The climax of 1982’s First Blood isn’t a gun battle or a knife fight. It’s Sylvester Stallone, as John Rambo, breaking down into big, blubbery tears, trying to make sense of the world around him. He’s learned that he’s the last surviving member of his elite fighting force, that America has no further use for the kids who went off to fight its war in Vietnam, and that he’s made a series of terrible mistakes in going after the dickface small-town sheriff who’d tried to run him off for no good reason. The world around him has turned cold and uncaring, and his own bad decisions—ones that never felt like actual decisions while he was making them—have come back to haunt him. If you grew up with the image of Rambo that was omnipresent in the ’80s, then it’s shocking to discover how this character began: He was a total broken-down shell of a man who also happened to be a more sympathetic, slightly less bloodthirsty version of Jason Vorhees.
First Blood is very much an action movie. In fact, the entire first half of the movie is basically one long, extended, slow-building action scene. There are incredible stunts (a fall from a cliff, a fall from a helicopter), long stretches where guns do most of the talking, and chase scenes where both a motorcycle and a police car catch serious air. The first action sequence, when Rambo freaks out and breaks out of the police station where he’s being kept for no good reason, is one of the most viscerally satisfying fight scenes in the action canon, even if you know its consequences aren’t going to be good for anyone. The movie barely lets up for breath until it’s about 42 minutes in, when Brian Dennehy’s petty-dictator sheriff finally has to stop and think about what, exactly, he’s facing.
First Blood stands out because it’s a very, very different kind of action movie than its sequels. Three years after First Blood, Stallone would remake Rambo as a sinewy caricature of right-wing fantasy fulfillment, the sort of guy who’d put explosives on the tips of his arrows and rewrite entire chapters of recent American history. That later Rambo is the one that became a popular Halloween costume and cartoon series. (They seriously made a Rambo cartoon, which becomes way weirder once you’ve watched this movie.) The gulf between the first Rambo movies and the ones that followed is even wider than the one between Rocky and its sequels.
Sure, all of the costume-y props associated with Rambo show up here, too— the big knife, the ratty tank top, the headband, the big gun—but this film’s Rambo wasn’t a hero hellbent on solving America’s problems. He was America’s problem, one that the country wasn’t ready to address. Early in the film, you find Rambo still adrift years after coming back from Vietnam, as he checks in on an old Army friend only to discover that that Agent Orange had slowly killed him. When he leaves, he passes on foot through a small Pacific Northwestern town, and the sheriff there lets him know, with the friendly and snide concern of a jerkoff cop, that he’s not welcome there. Pretty soon he’s been unjustly arrested, and is riddled with flashbacks to being tortured at war while he’s being beaten up in his jail cell.
The cops are unambiguously the villains, at least on a surface level. (You’ll find that the real villains are those who haven’t taken good enough care of our vets.) And Dennehy and his co-workers (with the exception of a baby David Caruso, the cop who thinks they should lay off) do an amazing job being detestable forces of mundane evil. When Rambo starts throwing them through windows, or impaling them on slapped-together booby traps, or running them off the road, you feel good about it. It’s deeply implausible that this one guy could survive a manhunt from the state police and the National Guard, but the movie plays on your sympathies, and you root for him. The first cop who dies does so while chasing him in a helicopter with a sniper rifle; Rambo punches his ticket by throwing a well-aimed rock at him. That’s badass.
Stallone’s casting is key, and the movie wouldn’t function nearly the same way without him. The David Morrell novel that became First Blood had actually been kicked around in Hollywood for so long that there are all these alternate-universe versions of the movie out there. In some universe, Rambo wasn’t Stallone; it was Clint Eastwood or Paul Newman or Dustin Hoffman or Michael Douglas or Al Pacino or John Travolta. In some universe, the sheriff isn’t Brian Dennehy; it’s Gene Hackman or Robert Mitchum or Robert Duvall or Kirk Douglas. (It would’ve probably aged even better if, say, Fred Williamson had been in the role. But that was never discussed.) Some of those actors backed out of the movie or turned it down because they thought it was too violent, or because they thought Rambo should die at the end.
But Stallone, with his wounded intensity, turned out to be perfect for it. He draws you in by looking around, with this panicked vulnerability, wondering why the world has turned against him. He’s this elite one-man fighting force, but he’s got a little kid’s stubbornness and a painful realization of just how little of a shit anyone gives about him. Stallone himself also had the idea that the Rambo character should maybe not indiscriminately kill quite so many cops, that he should remain at least a tiny bit sympathetic throughout. If he hadn’t ordered those changes to the script, it’s hard to believe the sequels would’ve ever happened.
Rambo’s ally is just as important: The character of Colonel Sam Trautman, the one character who does care about him, is one of the best things about the movie. While he doesn’t show up until about halfway in, he gives a great, impassioned speech once he does that tells you everything you need to know about our hero. He tells how Rambo is better than anyone at killing and at avoiding being killed, mentioning, among other things, that he’s trained “to eat things that would make a billy goat puke.” (That’s my favorite line in the movie. What would make a billy goat puke? I feel like I need to know.) He serves as the voice of Rambo, and also allows him to maintain some level of quiet dignity.
In a lot of ways, Rambo fits neatly alongside movies like Rolling Thunder or The Exterminator, in the great-but-tiny Vietnam-vet-on-a-rampage B-movie subgenre. (Taxi Driver also fits somewhere in there.) It’s a relentless movie, one that never forces its big points or dials back the intensity. But it still resonates in ways that action movies rarely do, and that its sequels damn sure didn’t. It’s an absolute action-movie masterpiece, a movie that never quite gets old. And if your dominant image of Rambo is still the icon of Reagan-era jingoism, you owe it to yourself to check out Stallone’s character in its original form.
Tom Breihan is the senior editor at Stereogum; he’s written for Pitchfork, the Village Voice, GQ, Grantland, and the Classical. He lives in Charlottesville, Va. He is tall, and on Twitter.
Netflix Instant doesn’t have to feel like a depleted Blockbuster in 1990, where you spend half an hour browsing hopeless straight-to-video thrillers before saying “fuck it” and loading up another Archer. Streaming services can be an absolute treasure trove, particularly if you like action movies, and especially if you like foreign action movies. Every week in this space, we’ll highlight a new one. You can read previous installments over here.