A film review by Craig J. Koban October 3, 2019

RAMBO: LAST BLOOD jj
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2019, R, 94 mins.

 

Sylvester Stallone as John Rambo  /  Paz Vega as Carmen Delgado  /  ”scar Jaenada as Victor Martinez  /  Sergio Peris-Mencheta as Hugo Martinez  /  Yvette Monreal as Gabrielle  /  Adriana Barraza as Maria Beltran  /  Louis Mandylor as Sheriff

Directed by Adrian Grunberg  /  Written by Sylvester Stallone and Matthew Cirulnick

It's been an awfully long road for Jonathon James Rambo since he was introduced in the early 1970s in Canadian author David Morrell's novel FIRST BLOOD.  

That book spawned a movie adaptation in 1982, which delved into the back story of this former Green Beret Vietnam War vet that faced a different type of war trying to acclimate to his home country after combat, facing a nation of citizens that didn't think highly of the war and his involvement in it.  That gave way to the more aggressively cartoonish, but nevertheless entertaining RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD PART II, which showed the ever increasingly impervious to death soldier destroying an entire battalion of Vietnamese troops in a revenge porn fantasy come to life.  Then came RAMBO III, featuring the titular character teaming up with Mujahideen rebels to take on the Russians, the former of which eventually morphed into the Taliban (awkward!).  Then came the most recent RAMBO, showcasing the aging, but still grizzled and battle hardened warrior terminating a dastardly Burmese militia with extreme prejudice.   

That 2009 sequel emerged as one of the more surprisingly effective - and savagely violent and viscerally potent - entries in the entire saga, albeit at the expense of perhaps losing a bit of focus on thoughtfully exploring what makes this troubled man tick (FIRST BLOOD, if anything, still remains the best of the franchise in balancing action and social commentary).  Now comes the inevitable follow-up installment in the full circle titled RAMBO: LAST BLOOD, which alone hints at a possible sense of closure for one of the most famous action heroes ever to grace the silver screen.  Even though this fifth RAMBO film - much like its predecessors - doesn't try to emulate the exact same blueprint of what came before and has some interesting character arcs for the now elderly war hero, the film isnít entirely successful or satisfying as a potential send off for the titular character.  RAMBO: LAST BLOOD feels like the most cheaply disposable entry of the franchise (that, and its premise bares a plagiaristic resemblance to TAKEN).  But Sylvester Stallone remains as commendably committed to the role as ever at a ripe old age of 73, and this sequel absolutely delivers in its final 15 minutes, even if it's of the too little, too late variety.   

At long last it appears that the forever traumatized Rambo has finally found some inner peace, not to mention some mental stability thanks to multiple prescription meds that are obviously designed to keep the historical nightmares of past wars at bay.  When we last saw him he was mowing down mercenaries in war-torn Burma with a barbarism unprecedented in the whole series, but now the gray haired and worse for wear vet has retired to a quaint and peaceful life of training horses on his deceased father's Arizona ranch.  He shares these picturesque surroundings with his adopted family in Maria (Adriana Barraza) and her granddaughter Gabrielle (Yvette Monreal), the latter who's poised to start college and will soon be apart from her loving "Uncle John."  When Rambo isn't enjoying tranquil horse rides with his niece and tending to his ranch chores, he takes solace in developing a vast underground tunnel system beneath his home that becomes his man cave.  

 

 

Gee, I wonder if it will figure into some kind of home defense network for invading baddies later? 

Gabrielle has one last thing on her agenda before starting college: re-connecting with her long estranged father, who abandoned her and her now dead mother years ago.  She wants answers, and thanks to a friend, she discovers her dad's home address in Mexico, but the ultimate nihilist in Rambo pleads with her not to seek out this absentee parent, mostly because he believes it'll end badly.  Like all inquisitive and naive teenagers, Gabrielle ignores her uncle's advice and goes anyway, and in under 24 hours she finds herself kidnapped, drugged, and forced against her will to participate in a sex trafficking ring headed up by the Martinez brothers (Oscar Jaenada and Sergio Peris-Mencheta).  Little do these fiends know is that their new prey has an uncle with "a particular set of skills..." 

