If Rambo was the unexpected success of 2008, Rambo: Last Blood will be remembered as the surprise controversy of 2019’s autumn season. It was announced as a final bow for the character and entered the multiplex to virtually universal critical derision. Even David Morrell, author of source novel First Blood, popped up on Twitter to say he’s ashamed to have his name associated with this film. It’s been vilified both as a pornographic display of extreme violence and a violent piece of racist agit-prop. A close look at the film will reveal some of the accusations are correct while others are dishonest.
Rambo: Last Blood picks up several years after the events of Rambo, depicting a John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) who is living in peaceful retirement in Arizona. He tends to his family homestead with the help of housekeeper Maria (Adriana Barraza) and her granddaughter Gabrielle (Yvette Monreal), who Rambo views as a surrogate daughter.
Now that she has grown to college age, Gabrielle has become curious about her past and sneaks off to Mexico to search for the biological father who abandoned her years ago. In short order, she is kidnapped by a group of sex slavers led by brothers Hugo (Sergio Peris-Mencheta) and Victor (Oscar Jaeneda). Rambo goes down to Mexico to rescue her, beginning a battle of wills that will leave both sides of the border soaked with blood.
The resulting film plays more like a curious spinoff of the Rambo series than a continuation of it, throwing out the soldier-without-a-war-or-country theme that has always driven the series and refashioning the character as a family-motivated vigilante in the mold of Charles Bronson’s Cannon Films era. To its credit, it does spend a few beats exploring the character’s grief and sorrow at being unable to protect his surrogate family and the existential crisis this throws him into. Unfortunately, this seems to happen at the expense of everyone else in the film: all other characters are sketchy, thinly-motivated props there to drive the plot and/or motivate Rambo’s actions.
At this point, the specter of racism must be addressed. Rambo: Last Blood has been roundly accused of vilifying Mexicans and pandering to the nativist sentiment at play in current American politics. The places depicted in the film’s Mexican scenes show a lawless, scary side of the country but this approach has been the case in every Rambo movie: Vietnam, Afghanistan and Burma weren’t shown in a favorable light in the other sequels. Even small town America is depicted in the more thoughtfully characterized First Blood as a haven for intolerance and abusive police.
The villains in Rambo: Last Blood are sex slavers who happen to live in Mexico, not Mexicans who are out to prey upon Americans for anti-American reasons. It’s also worth noting that there is no nativist sentiment expressed by the film’s hero. Both the character and the film frame the villains as men whose problems are a lack of decency and morality rather than the fact that they come from another country. They are there primarily to force Rambo to confront his own inner darkness. If the filmmakers are guilty of anything with these villains, it is making them too simplistic (a common issue in the Rambo sequels).
However, the accusations of Rambo: Last Blood being over-the-top in its violence are completely truthful. While this isn’t a wall-to-wall action film, each of the film’s violent confrontations boast clinical levels of intense gore: an early scene with Rambo torturing a slaver features a bit of mutilation that would make Lucio Fulci wince and the film’s third act features a staggering array of immolations, dismemberments, exploding heads and a climactic face-off capped with a gory punchline designed to make the audience’s eyes bug out. In fact, you could say the finale feels like an action movie ending where Jason Voorhees stepped in to slice and dice the bad guys.
Despite all this visceral content, the film only intermittently connects with the viewer. Its weak link is the script, which was penned by Stallone with Matthew Cirulnick. The story is stitched together at best and anytime the film has to focus on non-Rambo characters, it stumbles: a patch following Gabrielle’s initial travails in Mexico is particularly threadbare. The backing cast has some worthwhile actors – namely Peris-Mencheta, Barraza and Paz Vega as a sympathetic journalist – but they get little to work with. On the plus side, Adrian Grunberg’s direction shows a nice visual sense and solid pacing – but his slick work, like the story, rings hollow.
As for Stallone, he remains a compelling presence and gives a performance that’s more serious than the material deserves. It’s a shame he couldn’t come up with a richer, more compelling storyline. At one point, there was a rumor that Rambo’s final chapter would involve him squaring off with white nationalists, which would have been more inspired than anything seen here. The final twenty minutes of Rambo: Last Blood might have interest for the grindhouse set but the film overall feels like a hasty afterthought instead of a real final chapter. Even fans may walk away wishing Stallone has stopped with the much more complex and compelling Rambo in 2008.