Vietnam War veteran John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) has headed to Oregon to meet up with an old army buddy, but when he reaches the home of his friend he's dismayed to be told that he has died, having contracted cancer from exposure to Agent Orange during the war. Now wandering without purpose, Rambo sets off towards the nearest small town to get something to eat. At the same time, Sheriff Will Teasle (Brian Dennehy) is patrolling the town in his car, and spots Rambo walking along the road; not liking the look of the man, he stops and offers him a lift, reluctant to let him to hang around any longer than necessary. But when they reach the other side of town and Teasle drops him off, he is infuriated to see Rambo turn around and walk back over the bridge...
An iconic character of the eighties, by the turn of the sequel's release at least, Rambo had his onscreen beginnings here, in a movie written by Michael Kozoll, William Sackheim and star Stallone but based on the excellent thriller novel by David Morell. Morell's book provided the framework, but much of the depth was lost in the final product as once Rambo is provoked, the film is pretty straightforward in its chase across the rugged landscape plotline and no character really develops more than getting killed or injured to see the error of their ways. The Vietnam veteran as portrayed here is a man so haunted by his nightmarish experiences that he is an outcast from society and prone to violent outbursts if riled, and so it is that when Rambo is arrested by Teasle for vagrancy, mayhem closely follows.
When Rambo is taken back to the police station, he is subjected to a number of indignities by the boorish cops, who seem to have been waiting around for an excuse to abuse a prisoner for some time and are delighted at this opportunity. We are in no doubt that Rambo is the hero, sensitive soul that he is, and when he is escorted to the cells he begins to suffer that old cliché, the flashbacks. Yes, he imagines that the cops trying to wash, shave and fingerprint him are Vietnamese soldiers, and the bars on the windows are the bars of his cage when he had been captured during the war, So we are not too shocked when he lashes out, beats up his tormentors and charges out of the station to steal a motorbike and make good his escape.
Another thing we are in no doubt about is that if the cops had simply let Rambo be, then none of this would have happened. However, once he has led Teasle in a car/bike chase, the film positively relishes the carnage its protagonist leaves in his wake - we're supposed to be cheering him on. Rambo is a man of few words and the only attempt at characterisation he is offered is when we see him in action as he's a killing machine that Teasle and his fellow lawmen have triggered and we should apparently be admiring his resourcefulness. After ditching the bike, he climbs a rocky hill and when he reaches the top, there's a long drop to the river in front of him, and now the cops are tracking him down with rifles and dogs.
What Rambo does is begin to make his way down the cliff, but what should happen but the biggest asshole policeman arrives in a helicopter and starts shooting at him? Now we enter the realms of fantasy as the vet leaps from the cliff and falls down the branches of a tree, landing in a heap on the ground. He's injured for about five seconds before getting up and throwing a rock at the helicopter which breaks the windshield and causes the asshole policeman to fall out to his death. The film can barely suppress its glee, but Rambo still tries to make peace with his pursuers, pointing out it wasn't his fault to no avail. By the time his superior officer, Colonel Trautman (Richard Crenna) shows up at the scene, Rambo has the whole police force and the National Guard after him, but it all leads up to an anticlimax (unlike the book) with Stallone offered a big speech, complete with crying, which can't help but feel underwhelming. The action sequences make up for the other shortcomings, though, if that's what you want - and plenty of people did. Music by Jerry Goldsmith.