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Written by: Michael Kozoll and William Sackheim, based on the novel by David Morrell

Directed by: Ted Kotcheff

Starring: Sylvester Stallone, Brian Denehy, Richard Crenna and David Caruso

“I know you can hear me. You’re finished! You’ve gone as far as you’re gonna go!” – Sheriff Will Teasle

This sort of ill-informed, premature comment is shouted an awful lot by the police officers in First Blood. John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone), is mistaken by Sheriff Teasle as a drifter and is driven out of town as quickly as possible. Tasle is just trying to keep his town clean and avoid trouble, but what he doesn’t know is that Rambo is an ex-Green Beret, the last of his unit, and a man who can cause a surprising amount of trouble. Rambo is  insulted, both as an warn vet and as a human being; he just wanted something to eat. Unjustly, Teasle cuffs Rambo and takes him to the station, where the officers just push Rambo one step too far, and he gives them a war they can’t believe.

I came late to the Rambo party, only pursuing the earlier films after going with friends to see Rambo (2008). To say I was surprised by First Blood would be an ridiculous understatement. My concept of Rambo had been of the muscle-bound superhuman war-machine, the symbol of the 80s action hero. We all know that’s what Rambo becomes, but what makes First Blood so spectacular is just how human John Rambo is. Stallone is still relatively small, compared to the Rambo’s bulk  in the later films, and he is really acting here! At the heart of First Blood is the story of a military leftover, someone who had been trained and manipulated and wound-up, forced to do and see the sorts of things that drive people mad, and then was dropped back into “normal” society once there was no more use for him. As he says towards the end of the film, Rambo was once the star of the U.S. military and had top-level access to government information and machinery but back in America his actions are protested and he can’t even hold a job. Rambo is a broken and confused man, misunderstood and unwanted by the very country he destroyed himself to protect. Sheriff Teasle Teasle is confrontational without provocation, and he is just the asshole that breaks Rambo’s back.

Breaking out of the police station, Rambo steals a dirt bike, rides into the mountains and very quickly disappears from Teasle’s view. Deep in the woods, alone, and literally running for his life, John Rambo is a man at home. The popular image of Rambo is of him with an absurd machine gun and wearing bandoliers, but he spends most of First Blood armed with only his hunting knife. Rambo is comfortable in the woods, he knows how to create traps from twigs and how to move in this terrain, he knows how to disappear. This is about intelligence, Teasle can send in as many men as he wants (and he does) but no matter how big their guns are, John Rambo won’t be found unless he wants to be.

Stallone’s first turn as John Rambo is great, he really inhabits this torn-down, isolated ex-soldier. Here John Rambo is more human than any of the other characters in the film. He’s certainly more human here than he is in Rambo: First Blood Part II, Rambo III or Rambo, and perhaps I’ll soon write about those as well. If you have never seen First Blood, or you haven’t seen it in a while, I urge you to give it a chance and surprise yourself. This isn’t like the notorious action films of the 1980s, though it spawned them. First Blood is a patient film, more interested in telling a story than in spilling blood; the body count is low, the script is lean and smart, and there is a very unexpected emotional heart in this film.