Classic Review: First Blood

Stars:  *** out of Four

Summary:  While not revolutionary on a visual level, ‘First Blood’ brought a deep, heartfelt performance from Sylvester Stallone on par with ‘Rocky’, a great musical score from Jerry Goldsmith, and a very iconic character into cinema history.

Guess whos coming to dinner...

Guess who's coming to dinner...

Review:  A dusty road in a backwoods part of the country is unveiled to us, the audience, as Jerry Goldsmith’s iconic music fills our ears with a mournful, slightly adventurous tune.  Enter John J. Rambo, a Vietnam veteran turned drifter, as played by Sylvester Stallone.

And action movies would never be the same.

Based on the novel of the same name by David Morrell, ‘First Blood’ confronts the mistreatment of soldiers who had returned from Vietnam, while providing constant, gripping action.  Unlike the many imitators and sequels that followed, this film focuses on the character’s internal drama, which in turn fuels the action, rather than the inverse.  The idea of Rambo being a dumb killing machine is actually a misconception fueled by the sequels, since in this film he is very conscientious and obviously intelligent.  Stallone doesn’t play him like a generic antihero.  Arguably, he puts the same amount of emotional depth into the character that he does in his similarly iconic role as Rocky Balboa.

Along with ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’, ‘Die Hard’, and ‘Lethal Weapon’, this film framed the modern action film.  In this case, it inspired the common trope of the misunderstood soldier and his inability to adjust after being exposed to the horrors of war.  I can see inspiration from ‘First Blood’ in films ranging from the ridiculous (‘Commando’) to the surprisingly emotional (‘The Bourne Identity’ and its sequels).  Films like ‘Commando’ capitalized on the allure of the “super-soldier”, while ‘The Bourne Identity’ captured the same dramatic depth of character that is evident in ‘First Blood’.  Having not seen any of the ‘Rambo’ pictures until recently, I was very pleasantly surprised by the first installment.  One major element that contributed to this reaction is the movie’s restraint.

Unlike, say, the fourth ‘Rambo’ movie, this is a film that knows when to pull punches and when to throw them, hard.  Arguably the goriest moment is a man accidentally killed by John Rambo, the man being a deputy who tumbles out a low-flying helicopter to a bone-crushing death on a riverbed below.  Even then, no blood splatters, we simply see his heavily bruised remains afterward.  The second goriest moment is when another deputy is hit with a brutal trap set by Rambo, which impales his legs, but leaves him painfully alive.  Much ado is made of Rambo’s unwillingness to hurt innocents, or even misguided enemies.  What traps Rambo in this fight-or-flight situation in the first place is simple mistrust and prejudice from a small town’s sheriff.  Rambo even lets the deputies mistreat him without lashing out, until his post-traumatic stress disorder forces him to.  Though obviously having elements of a hero, while I was watching ‘First Blood’ I was convinced that Rambo was more the victim than the strict protagonist.  To me, the protagonist is his former CO, Colonel Samuel Trautman.  Trautman represents the moral ground zero, and, is the intellectual foil of the corrupt sheriff.  Trautman does his best to bring Rambo back from the edge of possible insanity, and when Rambo refuses, the question is, should Trautman give him up to the law or not?

Contrasted with the modern action film, this film is actually surprisingly tame, as noted above.  Were it not for several instances of the F-word, it would be a shoe-in for a PG-13 nowadays.  That said, the action is kept realistic and gritty enough that we feel its impact.  Speaking of impact, the film seems to owe one of its action scenes to another redefining action film, ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’.  Rambo hijacks a truck and gets involved in a brief chase, pushing a police vehicle off the road and crashing through barriers, with cinematography that is strikingly similar to the now famous truck chase in ‘Raiders’.  Considering that ‘Raiders’ came out a year before this film, it is plausible that the filmmakers wanted at least a nod to the previous year’s megahit.

The ending- which I will not spoil, as is tradition -is down/up.  Something is very clearly lost, yet something is very clearly gained.  It was unexpected and cathartic, so I wouldn’t want to say exactly what happens, only that Stallone pulls off a very difficult performance at a critical moment.

The technical aspects of the film are solid.  It doesn’t feel as dynamic in cinematography as ‘Raiders’ or ‘Die Hard’.  The special effects, which are still impressive today, thanks to the lack of CGI trickery, have body and are quite memorable, similar to the previously mentioned films.  The music, which I mentioned at the beginning of this review, is pitch-perfect.  The late Jerry Goldsmith, echoing the film’s story, took what could have been a generic thriller and gave it dimension.

That said, the film is not as complete an emotional ride, to me, as ‘Raiders’ or ‘Die Hard’.  Both of those films I give higher star ratings.  ‘Raiders’ is such a revolutionary film, which managed to succeed by using tropes establish near the very beginning of commercial film, that it has more artistic and visual merit.  ‘Die Hard’ takes the action hero, which was fast becoming a cookie-cutter character (and usually is, anyway), and lets him doubt himself, which is actually very similar to the character of Indiana Jones in ‘Raiders’.  ‘Die Hard’ is more entertaining than ‘First Blood’, to be completely frank.  The key flaw to ‘First Blood’, then, isn’t in general a flaw; it isn’t a film that manages to deliver on entertainment and spectacle quite as well.  Conversely, ‘First Blood’ is a great deal more serious than both of the former, and isn’t about spectacle or entertainment to the same degree. Nevertheless, as this article is about my subjective opinion, I give it a solid three stars.

