October 21, 2019

Rambo: Last Blood gets a lot of mileage out of its four predecessors, but in an attempt to evade sticky ideological questions, the film ignores the history of American interventionism that pervades the previous entries in the series. Rambo’s gruesome revenge here is personal, not political, the film tells us.

The fifth in the series, the latest feature starring Sylvester Stallone as the titular John Rambo casts the traumatized veteran as an aging father figure to his college-bound ward, Gabrielle (Yvette Monreal). As Rambo struggles to control his more violent urges – apparently by stuffing comically huge handfuls of pills into his mouth, a device the movie thankfully abandons in the first act – Gabrielle is kidnapped by a cartel in Mexico and Rambo embarks on a bloody odyssey to bring her home.

The film picks up where the fourth left off, on the Rambo family farm, but its more direct ties are with the first in the series, First Blood.

If First Blood was narratively simplistic, it at least gestured toward thoughtful ideas. A war hero coming home as a drifter and battling a bumbling-but-sadistic small-town police force is a profoundly interesting premise, even if it does come down to a few explosive set pieces and leave its allegorical thesis – that the system confronts its own failure with violent hostility – unresolved. Rambo: Last Blood on the other hand, evidently has no interest in grappling with anything other than the technical challenges of blowing up a large swath of Arizona farmland.

It’s tempting to read Last Blood’s careless depiction of Mexico – a repository of all drugs, fear and violence, in the film’s conception – as an artifact of the current political moment, or to read Rambo’s violent last stand on his family farm late in the movie as a MAGA-fueled paranoid fantasy. But the film lacks the abject, obsessive racial hostility of ICE raids and child-prisons.

Instead the extended Alamo re-enactment that comprises the better part of the movie’s final act, evokes an older, more foundational form of American bigotry. That Jacksonian canard of righteous violence in service of the national geography. The exceedingly American principle which a contemporary of Andrew Jackson sardonically called, the “irresistible tide of Caucasian democracy.” It’s an essential thematic refrain of the Rambo franchise, which Last Blood very nearly avoided.

Sylvester Stallone stars in Rambo: Last Blood. (Yana Blajeva / Lionsgate Publicity)

While Stallone’s line delivery leaves a lot to be desired, he has always been a physical actor, and his physicality is compelling here. His hangdog face and hulking body taken together evince nothing more than an unnaturally strong basset hound, and it is completely engrossing to watch his painfully leaden gait juxtaposed with the otherwise fast-paced action.

The latest – and supposedly last – entry in the Rambo franchise is a stilted shuffle through grotesque violence and crude emotional appeals. It’s neither as satisfying nor as politically relevant as the previous films, but Stallone at least, is still interesting to watch for 89 minutes.

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