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Rambo: Last Blood

The fifth film in the 'Rambo' franchise, 'Last Blood' delivers a level of revenge-fuelled violence unlike anything the series has ever seen.
By Tom Glasson
September 19, 2019
By Tom Glasson
September 19, 2019

Thanks to the franchise's increasingly over-the-top sequels, it's easy to dismiss John Rambo as an idiotic and cartoonish action hero whose movies readily employ more bullets than brain cells. That would be to forget how pointed and politically charged First Blood was when it came out in 1982. Grappling with issues such as the hidden wounds of post-traumatic stress disorder and the disenfranchisement of Vietnam vets, the original film presented Rambo as a tragic figure simply trying (and failing) to slip silently through society's cracks as a harmless and withdrawn loner. In the original cut, he actually committed suicide, only for test audiences to declare the ending too disheartening and morose — hardly the stuff of action heroes.

So it was that a franchise was born — one in which Rambo was slowly reinvented as a one-man killing machine and poster child for US military might. Politics and social themes were still in there, but the emphasis shifted with each instalment. First Blood Part II held mostly true to its origins, showing the secret abandonment of American prisoners-of-war and the disposability of assets like Rambo by the very government they vowed to serve. By Rambo III, however, the villain was now the Soviet Union, with the film concluding with a dedication to "the gallant people of Afghanistan". Yet even with the third movie's souped-up action, Stallone continued to present Rambo as a tragic figure, suffering in silence, tormented by demons, seeking penance wherever opportunity presents and as uncomfortable as ever over his god-given gift: dealing death better than anyone else.

Rambo, coming out 20 years after its immediate predecessor in 2008, focused its politics on the atrocities of the army in Myanmar, however it also introduced a level of violence and gore that went far beyond anything previously seen in the franchise. There was a bloodlust to it, taking it out of harmless action-movie fun, and into something uncomfortable and almost voyeuristic. There were still some great moments, but it was clear that the franchise and character had changed forever.

Which brings us to Rambo: Last Blood — a film that aspires to be Logan, yet lands somewhere closer to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Plot-wise, the trailers intimated something to do with hidden secrets coming back to claim their dues. Not so. Co-written by Stallone and directed by Adrian Grunberg (Get the Gringo), this is essentially Taken, Mexico-style. Rambo's niece Gabrielle (Yvette Monreal) is drugged, kidnapped and groomed as a sex slave south of the border, compelling him to use his "very particular set of skills, skills... acquired over a very long career, skills that make [him] a nightmare for people like [cartels]" (as Liam Neeson would put it) until he baits his new enemies to chase him back to Arizona.

It's a bizarre mishmash of storylines, all trying to ground themselves in Rambo's ongoing PTSD. Sometimes that's done well, revealing that he sleeps underground in a Viet Cong-styled network of tunnels beneath his family ranch — or when he admits he never got better, but rather he's just trying to "keep a lid on it". Most of the time, though, the film feels rushed and clumsy. Cheap, even. Rambo is still softly spoken and withdrawn, but the nuance is no longer apparent. He abhors violence, yet maintains a terrifying arsenal of knives, guns and explosives. And beneath that picturesque ranch is a straight-up house of horrors, physically and psychologically.

But is the film still enjoyable? Mostly, no. Last Blood's quiet moments feel forced compared to the surprisingly tender or revealing offerings from earlier instalments, and the action is heavily abbreviated for most of the movie — no doubt because Stallone is now 73. The ending, however, is a different story. It's at once insanely silly and confessedly satisfying: a veritable smorgasbord of gruesome deaths packed into a tight 10-minute sequence, culminating in one of cinema's most gory finishes. Suffice it to say, the audience in the press screening was both hiding behind its hands and cheering amidst horrified laughter. It's one of those rare cinematic experiences that brings a room of strangers together in a weird but wonderful way. And as for this being Rambo's Logan moment... we'll save the spoilers and leave it up to you to find out.

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