It’s been nearly 40 years since First Blood arrived in theaters, introducing the world to a Vietnam veteran named John Rambo. That movie paints the traumatized war hero as someone who doesn’t want to kill, even though he can with ease. The three sequels that followed quickly cast that aside, instead indulging in the kind of over-the-top violence that action movies in the ’80s were known for. Rambo blew things up, crashed tanks into helicopters, and seemed satisfied with the very high body count.
Now Sylvester Stallone is playing the role again after a 10-year absence. Rambo: Last Blood finds an older version of the character, settled on a horse farm in Arizona. Since we last saw John, he’s taken custody of his niece and, along with a woman who lives with them, raised her to the point where she’s ready to head off to college. This is a Rambo movie, though, so it’s expected that things would go horribly wrong and turn violent. Unfortunately, in following that path, Last Blood has lost track of what exactly a Rambo movie–and the character himself–is.
While the film flirts with giving Rambo inner peace in his elder years at first, that all quickly fades away when his niece goes looking for her deadbeat dad in Mexico. She immediately winds up being kidnapped by a cartel that deals in sexual slavery led by a pair of Mexican crime lord brothers. It’s then up to Rambo to cross the border between the US and Mexico, where he kills a bunch of evil Mexicans and frees his niece from the cartel’s nefarious clutches. On his way home, he literally drives over a barbed-wire fence serving as the border wall between the two countries–this movie isn’t exactly subtle. The entire plot feels like a joke. However, in 2019, it’s a dangerous joke that rings a little too close to home.
Last Blood villainizes Mexico, painting its citizens as con artists, sex traffickers, and bloodthirsty killers. It’s the type of story that ratchets up the xenophobia of Americans with bigoted views and stokes the fears they have about people from other countries.
The message from the beginning, when John’s niece says she wants to go there to find her father, is that Mexico is a dangerous place. Once there, everyone Rambo encounters–save for a single character who appears in a couple of scenes to deliver exposition–is comically evil. This movie is too lazy to draw fully-formed characters around Rambo, or a realistic idea of what life in Mexico is like. Instead, it relies on racial stereotypes and stoking fear to tell its story.
Eventually, when the cartel comes to Rambo’s home for retribution, he brutally kills them all with a series of booby traps that feel as though they’re lifted out of some demented version of Home Alone. The movie spends a decent amount of its very short runtime with a montage showing Rambo setting up the traps that will immediately conjure images of a young Macaulay Culkin in your mind.
Stallone has experience revisiting his well-known characters to give them depth that was previously missing. It’s happened in Rocky Balboa and the two Creed films that followed. Last Blood could have done something similar. There’s a way to stay true to the Rambo franchise but also work in actual character development. And there’s a way to do it without creating something as grotesque as Last Blood. Instead, we’ve ended up with a film that seems to misunderstand the character and has cast him in a different light.
This John Rambo is, inexplicably, a sort of doomsday prepper. He’s a man who has, for some unknown reason, built an elaborate series of tunnels under his Arizona farm and filled them with weapons and explosives and is merely waiting for a reason to put it all to use. It’s hard to look at that character as a hero, no matter how much sympathy the movie tries to make you feel.
But let’s talk about those tunnels and what goes down inside of them. The violence on display in this movie has more in common with the Saw franchise than previous Rambo films. While guns, knives, and a bow and arrow have always been closely associated with the character, those weapons become tools of flat-out mutilation in the new film, leading to a number of incredibly uncomfortable and disturbing scenes.
It could be argued that 2008’s Rambo turned up the gore from previous installments of the franchise, with scenes that included things like John using a massive gun to literally shoot people in half. Still, even that movie never lingered too long on the horrible mess Rambo made of things.
Last Blood, on the other hand, almost takes glee in getting up close and personal with some of the most disgusting things you’ll ever see play out on screen. While there will undoubtedly be an audience for that sort of thing–there are seven Saw films and an eighth on the way–it’s out of place in the world of this franchise.
As for the performances, the only person getting significant screentime is Stallone. This older Rambo is quieter, which is welcome at first. Stallone seems to revel in playing a settled-down John for a short period of time. He’s at a point in his life where the biggest worries he has are his niece going to college and constantly battling back against the PTSD he still suffers from his time in Vietnam. Once the film goes off the gore cliff, he remains the quiet older man, which is a bit unsettling given the fact that he’s massacring dozens of people.
The film is filled with a bunch of secondary characters, from his niece Gabrielle (Yvette Monreal), to a Mexican journalist (Paz Vega), to the older woman that lives with John and Gabrielle (Adriana Barraza). It’s unclear what her connection to the two of them is, but don’t worry about the details. The movie doesn’t.
Then there are the bad guys. Oscar Jaenada and Sergio Peris-Mencheta play the sibling crime lords and they couldn’t be less interesting as villains. They’re evil because that’s who they are. The movie doesn’t care enough to explain what motivates them or give them any sort of depth. They’re just the bad guys, and that’s about it.
None of the characters outside of Stallone’s Rambo warrant much discussion. The movie makes sure of that by not really giving any of them any depth or development. They are all there simply to serve as something for Stallone’s character to react to.
It’s unfortunate this is how the Rambo franchise has to end–if this is, in fact, the end. While the franchise has been hit-and-miss when it comes to critical reception–the first received great reviews, the ones that followed not so much–they found and connected with an audience who celebrated them. This is a character that’s lasted nearly four decades and even had his own cartoon at one point–seriously, there was a children’s cartoon series based on Rambo. Whatever your feelings toward the franchise are, though, it’s clear that this is not the direction it should have headed. This movie is mean, gross, xenophobic, and undeserving of the time or energy you’ll spend watching it.