John Rambo has been a prime example of the muscle-bound eighties action hero for many years, even though the roots of the character were literary and his first on-screen outing had none of the typical eighties excesses that its sequels were famous for. The original, First Blood, was closer to being a thriller-drama than an action movie.
Those who are unfamiliar with the series would be surprised to know that there’s exactly one casualty in the first film — and even that one was accidental. It was both a character drama of a PTSD suffering Vietnam vet as well as an indictment of how society treats its veterans when they return to civilian life.
After the success of First Blood, however, the franchise took a sharp turn into the ridiculously violent. Even though Rambo: First Blood Part II does still have an anti-authority flair, it also has the over-the-top action the franchise would be known for. When the third installment, Rambo III, came out, Rambo became the defender of President Reagan’s America, with the film supporting the Reagan administration’s stance on aiding the Mujahideen against the Soviets. The character went from fighting against the authorities to eventually becoming one of them.
The character of Rambo reclaimed some of his dignity back with 2008’s Rambo. This fourth entry exchanged eighties-style action for gruesome violence. Any goofiness was eradicated. We witnessed harrowing war crimes, with innocent villagers (including children) being murdered and blown to bits. Even Rambo‘s original creator, David Morrell, considered it the best of the sequels.
So now, more than a decade after its last sequel and more than three decades after the original First Blood, we arrive at Rambo’s fifth on-screen outing: Rambo: Last Blood. Even when the initial premise was revealed — Rambo vs. the cartel — the film received its share of criticism from skeptics. When it was finally released over the weekend, the film was not only criticized for its formulaic plot and excessive violence but for being a “Trumpian fantasy” and “xenophobic wish fulfillment.” I feared that this was mostly due to the current political zeitgeist, in which all content is politicized to the nth degree and is seemingly imbued with nonsensical controversy at one point or another. But the criticism continued as the harshest indictment came from David Morrell, who called the film a “mess” and was “embarrassed to have his name associated with it.”
Needless to say, I was a little nervous when watching this movie, seeing as I am a fan of Stallone and the Rambo series (particularly the first and fourth films). Not that I wish to be a contrarian, but after watching it, I must insist that Last Blood been unfairly treated.
The following review will be spoiler-free.
Directed By: Adrian Grunberg
Written By: Matthew Cirulnick and Sylvester Stallone (based on the character by David Morrell)
Starring: Sylvester Stallone (duh), Paz Vega, Adriana Barraza, Yvette Monreal, Genie Kim, JoaquÍn Cosio, Óscar Jaenada, Sergio Peris-Mencheta, and Marco de la O
Eleven years after his violent exile in Burma, John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) has spent his peaceful retirement in a ranch in Arizona, which he inherited from his father. Even if he left his army past behind, he’s still haunted by the violence he’s witnessed and participated in. In a way, he’s still trying to make amends for it, such as making himself a volunteer for rescue operations.
In those eleven years, he’s become a father figure to Gabrielle (Yvette Monreal), granddaughter of Rambo’s friend Maria (Adriana Barraza). Even though Gabrielle loves John as a father, she still wishes to receive answers from her biological father, Miguel (Marco de la O) who abandoned her and her mother as a child.
Through a friend of hers in Mexico, Jezel (Fenessa Pineda), she finds Miguel’s address in Mexico. When she expresses her wish in meeting her biological father, Rambo warns her about the dark heart of humanity, stating that their evil has no bounds, and for some men in this world, particularly the man she wants answers from, there is no path to redemption.
Even though she promises John and Maria that she will let the matter go, she turns around and searches for Miguel anyway. Once she encounters the wrong men, however, she becomes a victim of a merciless sex-trafficking operation run by cartel brothers, Hugo (Sergio Peris-Mencheta) and Victor (Oscar Jaenada).
Rambo must, therefore, return to his violent ways to try and save her.
The Character of John Rambo
The negative reviews truly had me worried for Last Blood. I am always willing to give Sly a chance no matter how many times he has let me down — case in point: Expendables 3. The fact that Rambo didn’t have his titular long hair seemed like a bad omen in of itself. No matter how hopeful I was, in the back of my mind, I feared this would be another of Sly’s recent cash-grabs, or a reach to reclaim his former fame.
Luckily, I was quite surprised to find myself engaged throughout the whole film. If you’re not a fan of Rambo, Last Blood is unlikely to convert you, but it does seem that Sly cared about giving the character a proper and emotional send-off. It stays true to the haunted nature of the character. Even after all those years of peace, he’s still troubled by his wartime experiences. The bitterness has never left him.
Besides his ranch, he’s built a gigantic bunker, filled with homemade sharp machetes, knives, and traps. It’s like he’s expecting violence at any moment of his life. When his surrogate daughter wants to reach out to his biological father, John warns her that he’s unrepentant and that he won’t be able to give her any satisfying answers. Initially, I thought the film would show that this character still had some good in him, but the film never goes there. Some people are just rotten. It’s just in their nature.
It’s not a perfect send-off to the character. I would even call it a step-down to part 4. But the final shot of the character does seem particularly fitting. In the end credits, we even see a montage of his older adventures, which ends on a poignant and moving image.
