More than anything, the John Rambo character has come to embody the mid-80s zeitgeist: He was a marble-mouthed killing machine, replete with bouncing pecs and a blood-red bandana pulled taut to his sweaty forehead. Rambo mowed down growling pinko bad guys by the thousands, with a magic machine gun that never seemed to run out of bullets. But he was also more than a mere instrument of death. Slathered in macho patriotism, Rambo was a righteous champion for shivering refugees, stranded POWs, beautiful Vietnamese women, or really anybody who needed a powerful set of biceps upon which to rest.
When the 80s passed, John Rambo seemed destined to take up a place in the pop culture attic, right next to Walkmans and Coke II. Except he didn’t. Every few years, Sylvester Stallone brings him down again, like a moth-eaten leisure suit. Indeed, the Rambo franchise has never felt more anachronistic than it does in Last Blood, a bizarre exercise in bone-snapping, squib-splattering kitsch. Where the original films invited parody by being howlingly self-serious, this one is alienating, cold, and brutal. Last Blood tackles a dark, serious subject (sex trafficking) that’s wayyy beyond its pay grade. Previous Rambo installments also had misguided attempts at real drama, but at least they also wore their stupidity with a vacant sense of pride. They were an indulgent helping of junk food. This Rambo is the cinematic equivalent of stale, soggy potato chips.
The wobbly script wanders into Death Wish territory by giving Big Bad John an adopted family to care about: As the movie begins, Rambo rides the Arizona range in a few scenes that feel ripped out of a Louis L’Amour novel. He lives on a farm with Maria (Adriana Barraza), and his adopted niece Gabriela (Yvette Monreal). The latter is a sweet, fiercely independent teen who wants to reach out to her wretched biological father (Marco de la O) and ask why he abandoned her. Gabriela journeys into Mexico, where she is eventually captured and held by cadre of cartel members. And that means it’s time for ol’ Rambo to start killing people with a crowbar! The violence in this movie escalates until it reaches a crescendo that is savage, cruel, and defeating, all at once.
As this orgy of perforation progresses, I know I wasn’t the only person to note a strong plot similarity to Home Alone. Yep, you read that right. It seems Rambo has constructed a series of booby traps on his farm, perfect for squishing some cartel dudes. Like that Macauley Culkin masterpiece, this plan requires bad guys who are way dumber than the hero. Given the fact that John Rambo is already a few nuggets shy of a combo meal, that’s saying something. If Stallone had written an ending that involved an old man and a snow shovel, we might be looking at a five-star review instead of the opposite. Oh well…
I know Stallone is no Gielgud and Rambo isn’t supposed to be King Lear, but the dialogue Sir Sly writes doesn’t do him any favors. At one point, Barraza supplies one of the few human scenes in the film, when she speaks poignantly about someone she’s lost. Grief will follow her forever, she notes. The deceased person’s face will show up everywhere. Profound loss. This goes on for several sad minutes, after which Rambo can only offer a mumble: “Yeah.” It ruins the sentiment and the scene, and serves as a reminder that we’re watching a charmless character in a charmless movie. Rambo’s never been one for charisma, but at least his previous movies were enjoyable in a campy way. But that was a different time, and that time is gone. It’s past time for Rambo to be gone, too.
89 min. R.