Sylvester Stallone is someone who is at his best when he’s doing action scenes, not while he’s talking. He’s a physical actor, someone who is always in tip-top shape. He seems to do a lot of his own stunts, and he’s believable in them. In fact, because of his physique, he makes the impossible feel probable, and this is one of the reasons that First Blood works as well as it is. Its only real problem comes from whenever Stallone has to deliver more than a one-line acknowledgment.
Stallone plays John Rambo, a Vietnam War veteran, someone who was affected mentally by his experience over there. He was in the Special Forces, but is now drifting from place to place, not really knowing what to do with himself. At the beginning of the film, he finds himself approaching the small town of Hope, and is placed under arrest by and overzealous sheriff (Brian Dennehy), despite not having done anything wrong. Rambo is never really all that cooperative, and after being bullied by the cops, he decides that enough is enough, breaking out of the police station and running into the forest, where much of the movie takes place.
It’s one man against an entire army — eventually, anyway, after the local force is unable to stop him — and that’s how the rest of the film plays out. We learn from his boss and Colonel (Richard Crenna) that he might be the most dangerous man alive, as he was trained to survive in situations like this. He’s in hostile territory and he has to live off the land — that kind of thing.
This is despite him initially not doing a single thing wrong. He was provoked, like an animal backed into the corner. There’s an emotional connection present here, as we know that Rambo had no reason to be arrested. He’s been mistreated, and that he’s a war veteran whose life has been severely impacted by his service only adds onto the empathy we feel. We get small flashbacks early on when situations arise that remind him of some of the horrors he faced in Vietnam. Rambo is quite a sympathetic character in this film, and Stallone doesn’t even have to do much acting for that to happen.
In fact, it’s when he does try to really act when the film starts to take a turn for the worst. At the end of the film, he delivers a long monologue revealing things we’d already picked up over the course of the film, and it just slows the whole thing down. I get it. We need a climax and having him explain how messed up he is makes sense. But it doesn’t work when Stallone is murmuring this monologue, keeping the same stoic face that he’s had for the film’s entirety.
This actually differs from the book on which First Blood is based. That’s fine, as that ending was a whole lot more depressing, although I still found this monologue unnecessary. It’s not even that Stallone’s delivery is poor; it’s more the fact that we’ve already come to understand everything he tells us. The earlier parts of the film imply pretty much everything he goes on about in this last speech, rendering it redundant. Now, if it was particularly powerful, or if Stallone could pull it off, maybe it would have worked. However, it does absolutely nothing for the film and I would have greatly preferred it to have been left out, or at least trimmed to the bare minimum.
That’s really the only major problem facing First Blood. The rest of the film is a tight, action-packed experience, one for the ages. It works almost as well as a psychological thriller as it does an action film. It has some fantastic sequences of action, as well as some troubling character moments. Sometimes these overlap to create brilliance. There is never a dull moment until the end, and despite it being unrealistic at times, we believe in it because Stallone sells the action scenes so well.
Is it really possible for about half of the things in First Blood to happen? Probably not. Does that matter when we’re watching the film? Absolutely not. As a physical actor, Stallone is top-notch. He single-handedly makes us believe that his character can pull off everything that happens in the film. It’s not just that he’s in great shape, although that helps. He doesn’t seem afraid to take a bump every now and then, which allows his character to be more human that invincible, which helps us buy these moments of implausibility.
Stallone is easily out-acted by both other prominent players, Brian Dennehy and Richard Crenna, both of whom have the ability to steal scenes. Dennehy’s obsessive cop persona makes him an effective villain, and while Crenna doesn’t get a lot of time on-screen, he does a great job with it.
First Blood is an excellent movie that’s only let down by its final few moments. As it leads up to this point, however, it is so enjoyable, so well-made, that you have to forgive it for that misstep. It’s an amazing action film, but also quite a strong psychological thriller about a man traumatized by his experience in Vietnam. Placing him as an underdog, having to fight a battle he didn’t want is brilliant. Stallone sells the action scenes, and it’s just too bad that he had to talk a lot at the end. That’s the only notable flaw of First Blood.