite Stallone in First Blood as the villainous Sheriff Will Teasle. The character is the embodiment of small-town police corruption, and can be seen as symbolic of all corrupt institutions, with Rambo representing a plucky individual standing up to those institutions.
Dennehy isn’t afraid to lean into the hateability of the character. Throughout the futile manhunt, Rambo is constantly showing up Teasle and Dennehy plays the egg-on-his-face embarrassment hilariously.
6 Jerry Goldsmith’s Tense Score
The score for First Blood was composed by Jerry Goldsmith, an incredibly acclaimed film composer. He also composed the music for Planet of the Apes, Chinatown, and the groundbreaking soundscape layered over Ridley Scott’s Alien.
In First Blood, Goldsmith used Bernard Hermann-esque orchestrations to punctuate the on-screen tension. Goldsmith’s somber main theme, “It’s a Long Road,” has been widely praised for helping to bring a sympathetic angle to the Rambo character.
5 Its Incisive Critique Of The Vietnam War
First Blood might play like a straightforward thriller – and that’s one of its strengths – but it’s really a poignant portrait of the treatment of Vietnam War veterans. After being drafted to experience unimaginable horrors, soldiers like Rambo came home and found themselves cast out from society. This is beautifully symbolized by Sheriff Teasle literally driving him out of town.
Rambo’s friends’ deaths are hinted to be linked to Agent Orange and Rambo continually curses out the government that sealed his violent fate. The sequels glorified war with spectacular displays of jingoistic bloodshed, but First Blood is staunchly anti-war.
4 Richard Crenna’s Heartfelt Portrayal Of Col. Trautman
Richard Crenna gives a heartfelt supporting turn in First Blood as Col. Trautman, Rambo’s old commanding officer, the one who turned him into an unstoppable warrior. Crenna shares terrific chemistry with Stallone, and his character acts as a middleman between Rambo and the police.
As the only one who gets him, Trautman is a perfect foil for Rambo. He understands what Rambo is going through and sympathizes with him, but he also understands why the cops want to bring him to justice. This endearing relationship brings a sweet undertone to the action-packed spectacle.
3 The Stakes Are Constantly Being Raised
The conflicts of First Blood are always escalating. First, Rambo is being chased through the woods by a couple of cops. Then, the entire small-town police department comes after him. Then, the helicopters start searching for him. Then, the National Guard is deployed. Then, an explosion traps Rambo in a cave.
The movie never becomes stale or repetitive because the stakes are constantly being raised. It’s endlessly rewatchable, because its fast-paced storytelling never settles down.
2 Rambo’s PTSD Is Still A Timely Reminder Of The Psychological Effects Of War
Throughout First Blood, Rambo is shown to suffer from PTSD. When he’s being beaten by crooked small-town cops, he’s reminded of the torture he endured at a P.O.W. camp in Vietnam, which brings him to his breaking point and kickstarts the feature-length manhunt.
All these years later, Rambo’s PTSD attacks in First Blood are still a timely reminder of the harrowing psychological effects of war.
1 The Ending Is Subversively Low-Key
The quiet dialogue-driven finale of First Blood is rare in this brand of high-octane thriller. Usually, this kind of movie would end with Rambo going out in a blaze of glory. The movie’s subversively low-key ending, in which Trautman talks Rambo down, works beautifully.
Rambo dies at the end of the book, but the movie doesn’t just let him survive to leave the door open for sequels. After venting his frustrations to Trautman and having them validated, Rambo accepts his fate and turns himself over to the authorities. This scene resolves the themes of the story: Rambo didn’t want to kill all the cops or get off scot free; he just wanted to be heard.
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