worse places than this:
Holiday-themed movies have become as intrinsic a part of the season as getting drunk on eggnog and passing out under the mistletoe while relatives sneak awkwardly out the door.
But does a film necessarily have to include persecuted Santas and suicide-preventing angels to be a true "Christmas classic?" Before you slip in your well-worn copy of National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation or Elf, consider some titles from The Pink Smoke's alternative list of movies that touch on the most wonderful time of the year (to varying degrees.)
ted kotcheff, 1982
~ by marcus pinn ~
I don't like police. Never really have. Part of the reason why I'm not a fan of the boys in blue is because of my own personal experiences in life so far (getting pulled over for bullshit reasons, being harassed outside of my home; the weird tension - or "heat" - I feel when I walk past a group of cops when I'm on the subway or walking down the street, etc). I've also witnessed plenty of questionable/unnecessarily aggressive policing first hand with my own eyes, especially during my time living in Virginia.*
And is it me, or are police officers getting fatter and fatter these days (at least in New York City)? Seriously. And I'm no physical specimen myself. I'm fully aware of what I look like, but I'm also not trying to be a cop. It seems like every time I look up, I'm seeing (YOUNG) chubby or overweight beat cops in Brooklyn, Manhattan and Queens (like the kind of overweight where their knees buckle inward when they stand normal). Isn't there some kind of physical obstacle course or at least a rope climb that cops have to do in order to pass a test? Or did I just watch Police Academy too much as a kid? It's bad enough there's cops out there who don't know the difference between a real gun and a taser gun (the Oscar Grant shooting), or panic at the first noise they hear and just start shooting first (the fatal shooting of Akai Gurley) - but you mean to tell me there's cops who can't run around the block? Maybe that's why cops shoot first and ask questions later. They're too fat to chase anyone so they start shooting (...and get acquitted).
I once got into a light argument with an old co-worker of mine who believed the whole "cops harassing black people thing" (that's seriously how she worded it) was made up and it's really not as bad as it's made out to be (I don't need to mention what race she was or go into her sheltered upbringing do I?) As a young black male who's never been described as a "thug" (basically the new code word for nigger), talks "white" and is uppity, I'm here to tell you it's really not made up or overstated. I mean just recently Forest Whitaker (Academy Award winner) was stopped by a mall cop for being suspected of shoplifting. You think that would ever happen to Jude Law or Jared Leto? See what I mean? It's shit like that that forces me to generalize and stereotype police the same way I feel they generalize and stereotype me.
The other reason I've always had a strange dislike of cops is because my dad kind of instilled it in me at an early age, probably without even realizing it or intending to. Not to put my father on blast, but growing up I always remember him saying things like, "I can’t stand cops" or "I don't mess with police." And that's not a criticism on his parenting by the way. I'm glad he (and my mom) instilled those beliefs in me. And understand – I'm not someone who goes around aggressively challenging cops or screaming "fuck the police" either. I grew up in the nice hippy town of Amherst, Massachusetts where I never really needed to have my guard up when it came to police, outside of one incident that's too long to write about. But I live in New York City now. When confronted by a cop these days I have almost no choice but to (overly) comply with what they want (unless it's something completely out of line) or chances are I'll be murdered. My life is too awesome to put in jeopardy for some worthless cop. You see, I'm just under 6'3" and 260 lbs. My physique isn't that far off from that of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, so I might be at risk of police brutality.
Right now some of you are probably wondering what any of this has to do with First Blood. I'm willing to bet a lot of you completely forgot that the tragic events that took place in that film pretty much rest solely on the shoulders of a bunch of crooked shitty small town cops who prejudge a guy who turns out to be a war veteran who wasn't looking for any trouble. This movie deserves a little more respect in the world of online film criticism. It's often summed up as just an action movie. Most critics and bloggers have nothing more to say beyond it being "totally awesome" or "action-packed." Often times First Blood is inaccurately described all together. Take this synopsis I found on a random film site:
This all-out action thriller stars Sylvester Stallone as John Rambo, a mentally unstable Vietnam vet who goes on a killing spree in a small town.