The Violent Ways of John Rambo
The film is a brisk watch, though reportedly it’s been cut down in cinemas around the country. Some have reported that the opening prologue, in which Rambo tries to save a group of hikers from a giant flood in the Arizona mountains, has been cut. This is strange since the opening is important to the character as it illustrates how Rambo is still haunted by his inability to save more people during the Vietnam War. This sequence does suffer from some unfortunately lacking CGI, however.
The film then takes its time before inevitably descending into relentless bloodshed. When we finally witness first blood, it does not hold back. Similar to its predecessor, Rambo, the violence is extremely gory. There are beheadings, dismemberments, and exploding body parts. Though I must admit, the editing can sometimes be shoddy; sometimes it’s hard to see what’s occurring, even if I was eventually satisfied in the end.
John Rambo is the Star
Rambo might be the star, but the film features plenty of other characters. Admittedly, they are all underdeveloped. We know enough about Gabrielle to comprehend that she’s a nice girl, and when bad things happen to her, it’s hard to watch. Maria (Adriana Barraza) is the last elder link to Rambo’s past, and though she has a few decent dramatic moments, there’s not much for her to do.
Then there’s righteous journalist Carmen (Paz Vega), whose only there to nurse Rambo’s wounds once and to give him exposition on the villains. She becomes a mouthpiece for the horrific sex-trafficking that occurs in Mexico, but little else.
When it comes to the villains, the Martinez Brothers, there’s Hugo (Sergio Peris-Mencheta) whose more businesslike, while his younger brother, Victor (Oscar Jaenada) is the hot-shot wildcard — and that’s about it. They are supremely evil and we can’t wait to see them suffer an agonizingly gruesome death. But they are one of many Rambo’s antagonists without any depth to them. The only adversary who had any three-dimensional depth was Sheriff Teasle (Brian Dennehy) from First Blood.
Is this a problem? That depends. The villains of the Rambo franchise never had much depth to begin with. They were merely there to symbolize the evils that Rambo needs to overcome within himself. In Rambo, it was Burmese death squads. Here, it’s the sex-trafficking cartel empire. They weren’t written to be anything more than fleshy pawns for Rambo to brutally maim and dismember.
Rambo is the star here. Even so, it would have been nice to have an interesting supporting star next to him, such as Teasle or someone authoritative like Colonel Trautman.
Did Rambo: Last Blood Need to Be a John Rambo Film?
As you can tell from its synopsis, the plot is fairly generic. Nothing will likely surprise the experienced cinematic action veteran. With some tweaks, it could have been easily a separate action vehicle, as David Morell himself tweeted upon seeing the film.
The problem is that there’s not much else you can do with the character. Everything that needed to be said about him was said in First Blood. Now, he’s just a character who finds himself involved in a situation that affects other people, and in which he provides his services for a good cause.
It does provide the action-packed closure to the character. Having said that, Rambo provided enough closure for the character too, as he finally returns home to his ranch. So did it have to be a Rambo film? Not necessarily, but here we are anyway.
Is John Rambo Really a Hero to Trump Voters?
I’m not going to mistakenly claim that many of Last Blood‘s bad reviews were politically motivated. But I am highly suspicious of whether or not Rambo: Last Blood has any meaningful political subtext, particularly when it comes to linking it to President Trump’s rhetoric and treatment of immigrants.
The biggest issue for many critics is that these villains are Mexicans and that they are playing fairly broad and tired film stereotypes, a sentiment which I certainly appreciate. And yet, the cartel does indeed exist, and the evil that it causes is a viable subject for a villain, considering that Rambo lives close to the border. I don’t necessarily see Rambo: Last Blood as a celebration of Trumpian politics, nor did I ever wish it to become one.
One could easily call this wish fulfillment in wanting to see these evil men receive their gruesome comeuppance. This is something that action movies have always provided. In my estimation, Rambo: Last Blood never makes a statement that most immigrants are part of the cartel or that all Mexicans are deprived of humanity. It only makes the “bold” statement that cartel members are evil — and that it’s a lot of fun watching Rambo murder them.
The only sequence I had trouble with is how easy it is for Rambo to sneak himself through the border, but this could easily be indicative of lazy writing rather than a political statement.
I’m not one to join those that are eager to heavily politicize any work of art. Wherever you lay on the political spectrum, watch this film with an open mind. And remember: not everything needs to be watched solely through the lens of current politics.
Rambo: Last Blood is a brutal piece of work, made for Rambo lovers. It’s not the perfect end of the franchise — it suffers from a formulaic plot, lack of surprises or and hardly any strong supporting characters — but it does its job well enough. It’s imbued with enough brutality, darkness, and lack of sentimentality fit for the character of John Rambo.
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[…] just been told to leave the States. Different circumstances lead these two on an odyssey through Mexico, each looking for a relative. Confronted with harsh authorities and merciless gangs, the two […]
It’s an old white guy murdering Latinos in waves because they’re murderers, rapists…not the best people. You have to do some neck breaking contortions to NOT see it as MAGA wish fulfilment.
Also, the character of Rambo having family makes no sense whatsoever. He was an angry loner who spent his entire existence in isolation. You can’t pull out motivating relatives 40 years late.
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