This movie is unfairly remembered because of the misquote “don’t push me”- it was “don’t push it”, is that so hard to remember?- and the increasingly ludicrous sequels it spawned. Even the name of the film has now been changed in the same way that the original Star Wars has, this is now apparently called “Rambo: First Blood”. Fuck that, why would I go along with that. There are similarly named characters with vaguely similar characteristics in the sequels but no other similarities. This is an unfairly maligned film; much, much better than its reputation. In First Blood a Vietnam veteran Green Beret John Rambo (Stallone, obviously) is the innocent victim of a bullying small-town Sheriff (Brian Dennehy) who simply picks a fight with the wrong man. Rambo escapes and takes to the woods where he is hunted by policemen and the National Guard with machine guns and helicopters. It’s a Western, a modern-day Western. Rambo goes to great lengths to avoid killing any of his hunters, despite the constant and excessive provocation, the threat upon his life and despite suffering flashbacks to his torture in a Vietnam prisoner of war camp.
There is no deep underlying message in First Blood, unless you count ‘beware who you fuck about with’. This is simply a documentation of an innocent man fighting for survival, waging a war of attrition and defying overwhelming odds to survive everything that is thrown at him. It is, to some extent, an elegy to machismo. Stallone is portraying every reactionary, right-wing, frustrated, pot-bellied, balding, middle-aged man’s dream- taking on everyon who has ever stopped him doing whatever he wants, wherever he wants with whoever he wants and however he wants. Just like Michael Douglas’s D-Fens Foster in Falling Down, Rambo is a wet-dream for the insecure and the impotent. That its appeal goes beyond that, however, says more for its quality than its limited macho hand-job appeal would have you believe.
And do you know what else? Stallone is really, really good in this. Not in the fat, lumbering “look at me, I’m stupid” way that he mistakes for acting in the likes of Copland and Rocky Balboa, but in a genuinely convincing, steely, haunted way. At no point does Stallone’s performance fail him- even his ‘tormented by flashbacks’ scenes or his climactic breakdown where I expected him to struggle are fine. He even looks handsome and hadn’t yet bloated himself into the caricature of a man that he became. This is as good as it would ever get for Sly. The second-stringers are solid and the direction by Ted Kotcheff (who I only know from the flimsy and disappointing Jane Fonda/George Segal comedy Fun With Dick and Jane) is straightforward enough to allow the story to work.
It’s a real pity that Rambo survived the film- he didn’t survive the source novel- allowing a fine and intelligent movie became a bloated, dumb, crash-bang-wallop series. 7/10