First Blood (1982)

Directed by Ted Kotcheff

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In First Blood a PTSD-riddled Vietnam veteran responds to passive aggression with absolute havoc.  He is John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone), a stoic drifter whose shaggy hair threatens the local sheriff, Teasle (Brian Dennehy).  The sheriff drives him across a bridge, encouraging him to keep walking, but Rambo turns around and is promptly arrested.

As he is being booked and tormented by the other unnecessarily antagonistic officers, Rambo suffers from war flashbacks and snaps.  He plows through the officers and escapes into the woods where he will be hunted for the remainder of the film.

Now to say that he ‘snaps’ feels overly simplistic and reductive, and until the very end of the film (when Stallone delivers an unexpected, heavy monologue) the story as a whole seems to simplify Rambo’s condition.

Rambo’s PTSD ensures that he can get away with some incredible violence but that our loyalties never betray him.  It seems a superficial justification for the plot to work in the way it does.

But then things get a little more complicated.  We never see the face of the human carnage Rambo inflicts, but he does kill a few people, presumably innocent people.  The conflict that Rambo didn’t instigate (he insists the cop drew “first blood”) has nevertheless been escalated to destructive levels, thanks to him.  Because of how his PTSD is explained we are led to believe that he was never in control, that it’s never his fault things have gotten to this point.

So despite its initial simplicity the film grows a little more complex, with the textual conflict mirroring the actual war in Vietnam, at least as I understand it.  It grows to such extreme levels, a perceived slight giving way to an entire town on fire, and in that destruction the initial source of conflict is all but forgotten.

As an action movie it’s all perfectly neat, with an easy to root for, stoic hero and disturbing antagonists who take glee in torturing the hero.  There is so much of this to ensure that by the time the hero finally fights back we’re desperately waiting for something to happen.  It’s a similar effect as in, well a lot of movies but recently John Wick.  We must see Wick lose his wife, his car and his puppy before he ever fights back, and by then we are so on his side that we’ll forgive anything that happens subsequently.

Up Next: It Chapter Two (2019), The Abyss (1989), Back to School (1986)

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