I had avoided seeing 'First Blood' until just a few years ago, largely because I made the mistake of seeing 'Rambo III' first, and then 'Rambo II.' Despite the immense box office popularity of the Rambo character in the '80s, the comic-book excesses and callous attitude towards violence of those two sequels were a big turn-off to me. So I figured 'First Blood' could only be more of the same, and simply wrote the film off completely.
Boy was I wrong. As I learned when I finally watched the film on standard-def DVD in the late '90s, 'First Blood' is a film that was demeaned by its follow-ups. It's a far more intelligent and challenging action film -- superior not only to its sequels but to just about every comparable effort of its time. What makes 'First Blood' so vital and refreshing is that it not only dares to ask tough questions about America's participation in the Vietnam War, but perhaps more importantly, how we treated the soldiers we sent there. Though 'First Blood' contains plenty of action and graphic violence, it is not a mindless or manipulative film.
The story should be familiar to even those who have never seen the film. John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) has just returned from Vietnam. Jobless and lost in a world that no longer has a place for him, Rambo visits a small town to connect with old war buddies, only to be arrested and abused by local Sheriff Will Teasle (Brian Dennehy). Triggered by his war experiences, Rambo jumps into action, escaping confinement and leading the police on a statewide manhunt that will have highly destructive consequences. Only the calling in of Rambo's Vietnam Colonel, Samuel Trautman (Richard Crenna) can hope to save him from his one-man assault. But has Rambo passed the point of no return?
As an action movie, 'First Blood' works. Directed with efficient craftsmanship by Ted Kotcheff, and based on the little-known novel of the same name by David Morrell, the film is very well paced, gripping and always exciting. And unlike its successors, this is no ridiculous, over-the-top comic book. It is refreshing to see the audience not condescended to -- Rambo is not the warrior with superhero-like powers as he became in the sequels. He's flesh and blood, relying on only his training and his wits to survive, which grants the character a palpable realism. Every event in the film, though a bit larger than life (this is a movie, after all), remains plausible. 'First Blood' is the rare '80s action movie to create such a believable and realistic portrayal of its hero that the consequences of what he does actually mean something.
'First Blood' certainly remains notable in the career of Stallone. In the character of John Rambo, he found a role second only to Rocky Balboa. As we learn in the included supplements, Stallone had a significant hand in crafting the screenplay, as well and the input proved essential. The film's unexpected and unusual ending certainly would not have worked without him. Yes, there is yet another one-on-one battle between the good guy and the bad guy (or in this case, two anti-heroes). But it is in the film's surprisingly emotional climax that 'First Blood' truly elevates itself to the top ranks of the genre. Maybe it is heavy handed, and maybe it is sentimental, but Stallone's eloquent handling of a difficult scene ends up making a strong statement about a sad chapter in U.S. history.
Ultimately, I'm not sure that I agree with every position 'First Blood' takes. But the fact it even dares to ask questions in a genre known for avoiding them turns what should have been just another forgettable, mindless '80s B-movie into my pick for the most underrated movie ever made about Vietnam. Too bad Stallone had to go and ruin it with with all those dreadful sequels...
Joining 'Terminator 2,' 'Stargate' and 'Reservoir Dogs' in the Lionsgate "we're gonna re-release this movie 1,287 times on disc!" sweepstakes, 'First Blood' comes to Blu-ray minted from what looks to be the same master used for its most recent standard-def DVD release. And while not a monumental improvement, this 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer does offer enough extra spit and polish to make it worth a fresh look for Rambo fans.
The opening first third or so of the movie can look a little rough. There is a tad bit of dirt here or there, while grain (which was significant on the DVD) looks like it has been digitally minimized, giving this transfer a smoother appearance, although purists may prefer a more rugged, less artificial look.
The early scenes of Rambo being hunted in the woods were shot in what looks like a very wet, very foggy overcast location, so the image is hardly slick. Colors here more washed-out than in the rest of the film, although certainly more robust than in the standard-def version.
