When you think of Vietnam War films that address "the war at home", you can't help but go straight to Taxi Driver or The Deer Hunter. While both of them are absolute masterpieces and among the greatest films ever made, it's not wrong to put the first of the Rambo series in the same conversation.
John Rambo is not a Charles Starkweather-style psychopath on a shooting spree. He is a man with one friend left on Earth, the only other surviving member of his unit in Vietnam and after travelling (hitch-hiking, it seems) across America to visit him in Oregon Rambo learns that his friend has died of Agent Orange-related cancer.
Rambo becomes the new American drifter and he's up against a new America. The figure of the hobo is long established in American folk legend, literature and film (think Mark Twain and Jack London), but somewhere around the 1970s, that figure came to be mistrusted. No one picks up hitch-hikers, no one gives a new guy in a small town a job, etc.
Thousands of young American men were drafted in a time when "free love" reigned supreme, at the height of the sexual revolution, when you could (it's a cliche, I know) throw four people in VW bus and drive clear across the country, working a little here and there to ensure you had something to eat, somewhere to stay (and, probably, something to get high on, but I digress). These soldiers came home to an entirely different nation.
Robert de Niro has of course played two of these figures, one in The Deer Hunter and the other being Travis Bickle in Scorsese's Taxi Driver. John Rambo isn't exactly Travis Bickle, but they share some commonalities. Bickle's time in Vietnam is very subtly worked into Taxi Driver, and while it's a key to that character's isolation, loneliness and eventual psychosis, in Rambo, the formative experience, the trauma in Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, is put right in the forefront.
And Kotcheff (not to mention the novel's author) had to spell it out, for this is pulp fiction, this is Hollywood. And yet, it makes almost as good of a point to see Rambo wear his war decoration on his sleeve, to come home a hero (albeit a muted one) and to recognize that America is not the America he remembers, and maybe not even the one he killed for. In this so-called land of opportunity, there's nothing left for Rambo.
Where Rambo shines is in the same aspect as Stallone's other title character - Rocky - shone, and that in the portrayal of a vulnerable action hero. Action heroes were barely even established by this point in movie history (1982), but going forward, this might one of the seminal performances: he's not just shooting a bunch of people in a war on a mission from God or because he can, but rather, he has a "why", and it's a good one. Rambo is in many ways the classic Western hero, a good man who has to do bad things to be able to maintain a respectable way of life.
But I haven't really talked about the movie beyond its protagonist and its purported point yet. The end theme by Dan Hill is God-awful, but then again it was 1982. The opening sequence is striking - set in Oregon, but filmed in beautiful British Columbia - even if now we could safely term this long take "cliché-a-minute". The acting is pretty solid, surprisingly, and so too is the dialogue: not intellectual (duh) but not the usual grunts and roars we expect from the genre. And, Rambo's final speech is where the circle closes and we see the depth in this character who has all along been thought (by the society around him) to be little more than a psychotic killing machine.
American cinema has given us great villains like Buffalo Bill (and Hannibal Lechter), and the first instinct of the viewer (and the cop) is to lump Rambo into this class: a deranged man on a shooting spree. But Starkweather aside, the age of the killing spree comes much later in American history. In Rambo, the true villain is Small Town, USA, as headed up by the obnoxious, abusive Will Teasle and his police department.
A very good film, though not a great one, that puts the disenchantment of the returning Vietnam vet front and centre and entertains while doing it. A good story, fairly well told, visualy appealing and comes in around the 90-minute mark. The Deer Hunter, Taxi Driver and writers like Tim O'Brien have told this story to the eggheads before, but for the rest of the reading public (i.e. movie watching, as one medium has effectively replaced the other), we have Rambo, and thank goodness, because it can never be wrong to take this issue and make it plain as day. Rambo is an honest film, seminal in the evolution of a genre, and love it or hate it this is essential viewing in the study of American cinema. I can't believe it took me so long to see it... I saw Commando like 20 times when I was a kid, and now I know why: comparatively, First Blood's a little heavy.