Eh, not exactly. He's really defending himself. Plus a large majority of the "killing spree" takes place in the woods. Imagine if you'd never seen First Blood and came across this synopsis expecting to see that kind of movie. You'd be a little disappointed, wouldn't you?
Take this synopsis from another film site that will also go unnamed:
A renegade special forces soldier slaughtering police officers in the woods.
Again – not exactly. Did you even watch the fucking movie? There's some understated social commentary in First Blood...
The night Daniel Pantaleo wasn't indicted for the choking death of Eric Garner, a few days after Darren Wilson wasn't indicted for shooting Mike Brown, I tweeted at various art house theaters in New York City (who have made their political and social beliefs known through past retrospectives) to raise some kind of awareness to what's going on right now by screening movies with relevant subject matter. Naturally films like Do the Right Thing, The Glass Shield, La Haine, Copland and Bad Lieutenant came to mind, but First Blood was completely off my radar as I hadn't watched or thought about it in a long time.
It should be noted that a few days after I took to twitter to try and get certain movie theaters to possibly screen films or do a retrospective on movies having to do with issues concerning racial tension and police brutality in America (which was also around the same time I did a write-up on a special script reading of Do the Right Thing I attended at The Lincoln), indiewire suddenly ran a piece where they asked critics what films best represent the current tension between police and people of color right now (naturally most of them named Do the Right Thing). I mean - I know I'm a quietly influential movie blogger and all, but give me some credit. I guess this shouldn't have come as too much of a surprise given that other publications like Variety have stolen my ideas in the past (from write-ups I've done on this very site).** Lets also not forget that in the last year I've noticed more film sites doing side-by-side movie scene comparisons (something I pretty much innovated on my own site).***
Anyway, it was fate that right around this time of civil unrest and police injustice that John happened to include me on an email of Cine-Mas movies to write about on the 'smoke. I hadn't even planned on covering a Christmas movie this year (I had a guest contributor take care of that on my site this year). I planned to write about A Christmas Tale, but the Criterion still sits on my DVD shelf unopened...
But when I saw First Blood on John's list of potential movies to write about, a light bulb immediately went off in my head and I saw that piece of shit Sheriff Will Teasle, John Rambo's nemesis played by Brian Dennehy, and suddenly remembered that the cops were the villains. Which is perfect timing because I currently dislike police more than ever these days and was looking for a legitimate excuse to rant about how awful they are. I also forgot that First Blood takes place during the holidays - I think there's like one Christmas tree in the whole movie? But I don't even care. This is just an opportunity for me to rant about police, dissect a great movie from my childhood and write about my strange fascination with Brian Dennehy.
It's funny: any time I see Brian Dennehy (who recently popped up in the trailer for Terrence Malick’s latest film) I'm reminded of how much I disliked him when I was a little kid because any time he showed up in a movie, he was playing the villain. Besides my mother sitting me down to watch The Neverending Story, watching all the movies my dad watched were some of my earliest movie memories, and I'm proud to say First Blood was probably the first movie I ever watched with my father. Besides First Blood, Silverado and Cocoon were also on heavy rotation in the Pinn household; like in First Blood, Brian Dennehy played the antagonist in those movies as well.****
I don't know what it is, but some actors play their roles a little too well. I'm sure Brian Dennehy is a great guy in real life. He seems like a true American man's man. A real "Bill Brasky." But between the ages of 5 through 14, I was convinced he was a mean dude until I saw him portray Chris Farley's dad in Tommy Boy. Dennehy isn't the only actor I thought this way about. For years I was convinced that Wings Hauser was racist in real life because of his performances in A Soldier's Story and Tales from the Hood.*** ** I'm sorry, but he played those roles way too well. It was almost like he enjoyed saying "nigger" and being able to get away with it because he was acting. Even his offspring (Cole Hauser) went on to play the lead racist skinhead in John Singleton's Higher Learning! I mean are you kidding me? Brion James (R.I.P.) was another one. Between his characters in Blade Runner and Tango & Cash, I thought he was like that in real life until I saw him in The Player and The Fifth Element. I also came to learn that Michael Beach had the same reputation throughout the 90's. Besides playing a cold-blooded serial killer in One False Move and the bully prisoner in Cadence, he played an HIV positive character who knowingly slept with (and eventually infected) women on two ifferent occasions (Law & Order: SVU and ER).*** ***
But none of those actors left the same impression on me as Dennehy did in the 80's. From the minute he showed up in First Blood with that evil Dennehy grin I knew something bad was going to happen.
