Sylvester Stallone has taken two very different paths with his two iconic characters. His underdog pugilist Rocky Balboa started as a romance in “Rocky” and evolved into a superhero of sorts with larger scale sequels, before coming back to reality with “Rocky Balboa,” and especially the “Creed” series. Stallone even saw Academy Award attention for that role.
On the other hand, John Rambo has never been the focus of Oscar voters. Initially, the character was a haunted Vietnam veteran, discarded by his country and wrongly persecuted in “First Blood.” Sequels, however, made him into an unstoppable killing machine that functioned as much as an ideal for American exceptionalism as anything else. “Rambo: Last Blood” looks to scale things back, but has lost the thread of where this character came from. Instead of exploring his trauma in old age, that’s given lip service and discarded in favor of shallow revenge.
“Rambo: Last Blood” almost functions as more of a “Taken” knockoff than as a potential conclusion to the “Rambo” franchise. The beats of the story closely resemble Liam Neeson’s action franchise, more so than Stallone’s. Not only does that make the events incredibly generic, it arguably removes much of the intrigue in the Rambo character. Sure, it’s a new way to get him to eviscerate folks, but it pays small dividends.
At the outset of the picture, John Rambo (Stallone) has finally found peace. Living on a farm in Arizona with Maria (Adriana Barraza) and her teenage niece Gabrielle (Yvette Monreal), he’s settled into a rancher and a de facto uncle. Now in his 70s, Rambo is ready to embrace a quieter life, though the old demons still dance around in his head. This is clear, considering the elaborate, Vietnam style cave system he’s created under the ranch, complete with plenty of weapons. Still, that’s closer to a hobby now, until tragedy comes his way again.
When Gabrielle insists on traveling to Mexico to find her father, Rambo warns against it. He sees only the evil in the world, and wants to protect her. Being nineteen, however, she ignores his pleas and heads south. She finds the man, but shortly thereafter is kidnapped and sold into sex slavery. Sensing something wrong when Maria tells him Gabrielle didn’t come home, he heads down to Mexico to find her.
Once upon a time, he’d have just cut through the gang, led by the sadistic Martinez brothers Hugo (Sergio Peris-Mencheta) and Victor (Óscar Jaenada), but age is catching up. They beat him senseless, only to be saved by journalist Carmen Delgado (Paz Vega) who also lost someone to the brothers. Rambo regroups and soon has Gabrielle. Not content to take this affront lying down, the gang comes to Arizona for him, though he’s more than ready to take them on. It all culminates in an extended battle that’s as violent as anything you’ll see this year.
One thing Sylvester Stallone does quite well here is show the miles on John Rambo’s body and soul. The film itself doesn’t delve into it like one wishes, but Stallone himself imbues the character with some nice touches. They don’t amount to much, but they help invest you at least a little in what’s to come. The early moments are his chance to catch us up with the man, and Stallone is doing his best to make you care. No one else here has anything to do, with Adriana Barraza and Paz Vega wasted (Barraza mostly worries about her niece, while Vega deals in exposition). Óscar Jaenada and Sergio Peris-Mencheta are borderline racist caricatures, while Yvette Monreal has indignity after indignity heaped upon her. The movie cares about the character on the title card, and that’s it.
Director Adrian Grunberg knows how to creatively depict action kills, that’s for sure. The violence is of epic proportions, especially in the third act. The gore is plentiful, showcasing the anger and power within our hero. Aside from that, he has a generic approach to “Rambo: Last Blood,” which seeps into all of the production. The cinematography is murky, the score is loud and obvious, and nothing really surprises. Grunberg is just going through the motions. Stallone was never a flashy filmmaker, but this film actually could have used him behind the camera, if only to give him an even larger stake in its success or failure. Too much of it resembles a for hire gig.
While Grunberg ramps up the violence, Stallone and his co-writer Matthew Cirulnick miss out on an opportunity to explore the character one last time. Sure, Rambo has personal motivations here, but after the plot gets into gear, they discard any real looks inside of the man. It’s a shame too, as certain events here do set the stage for actual rumination. Cirulnick, Grunberg, and Stallone don’t choose to pursue it, but the opportunity was there, at least.
It would be remiss not to mention that as a 2019 release, “Rambo: Last Blood” exists in a world very different than when the franchise began. As such, the wholesale depiction of everyone in Mexico (save for Vega’s character) as essentially evil monsters leaves you with a dirty feeling. “Rambo” sequels have largely taken to having the character fight the worst of a country’s villains, but this is closer to home and rubs up against race-baiting. The movie plays right into the fears of fathers in middle America who presume their daughters will immediately be abducted and sold into sex slavery if they leave the country.
“Rambo: Last Blood” will please unfussy action fans and those who just want to see the iconic character bring some ultra violence on bad guys. There are ample amounts of that. However, anyone hoping for something more will be sorely disappointed. If this is the last hurrah for John Rambo, he’s going out on a mediocre note.