Hopefully, action films will take a turn back in this direction, coupling restraint with a solid internal logic, and a compelling, iconic character.  There are still movies that deliver on this level, but as has always been the problem with cinema, and with art in general, it is far easier to find the bad than the great.  Until the day we get another icon like Rambo, “It’s a long road…

Classic Review: The Empire Strikes Back (Episode V)

Stars:  ***1/2 out Four

Summary:  A darker mythic adventure that raised ‘Star Wars’ from pulp to legend, excellent writing and talent abounds as ‘The Empire Strikes Back’.

If you werent thinking of the Imperial March before, you are now.

If you weren't thinking of the Imperial March before, you are now.

Review:  After the unexpected success of ‘Star Wars’, George Lucas immediately put into development his first sequel, which he had planned out before ‘Star Wars’ was released.  Lucas again took a gamble with the audience, hoping they would stomach a darker sequel.

It worked.

Rather than trying to create a story that replicated the successful elements of the first film, the filmmakers pushed the story forward into a dark middle chapter.  The heroes weren’t going to triumph as absolutely as they had in ‘Star Wars’.  Unlike most sequels, where the same premise returns with thinner characters, ‘The Empire Strikes Back’, by necessity, focused on the inner struggles and philosophies of each principal character.  Luke found out it wasn’t easy to defeat the Galactic Empire, and that the Dark Side of the Force was much closer to him than he realized.  Han and Leia’s relationship began to thaw, and they realized they were improbably in love.  Darth Vader would turn things personal, obsessed with finding Luke and turning him to evil.  There wasn’t a single, clear obstacle to surmount, no Death Star to destroy.

While it is undeniable that the fun, Flash Gordon-esque elements of the previous film are still there, the ‘Star Wars’ franchise had suddenly taken a turn into serious myth.  ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ is not just a second act in a three-act narrative, it is a tragedy.  It has a downbeat ending, though not devoid of triumph.  Luke emerges from his battle with Darth Vader victorious in spite of seeming defeat, due to his refusal of Vader’s offer to rule the Empire.  Though Han is frozen in carbonite and taken by a bounty hunter with the Empire’s blessing, Leia still has the assurance she can find him again, alive.  Even for Darth Vader there is hope; famously, he reveals in his combat with Luke that he is the boy’s father, Anakin Skywalker.  This is what established him as the most famous film villain of all time.  He was now a tragic figure, and not just a dark sorcerer with no past and no future.  The audience is left wondering, if Anakin was turned to evil, can he be turned back?

The nature of the Force is truly explored for the first time, on the planet Degobah with the help of an old Jedi named Yoda (Played by Frank Oz).  Basically a glorified Muppet, with the limitations thereof.  This little guy doesn’t just inherit the role of Ben Kenobi from the first film; he has a very different approach.  Yoda helps Luke confront his own dark side, and even before we know that Darth Vader is Anakin, we know that Luke is in danger of becoming like him.  The Force is a murky spirituality indeed, so it is hard to say much about it other than, well, negative emotions lead to negative results and positive emotions lead to positive results.  In real life, though, it doesn’t take a genius to grasp that emotions are neither positive nor negative.  Hate, said to be a negative emotion by Yoda, can be a good thing.  Let’s say I hate slavery, or murder.  Then my hate is supporting my love of humanity, and is obviously not negative.  So even though it “works” in the ‘Star Wars’ films, the Force is far too simplistic.  To me, this just reinforces the fantasy aspect; it’s like applying rules to King Arthur’s sword and scabbard.  It works in the story as a spiritual thing, but it doesn’t have any bearing on real life.  Also, considering Lucas’ other works, like ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’, it would seem he doesn’t believe every word of the Force dogma anyway.

Once again, the film was a technical triumph.  The effects were slightly improved, as ILM figured out what the limitations were of their methods, and if their methods needed to be retooled all together.  The lightsabers are a good example; in ‘Star Wars’, they tried blending luminescent sticks with animated beams, which made the effect inconsistent.  Here, they ditched the luminescent rods and went the solely animated route.  It worked much better, and let the choreography loosen up quite a bit during the fight scenes.

John Williams’ music took on a new flavor, becoming much more the ‘Star Wars’ sound we are familiar with, especially due to the Imperial March, which stole the show.  There’s not a whole lot to say about it, really, only that it was excellent as always.

Overall, I like this film less than ‘Star Wars’.  I do appreciate the direction Lucas took the series with ‘Empire’, but on its own merits ‘Star Wars’ is slightly better.  But only slightly!  This is widely considered the best of the series, though, and if you’ve only seen the others in the series, you have to give this one its time of day.