Skip to main content

Don't push it! Don't push it or I'll give you a war you won't believe.

First Blood
(1982)

(SPOILERS) Conventional wisdom seems to have rallied round the first Rambo movie as an earnest, low-key piece about a Nam vet, one that belies the bloated carcasses flying hither and thither in later excursions. That’s not quite the case. First Blood starts out well enough, certainly, mustering a legitimate sense of injustice over Stallone’s persecuted (and smelly) John Rambo. But this is still a picture all about overstatement, and director Ted Kotcheff was definitely not the guy to turn it into something special.


First Blood went through a number of directors and writers after David Morrell’s novel was published and the rights snapped up in 1972 (an estimated 18 versions of the script). Stallone toned it down such that Rambo became more sympathetic, no longer killing his pursuers (only one, the particularly abusive sergeant who ignites it all, dies, and only indirectly due to John’s actions) and no longer buys the farm (fortuitous for franchise purposes). Still, the picture came in over three hours, and Stallone disliked it sufficiently that he had the lead role significantly pared down in order to let others tell the tale; it ended up at half that length.


For all the pumped-up flexing of subsequent instalments, the Rambo of the opening scenes is closer to the humble Stallone who embodies the first Rocky, only more taciturn. Stallone, who attested to doing seven rewrites himself, isn’t a writer known for subtext, or sub-anything; everything he depicts lies on the surface. Brian Dennehy delivers a solid counter to the Vet as Sheriff Teasle, seeing Rambo’s intrusion on his town in much the same way he would a hippy a decade earlier (advising him to have a haircut and take a bath, after escorting him to the town limits). Famously, of course, Rambo doesn’t like being pushed, which brings out the tiger in him.


The abuse he suffers from Teasle’s chief deputy (Jack Starrett) triggers Nam flashbacks (crudely envisioned) in Stallone’s own Bruce Banner, leading to his hulking out in a scene that may have inspired James Cameron’s Terminator police station massacre (less corpses, but Cameron did go on to script Rambo; First Blood Part II so it had surely made some impact). Once he’s headed off into the woods on a motorbike, Rambo is refashioned as the archetype of the anti-authoritarian, misunderstood survivalist. Except he’s a morally palatable one who, not unlike like The A-Team, doesn’t terminate with extreme prejudice (he only stabs and impale victims, including David Caruso and Chris Mulkey).


While there’s a canny takes on weekend warrior National Guardsmen, playing at soldiers until the going gets tough (“Come on, I’ve got to be back at the drugstore tomorrow”), much of the survival sequence is surprisingly lacklustre; only the initial pursuit by Teasle’s men, in which Rambo effectively dispenses with them, makes the grade. John spends significant time trapped down a mine, rattled by rats, before escaping to bring Teasle to heel in a conveniently deserted town.


The biggest chortle in this comes from Richard Crenna’s mentor and Dr Frankenstein (“God didn’t make Rambo, I did”), issuing a compendium of ridiculously portentous lines in the service of bulking up Rambo’s prowess (“I came here to rescue you from him” he warns Teasle, who will need “a good supply of body bags” if he sends 200 men against John, and then there’s the clichéd dialogue; “I was there with you, knee-deep in blood and guts”).


Rambo’s breakdown scene is reasonable in its way; Sly’s giving it all he’s got, which may be unintentionally funny, but still has a certain something,  as Rambo invokes a friend who was blown apart while grasping for comfort from the superior who lacks the emotional facility to respond. Everything else is so expressly over the top, however, that the picture merits little
consideration as a serious analysis as a depiction of PTSD.


It’s interesting that audiences responded so affirmatively to First Blood, as it’s mostly unremarkable, not even really keeping a tight grip on Rambo’s righteous retaliation (The Second Film Year Book commented that Vietnam and some liberal soft talk were presented as “enough to justify the enjoyment of violence for its own sake”, which is probably true, but credits he film with more expert manipulation than it actually displays). It did, of course, become infamous for a time due to an entirely unproven connection with the Hungerford Massacre (one of many examples of media attempting to demonise movies rather than people doing the deeds themselves – or society as a whole, man). First Blood, while not being a fairly unremarkable picture, remains noteworthy as the last Stallone role before he became an action movie icon, while simultaneously being the seed that germinated said status.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Dude, you're embarrassing me in front of the wizards.

Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
(SPOILERS) The cliffhanger sequel, as a phenomenon, is a relatively recent thing. Sure, we kind of saw it with The Empire Strikes Back – one of those "old" movies Peter Parker is so fond of – a consequence of George Lucas deliberately borrowing from the Republic serials of old, but he had no guarantee of being able to complete his trilogy; it was really Back to the Future that began the trend, and promptly drew a line under it for another decade. In more recent years, really starting with The MatrixThe Lord of the Rings stands apart as, post-Weinstein's involvement, fashioned that way from the ground up – shooting the second and third instalments back-to-back has become a thing, both more cost effective and ensuring audiences don’t have to endure an interminable wait for their anticipation to be sated. The flipside of not taking this path is an Allegiant, where greed gets the better of a studio (split a novel into two movie parts assuming a…

I don't like bugs. You can't hear them, you can't see them and you can't feel them, then suddenly you're dead.

Blake's 7 2.7: Killer

Robert Holmes’ first of four scripts for the series, and like last season’s Mission to Destiny there are some fairly atypical elements and attitudes to the main crew (although the A/B storylines present a familiar approach and each is fairly equal in importance for a change). It was filmed second, which makes it the most out of place episode in the run (and explains why the crew are wearing outfits – they must have put them in the wash – from a good few episodes past and why Blake’s hair has grown since last week).
The most obvious thing to note from Holmes’ approach is that he makes Blake a Doctor-substitute. Suddenly he’s full of smart suggestions and shrewd guesses about the threat that’s wiping out the base, basically leaving a top-level virologist looking clueless and indebted to his genius insights. If you can get past this (and it did have me groaning) there’s much enjoyment to be had from the episode, not least from the two main guest actors.

