Film Review: First Blood (dir by Ted Kotcheff)


First Blood was not what I was expecting.

From everything that I had heard and seen over the past few years, I was under the impression that this 1982 film was the ultimate in mindless action.  I figured that the film was basically just two hours of Sylvester Stallone hiding in the woods, firing a machine gun, riding a motorcycle, and eventually blowing up a small, bigoted town.  It wasn’t a film that I was in any particular hurry to experience but I knew it was one that I would have to watch eventually, if just because of how many filmmakers have cited the film as an influence.  On Sunday night, First Blood aired on the Sundance Channel and, for the first time, I watched it all the way through.  What I discovered is that there’s a lot more to First Blood than I had been led to believe.

Now, don’t get me wrong.  It’s definitely an action film.  Stallone spends a lot of time hiding in the woods, firing a machine gun, riding a motorcycle, and blowing up a town.  Somewhat improbably, only one character actually dies over the course of the film, though quite a few end up getting maimed and wounded.  There’s even a close-up of Stallone stitching up a nasty gash on his arm, which totally made me cringe.  But, even with all the gunfire and explosions, First Blood has more on its mind than just carnage.  It’s a brooding film, one that angrily takes America to task for its treatment of its veterans and outsiders.  In its way, it’s an action film with a heart.

Sylvester Stallone plays John Rambo, a troubled drifter who is still haunted by not only his experiences in Vietnam but also by the feeling that his own country doesn’t want him around.  When Rambo, with his unkempt hair and wearing a jacket with an American flag patch prominently displayed, shows up in the town of Hope, Washington, it’s not to cause trouble.  He just wants to see an old friend, a man with whom he served.  Unfortunately, his friend has died.  The man’s bitter mother says that he got cancer from “that orange stuff they were spraying around.”  Even though the war is over, it’s still killing the only people who can possibly understand how Rambo feels about both his service and his uncertain place in American society.

As Rambo walks through the town, he’s spotted by Sheriff Will Teasle (Brian Dennehy).  Rambo just wants to get a cup of coffee and relax.  Teasle, however, views Rambo as being a stranger and, therefore, a possible threat to his town.  Teasle wants Rambo to leave.  Rambo wants to know why, after everything that he’s sacrificed for his country, he’s being told that he needs to get a haircut.  From this simple conflict — a misunderstanding really, as Teasle doesn’t know that Rambo is mourning the death of his friend and instead interprets Rambo’s sullen silence as being a threat — an undeclared and unwinnable war soon breaks out.

Technically, Teasle is the film’s villain.  He’s the one who arrests Rambo for vagrancy.  It’s his abusive deputies who cause Rambo to have the flashbacks that lead to him breaking out of jail.  It’s Teasle’s arrogance that leads to him ignore the warnings of Rambo’s former commanding office, Sam Trautman (Richard Crenna).  And yet, Teasle himself is never portrayed as being an evil man.  Instead, Dennehy plays Teasle as being well-meaning but stubborn.  It’s been written that the most compelling villains are the ones who don’t realize that they’re the villain and that’s certainly true in Teasle’s case.  Teasle’s job is to protect the town and its citizens and that’s what he’s determined to do.  If his actions become extreme, it has less to do with any deliberate cruelty on his part and everything to do with the fact that, towards the end of the film, he finally figures out that he’s in way over his head.

Once Rambo has disappeared into the woods and maimed (but not killed) all of Teasle’s deputies, he only has one request and that’s to be left alone.  He simply wants to stay in the woods, hunting for food and free from a society that has nothing to offer him during peacetime.  What’s interesting is that, at the start of the film, everyone wants Rambo to just disappear.  He’s a reminder of not just the turmoil of the Vietnam era but also the fact that Vietnam was the first war that America lost.  Rambo’s presence is viewed as being like an ugly scar that you wish would just fade away.  However, once Rambo does actually vanish, people won’t stop looking for him.  As opposed to the later films in the franchise, the Rambo of First Blood doesn’t want to fight anyone.  Rambo just wants to be left alone in solitude and considering the way that he’s treated by the town of Hope, it’s hard to blame him.