To start with the negatives, RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD's narrative, as mentioned, feels like a ripoff of TAKEN, right down to the basic element of a dangerously proficient killer's family member being kidnapped into sex slavery, granted with changes in geography and subbing in Rambo for Liam Neeson's CIA operative Bryan Mills.  This has the negative side effect of making this RAMBO outing feel a bit too paint-by-numbers, generic, and, yes, derivative for its own good.  The previous RAMBO films - with inconsistent levels of success - also had their share of memorable villains, but here all we are given are some pretty stereotypically rendered "Mexican bad guys" whose only defining traits are that they're homicidal pigs that use woman as slaves and make the mistake of abusing Rambo's niece, therefore making them easily exploited target's for this man lustful killing spree of them to unavoidably come.  I'll give writers Matthew Cirulnick and Stallone props for not trying to lazily regurgitate past storylines from previous series entries, but they're guilty of milking other action franchises for their premise here. 

Still, RAMBO: LAST BLOOD at least tries to tap into the character's advancing years and how those years have mentally and physically ground him down.  There's something to be said about how the character has unhealthily devolved from an initial representation of how military service in an unjust war can ruin a man forever and into an unstoppably macho machine gun wielding super hero that hungrily craves combat.  I think RAMBO: LAST BLOOD tries to have it both ways, showing a well past his prime combat hero drowning in bad memories and pharmaceutical assistance that's trying to eek out a normal existence that, uh huh, gets dragged back into a hellish conflict that will certainly involve him murdering a lot of people that most definitely had it coming to them.  There's an undercurrent of sadness to this sequel, seeing as Rambo seeks out and wants an easy life of retirement, but unfortunately and tragically will not get it. 

Having said all of that, no one goes into a RAMBO film to see this anti-hero sitting in a rocking chair on his ranch's front porch to contemplate the complexities of his life.  We go for feverously intense balls to the wall carnage that this character will be inclined to deliver when his buttons are pushed by unsuspecting foes.  This, as predicted, culminates in a final climatic third act featuring Rambo - in lurid Kevin "HOME ALONE" Macalister fashion - booby trapping his underground ranch maze with arrows, knives, spikes, pitchforks, mines, bombs, sawed off shotguns, explosive rounds of ammunition, and just about every possible imagined MacGyver'ed weapon the character can dream up to take on the Martinez brothers' invading goon squad, who didn't take too kindly to Rambo taking his niece back from their clutches.  As hordes of Mexican mercs swarm in on Rambo's ranch he utterly unleashes unspeakably gory comeuppance in ways that even make the brutality of the last RAMBO look quaint by comparison.   

There are some out there that are ripping Stallone and company a new one for the film's unflattering portrayal of Mexico and Latinos, although I'm not entirely convinced that the film is staunchly trying to be xenophobic of the entire nation and its people: Rambo lives with two caring Hispanic women who are painted in a largely positive light, but, yes, the film is certainly guilty of white savoir motifs on a level of Rambo saving Gabrielle from bloodthirsty villains of color (still, it's also hard to defend the pure evil of the sex traffickers as well).  RAMBO: LAST BLOOD definitely falls victim to simplistic scripting and a lack of narrative embellishment, which may have something to do with its scant 89 minute running time (oddly, the film is longer by ten-plus minutes - with a whole different opening - in some foreign markets, leaving me more than a bit disappointed with what we're missing here in North America).  There's an entire subplot with Paz Vega's Carmen, a journalist in Mexico that assists Rambo that feels so rushed and truncated that her character feels more like a cheap plot device than anything else. 

Although creatively problematic in multiple areas, I don't think that RAMBO: LAST BLOOD is as categorically awful as many other critics have pained to let on.  Stallone is thanklessly good at effortlessly dialing back into the whirlwind of contradictions that makes up this polarizing character, and the story he occupies is refreshingly not as jam packed with action as its predecessors, having a story that tries - and sometimes fails - to take its time to ground Rambo in an environment of relative normalcy before the you-know-what hits the fan and prompts him back into viscous service.  And let's be honest, the blood and brain splattered final moments are exemplarily well paced and pack a sizeable gut punching wallop: The film wholeheartedly achieves intended levels of pure retrograde, grindhouse action (although it may convince squeamish audience members to flee for the theater exits).  Still, those expecting a memorable curtain call for this iconic action hero may be greeted with disappointing vibes by the time the end credits roll by with highlights from previous - and better - series films spliced in. 

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