When two separate events occur simultaneously pertaining to the same object of inquiry we must always pay strict attention.

Twin Peaks 1.5: The One-Armed Man
With the waves left in Albert’s wake subsiding (Gordon Cole, like Albert, is first encountered on the phone, and Coop apologises to Truman over the trouble the insulting forensics expert has caused; ”Harry, the last thing I want you to worry about while I’m here is some city slicker I brought into your town relieving himself upstream”), the series steps down a register for the first time. This is a less essential episode than those previously, concentrating on establishing on-going character and plot interactions at the expense of the strange and unusual. As such, it sets the tone for the rest of this short first season.

The first of 10 episodes penned by Robert Engels (who would co-script Fire Walk with Me with Lynch, and then reunite with him for On the Air), this also sees the first “star” director on the show in the form of Tim Hunter. Hunter is a director (like Michael Lehman) who hit the ground running but whose subsequent career has rather disapp…

An initiative test. How simply marvellous!

You Must Be Joking! (1965)
A time before a Michael Winner film was a de facto cinematic blot on the landscape is now scarcely conceivable. His output, post- (or thereabouts) Death Wish (“a pleasant romp”) is so roundly derided that it’s easy to forget that the once-and-only dining columnist and raconteur was once a bright (well…) young thing of the ‘60s, riding the wave of excitement (most likely highly cynically) and innovation in British cinema. His best-known efforts from this period are a series of movies with Oliver Reed – including the one with the elephant – and tend to represent the director in his pleasant romp period, before he attacked genres with all the precision and artistic integrity of a blunt penknife. You Must Be Joking! comes from that era, its director’s ninth feature, straddling the gap between Ealing and the Swinging ‘60s; coarser, cruder comedies would soon become the order of the day, the mild ribaldry of Carry On pitching into bawdy flesh-fests. You Must Be Joki…

Luck isn’t a superpower... And it isn't cinematic!

Deadpool 2 (2018)
(SPOILERS) Perhaps it’s because I was lukewarm on the original, but Deadpool 2 mercifully disproves the typical consequence of the "more is more" approach to making a sequel. By rights, it should plummet into the pitfall of ever more excess to diminishing returns, yet for the most part it doesn't.  Maybe that’s in part due to it still being a relatively modest undertaking, budget-wise, and also a result of being very self-aware – like duh, you might say, that’s its raison d'être – of its own positioning and expectation as a sequel; it resolutely fails to teeter over the precipice of burn out or insufferable smugness. It helps that it's frequently very funny – for the most part not in the exhaustingly repetitive fashion of its predecessor – but I think the key ingredient is that it finds sufficient room in its mirthful melee for plot and character, in order to proffer tone and contrast.

Ain't nobody likes the Middle East, buddy. There's nothing here to like.

Body of Lies (2008)
(SPOILERS) Sir Ridders stubs out his cigar in the CIA-assisted War on Terror, with predictably gormless results. Body of Lies' one saving grace is that it wasn't a hit, although that more reflects its membership of a burgeoning club where no degree of Hollywood propaganda on the "just fight" (with just a smidgeon enough doubt cast to make it seem balanced at a sideways glance) was persuading the public that they wanted the official fiction further fictionalised.

Like an antelope in the headlights.

Black Panther (2018)
(SPOILERS) Like last year’s Wonder Woman, the hype for what it represents has quickly become conflated with Black Panther’s perceived quality. Can 92% and 97% of critics respectively really not be wrong, per Rotten Tomatoes, or are they – Armond White aside – afraid that finding fault in either will make open them to charges of being politically regressive, insufficiently woke or all-round, ever-so-slightly objectionable? As with Wonder Woman, Black Panther’s very existence means something special, but little about the movie itself actually is. Not the acting, not the directing, and definitely not the over-emphatic, laboured screenplay. As such, the picture is a passable two-plus hours’ entertainment, but under-finessed enough that one could easily mistake it for an early entry in the Marvel cycle, rather than arriving when they’re hard-pressed to put a serious foot wrong.

He mobilised the English language and sent it into battle.

Darkest Hour (2017)
(SPOILERS) Watching Joe Wright’s return to the rarefied plane of prestige – and heritage to boot – filmmaking following the execrable folly of the panned Pan, I was struck by the difference an engaged director, one who cares about his characters, makes to material. Only last week, Ridley Scott’s serviceable All the Money in the World made for a pointed illustration of strong material in the hands of someone with no such investment, unless they’re androids. Wright’s dedication to a relatable Winston Churchill ensures that, for the first hour-plus, Darkest Hour is a first-rate affair, a piece of myth-making that barely puts a foot wrong. It has that much in common with Wright’s earlier Word War II tale, Atonement. But then, like Atonement, it comes unstuck.

I didn't kill her. I just relocated her.

The Discovery (2017)
(SPOILERS) The Discovery assembles not wholly dissimilar science-goes-metaphysical themes and ideas to Douglas Trumbull's ill-fated 1983 Brainstorm, revolving around research into consciousness and the revelation of its continuance after death. Perhaps the biggest discovery, though, is that it’s directed and co-written by the spawn of Malcom McDowell and Mary Steenburgen (the latter cameos) – Charlie McDowell – of hitherto negligible credits but now wading into deep philosophical waters and even, with collaborator Justin Lader, offering a twist of sorts.