The Impact of First Blood

As Sylvester Stallone's new action opus The Expendables debuts this weekend, I began thinking about the many other movies in his career.  His most memorable contribution to cinema history is arguably the Rocky saga.  But he has played many other fun roles, especially in the action/adventure genre -- I will eventually have to write a blog essay examining all of those characters.  For now, though, I keep thinking of the little gem that started his Rambo franchise, the 1982 movie First Blood, directed by Ted Kotcheff and based on the novel by David Morell. 

Stallone has a nasty habit of turning his great franchise characters into caricatures of themselves -- he did it with Rocky Balboa and he did it with John Rambo.  Fortunately for his fans he managed to redeem both characters with well-received recent films in their respective film series.  Rambo started out as a complex character that quickly turned into a cartoonish action stereotype in subsequent sequels.  First Blood, however, stands the test of time and is still a terrific flick with great performances not just by Stallone but also from the rest of the cast: Brian Dennehy, Richard Crenna, and even a fun little cameo from a young David Caruso.

Bob Calhoun had an interesting observation about First Blood, which he posted in the comments section of his blog entry about a great deleted scene included in the DVD compilation Rambo: The Complete Collector's Set.  He writes: "The thing about First Blood is that it's the bridge movie between the dark, downer films of the 1970s and the 80s action movie. It begins with John Rambo as the disenfranchised anti-hero, not much different from Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver. It quickly gives way to the symphonic (and excellent) score and all of the set pieces that characterize the big 80s film making. The movie has one foot in each decade. By the time we get to the second Rambo movie, we're solidly in the 80s."

First Blood was both a character-based film, similar in many respects to the types of movies Stallone made before his Rocky sequels, and one of the first blow-em-up, "one-man-army" movies that would define the action genre during the Ronald Reagan decade.  Even though he didn't have much dialogue in that first film, John Rambo came across as a complicated character, battling demons from his past and trying to survive in a world he no longer understood.

Sure, it had great action sequences: his escape from the local authorities who only saw him as an unwanted vagabond, the hunter-vs.prey scenes in the woods, and the explosive finale.  But it was grounded in a level of believability that many of the action movies that followed (including the Rambo sequels) seemed to completely reject. 

First Blood is still one of my favorite action films and if you haven't seen it yet you should.  It proves that action films don't always have to be just one-note cliches.  In addition to awesome stunt sequences, they can also have great characters.