Written By Zak Attack
So I have a theory: John Rambo and Max Rockatansky (besides having cool names) have gone on strikingly similar cinematic journeys. As of the highly anticipated premiere of Mad Max: Fury Road coming May 15, 2015 both characters have embarked on violent tales of revenge, loss, and justice across four movies. I didn’t say it was a particularly groundbreaking theory, but the evidence is pretty darn compelling…
The first entry for both characters was a low-key genre flick. 1979’s Mad Max is an exploitation revenge thriller while First Blood is a low stakes dramatic adventure. For both franchises, the first sequel (The Road Warrior and Rambo: First Blood Part II) was a barely recognizable expansion of the ideas started in the original films with explosions galore. Both characters returned a few years later trying to replicate the success (and excess) of the previous outing, with ultimately diminishing returns that seemingly killed the trilogy (Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome and Rambo III). And finally, both Max and Rambo came back decades later with a stripped down return to form that seemed to prize the spectacle of violence over all else (2008’s Rambo and, presumably, Mad Max: Fury Road).
Our first look is going to compare ozploitation classic Mad Max to the Stallone showcase First Blood…
The Tale of the Tape:
Max Rockatansky (Mel Gibson) is a police officer in the vaguely dystopian future of Mad Max. Little background is given to the how or why of the current plight, but writer/director George Miller was seemingly inspired by the 1973 oil crisis when he turned Australia into a lawless desert still somehow resembling a modern landscape. A gang of bikers roams the countryside crossing paths with law enforcement a few times. After the system fails the cops (because the citizens are too scared to testify) and Max’s partner dies, our hero leaves the force and takes his wife and son to the countryside. When the bikers eventually kill his son and gravely injure his wife, he goes on a blood-soaked quest for revenge.
This culminates in him eventually inspiring Saw and Watchmen by chaining a gang member to a burning car and telling him he can saw off his leg or go out with the fiery wreckage. Max walks away as the car explodes, now a broken and empty man left to face an uncertain future.
John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) on the other hand is a broken man at the onset of First Blood. A Vietnam veteran goes to visit a war buddy in a small town in the Northwest (you know, where Kanye and Kim’s daughter lives) only to find out his old comrade-in-arms has died. He despondently walks into town to get some food where he’s hassled by the local sheriff (Brian Dennehy) and arrested for vagrancy as a result of the prevailing anti-soldier prejudices of the time.
After his processing in the police station triggers some flashbacks of his time as a POW, Rambo escapes into the forest where he uses his survivalist training to get the cops off his tail and methodically set up a few (mostly) non-lethal booby traps. Eventually, the National Guard are called in which merely provokes more violence, and makes him intent on hunting down Dennehy’s lawman. Finally, his old commanding officer Colonel Trautman (Richard Crenna) shows up and is able to talk him down from his violent fever dream and convince John Rambo to turn himself in to the authorities.
Category 1 – The People Who Get Paid to Talk:
Sylvester Stallone tends to get a rough shake in regards to his acting abilities. Part of this is how quickly he devolved into self-parody after coming onto the scene (8 years after Rocky he had a ridiculous run including Rhinestone, Rocky IV, Cobra, and Over the Top). But a lot of people truly believe his range is limited to an unintelligible neanderthal who only knows how to punch and shoot a gun.
However it’s easy to forget how in his early career, Sly so easily embodied a quiet and noble vulnerability. The ex-soldier John Rambo, seemingly carved from granite, is believable from frame one as a damaged soul not made for this world. His final monologue about the horrors he saw overseas may stretch the actor’s talents a bit too much, but it’s so emotionally wrought that it feels like John Rambo struggling to find the words for his mental state… not Stallone struggling to get the lines out.
There are only two other major characters in First Blood. Sheriff Teasle, who is so illogically full of hate that it’s a wonder that Dennehy imbues him with as much humanity as he does, and Colonel Trautman. Richard Crenna gives the unflappable military man all the pathos of a radio announcer doing a mattress commercial. A great voice on that guy, but his performance is a huge weak link of the movie. Crenna’s stagey assuredness don’t seem to have much place in the post-Vietnam world of First Blood.
Mad Max doesn’t have a weak performance in the entire cast. Mel Gibson as Max gives a reserved competence similar to what Stallone does to his title character. However, he also gets to play with the lighter, romantic scenes with his wife Jessie (Joanne Samuel). Both Gibson and Samuel are effective in the obligatory moments of love (so the audience can, of course, be more heartbroken at the later tragedy).
The meaty parts are with the gang members, whose violent exuberance are really the only elements conveying the idea that Mad Max takes place in the future. The true standout is the leader of the biker gang named Toecutter, played by Hugh Keays Byrne. Despite every other biker being a drug-addled psychopath, Byrne chews whatever scenery he can find in the desert landscape as a theatrical, almost Shakespearean monster. It’s one of the truly fun villain performances of the ages, and it should be a treat to see him return to the universe again as Immortan Joe in the upcoming Mad Max: Fury Road.
Out of both movies, it’s still clear that Stallone and Dennehy give the best performances, but Crenna (and some of the more awkward non-actors that play the National Guardsmen) really drag down the average. Meanwhile, Byrne is a wonder to watch, but most of the actors in Mad Max aren’t asked to stretch their muscles. First Blood‘s ambition cancels out the Australian flick’s solidness. It’s a tie.
