Back in 1982 a young Sylvester Stallone, with only a half-dozen movie roles under his belt, and no hits outside the Rocky franchise, decided to take on the starring role in a film based on David Morrell’s 1972 novel about a Vietnam War Veteran finding himself involved in war against a sheriff in a small town. The script had been passed on by many actors, needed an extensive rewrite, and production held its own difficulties in the cold forests of British Columbia. What came out of the experience, one which Stallone admits he was foolish to attempt, is one of his most memorable performances and the start to a new franchise. Come inside the Full Diagnosis and meet John Rambo.
After learning the only other surviving member of his squad has died from a illness carried back from Vietnam, John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) drifts into a small town where he draws the ire of the shit-kicker chief of police (Brian Dennehy) and his band of hick deputies (who include a young David Caruso). Pride and misunderstanding begin a situation that finds Rambo on the run, the Sheriff’s deputies injured, the National Guard called in, and a man hunt which brings in Rambo’s commanding officer (Richard Crenna) with a plea to stand down.
Unlike the book, which paints both the Sheriff and Rambo as equally responsible for the situation the film removes some of the reasoning behind the Sheriff’s attitude due to his own war experience in Korea focusing more on his dislike for drifters like Rambo.
The film ends with bang and the demolition of the town, but it’s actually as much a psychological drama as an action film. Rambo’s flashbacks, each triggered by a event, show us what this man has been through, and why he’s not willing to be pushed in further.
Even if Dennehy’s sheriff is an asshole, he’s not really a movie villain in the classic sense of the term. Although Rambo is forced into the situation his response goes far beyond reason. Here’s an action film without a true hero or villain. Rambo and the Sheriff fight their own private war, which ends badly for everyone. There are no winners here.
The movie remains my favorite of the franchise, and although the ending makes a drastic, and not completely believable, departure from the novel, it does allow Rambo to return for further adventures. Stallone has publicly stated this is the favorite action film he ever made. I would agree.