John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) is a former green beret and a war veteran, suffering from heavy PTSD from his time in Vietnam. He’s hitchhiking through small-town America, trying to connect with his friends from war. Instead of a warm welcome, he meets Sheriff Teasle (Brian Dennehy) who arrests him and takes him down to the police station. Once there, he gets repeatedly harassed by cops in scenarios, which eerily echo his time as a POW in Vietnam. Rambo snaps, beats them up and escapes into nearby woods. Teasle is determined to capture him and thus a manhunt begins.
After a few failed attempts at Rambo’s capture, a green beret general Trautman (Richard Crenna) is called to help. He’s the man who made Rambo. He taught him to fight, think and survive. He’s also the only person left alive that Rambo trusts. This makes up for a nice dynamic, as Trautman works with Teasle to capture John, while also knowing that he’ll get himself out of this mess. Due to Rambo’s lack of lines and emotions, Trautman is the emotional centre of the film.
Stallone is one of the best physical actors of the 80s/90s and First Blood takes full use of that fact. What he lacks in dramatic ability, he more than makes up for with sheer aggression and muscle mass. For most of his screen time, he’s silent, letting other characters explain the plot, while he takes care of the action. These other characters never get the depth similar to Stallone’s and many of them end up as one-dimensional plot devices. Rambo’s screen presence is so strong that the film can feel slow when he’s missing from a scene.
The film features multiple small-scale action scenes which show Rambo both as a one-man-army, while still making him human and vulnerable. The audience feels for Rambo because, unlike people hunting him, we understand the trauma he carries with him and how it affects his life. For a small-budget 80s feature, the action is great. It feels real and dangerous to all the characters involved. From a technical standpoint, it is well shot and edited, always easy to follow.
The ending sees Rambo and Teasle going up against each other in the streets of the town. They shoot and things explode, but the film doesn’t end with a clear victory. In its very last moments, it delves into John Rambo one last time. First Blood focuses on its hero and delivers a strong, memorable conclusion to an already great story.
On surface, First Blood is another macho action movie of the 80s. And while the film has a fair share of captivating action scenes, it works much better as a dramatic portrayal of war veterans and how Americans were treating them. John Rambo is a broken man who is guided by the only instinct he has left: fight to survive.