Interestingly, the presentation actually picks up in darker scenes, particularly the extended climax between Rambo and the Brian Dennehy character. It is here where the Blu-ray offers the most marked improvement over the standard-def release, with noticeably improved shadow detail and better depth. I also was surprised that there was no apparent edge enhancement, so while the transfer can look soft at times, at least it's natural.
Overall, I can't say this presentation ever made me go "wow!", but it does have some moments of very impressive video for a twenty-odd year-old film. Given the film's very realistic visual style and the consistent quality of the remaster, I'm going to say this one hits a solid triple.
Also presenting a nice little bump over the standard-def DVD is this Blu-ray's audio. Lionsgate offers its usual DTS-HD High-Definition 6.1 Matrixed Surround track, plus a Dolby Digital Surround EX 5.1 option. I can't say I find 'First Blood' a truly enveloping experience, but for a film of its era, it does hold up quite well.
The biggest improvement here is more pronounced dialogue. I remember thinking that the standard-def DVD sounded a bit muted, with spoken word having to fight against the effects for dominance. Here dialogue stands out better, with even the gruffer, mumbling ramblings of Sylvester Stallone sounding relatively intelligible. Deep bass also gets a bit of a boost, with explosions and gunfire benefiting from noticeably better heft. Overall dynamics still suffer from age-related drawbacks, particularly flat high end -- it all sounds a bit shrill. Surround use is also gimmicky, which is typical of "processed" mixes of older titles. The only rear activity is during the action bits, with discrete effects sounding artificially "pulled out" of the mix, though imaging between channels is actually quite nicely done. This is no 'Black Hawk Down,' but 'First Blood' doesn't sound bad at all.
'First Blood' has been issued on disc so many times I've long since lost count. This Blu-ray release carries over most of the extras found on previous versions, though it is missing the bevy of promotional materials, including multiple theatrical trailers and teasers. Otherwise, it is pretty comprehensive.
The best place to start is with the 22-minute featurette "Drawing 'First Blood.'" Produced in 2003, this one offers then-new interviews with the key creative personnel, including stars Sylvester Stallone and Richard Crenna, director Ted Kotcheff, screenwriter David Morrell and executive producers Mario Kassar and Andrew Vajna. It's a nice introduction to the gestation of the project, from Morrell's inspirations for the script and the Rambo character to some interesting casting decisions, a surprisingly arduous shoot and the participants' thoughts on the film's marketing and promotion. Though at only 22 minutes, "Drawing 'First Blood'" doesn't go into as much detail as I would have liked, it's a very nice all-around introduction to the movie.
Much more detail can be found in the two audio commentary tracks. The first by Morrell is a surprise. I hate to say it, but the idea of a solo track by the film's writer seemed like a tough slog, but this guy gives even the best director tracks a run for the money. He is quite knowledgeable and articulate about all aspects of the production, from adapting the novel to the screen, to shooting, to cinematography and the film's rather unusual climax (at least for an action film). However, the bigger draw here is probably the Stallone track, which is also a solo turn. It is easy to forget what a smart, likable guy he really is. And, it is important to remember, he is a director as well. He does pat himself on the back, albeit very modestly, about his contributions to 'First Blood,' both as an actor and a producer. Having said that, clearly without Stallone, we wouldn't be talking about 'First Blood' anymore. So while these two tracks could have probably been combined into one, as it stands, diehard Rambo fans really should listen to them both.
Next we have a collection of Deleted Scenes, including a couple of Alternate Endings (which are discussed in the featurette). Nothing special here, to be honest. Note that like the rest of the disc's extras, the video here is 480p only, as these materials clearly weren't produced with high-def in mind.
'First Blood' is a strong film that, in my opinion, has been done a disservice by its inferior sequels. This Blu-ray release is an all-around fine effort from Lionsgate. The transfer and soundtrack have probably been shined up as much as they could (and should) have been, and the included extras are substantial. Definitely worth a look for Rambo fans.