The last time I sat down and actually watched the movie, prior to watching it recently in preparation for this write-up, was over 11 years ago when I read about the William Friedkin film The Hunted and thought to myself, This sounds a lot like First Blood. Which prompted me to dust off my Rambo DVD and give it a watch for nostalgic purposes (both movies are about former special ops soldiers who go rogue and have to be deprogrammed by their mentors). The last time I even thought about First Blood was earlier in the year when Chris Funderberg brought the film Flooding with Love for the Kid to my attention (basically a homemade adaptation of David Morrell's original novel where one guy plays every character and films the entire movie in his apartment by himself).
Sometimes a franchise can kill the mystique of the original film and that's certainly the case with First Blood (Major League is another franchise that comes to mind). These days when we think of Rambo, we think of the action movie franchise which went on to indirectly influence countless other action movie blockbusters (Die Hard, Predator, Lethal Weapon, Expendables, the Bourne movies, etc). First Blood has been overshadowed by the other films in the franchise so much that people forget how great Sylvester Stallone is in it. Folks tend to only site Copland as Stallone's one truly great post-Rocky performance, but he's legitimately good in this! The fight and action sequences go without saying. This was Stallone at his physical peak. But performance-wise he's underrated. Take the scene in the beginning when he discovers his old army buddy Delmar has passed away from Agent Orange. Stallone's reaction to the news is heartbreaking. And of course his speech at the end about coming home from war is nothing short of applause-worthy. Besides Mickey's death in Rocky III, how often do we see Sylvester Stallone break down and cry like a baby? He didn't even shed a tear when Apollo died in Rocky IV.
The real story of First Blood is about a war veteran with PTSD that gets triggered by a bunch of shitty cops. In the film Sylvester Stallone plays John Rambo, the last surviving member of a special ops unit that fought in the Vietnam War. He's a former POW and war hero with a special set of skills...
...you're dealing with an expert in guerrilla warfare, with a man who's the best, with guns, with knives, with his bare hands. A man who's been trained to ignore pain, ignore weather, to live off the land, to eat things that would make a billy goat puke. In Vietnam his job was to dispose of enemy personnel. To kill! Period! Win by attrition. Well, Rambo was the best. – Colonel Trautman
With no apparent family or friends left, he lives the life of a drifter who floats from town to town. He eventually stumbles upon the town of Hope, Washington where he's spotted by Dennehy's sadistic sheriff Will Teasle. Teasle immediately sees Rambo as a potential threat to his nice quiet town and passively-aggressively escorts him out (in all actuality, Rambo was just looking for a place to get something to eat). In an act of mild defiance, John Rambo walks back to town after being escorted out which upsets Teasle who arrests Rambo unjustly. When Rambo is taken to the police station to be booked, he's bullied by the other sadistic officers (one of which is played by a young David Caruso as a young snot-nose pansy-ass deputy). This sadistic bullying, courtesy of the police, eventually sets off flashbacks in Rambo to when he was a POW which causes him to snap and go into survival mode. He eventually fights his way out of the police station and goes on the run. After a failed manhunt by sheriff Teasle, Rambo's former Colonel (Richard Crenna) steps in to try and deprogram him.
Colonel Trautman: I don't think you understand. I didn't come to rescue Rambo from you. I came here to rescue you from him.
