Stallone just couldn't leave it alone, could he? He just couldn't do it. Eleven years ago he pulled off what many (including myself) assumed would be an impossible feat: resurrecting his Reagan-era Cold Warrior John Rambo as something other than a scowling, beefcake cartoon. Stallone's Rambo (2008), which he cowrote and directed, upended expectations (just as his previous icon-resurrecting Rocky Balboa had done two years earlier) by delivering a gritty, disconcerting meditation on the depths of human violence that, rather than reveling in might, instead lamented its titular character's soul. Against all odds, Stallone reclaimed John Rambo, who was originally introduced to moviegoers in 1982's First Blood, from the increasingly absurd exaggeration he had become in Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985) and Rambo III (1988). Rambo brought the character back down to earth, rooted him in the horrors of his violent past, and gave him a hopeful denouement that movingly mirrored the opening moments of First Blood.
And now, here we are 11 years later, with another entry in the series, whose awkward title Rambo: Last Blood telegraphs its clumsy desire to continue the saga of John Rambo's inability to, as he puts it, "keep a lid" on his violence. Rambo did such a fine job of rescuing the character from simplistic jingoism and giving him a pastoral send-off, that it is almost painful to watch Stallone going back to the well one more time, especially when the narrative justification is simultaneously so weak and so exploitative. Basically, Rambo: Last Blood is bad in all the ways that critics mistook Rambo for being.
The screenplay, which was cowritten by Matthew Cirulnick and Stallone from a story by Dan Gordon and Stallone, picks up roughly a decade after the events in the previous film. John Rambo, who is now in his early 70s, has settled into a seemingly content life on an isolated horse ranch in southern Arizona. He manages the ranch with help from an Hispanic woman named Maria (Adriana Barraza), whose teenage granddaughter Gabrielle (Yvette Monreal) has become like a daughter to the otherwise family-less Rambo. Gabrielle is eager to find her biological father, who deserted her years earlier when her mother was dying of cancer and now lives in Mexico. Against both Rambo and Maria's advice, Gabrielle travels south of the border to meet him, and she winds up being kidnapped by a vicious human trafficking operation run by two cutthroat brothers (Sergio Peris-Mencheta and "scar Jaenada), who force her into drug addiction and prostitution. Once Rambo learns of this, he heads south to retrieve her, thus setting off a one-man war against the gang that eventually leads them back to his ranch, where he sets up an elaborates series of booby traps and bombs as an outward expression of his unbridled rage. Rambo, you see, keeps trying to find peace, but is constantly drawn back into war-a tragic existence that the previous film conveyed with dramatic depth, but here feels like little more than a clichd excuse to ramp up the body count.
Taking the directorial reigns from Stallone is Adrian Grnberg, whose only other feature credit is the Mel Gibson vehicle Get the Gringo (2012). Grnberg has a long and accomplished resume working as a first assistant director with Steven Soderbergh (Traffic), Tony Scott (Man on Fire), Oliver Stone (Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps), and Mel Gibson (Apocalypto), but as a feature director he doesn't seem to have established his own style. Rambo: Last Blood is a grim and bloody hodgepodge that lacks anything that might be construed as gravitas, despite its many dramatic close-ups. While Grnberg adopts the intense graphic violence that Stallone deployed in Rambo, he does so without the concomitant commitment to character and theme that gave the previous film's bloodshed weight. Here it's all splatter. We're back in the terrain of the cartoon again, complete with one-dimensional Mexican villains tailor-made for the worst of the Trump Era's reactionary tendencies. It's not that the film is any more xenophobic than any other action vehicle that pitches its villains as nefarious foreigners, but it does so with such a sledgehammer contempt for nuance that it feels worse than usual.
Truth be told, there is some guilty pleasure to be had in the film's final 20 minutes, as Rambo executes his carefully wrought plan of vengeance with mortars, shotguns, gasoline sprays, and dozens of viciously impaling booby traps carefully laid out in the underground tunnels he has dug all over his ranch. Grnberg really leans into the viscera, as characters are chopped, slashed, decapitated, dismembered, and burned at a steady clip. Yet, it is also kind of depressing, as Stallone demonstrated in Rambo that a misunderstood cultural icon from decades past could still be made meaningful. Here, he is deployed as a little more than another boring, blunt-force instrument of screen violence.
Copyright © 2019 James Kendrick
Thoughts? E-mail James Kendrick
All images copyright © Lionsgate
Overall Rating: (2)
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