Firmly ensconced in his late-father’s ranch in Arizona, John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) is living in peace with his friend Maria (Adriana Bazzara), and Maria’s grand-daughter Gabrielle (Yvette Monreal). When Gabrielle gets word of the location in Mexico of her estranged father (Marco de la O), she ignores the word of John and her grandmother, and heads across the border to meet him, seeking closure on why he abandoned her and her mother some years before.
Once in Mexico, Gabrielle finds herself first rejected by her dad, then sold-out by the friend from whom she had learned her father’s address. Drugged and kidnapped at a local nightclub, she is sold into the sex trade – in an operation run by local drug dealers. Learning of Gabrielle’s disappearance, John must head first to Mexico to try to recover the young lady, then seek to draw the criminals to his home territory, where he knows the terrain.
Rambo: Last Blood has been described, in a number of early reactions, as a Trumpian fantasy; an ode to the populist fantasy that Mexico is full of the drugs, crime and prostitution that all right-thinking Americans should avoid. As a pointed statement regarding the intention of the filmmakers, this is nonsense. The outline plot for this entry in the long-running Rambo series was written in late 2009, during the first year of the Obama administration. That doesn’t stop the film being a tone-deaf (almost accidental) indictment of the attitudes on display here. Whether the timing is incidental or not, Mexico is portrayed as a crime-ridden hellhole, with homes barely fit for habitation, and potential kidnappers and rapists on every street corner. This is a film lacking almost entirely in hope, humanity or balance, and whilst the specific attribution to the political era in which we live may be incorrect, the end result is every bit as bone-headed.
In terms of structure, Rambo: Last Blood arrives with an encouraging 89 minutes running time. Any thoughts this would lead to a taut actioner are immediately proven to be mistaken, as we have an incredibly languid first act – a function of needing to fashion a plot around characters (Rambo aside) that we’ve never seen before. We need to establish Gabrielle; her relationship to John; her general sense of ‘promise’ in life, and the situation that will lead her to Mexico. As we need to learn of the nature of the dangers she would face, John and Maria spend an inordinately long scene trying to talk her out of taing the journey – a decision we, the audience, already know has been made, and hence a waste of screen time. From there on the plot is fairly straightforward, and follows reasonably predictable beats, with perhaps once exception – an exception that utterly betrays the character of John Rambo.
John Rambo has been established, throughout the series, as a meticulous planner and tactician, in setting an environment to his advantage. This is consistent with the third act of this film, where all of the combat skills he has learned are on display. To get us to that point, however, the writers have first to have him make an astonishing series of blunders utterly inconsistent with the fighter we have met in each previous instalment. In fact, this doesn’t feel like John Rambo at all. The 2008 entry, Rambo, was close enough in type of location and in costuming choices, that it felt somewhat consistent with the character we’d met in films two and three, at least. Here we are presented with a man describing himself as trying to keep a lid on the warlike tendencies that have haunted him since Vietnam, but the performance from Stallone gives us zero hint of this. Whilst less playful than Rocky Balboa, the first act of this film gives the impression he forgot which character he was meant to be playing. He played repressed pain and rage better in 2006’s Rocky Balboa – and that was portraying a character not exactly known for his temper.
Once the action kicks in, things do improve. This takes up from the fourth entry in being unafraid to show gore – Rambo breaking a collarbone and pulling the exposed bone out of the torso being an early example. The final act of the film – although being excessively trailed earlier on – does return us to Rambo striking violently from hidden vantage points and using his environment to overwhelm the aggressor – something he has been doing since the first entry, 1982’s outstanding First Blood (the only truly great film in this series). Though the director has failed to give an accurate idea of how many aggressors are there – leading to the scene going on too long, with no feel for its rhythms and when it will come to a natural end – it’s got a good degree of punch and stakes, yet still maintaining a cartoonish tone that evoked 1993’s Army of Darkness, the third Evil Dead film, in places.
The problem with long gaps between entries in series is that they can lead to unreasonable expectations. At very least the hope is that the return is due to finding a strong and fresh idea. When 2016’s Jason Bourne disappointed audiences, it was due, at least in part, to the fact that nine years had gone by. To come back then, surely they’d a good reason to resurrect the character. In that case, that reasoning wasn’t at all obvious, and so it goes with Rambo: Last Blood. It is a mindless (with a capital ‘M’) actioner that adds little to a series that, whilst always entertaining, never really had anything to say beyond 1982. At very least, the series should have ended in 2008, when Rambo came home. That was an ending full of hope, and the feel of a character coming full circle. Here there is no hope – and that, in itself, is the most depressing aspect of the whole endeavour.