"Back there I could fly a gunship, I could drive a tank, I was in charge of million dollar equipment, back here I can't even hold a job PARKING CARS!"
With the release of Rocky Balboa, Sylvester Stallone found himself in a career upswing that he hadn't experienced for over a decade. People who had dismissed him as an overwrought fading action star suddenly praised him for his warmth, his humanity, and his talent. While the film doesn't wash away the cinematic excesses that almost destroyed his career, it does make it easier to re-evaluate some of his older films in a new light.
Take, for example, First Blood, the initial film in the Rambo trilogy. While Rambo II and Rambo III embodied the type of film that turned Stallone into a parody of himself, First Blood represents everything that first made Stallone so successful in the first place. It's got great action, but it also has an emotional core and some fantastic actors.
Stallone stars as John Rambo, a Vietnam Vet who starts the film by learning every single other member of his company has died an early death. Aimless and unsure of what to do next, Rambo simply wanders. Coming into a small town much like any other, he crosses the path of Sheriff Will Teasle (Brian Dennehy), who takes one look at Rambo and decides he does not want this scruffy looking vagrant in his town. He drives Rambo to the edge of town and tells him, not so politely, to beat it. Rambo, not understanding the reason for Teasle's hostility, defiantly walks back into town. At this point, Teasle arrests him. At the sheriff's office, Rambo receives some less-than-hospitable treatment that triggers flashbacks to his time in a Vietnam prison camp. He freaks, busts out, and dashes into the surrounding forest. Teasle, now taking things personally, goes after Rambo. But what he doesn't realize is that Rambo was a Green Beret, and understands guerilla warfare better than almost anyone else. In no time at all, Rambo has entrenched himself in the forest, and every time Teasle attempts to extract him, he suffers heavy losses. The cat and mouse game escalates when Rambo's former commanding officer Col. Trautman (Richard Crenna) shows up, determined to bring Rambo back to the civilized world.
First Blood is something that a majority of Stallone's films are not--thoughtful. That isn't to say the film is My Dinner With Andre; there's plenty of action to be found. But at its core, the film is about a man coming to grips with a world that doesn't want him. The picture opens with Rambo discovering that every single man he served with in Vietnam has died. Every link to his humanity is severed right from the start. When he's harassed by Sheriff Teasle, it's just another in a never-ending series of insults hurled at him for seemingly no reason. Is it any surprise he reaches his breaking point and reverts to doing what he does best?
You can find more evidence of the movie's intentions in the fact that John Rambo kills no one from start to finish. One man does die, but it's not at Rambo's hands. That being said, Rambo doesn't exactly show his would-be captors mercy, maiming several and putting others out of commission. And then, once he gets back into the town, he does some major damage, prompting several exhilarating action sequences.
Sylvester Stallone really gets under the skin of Rambo. It's no secret why Stallone became so associated with the character, at least as much as people know him for Rocky. He makes us feel the angst and rage of this man who's been beaten by the world. Richard Crenna is an excellent counterpoint as the poised and controlled Col. Trautman. Crenna famously got the part after Kirk Douglas tried to rewrite the entire film. Crenna got called in after shooting had commenced, not even having read the script. But from the first moments he appears on screen, he makes the role his own, providing much-needed balance between the broken Rambo and bloodthirsty Teasle.
If there's any major flaw to the film, it's in the way the cops treat Rambo. While Brian Dennehey is an excellent actor, his portrayal of Sheriff Teasle is incredibly one-note for a good portion of the film. While he does explain to Rambo that he wants to keep his town peaceful and quiet, he comes off as such a complete and utter asshole that it makes it much easier to justify the violence Rambo perpetrates on Teasle and his men. A little too easy, to be honest.
That qualm aside, First Blood does a fantastic job with the action on all fronts. Even understanding how the script nudges the cops to make them seem more evil, it's still immensely satisfying to see Rambo defend himself so vigorously. This is the kind of action that defines the term "pulse-pounding," and all without a single explosion. When the explosions do come, they offer a thrill of a different kind. But the scenes in the forest are visceral, brutal, and far more thrilling than what has become the standard action fare for Hollywood movies today.
Watching First Blood in the wake of Rocky Balboa, it's easier to see the humanity that lies at its heart. While its sequels made a mockery of just about everything this film stood for, it makes First Blood all the more special by comparison.
The Blu-ray Disc:
After having been disappointed with Lions Gate's handling of American Psycho on Blu-ray, I had low hopes for First Blood, which is an older, more rugged picture. But, to my surprise, this 2.35:1 MPEG-4/AVC 1080p transfer has got it going on. To put things in perspective, First Blood is still a 25-year old film that was relatively low-budget, so the picture isn't going to look like a modern blockbuster. That being said, what we get here is pretty fantastic. I was surprised at the level of detail apparent in the transfer. Colors are also strong and consistent, and darker scenes are no problem. The final confrontation between Rambo and Trautman has fantastic detail, especially for a scene that is lit almost entirely by street lamps from outside the building. Beyond solid.
Lions Gate presents First Blood with a Dolby Digital EX 5.1 mix and a DTS-ES 6.1 mix. Although listed as DTS-HD, this is in fact the standard DTS lossy codec used on standard DVDs and not the lossless DTS-HD Master Audio. Considering the low-budget (I'm guessing mono) nature of the original audio elements, both mixes sound tinny. The action and explosions are underwhelming, but the mix has been nicely spread across the channels. I wasn't overwhelmed by either mix, but they're both good given the source. I also would like to have seen the original mix, but you can't have everything.
Commentary with Sylvester Stallone: People always make fun of Stallone for mumbling his way through his movies, but he's highly listenable in this absolutely essential commentary. Stallone is warm and forthcoming, cracking jokes as easily as small remembrances. He even sings a personalized version of the "Addams Family" theme! This is, without a doubt, one of the best commentaries I've ever heard.
Commentary with writer David Morrell: While not as much of a grand slam as Stallone's track, screenwriter David Morrell still has quite a lot to say about First Blood. His track complements Stallone's nicely, and he really is quite knowledgeable.
Drawing First Blood: A 22-minute retrospective, with interviews from Stallone, the novel's author, director Ted Kothceff, and more. At 22 minutes, it's hardly comprehensive, but it gives you a good quick overview, and some perspectives aside from Sly and Morrell's.
Deleted Scenes: Actually, two deleted scenes and an outtake. First is the infamous "Rambo dies" ending. The second is a nude-arific flashback to a Vietnamese whorehouse (a.k.a. best deleted scene ever). Finally, we get an entertaining outtake. Not a whole lot of footage, but it's all high quality.
Pop-up trivia: These pop-up trivia tracks appear to be all the rage on Blu-ray. To be honest, I don't enjoy them all that much. Pop-up video was fun because it was in three-minute chunks, and they bothered to make the pop-ups as enjoyable as the videos. Here, we get some bad animations, and a few interesting facts mixed in with a lot of flak.
None of the extras are in high definition, with the sole exception being a pair of Blu-ray previews.
First Blood is much more than just a simple action movie. It's amazing what a little thought and heart can do for a film. This Blu-ray disc has fantastic picture and the best sound we could reasonably expect, with an incredible commentary by Stallone leading the pack of some great extras. Highly Recommended.
Daniel Hirshleifer is the High Definition Editor for DVD Talk.