SCORE: Mad Max: ½– First Blood: ½
Category 2 – What they Get Paid to Say:
At its heart, Mad Max is a slightly more ornate version of the well-worn Death Wish tropes. A good man’s family gets “fridged” and the audience cathartically watches him dispatch the perpetrators. Maybe at the end there’s an emptiness in the man’s eyes that implies that revenge isn’t the answer. But without much else, the themes usually fall on the side of “it was great watching those bad guys get punished”. There is very little nuance in Mad Max and that’s okay.
First Blood on the other hand, has a lot to communicate. They say there’s truly no such thing as an anti-war movie because any piece of art that puts care into portraying the violent abomination of war will end up glorifying it. By not showing any war footage and being so vehemently pro-soldier, First Blood deals with the deeply personal ramifications of armed political conflict in a way that later movies like Born on the Fourth of July and American Sniper only tangentially get at. Having a soldier lose it and take on law enforcement in the forests of Washington state might seem like an especially on-the-nose way to do this, however First Blood is so deeply concerned with character that the story works as an exaggerated metaphor of PTSD.
SCORE: Mad Max: ½ – First Blood: 1 ½
Category 3 – A Place in the Franchise: Genre Classification
Mad Max is a genre pic through and through. An artful melding of the car chase movies and violent revenge flicks of the 70’s, it became an unqualified hit. The gorgeous photography of the Australian Outback, the well-paced chase scenes, and stylistic touches (milliseconds before two separate crashes, close-ups of eyes cartoonishly bugging out of a skull are shown) cement Mad Max as a cult classic.
First Blood on the other hand is an exceptionally layered psychological thriller. And while ultimately successful, it is a touch uneven. It starts out so grounded that once the National Guard pulls out a bazooka and John Rambo starts wrecking the town with an M60, the pointed political messages start to get lost. First Blood‘s a great movie, but this is a category where Mad Max‘s consistency as a more straightforward film gives it the edge.
SCORE: Mad Max: 1 ½ – First Blood: 1 ½
Category 4 – Action A Go Go
The thing is, First Blood is an exceptionally layered psychological thriller WITH EXPLOSIONS! When I first saw First Blood many years ago, I always had the pop culture-induced image of a superhuman Rambo mowing down rows and rows of Viet Cong as spoofed in the likes of Hot Shots! Part Deux and UHF. What I got was a nuanced critique on public sentiment after Vietnam with only a single on-screen death (and that guy was a total jerk, trust me).
This rewatch was several years removed from my most recent viewing, and this time I was surprised at really how action heavy it is. An elegantly rough-and-tumble stunt where Rambo barrels a stolen military vehicle through a roadblock is especially thrilling. The truck looks like it’s barely held together by rubber bands by the time it turbulently lands back on the road. Meanwhile, I seemed to have forgotten the epic gas station and gun store explosions that bookend the big climax.
The stunts of Mad Max are gripping… and if the documentary Not Quite Hollywood is to be believed, incredibly dangerous. At one point, a stuntman flips off his motorcycle while another bike behind him comes crashing through at a tremendous speed. Near the end of the scene, a slow motion shot shows the front tire bashing him in the back of the head and apparently giving him a heck of a case of whiplash. The special features assured us he was fine though. George Miller’s use of fast cars and expert editing simply sell home the action.
Mad Max‘s gritty and practical aesthetic make it a really effective, high-octane car movie. However, simply by virtue of its smaller budget, it simply isn’t as large in scope. Unfortunately for this category, First Blood has the massive setpieces to just pull ahead.
SCORE: Mad Max: 1 ½ – First Blood: 2 ½
Category 5 – A Character’s Journey
After Mad Max: Fury Road comes out, audiences will have seen the character embark upon a 36 year long journey. While technically the new movie is a prequel and features Tom Hardy instead of Mel Gibson, there will be decisions made by the cast and crew that flesh out the character in interesting ways. In Mad Max, Rockatansky went through what should prove to be his biggest single-film character arc through the course of the four films. A traumatic experience moves him from a noble, law-abiding family man to an emotionally destroyed engine of retribution.
Rambo doesn’t get a true arc as much as a struggle. As mentioned at the beginning of this piece, he’s already been through his life-changing experience. We join him while he works to find his place in society. We are with him as he faces his demons and accepts them. There’s no happy ending for John Rambo, and it’s clear that he may never overcome the substantial shock to his psyche. And frankly, that’s a much more interesting story.
The Final Verdict:
Mad Max: 1 ½ – First Blood: 3 ½
Every viewing of First Blood uncovers more thought-provoking themes AND it’s chockful of awesome domestic warfare. Mad Max is an achievement on its own with a unique vision, but it’s nonetheless a story that’s been told a thousand times before. Its futuristic outlook that is ultimately just a slight tweak to the present day is an incredibly fascinating artistic choice (something also seen in the same year’s The Warriors), but narratively it doesn’t do the heavy lifting of 1982’s First Blood. Just like in 1982’s Rocky III, Stallone is no longer the underdog he once was, yet it’s great to see him win the fight.
Part 4: Mad Max: Fury Road vs. Rambo
Zak has been an avid movie fan since his mom made him cover his eyes before the “icicle stabbing” when they rented Die Hard 2 in 2nd Grade. As a consolation, in 6th grade he got straight A’s so she gave him the entire Die Hard trilogy on VHS. The rest is history.
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All Mad Max images courtesy of Village Roadshow Pictures
All First Blood images courtesy of Orion Pictures