Monday, October 10, 2005

Day 10: First Blood

And what best to follow up the belabored sufferings of an ancient martyr God than with America’s very own prototype of a martyr, the Vietnam Veteran. Before watching First Blood, I’d never actually seen a Rambo movie all the way through. I caught parts of them on TV when I was younger, but never actually sat through them. Imagine my surprise that First Blood (which I refuse to call Rambo: First Blood) is actually a halfway decent movie. Literally.

The first 50 minutes or so of this 97 minute movie are nicely paced, edited, and shot. Sylvester Stallone plays John J. Rambo, a Green Beret/Special Forces type who’s come to a small Oregon town to find an old Vietnam buddy. After learning that his buddy has died of cancer, Rambo, with nowhere to go, walks around aimlessly until he is picked up by the town’s sheriff. The sheriff, played by Brian Dennehy in an over-the-top performance that is still somehow convincing, apparently hates drifters with a passion most people reserve for suspected child killers and so, unaware of Rambo’s past, arrests him for vagrancy. When Rambo is abused by the other officers in the small town police station, he snaps, fights back, and flees to the wilderness.

All of this is handled with an admirable efficiency, as is the ensuing sequence when Rambo stalks the pursuing cops in the forest. He sets traps, hunts them down, and immobilizes each one without killing them. It’s a fun meshing of the classic formula of a falsely accused man on the run and slasher movie conventions. It also reminded me of the old adage (I think from Hitchcock) that you will enjoy watching someone who is good at his job. Rambo is very good at his job and it’s enjoyable to watch him turn the tables on the coppers.

This section of the film has some effective location photography. It also best showcases a fun score by Jerry Goldsmith, fun because it is slightly too “big” for the scale of the movie. For instance: the music swells into an epic Western/Americana theme after Rambo steals a motorcycle from an innocent bystander and rides away from the chasing cops. The disparity between the epic music and the small motorcycle made me smile.

But the movie can’t keep this up for too long, and eventually, too many characters diffuse the essential conflict between Dennehy and Stallone. There’s a hefty chunk of time where nothing much happens as Rambo is hidden and Dennehy and others keep looking for him. A final confrontation that has Rambo blowing up a gas station and knocking out power in the small town to draw Dennehy out is kind of exciting but doesn’t amount to much. The movie concludes with a monologue from Rambo in which he cries and shouts about injustices, the terrible things he saw in Vietnam, and his treatment when he came back home. This monologue really is something to see. It’s embarrassingly funny as Stallone slurs and screams his lines at a rapid-fire pace, rendering most of it incomprehensible. The emotional beats are just right, though. So, even if it's not expressed with the best of care by Stallone and is transparently manipulative, I can’t deny that the tearful speech got to me a little.

I think it’s fascinating that this movie found the audience it did back in 1982. It tapped a zeitgeist of some sort and became a cultural watermark, no doubt there. I think there’s something about the way it puts a Vietnam Veteran in the same position the North Vietnamese were in (outgunned, outmanned, using a familiarity with the land to gain his advantage, and setting traps like the North Vietnamese) and has him, ultimately, come out on top that appealed to people. Perhaps the movie hit an undercurrent of atypical American self-flagellation over mistakes made in Vietnam. Perhaps I’m thinking too much about a Rambo movie.