And so, you end up sympathizing with this John Rambo.  Even thought he’s blowing up a town during the Christmas season and there’s a few scenes where he’s kind of scary, it’s impossible not to feel that he has a right to his anger.  You find yourself wishing that the Sheriff had just left him alone or that maybe Rambo had just taken Teasle’s earlier advice and left town.  Because, as you watch the film, you know that 1) there was no good reason why any of this had to happen and 2) things probably aren’t going to end well for either John Rambo or Will Teasle.

First Blood was based on a novel that was first published in 1972.  The film spent nearly a decade in development, as various directors, screenwriters, and actors circled around the project.  At one point, First Blood was envisioned as an anti-war film that would have been directed by Sidney Lumet and which would have featured a bearded Al Pacino lurking through the wilderness and killing not only Teasle but also several deputies and national guardsmen.  When Stallone agreed to star in the film, he also rewrote the script, transforming Rambo into a sympathetic outsider who goes out of his way not to kill anyone.  The end result was an underdog story that audiences could embrace.

Seen today, it’s interesting to see how many familiar faces pop up in First Blood.  For instance, a young and really goofy-looking David Caruso pops up and totally overacts in the role of the only sympathetic deputy.  A less sympathetic deputy is played by Chris Mulkey, who would go on to play other unsympathetic characters in a huge number of movies and TV shows.  Interestingly enough, the most sadistic of the deputies was played by Jack Starrett, who directed a several classic B-moves in the 70s.  (One of Starrett’s films was The Losers, in which a bunch of bikers were sent to Vietnam to rescue an American diplomat.)

As opposed to many of the films that it subsequently inspired, First Blood holds up surprisingly well.  It may be violent but it’s violence with a heart.

A Movie A Day #165: Big Wednesday (1978, directed by John Milius)


If there is a male bonding hall of fame, Big Wednesday has to be front and center.

This episodic movie follows three legendary surfers over twelve years of change and turmoil.  Jack Barlowe (William Katt) is the straight arrow who keeps the peace.  Leroy “The Masochist” Smith (Gary Busey) is the wild man.  Matt Johnson (Jan-Michael Vincent) is the best surfer of them all but he resents both his fame and the expectation that he should be some sort of role model for the younger kids on the beach.  From 1962 until 1974, the three of them learn about love and responsibility while dealing with cultural turmoil (including, of course, the Vietnam War) and waiting for that one legendary wave.

After writing the screenplays for Dirty Harry and Apocalypse Now and directing The Wind and The Lion and Dillinger, John Milius finally got to make his dream project.  Big Wednesday was based on Milius’s own youth as a California surfer and he has said that all three of the main characters were based on different aspects of his own personality.  Expectations for Big Wednesday were so high that Milius’s friends, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, exchanged percentages points for Star Wars and Close Encounters of  The Third Kind for a point of Big Wednesday.  The deal turned out to be worth millions to Milius but nothing to Lucas and Spielberg because Big Wednesday was a notorious box office flop.  Warner Bros. sold the film as a raunchy comedy, leaving audiences surprised to discover that Big Wednesday was actually, in Milius’s words, a “coming-of-age story with Arthurian overtones.”

I can understand why Big Wednesday may not be for everyone but it is one of my favorite movies.  It is one of the ultimate guy films.  Some of the dialogue and the narration may be overwrought but so are most guys, especially when they’re the same age as the surfers in Big Wednesday.  We all like to imagine that we are heroes in some sort of epic adventure.  The surfing footage is amazing but it is not necessary to be a surfer to relate to the film’s coming-of-age story or its celebration of the enduring bonds of friendship.  Katt, Vincent, and Busey all give great performances.  Considering their later careers, it is good that Big Wednesday is around to remind us of what Gary Busey and Jan-Michael Vincent were capable of at their best, before their promising careers were derailed by drugs and mental illness.  Be sure to also keep an eye out for infamous 70s character actor Joe Spinell as an army psychiatrist, a pre-Nightmare on Elm Street Robert Englund, playing a fellow surfer and providing the film’s narration, and Barbara Hale, playing the patient mother of her real-life son, William Katt.

One final note: At a time when the shameful stereotype of the psycho Vietnam vet was becoming popular and unfairly tarnishing the reputation of real-life vets, Big Wednesday was unique for featuring a character who not only joins the Army but who appears to return as a better person as a result.

