Monday, January 07, 2008

First Blood: Revisiting the Series - Part I

In anticipation of this month's Rambo, I am revisiting the entire First Blood series in three installments. This is part one. (Here is part two).



Title: First Blood
Release date: October 22, 1982
Domestic box office: $47.2 million
Director: Ted Kotcheff

The Backstory

When First Blood was released in Fall 1982, Sylvester Stallone was one of the biggest stars in the world - sort of.

He was riding high off of Rocky III, then his biggest hit ever, and had just been tabbed to direct the (then) eagerly anticipated sequel to Saturday Night Fever. However, Stallone had yet to star in a successful film without the word "Rocky" in the title. Between the first two films of that franchise, he made Paradise Alley and F.I.S.T. - both financial duds. His films between parts two and three of the boxing saga - Nighthawks and Victory - were even less successful. Doubts about his true box office stature were not scarce.

Enter John Rambo.

The Plot

First Blood stars Stallone as a former Vietnam P.O.W. turned drifter, a man whose emotional scars seem only to be matched by the literal ones criss-crossing his body. When a sheriff (Brian Dennehy) runs him out of a small town for no reason, something in Rambo's head snaps. Through (almost) no fault of his own, he is soon on the run in the northwestern wilderness, hiding from local - and eventually state and national - police forces.

From then on, the film is split into two sections - Rambo's survival in the forest while being hunted, and then his return to the town with a singular, and not at all sane, sense of vengeance.

The Review

Is the film successful? As an action movie, First Blood is among Stallone's best. The shots of Stallone bounding through the forest, diving from explosions and, hell, jumping off a cliff, are the noble beginnings of the '80s Stallone/Schwarzenegger muscle-bound mindset (I mean that as a compliment).

As a drama, though, it falls a bit short by losing focus. Is it meant to be a wrenching post-Vietnam drama like Coming Home or The Deer Hunter, or does it want to kick ass Charlie Bronson/Death Wish-style? It tries to have it both ways, and ends up looking silly a few times. (Remember, the war had only been over six years when the film opened.)

Of course, that duality makes the film memorable, and sets it apart from Stallone's weaker single-minded action-action-action efforts (Cobra, Tango & Cash). You tend to appreciate the filmmakers adding depth to an action movie, and at the same time adding action to a dreary drama. Best of both worlds, and all that, even if it doesn't work 100% of the time.

Grade: B+

The Trivia

  • Stallone's DVD commentary reveals Dennehy's character was a Korean War vet - which makes a whole lot of sense, and should have been included. The sheriff was an older guy who despised Rambo because, in Sly's words, many Korean War vets felt their battle was the more just. In the finished film, the hatred seems a bit nonsensical.

  • The character of Rambo's old mentor, Colonel Trautman, was supposed to be played by Kirk Douglas. In fact, he was played by Douglas right up until the cameras started rolling, then he quit over "creative differences" (he wanted to make Trautman the hero, according to Stallone). Replacement actor Richard Crenna was brought in at the last minute, and had to wear Douglas's wardrobe throughout the production. And since Crenna was about a foot taller, Colonel Trautman suddenly had to wear a trenchcoat in every scene to cover up the short sleeves and pant legs.

  • Douglas probably wouldn't have been interested in appearing in the sequels, one would assume. Heck, he wasn't interested in reprising his role from The Man From Snowy River, so he was replaced in Return to Snowy River - by Brian Dennehy. Spooky. You just got chills, didn't you?

  • Crenna, by the way, had come straight from playing an effeminate homosexual on Broadway - and it shows. He absolutely could not shake that character in a couple of scenes, overpronouncing his vowels and even lisping a couple of times. Oh, and Trautman was an asshole in the first film, a stark contrast from the buddy-buddy relationship he'd have with Rambo in the sequels.

  • It's no secret nearly every big star had turned down First Blood in the late '70s. By the time the script got to Stallone in 1981, even he had refused to do it a couple of times previous. The producers refused to let it die, however, and eventually made the Rocky star received a financial offer he couldn't refuse. In the DVD commentary, Stallone admits as much, also saying he often wondered if he could intentionally hurt himself on the set to get out of the supposed career ender.

  • "We ain't huntin' him. He's huntin' us," says a red-haired whipper-snapper cop - played by a very young David Caruso.

  • John Rambo dies in the original David Morrell novel (and in one of the DVD's deleted scenes, incidentally). That would have made the three sequels a bit tougher to make.

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