Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Is First Blood Sylvester Stallone's Last Tango In Paris?

Is there any chance I'll ever enjoy a new Sylvester Stallone movie on an irony-free level? The odds are long, I grant you. Neither of us is getting any younger. In the last three decades the closest he's come to achieving that feat is Cop Land (1997) an inept movie of sincere, but modest, charm. Other than that, well . . . I haven't seen everything Stallone has done. But I've seen more than half of his movies.

Which is to say I've seen a lot of crap.

The movies that run between the original Rocky (1976) and Rocky III (1982) stand head and shoulders above the rest of Stallone's career. F.I.S.T., Paradise Alley, Nighthawks, Victory and even Rocky II showcase the charisma and talents of a journeyman actor flexing considerable chops and steadily gaining the confidence of the camera. But by Rocky III we see the “new” Stallone taking shape: a journeyman celebrity, who steadily morphs into the Slab of Sly we know and watch today.

The four non-Rocky movies drew a modest box-office, so a third trip to the Rocky well was pretty much expected. Prior to that, however, Stallone was shooting the movie that altered his career more definitively than even his award-winning brain-child, and shaped the public's movie-going appetite for the next 20 years: First Blood.

Although First Blood ushered in many of the tropes of the '80s Action Movie — a muscle-bound hero who levels swathes of enemy troops by using superior cunning and a really big gun — it remains in many ways a quintessential product of the '70s. Prior to this movie, director Ted Kotcheff (a Canuck!) had delivered The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, Fun With Dick And Jane, and North Dallas 40three stand-outs among other recognizable '70s fare. Standing beside him as Director of Photography is Andrew Laszlo, who performed the same function for Walter Hill, in The Warriors (wpeschewing zooms, and keeping the lenses wide, Laszlo pulls a certain grit into the frame, a practice that eventually got polished into oblivion in the decades that followed.

Consequently there are visual elements that belong to the '70s as well. First, if we consider Stallone's trademark physique . . .

. . . the athleticism, while definitely a cut above even physique-conscious types like Burt Reynolds and Clint Eastwood, is nowhere near what Sly currently maintains. It is even conceivable he achieved his original “Rambo” physique by natural means.

Along the same sight-lines: relative newcomers to Stallone might be surprised to discover he is “vertically challenged” (William Goldman famously followed Stallone into a swimming pool just to ascertain this fact). For decades now Stallone has been framed in such a way as to give him the height advantage — not just with women, but men as well. First Blood however, shamelessly capitalizes on his true physical status, framing him naturally as a smaller “underdog” the audience will root for.

Sly, all 5'7" of him, on left.
This being the pre-digital age, the stunts are all very physical, and utterly beholden to gravity — including, most spectacularly and memorably, a leap from a sheer face of rock to a drop dozens of meters below.

Look, Ma: no green-screen!
And then we have a screenplay, whose credits include novelist David Morrell (for the modestly-promising source material), Michael Kozoll, William Sackheim and . . . Sylvester Stallone — which I suspect should probably read, “Sylvester Stallone.” He takes credit for Rocky and Paradise Alley as well, of course, and I suppose it's possible he pounded them out on a typewriter in his off hours.

The author photo should
clear up any doubts
However, given this early run of movies, and the long dreadful onslaught that's followed, I have to wonder if he didn't have someone in his posse who could spot — and improve on — an already promising script. The standing theory is either Stallone finally alienated this person (an ex-wife?), or the actual punches he kept gratuitously taking to his head finally robbed him of all narrative sense.

There is, however, a third possibility: that First Blood was for Stallone what Last Tango In Paris was for Brando — a decimating personal apocalypse that forced the actor to draw from previously unplumbed depths, and confronted him with a terrible self-awareness which he spent the rest of his lifetime fleeing.

“Wait,” you say, “aren't we talking about an action movie?

Ah, but First Blood isn't just your run-of-the-mill action movie — it's a brutal journey into the Heart of Darkness that is American Masculinity.

Next: The horror. The horror!


Joel said...

I was 7 years old when Rambo II came out. I wasn't allowed to see it of course, but it and Rambo III were such big hits in the 80 that you couldn't really escape them. they seeped into the culture.
I was very surprised then when I finally got around to seeing the first Rambo I. It was completely different than I had been lead to expect.
I've since talked to several people my age and some people younger, and many people seem to have had this experience. The popular image of Rambo is so different from what you actually get in that first movie.

Darrell Reimer said...

If there is any evidence that there was someone other than Stallone in his posse who had instincts for script changes that worked, but who burned bridges and took off forever, it is in those subsequent Rambo movies. Stallone seemed to completely forget what that first movie was all about. Or maybe he just became cynical, and re-wrote the character to suit his "brand" as International Action Figure. In interviews, though, Stallone doesn't seem the cynical type. If anything, he comes across as naive.