About an hour and 15 minutes into “Rambo: Last Blood” we watch the sun set as 73-year-old Sylvester Stallone’s iconic warrior retires to his porch rocker, drenched in the title liquid like a parody of a Norman Rockwell painting, though I’m not sure the movie’s in on the joke. The rest of the running time is padded out to feature length with sepia-toned snippets from the character’s previous adventures over these past four sequels and 37 years, including several scenes from the film we’ve just finished watching. (This is an old standby of Stallone’s, as his “Rocky IV” famously included extensive flashbacks to things that happened five minutes ago.)
What’s revelatory when seeing clips from the “Rambo” movies laid end-to-end like this is not just the absence of any stylistic continuity, but also the overall incoherent approach to ideological button-pushing. Stallone shares screenwriting credits on all five films, opportunistically pandering to fashionable grievances of the moment and then moving along to the next without much care for consistency. This is how John Rambo went from a homeless veteran harassed into a deadly PTSD freakout by a bunch of bullying, hick cops in 1982’s angry, anti-authoritarian “First Blood” to a cartoonishly muscular symbol of American exceptionalism going back to win the Vietnam War single-handedly in 1985’s proudly fascist (and ridiculously entertaining) “Rambo: First Blood Part II.”
That second picture was all the rage when I was in elementary school, and we all collected Rambo bubblegum cards and played in the woods with plastic movie tie-in survival knives. (The marketing of pornographically violent entertainment to children apparently wasn’t much cause for concern back then. In 1986 Rambo got his own Saturday morning cartoon. Anyway, I turned out fine.) But Stallone’s provocations didn’t always land on the right side of history — 1988’s dreary “Rambo III” found him fighting alongside Afghanistan’s mujahideen in what at the time was the most expensive movie ever made, and after disappointing box office returns the character went on a two-decade hiatus.
Released during the last gasps of the Dubya administration, 2008’s bluntly titled “Rambo” was a pro-interventionist slaughter-ama, wallowing in atrocity as our hero rescues a group of American Christian missionaries from an entire army of effete, Burmese rapists. The only film in the bunch directed by Stallone himself, it’s one of the most mind-bogglingly sadistic and insanely ultraviolent movies you’ll ever see. Lacking a budget big enough to provide the elaborate stunt sequences seen in the previous sequels, Sly instead doubled down on the gorehound splatter for spectacle purposes, lending the picture a lurid, transgressive kick and making it a cult favorite among extreme cinema buffs. (I’m deeply ashamed to admit how much I enjoy it.)
Which brings us to “Rambo: Last Blood,” a reactionary crock even by the standards of this series, and the dullest of all the movies by several measures. Our wandering hero has now settled down on his father’s farm in Arizona, breaking wild horses and helping send his housekeeper’s granddaughter Gabrielle (Yvette Monreal) off to college. But before leaving she wants to meet up with her deadbeat dad down in Mexico, despite Rambo’s repeated warnings that she should stay far away from that terrible, awful place.
What follows is a hard-R, even more racist re-write of “Taken,” as Gabrielle is instantly kidnapped by a creepy crew of leering sex traffickers, and her “Uncle John” crosses the border to go find her using his certain set of skills. It’s a morose, molasses-paced affair lacking any of the pulpy zing one expects from an exploitation picture, instead lingering on a young girl’s helplessness and suffering to an off-putting extent. This glum air of inertia is especially disappointing coming from director Adrian Grunburg, whose 2012 debut “Get the Gringo” was a spry, delightfully rotten prison comedy that had the misfortune of being exiled to DirecTV after its star Mel Gibson once again got drunk and was recorded yelling a bunch of bigoted garbage.
“Last Blood” is chock full of trendy, Fox News fear-mongering about our neighbors to the South, complete with loving shots of border walls that land like elbows to the ribs. The movie drags interminably until Rambo is finally able to lure what seems to be an entire, sneering cartel back to his elaborately booby-trapped ranch, where brown-skinned bad guys run around through his byzantine network of underground tunnels taking shotgun shells full of magnesium to the face while sharp metal objects spring from out of nowhere and penetrate all sorts of orifices. It’s a fairly spectacular gross-out sequence set to The Doors’ “Five to One,” which our hero amusingly blasts from his home speakers to taunt the intruders with Jim Morrison bellowing “No one here gets out alive.” It’s also not particularly suspenseful nor exciting since our hero always has the upper hand.
None of this really feels like a “Rambo” movie, as the entire conception of the character has been abandoned, right down to his look. Even in America, John Rambo was always an outsider. With his long hair and headband, using a bow and arrow, he was visually coded as an Indian fighting those cowboy cops with their wide-brimmed hats in “First Blood.” (I’ve always heard it was James Cameron who picked up on this and added the character’s Native American heritage to his original script for the sequel.) In the following films Rambo was always off alone, righting wrongs in some faraway country where he didn’t speak the local language, a man apart.
Yet in “Last Blood” here he is wearing a cowboy hat over close-cropped hair, pulling pistols and firing what looks like an old Winchester rifle, defending hearth and home from the invading, foreign hordes. Stallone and Grunburg didn’t just ditch the character’s classic Jerry Goldsmith theme music, they’ve also reversed his entire iconography and made the insurgent indistinguishable from his oppressors. I guess they think they’ve made Rambo great again.