“The only way to do it is to grab the fuckin’ audience by the throat, shake the shit out of ’em and say, ‘You think you’re getting out of here alive? You’re not. Prepare to spill your fucking blood, because I’m gonna spill mine, and you’re coming with me.’”—Dennehy, talking about the 2012 adaptation of The Iceman Cometh
“Character actor” is a term whose definition can be as expansive as the range of the actors it’s used to describe, but Brian Dennehy was an actor who immediately brought it to mind in his decades on the stage and screens large and small. Physically towering and intense, his lead roles tended to be wounded patriarchs and his supporting roles, even in his first appearances, had him playing cops, lawyers or other no-nonsense types.
Yet, within that fairly narrow typecasting, he revealed depth and vulnerability, always with a naturalistic touch and hardly ever leaving any toothmarks on the scenery. His turn as the villain in First Blood was his big break, but it was also emblematic of the more thoughtful nature of that first installment, before the series went into full-bore jingoism. Five films in, he remains the only villain in the series with even an iota of nuance.
Teasle: “If one of my deputies gets out of line with a prisoner, the prisoner comes to me with it. And if I find out it’s like he says, I kick the deputy’s ass—me, the law! That’s the way it’s gotta be. People start fuckin’ around with the law and all hell breaks loose!”
Sheriff Will Teasle (Dennehy) walks out of the precinct and pauses, framed against the gentle-blowing American flag, and then heads over to hop into his squad car, where he’s bracketed by the red and blue lights of the police cruiser and the purple mountain’s majesty towering over his small town. He is a paragon of American decency, backed up by the legitimacy of capital “D” Democracy. That the movie signals so clearly so early that it’s about such thorough disillusion is one of the most interesting things about it, and Dennehy’s character time and again illustrates it.
Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) drifts into town, wandering aimlessly in the knowledge that he is the last one of his elite group of Army badasses. Teasle singles him out for hassling, picking him up in his squad car and escorting him to the other end of town, for no reason other than that he doesn’t like the cut of Rambo’s jib. When Rambo quietly turns right back around and tries to head into town to get some food, Teasle’s immediate reaction is to escalate things.
Before anybody knows who he even is, the cops have roughed Rambo up and awakened his past trauma. The trouble is that unlike the many other un-charged detainees they’ve no doubt brutalized before him, Rambo isn’t so easily dominated. After beating the crap out of everybody in the station and fleeing into the hills, Rambo is hunted and nearly murdered by one of the most violent and heedless of Teasle’s deputies. When Rambo kills the guy in self-defense, Teasle of course throws all caution to the wind and leads a doomed manhunt into the mountains.
The most recent installment of the series, Rambo: Last Blood, also features Rambo Home Alone-ing some poor schmucks until only one hapless idiot remains to tell the tale. In this first film, he doesn’t actually kill any of Teasle’s men. The maiming he gives them, and the dire warning he gives to Teasle to back off, are the stuff of horror movies.
In town, Teasle is the law. He isn’t hunting Rambo because of any threat to the populace, or even to avenge his deputy. He’s doing it because he cannot abide the thought there is any place where he is not the law.
“I wanted to kill that kid. I wanted to kill him so bad I could taste it.” —Teasle, First Blood
“I want revenge. I want them to know that death is coming and there’s nothing they can do to stop it. I want them to know our grief. To know that’s the last they will ever feel.” —Rambo, Rambo: Last Blood
Dennehy clearly understands this, and it’s crucial that the film clearly understands it, too. It makes the whole thing all the more bizarre in context with the other Rambo movies, which throw nearly all ambiguity to the wind and assign Stallone the role of unerring, blameless lawman. In the fourth installment (2008’s confusingly titled Rambo), Stallone is dragged reluctantly back into a war zone where everything he says and does is right and everybody else is a dope: The villain murders non-combatants and rapes little boys and for the most part doesn’t even get subtitles on his dialogue.
It’s in the fifth, though, Rambo: Last Blood, that we get an essential reversal of everything that made the first movie interesting. Its earnest young female lead (Yvette Monreal) disobeys Rambo’s order to stay home and gets kidnapped, sold into sex slavery, and raped to death about ten seconds after. He dedicates the rest of the movie to shredding the bodies of the army of foreigners who killed her. This involves, again, Home Alone-ing a bunch of arrogant pricks to death, but this time Rambo actively goads them into coming onto his property. This time, there’s no forbearance. Indeed, Rambo has the drop on the final boss and spares him for the express purpose of literally pinning him to a wall and ripping his heart out of his chest.
The oddest choice the movie makes is ending on a montage of everything that came before. Scenes from First Blood flash over the credits, reminding us of how completely the series has strayed from where it began. I’m not sure if the movie itself knows this.
Dennehy’s Teasle gets a solemn moment of reflection near the end of First Blood, where he confides in Rambo’s Army handler the feelings of irrational rage the man raised in him. He sounds like I feel after I’ve had a fight with my fiancée’s 11-year-old: like he doesn’t recognize himself. It’s a bit of humanity he found in a not-particularly-deep stock villain role, as he so often would: Whether it was as a computer-generated rat who’s disappointed in his son’s culinary obsession or another crooked cop who betrays his team because he doesn’t want to die protecting a criminal. In the midst of such contrivance, you really believed him.
Dennehy died April 15 at the age of 81.
Kenneth Lowe’s favorite actor: Dennehy, favorite drink: O’Doul’s. You can follow him on Twitter and read more at his blog. If you want to follow his livestream D&D campaign for charity, you can subscribe here.