Monday, May 09, 2016
Based by screenwriters Michael Kozoll and William Sackheim (who previously worked together on the staff of the Judd Hirsch cop show DELVECCHIO) on a David Morrell novel, FIRST BLOOD tells an interesting story about John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone, who considerably rewrote the script), a drifter, Green Beret, and Vietnam vet who just wants to buy breakfast and instead goes on to destroy an entire town.
Passing through Hope County, Washington on foot to visit an old Army buddy, Rambo is hassled and roughed up by Teasle (Brian Dennehy), the local sheriff, and his deputies. Wanting to avoid trouble, but tortured by flashbacks of his term in a POW camp, Rambo, after being pushed to the limit, explodes against his captors, knocking them about and escaping into the mountains, where he survives using his military training against seemingly hundreds of policemen and National Guardsmen.
It’s rarely discussed, but the performances in FIRST BLOOD are top-notch. Yes, the action is exceedingly well crafted by director Ted Kotcheff (NORTH DALLAS FORTY), the thick British Columbian locations are expertly shot by cinematographer Andrew Laszlo (SOUTHERN COMFORT), and Jerry Goldsmith’s churning score ranks among his finest work. But it’s the acting that lends weight to the story’s implausibilities and lends sympathy to Rambo’s plight.
Stallone’s performance is mostly physical, of course, but his naturalistic acting in his first scene with the mother of his old friend shows Rambo as a quiet man, shy perhaps, but with a sense of humor. Richard Crenna as Colonel Trautman, Rambo’s former Army commander and, in effect, the film’s Dr. Frankenstein, was a last-minute replacement for Kirk Douglas, but is so authoritative and avuncular in the role that it’s hard to imagine anyone else playing it.
Kotcheff assembled some strong faces to play the cops too: Jack Starrett as the brutal deputy Galt (the only character who dies in the film), Bill McKinney (DELIVERANCE) as the head of the State Police, Chris Mulkey, Michael Talbott, and a young David Caruso (CSI: MIAMI).
But it’s Dennehy who captures acting honors, portraying Teasle as a complicated man, nominally the film’s villain, but not a bad guy. Yes, he’s stubborn, close-minded, arrogant, temperamental, and responsible for Rambo’s rampage, and when Trautman shows up to “rescue” Teasle’s men from Rambo, he treats the colonel with disdain. But Dennehy also shows shades of Teasle’s more sympathetic traits when the man comes to realize he’s in way over his head.
FIRST BLOOD was a hit in the fall of 1982, spending three straight weeks at number-one at the box office and reviving Stallone’s career, which needed a non-ROCKY hit. Rambo returned in two ludicrous though entertaining sequels during the ‘80s—RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD PART II and RAMBO III—followed by the more thoughtful and gorier RAMBO in 2008.