John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) walks into "Jerkwater, U.S.A." to discover that he's the last surviving member of his disbanded Vietnam War platoon; his brooding is readily interrupted by the sheriff (Brian Dennehy), who sees "just another smartass drifter." The preamble, worthy of a western, is capped by the hero's defiant stroll back into town after being banished, which brings him to the police station; rough treatment (doled out by Jack Starrett) precipitates horrific visions of 'Nam, Rambo breaks out and finds refuge in the nearby woods, the jungle where he regains the control that eludes him in civilian life. The hunted becomes the hunter, the sheriff's men are mauled by the vet's guerilla tactics, a private war is declared. The quandary is of the "forgotten man" once eulogized by Joan Blondell: "You put a rifle in his hand / You sent him far away / You shouted, 'Hip hooray!' / But look at him today." While the sequels sold Rambo as a freshly minted Yankee icon, here he's a seasoned cannon turned against itself -- Richard Crenna plays Dr. Frankenstein to Stallone's wronged Monster, the military expert who can't quite conceal his pride in the technique of the Green Beret he's whelped. As befits a story of internal conflict, Ted Kotcheff lays out the action in an adroit style derived from Anthony Mann: ravines are arduously climbed, a cave's bowels are lined with rats, only explosions illuminate the darkness engulfing the dismantled town. Its thematic lineage is from Taxi Driver and Rolling Thunder and others, brought into the '80s to give lie to Reagan's optimism ("Have a Coke and a smile," advises the billboard outside the shattered building) until Rambo's climactic peroration introduces the hawkish switcheroo. The original ending had Stallone and Crenna enacting a wry parody of Of Mice and Men, but then we wouldn't have the irony of the ensuing installments, with a deranged Hercules molded into the poster-boy of patriotic slaughter. Music by Jerry Goldsmith. With Bill McKinney, Michael Talbott, Chris Mulkey, and David Caruso.
--- Fernando F. Croce