While watching “Rambo: Last Blood,” it’s helpful to remember that the character John Rambo, ex-green beret and American legend, committed suicide onscreen in 1982. In the original ending of “First Blood,” the franchise’s first movie, after destroying a small mountain town and killing police numerous officers, Rambo shot himself in front of his former commanding officer, Trautman. It was a moment of profundity in a film that often lacked it. Naturally, test audiences despised the original ending enough that it was eventually changed, which is why there’s now a fifth installment in the franchise: “Rambo: Last Blood.”
“Rambo: Last Blood” is Rambo’s story as he retires to a quiet life on a ranch, riding horses, digging secret tunnels in his compound and, occasionally, blacksmithing. Also on the ranch are Rambo’s friend, Maria Beltran, and his niece, Gabrielle. The movie’s heart is clearly Rambo’s relationship with Gabrielle, which bodes poorly for Gabrielle’s chance of survival given the difficult track record for anyone Rambo cares about.
Gabrielle, against Rambo’s wishes, runs away to Mexico with the hope of finding her estranged father. Upon arriving, she’s promptly kidnapped, kicking off an increasingly gruesome, borderline-racist and entirely xenophobic war between Mexican human traffickers and Rambo. The film has the exact same plot as “Taken” until the final act when it becomes a hard R version of “Home Alone.” Gruesome is a complete understatement. “Last Blood” uses gore more extensively than any film in recent memory. At least 15 characters are either decapitated or have their heads blown up. At one point Rambo slices open an enemy’s chest and pulls his heart out.
When thinking about a Rambo movie, the movie’s quality is somewhat beside the point. These films have an established formula: Sylvester Stallone’s protagonist wants to lead a normal life, but when Americans are threatened by non-American entities — Soviets, Vietnamese soldiers, a Burmese dictator or, in this case, Mexican human traffickers — Rambo comes out of his retirement to brutally murder everyone in his path.
That’s not to say the movie is bad; it simply doesn’t make any attempt to be good. What it hopes to be is a showcase for Stallone. After being sidelined to a mature, mentor role in the past two “Creed” films, he lets loose, shooting arrows at nameless Latino cartel members and throwing knives at his enemies faces. The movie’s end credit sequence is a series of slow-motion highlights of Stallone in previous Rambo movies, including scenes from “Last Blood.”
Stallone is listed as both a cowriter and a producer on the film, not to mention the fact that his company, Balboa Productions, is the main financier for “Last Blood.” Stallone’s penchant for self-mythology has never been a secret, and in this film, he makes absolutely no attempt to hide it, particularly in a voiceover monologue where he draws a comparison between himself and American national security while sitting in a rocking chair.
As far as the alleged racism and xenophobia, while it’s hard to dismiss those claims, most of the issue is the pure futility of the script. While the script’s inability to communicate anything profound certainly applies to the film’s Latino villains, it also remains present in scenes between Rambo and Gabriella. In an early scene between the two that establishes their relationship and Rambo’s modern-day bliss, the dialogue feels almost alien as Stallone slurs through lines of praise and mentions incomprehensible facts about his love of tunnels.
The poor acting doesn’t help the script by any means, but ultimately, a Rambo film isn’t about characters, plot or dialogue. Rambo films are about John Rambo killing America’s supposed enemies in the name of his country. While audiences may not respond to that idea now, there certainly was a time in the mid-’80s when they did. Given that the mid-’80s was also a time when Stallone was the biggest movie star on the planet, it’s hard to blame him for wanting to go back.