Posted on 5/01/10 08:29 PM
Whether you love him, hate him, or lie somewhere in between, it's readily apparent that Sylvester Stallone is an actor of meager talents. Just as Schwarzenegger played a character to type and, well-satisfied with his portrayal, established a formula, Stallone takes few risks -- quite sensibly, he sticks to his strengths. You will never read Ben Brantley review a Stallone performance in an off-Broadway play, or even A.O. Scott comment on a Stallone film that doesn't involve machine guns or tactical missiles. (Either that, or we're in for nasty weather. Bad moon rising, indeed.)
Granted, Stallone has -- to an extent -- honed those select talents, the kind of ones that shine in a movie of the FIRST BLOOD oeuvre. While it might be an interesting thing to see Robert DeNiro as John Rambo, an actor of that caliber is simply not in keeping with the context of the movie. Both in the novel by David Morrell and in Ted Kotcheff's film, Rambo's persona is a quick read. He's a Vietnam War veteran, a Green Beret, who was tortured both in South East Asia (by the Viet Cong) and arguably back in the USA (by peaceniks), a man struggling with both his inner demons and the all-too-apparent reality that at home, he is naught but a blackguard, the scapegoat for the shame of a nation.
And any character that can be readily summarized in a sentence, as in Rambo's case, is a simplistic one. Quod erat demonstrandum.
Action movies tend to be like that, however, and audiences don't go to them expecting THE GRADUATE or ON GOLDEN POND. Generally, there's no place for vicissitudes and subtleties of feeling.
If Rambo, with shaggy, unkempt hair, and hunted (or hunter?) eyes, bears a passing resemblance to the Indians of Westerns of yore, it's no coincidence. FIRST BLOOD can essentially be stripped down to a Cowboys and Indians story, though with the caveat that the roles are reversed, and that our heroic stalwart is hopelessly outnumbered, and is without a tribe to aid him.
Pitted against a foe of such unreasonable strength, however, Rambo's story assumes an all-too-clear pattern, that of the biggest cliche in action cinema -- the David versus Goliath story.
And perhaps that, in tandem with director Kotcheff's sheer brazenness, is what ultimately muddles up FIRST BLOOD. If there was a chance in hell for this movie to rise above the fray, it lay in rejecting conventions. Instead, FIRST BLOOD merely aggrandizes them, adding yet more plaster to that all-too-familiar mold.
The stilted dialogue, formulaic acting, and ridiculous, comic strip-like excesses are too much for any self-respecting critic to ignore, and the problems only mount towards the finale. But for a buddy movie, it's adequate enough. Just know what you're getting into, and have plenty of beef jerky on hand.