Sheriff Teasle: Well, we all appreciate your concern Colonel, I will try to be extra careful.
Trautman: I'm just amazed he allowed any of your posse to live.
Teasle: Is that right?
Trautman: Strictly speaking...he slipped up. You're lucky to be breathing.
This movie got me thinking – how come my generation didn't get any tough leading men? Our grandparents got John Wayne, our parents got everyone from Charles Bronson to Sly Stallone, and my generation got stuck with pansies like Josh Hartnett, Tobey Maguire, Ryan Phillippe and Ashton Kutcher. Technically, as a millennial, I guess I could claim Sly Stallone if I wanted too, but given his age and the time period his best movies came out, I'm stuck with the aforementioned pansies.
Prejudgment is a huge problem among police officers. I think we can all agree that a lot of the recent deaths of black males at the hands of police have to do with prejudgment. Brian Dennehy's Teasle is the epitome of that. He sees John Rambo's long hair, slightly tattered clothes and assumes he's a troublemaker. Long before the events in Ferguson (Mike Brown), Staten Island (Eric Garner) or even Los Angeles (Rodney King), police brutality and police aggression has always been associated with black people, especially black males. And rightfully so! But Rambo is unique in that the victim here is a white male, showing that police prejudice sometimes knows no boundaries. Although my father's distaste for police obviously has to do with race, he did always make it a point to say to me at a young age that he wasn’t a fan of black cops either.
Earlier this year I had the pleasure of talking with Nick Zedd (one of the few outspoken filmmakers to comment on the Ferguson/Mike Brown situation) about his experimental work Police State, another film that shows police corruption can sometimes be colorblind.
In the same way George Romero claims he wasn't trying to make a political statement with Night of the Living Dead (a black actor in the lead role in a movie made in the 60's who's killed in the final moments by the police for "mistaken identity"??) I'm sure director Ted Kotcheff didn't think he was making a statement about cops, but he inadvertently did (I know he was making a statement about the horrors of war and PTSD, but certainly not about dirty cops). Kotcheff went on to have an interesting post-First Blood career. His follow-up film Uncommon Valor, in which Gene Hackman plays the father of a POW who still may be alive in Laos, was almost a spiritual sequel in that it was also a post-Vietnam film that dealt with POW's and PTSD among soldiers.**** *** It should also be noted that the same director responsible for First Blood is also responsible for Weekend at Bernie's (he's also responsible for a bunch of random movies that used to come on cable all the time when I was a kid like Switching Channels, Winter People and Folks!)
In writing this piece, I've come to learn that First Blood is an important film within the history of my life. It's followed me for as long as I can remember. As a child it served as both entertainment for me and acted as a bonding tool between me and my dad. In my adult life, it's become a political statement about dirty cops and PTSD.
~ DECEMBER 18, 2014 ~
* I'm well aware not all cops are bad people but I'm not in the mood to acknowledge that out in the open right now.
** Read my review of Pulp Fiction as part of the best movies of the 90's.
*** That wasn't a shot at John's recent write-up of Clouzot's Quai des Orfevres.
[Ha! No, I totally cop to (badly) ripping off your side-to-side shot comparison technique in several of my articles. Then again, I try to only rip off the best. I only hope one day you'll let me do that guest "The Films of Paul Verhoeven Told Through Stills & Images" piece for Pinnland. I'm convinced it would be the best thing I ever did. -- cribbs]
!!! Update from the future! Cribbs' wildly popular Verhoeven piece on Pinnland Empire.
**** I guess Dennehy does redeem himself at the end of Cocoon.
*** ** Wings Hauser redeemed himself by playing a cop who takes down a neo-nazi gang in the made for TV movie Skinz (where his son Cole plays the lead skinhead yet again).
*** *** Michael Beach also cheats on Vanessa Williams in Soul Food with her cousin!
**** *** Wings Hauser is credited for coming up with the story for Uncommon Valor.