First Blood

first_blood_poster“…Silver wings upon their chest
These are men, America’s best
One hundred men will test today
But only three win the Green Beret…”

First Blood. Because the movie’s title is said in dialogue and Stallone drops choice ass-whoopings on a bunch of arrogant townie cops who don’t know who they’re dealing with…

What more do you need in a movie? The answer is unequivocally nothing, but there’s a bonus of scene-stealers Brian Dennehy and Richard Crenna as a belligerent sheriff and silver-smooth Colonel Trautman respectively, adding class and gravitas to a movie that probably deserves neither.

When you think about was considered to play John J Rambo, it makes you woozy, a who’s who of Hollywood machismo, who announce themselves by their surnames: Pacino, Eastwood, De Niro, Newman, McQueen, Nolte, Garner…

Ultimately, Sly came in, did a script re-write and the rest machine-gunned its way into the national consciousness, a $125 million dollar worldwide success.

“Drifter” Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) ambles into a hick town in the Pacific Northwest, and is immediately hounded by Sheriff Teasle (Dennehy). He’s taken downtown (or whatever the equivalent is in this one-stoplight burb) on trumped up charges, and while being processed, has flashbacks to his stint in a Vietnam jail. Rambo cannot be held by mere mortals, and beats the holy tar out of the entire precinct, before fleeing, commandeering a motorcycle, and hightailing it into the woods. Call in the National Guard. No really.


There are quite a few deviations from the 1972 source novel by David Morrell:

1. Rambo (no middle “J” initial like la Homer J Simpson) is more of a Born on the Fourth of the July hippie than the comparatively “kempt” (if that’s a word), Sly Stallone.

2. The initial conception of the character was more combative, violent, and generally antagonist (in the novel, he disembowels one of the jailers, whereas in the film the CO gets off with a comparatively easy elbow to the face).

3. The introduction of Rambo’s old war pal character, whose widow we meet in the opening frames, a change meant to humanizing him.


4. In the novel, Rambo flees jail confines in the nude, probably taken out for ratings concerns.

Still, all changes make perfect sense and what we’re left with is cracker-jack stuff, never a dull moment, with some incredible lines courtesy of Rambo mentor Colonel and intervener Trautman: “You don’t seem to want to accept the fact you’re dealing with an expert in guerrilla warfare…A man who’s been trained to ignore pain, ignore weather, to live off the land, to eat things that would make a billy goat puke.”

***3/4 (out of 5)


Death Wish

death-wish-bronsonNobody slugs anyone with a roll of quarters anymore. And that’s a damn shame — an art lost for the ages.

For the victims of vigilante Charles Bronson in Death Wish, that’d be a preferable punishment for their transgressions (and one of ’em does get a sock wallop of coins).

This is the grandpappy of gritty revenge films, but it’s as sharp as Paul Kersey’s shooting and even more relevant today than it ever was.

Bronson is family man developer Paul, whose “heart beats for the underprivileged,” recalling the Irving Kristol zinger, “a conservative is just a liberal who has been mugged.”

When his wife and daughter are brutally victimized in his New York City apartment (one of the lecherous goons is none other than a shaggy-haired Jeff Goldblum) he immerses himself in his work to cope with the loss of his spouse, and the trauma of an indifferent NYPD up to its eyeballs in crime, with no leads, nothing to go on.

He heads down south to oversee a land development deal in Tucson. It’s there, he’s re-introduced to his Second Amendment rights by business partner Ames (“hell, a gun’s just a tool like a hammer or an axe”) and as a going away present, the Arizonian gives him a revolver.

DeathWish_And this doesn’t bode well for the Big Apple’s criminal element.

Back in NYC, Paul is a one-man Bernie Goetz*. He’s getting rid of the city’s scumbags and becoming something of a folk hero the cops are reluctant to investigate.

In a chat with his son-in-law, Paul puts forward the reasonable notion we’re all entitled to self-defense (something entrenched in law since Babylonian times). His son-in-law opines, “we’re not pioneers anymore.”

There you have it folks.

A line in the sand and a film that can be discussed and debated as hotly as sparks set off from gun control debates. And that’s a complicated issue, made even more difficult that there’s no distinct causal relationship between gun control and a state’s rate of fatal shootings. Then again, some are smuggled in from neighboring states. But in states with tighter controls, suicide victims choose another means, thereby skewing the numbers. There are just NO easy answers and each side right and left, is mired in confirmation bias.

Whatever way you slice it, Death Wish is a revenge film with smarts, smarter than anything Tarantino’s ever done. Nothing against him, but QT for all his formidable talent is a pop pasticheur who makes fun movies about movies; this is a movie about ideas, wrapped in a violent package.

Pacifist Paul is a real estate developer used to the orderliness of blueprints, budgets and constraints. When he’s thrust into a world for which there are no explanations, he’s forced to impose his own order, and whether you laud or loath him will resonate for years to come in political debates stateside.

****1/2 (out of 5)

[*Editor’s note: Soon after Bernie’s real-life vigilante act, there were “Ride with Bernie: he Goetz ’em” bumper stickers in New York City]