When Sylvester Stallone decided to bring Rambo out of retirement back in 2008, after a twenty year hiatus, he needed a hook, something to bring arguably the most iconic action hero of all time into the twenty-first century.
And that hook turned out to be violence. Extreme, unbridled violence.
It was a bold move, one which served to put off most critics and delight long term fans of the franchise, but it gave the ageing vet an edge for his return.
During their golden era in the eighties, action movies were often considered to be full of gratuitous blood and guts, but with the evolution of horror in the decades that followed, in particular the ‘gorno’ era, the works of Stallone and Schwarzenegger seemed tame in comparison. It was a very clever move, then, for Rambo to reclaim his crown in part IV, standing proud atop a mountain of pulped bodies.
However, since applying the same violent formula to the first two Expendables films and then reneging on the splatter for the experimental third outing, there was an initial concern that John J. might also suffer from a compromised sequel. But thankfully Rambo: Last Blood stays true to its heritage, delivering a brutal, bloody and uncompromising film.
If you’ve seen the red band trailer, you’ll already be aware that death are destruction are present and correct and while that advertising strategy worked for the last film, it actually does Last Blood a disservice. Action movies are nothing without heart, so watching a string of deaths without context doesn’t carry any weight, but Rambo’s fifth entry tries more than ever to focus on emotional relationships to fuel the narrative, so when the time comes to exact vengeance the payoff feels visceral and cathartic.
As we discovered in our interview with Stallone the opening for the European cut is extended and immediately echoes visuals from First Blood, as we see Rambo stalking through a wet forest, only this time to assist the local law enforcement, as some hikers find themselves trapped by a perilous flood. When things take a tragic turn, we immediately see the impact that death still has on the character and how his survivors’ guilt means that even when saving a life, any loss enforces his sense of failure. It’s a key moment and one that haunts him throughout the film, so losing it for the sake of pace in an already tight running time will be a loss for audiences in America.
Curiously the plot for Last Blood was the original concept for his return in the fourth film – back on the disc release Stallone talked about getting Rambo involved in trouble in Mexico, while attempting to find a girl who went off for a holiday and never returned. The core story has remained the same, but this time it’s a family member looking for closure from her estranged (and unpleasant) father, that leads to abduction, resulting in the sharpening of a familiar-looking knife to assist in tracking her down.
The comparisons to Taken are sure to come thick and fast, which is unfortunate in terms of timing as for many it will seem like a belated copy, regardless of the story pre-dating Liam Neeson’s exhilarating quest (unfortunately the word ‘Trump’ will also be bandied around now due to the delay). Last Blood does steer its own course though and one with more vulnerability and grit, long gone are the days of Rambo’s ability to heal wounds with ignited gun powder, this time he hurts inside and out, with age and weariness permeating every move he makes.
It’s likely that films’ sombre tone and bleak aggression will prove to be too much for some, but the franchise has always been an acquired taste and one that rarely settles for trite happiness – even his attempts in Rambo: First Blood Part II to find a little joy and companionship ended in machine gunned disaster.
It’s important to have a connection to Rambo’s cinematic history to really get the most from Last Blood – we’re now on the fifth entry, so there’s little chance anyone not up to speed would find a reason to dive in now, but the film has very much been made for the existing and devoted fans, from visual cues such as the M65 jacket and lines about not being able to “turn it off”, to Brian Tyler’s superb score which retains the references to Jerry Goldsmith’s original work, while interweaving Tyler’s own memorable take for the last one.
If you’re not the kind of person who wants to weep with joy at the sight of Rambo tooling up, firing a bow, or rigging booby traps, then the film really isn’t for you, but if you’re after a solid display of carnage from a character you love, then there’s plenty on offer. The villains might be built from the stereotypical strain of pure evil from years past, but their reprehensibility is what makes the explosive payback work and the violence, despite some especially grim moments, never quite strays into the extreme stomach churning highs from part IV. That said, you’d be hard pressed to top the sight of people being pasted by a jeep mounted Browning in that particular chapter, no matter how hard you tried.
As a standalone film, Rambo: Last Blood was never going to work, nor was it going to tune in a new audience after thirty six years of increasing body counts, but for die-hard fans it’s an exhilarating echo to the past and potentially the last chance to watch Rambo tearing through villainy with aplomb on the big screen.
Rambo: Last Blood is in UK cinemas now