Shattered Politics #46: Used Cars (dir by Robert Zemeckis)


Used_Cars_film_poster

“Do you think we like being associated with the President of the United States?  I mean, we run an honest business here!” —

Jeff (Gerrit Graham) in Used Cars (1980)

As a film lover, I’ve sat through so many disappointing commentary tracks that, when I come across one that’s actually fun and informative, it causes me to like the film even more.  One of the best commentary tracks that I’ve ever heard was the one that Robert Zemeckis, Bob Gale, and Kurt Russell recorded for the DVD release of the 1980 comedy Used Cars.

The film — which was an early credit for both director Zemeckis and screenwriter Gale — tells the story of two rival used car lots.  The bad guy car lot is owned by Roy L. Fuchs (Jack Warden).  The good guy car lot is owned by Roy’s brother, Luke Fuchs (also played by Jack Warden).  The top salesman at the good guy car lot is Rudy Russo (Kurt Russell).  The film shows what happens when Luke dies and Rudy tries to prevent Roy from taking over the lot.

The commentary track is distinguished by just how much Zemeckis, Gale, and Russell seem to truly enjoy watching and talking about the film.  Kurt Russell, in particular, has an incredibly engaging laugh and his sense of fun is contagious.  However, for me, the most interesting part of the commentary track came when Bob Gale explicitly compared Rudy Russo and Luke’s daughter (played by Deborah Harmon) to Bill and Hillary Clinton and then even starts to do a surprisingly good imitation of Bill’s hoarse Arkansas accent.

What made it interesting was that the comparison was absolutely correct.

Politicians are salesmen.  Much as politicians will say anything to get your vote, the salesmen in Used Cars will say and do anything to get your money.  Politicians sell promises that are too good to be true.  Rudy Russo and Roy L. Fuchs do the same thing, claiming that their used cars are just as good and safe as a car that’s never been owned before.

In fact, one of the major plotlines in Used Cars is that Rudy is plotting to make the move from selling cars to buying votes.  There’s a vacancy in the state senate and Rudy is planning on running for the seat.  All he has to do is come up with the $10,000 necessary to buy the nomination from the local political machine. (I imagine it would be more expensive to buy a nomination today.)  Luke agrees to loan Rudy the money but, before he can, Luke goes on a test drive with a former race car driver.

The driver works for Luke’s evil brother, Roy.  Roy knows that Luke has a heart condition and he specifically sends over that driver to give Luke a fatal heart attack.  Just as Rudy is trying to sell a car to a costumer who is skeptical about whether or not he should pay an extra fifty dollar for something he doesn’t want (“$50.00 never killed anyone!” the customer insists), Luke staggers into the office and dies.

(The shocked customer agrees to pay the extra fifty dollars.  Ever the salesman, Luke grabs the fifty before he dies.)

With Luke dead and his estranged daughter nowhere to be seen, Roy is next-in-line to take over Luke’s car lot.  So, Rudy hides the body and tells everyone that Luke is down in Florida.  Both he and his fellow salesman, the hilariously superstitious Jeff (Gerrit Graham), conspire to make as much money as possible before anyone discovers the truth.

How do they do it?  Illegally, of course!

First off, they break into the broadcast of a football game and do an ad.  Then, they use strippers to attract customers.  And finally, Rudy comes up with his master plan, interrupting a televised address from the President of the United States.

“You can’t fuck with the President!” Jeff says.

“Hey, he fucks with us…” Rudy responds.

Seriously, I love Rudy.

In fact, I really liked Used Cars.  It’s a good combination of broad humor and clever satire and both Kurt Russell and Gerrit Graham give such likable performances that you can ignore the fact that they’re both playing total jerks.  (In fact, I would argue that one reason that we love Rudy is because he’s so honest about being so crooked.)  Not every scene worked perfectly.  The scene where Rudy and Jeff interrupt that football game goes on forever and, after a spokesmodel’s dress is ripped off, becomes so uncomfortable to watch that it actually takes the film a while to recover.  But then, after that, you get the interruption of the President’s speech.  You get Jeff freaking out over whether or not red cars or unlucky.  You get some fun driving school humor.  And, of course, you get a cute dog that can do tricks and helps to sell cars.  The film recovers and, ultimately, Used Cars is a celebration of small businesses everywhere.

And you know what?

I really hope Rudy did make it into the state senate.

We need more Rudy Russos in government.

And we really need more commentary tracks featuring Kurt Russell!