If you want to see truly horrific gore, Rambo: Last Blood is waiting for you. The fifth installment of the popular action franchise features amputations, mutilations, disfigurations, exploderations, and at least one thing I’ve never seen anybody do with a collar bone. It’s gross, and that should be entertaining. But in order to earn that level of violence it oversteps its bounds, and becomes a very disturbing political statement.
Of course, the Rambo movies have always been political. First Blood and Rambo: First Blood Part II, despite their different tones, reflected the ugly fallout of the Vietnam War. Rambo III found John Rambo teaming up with the Afghan Mujahideen to fight the Russians. The confusingly titled Rambo sent Sylvester Stallone’s hero into Burma, to rescue Christian missionaries from victimization. They’re all violent action movies, and some are played more seriously than others, but they’ve always been confrontational, not escapist.
Last Blood picks up ten years after Rambo, with Rambo living on a ranch at the Mexican-American border. He spends his idyllic days breaking horses and digging an elaborate series of underground tunnels, for no particular reason other than they might be useful in an action sequence later. His niece, Gabrielle (Yvette Monreal, Matador), is like a daughter to him, and she’s about to go off to college. But first she wants to confront her absentee father, who fled to Mexico and hasn’t spoken with her in many years.
Rambo tells her not to go, that her father is a bad man and the friend who helped her track him down is a “bad girl,” but Gabrielle goes anyway. And sure enough, she’s almost immediately kidnapped, drugged, and violently forced into prostitution. So it’s up to Rambo to go to Mexico, kill everybody, save his niece, and then kill everybody else.
As a simplistic action movie – setting the franchise’s overt messaging aside for a minute – Rambo: Last Blood is little more than a Taken knockoff. Once again a father figure with a history of violence warns a young woman that anywhere but their home is bad, and the movie agrees with him. The woman suffers horrifically for not taking our hero at his word, which gives him an excuse to kill a lot of people and feel good about it.
It’s an immature fantasy, but it can work if the movie is slick and smart. Rambo: Last Blood isn’t slick and smart. The screenplay, written by Matt Cirulnick (Absentia) and Stallone, has been reduced to its lowest common denominators, establishing characters quickly and then shoving them into a simplistic plot (that is to say, simplistic even by Rambo standards). It genuinely feels like director Adrian Grunberg (Get the Gringo) shot the outline instead of the script.
Of course, the problem with making an oversimplified action movie about a white guy “heroically” butchering non-white people is that, intentionally or not, you’re making violent propaganda. The filmmakers could have picked any villains in the world, and they chose the people that the President is saying American citizens should be scared of. And by presenting Rambo as a symbol of Americana, complete with the Marlboro Man’s ranch and horse, and then setting him loose to exact righteous, ultraviolent vengeance against Mexicans, Last Blood plays into all the xenophobia in the discourse and exploits it for entertainment value.
That’s the part that’s gross. Not the immolations or the decapitations or the stabulations; in a vacuum, that stuff is fantastic. But the fact that we’re supposed to cheer for those acts of violence in support of a political doctrine is in poor taste. By the time Rambo declares “I want you to feel my rage, my hate” it’s clear that the movie finds those emotions to be wholly justified, and even noble.
If you agree with that sentiment, you may enjoy Rambo: Last Blood. If you don’t, you may reject it outright. But if you can somehow watch a movie that directly reflects the modern political discourse and find a way to depoliticize it… even then you’ve only got a 50/50 shot.
The violence is astounding but the film looks cheap and the script is derivative. Stallone tries to play Rambo like he’s “keeping a lid on it,” suppressing his trauma and violence until the climax, but instead he comes across as uninvested, and probably a little bored. Rambo: Last Blood is a subpar action movie, regardless of its themes. But when you consider every hateful sentiment Last Blood cynically attempts to cash in on, this film goes from bad to much, much worse.