The strange thing about Rambo: Last Blood, the fifth and possibly final chapter in the long-running Sylvester Stallone franchise about a traumatized Vietnam vet turned avenging global warrior, is how unlike a Rambo movie it feels at first. For one thing, Rambo doesn’t really look like himself anymore. The long locks and bandanna are gone–which is just as well for the 73-year-old Stallone–and Rambo looks more than anything like the aged Rocky Balboa of the two recent Creed films.
Secondly, Rambo: Last Blood is the first film in the series in which John Rambo is not either dealing with the aftermath of his own war experiences in Vietnam (as he did in the first two movies) or cleaning up a mess left behind by someone else (as he did in the last two). This is a straight revenge/siege narrative, and if you changed the main character’s name it would more or less play out the same. Last Blood feels at times like it was based on an existing script that had Rambo kind of shoehorned in.
And for a while it almost works, even if it’s startling to fade in 10 years after 2008’s Rambo left off and find our hero peacefully running his family horse ranch in Arizona and being a father/uncle/brother to his adoptive family: the strong-willed, matriarchal Maria (Babel’s Adriana Barraza) and her granddaughter, Gabriela (Yvette Monreal). Of course there’s also the labyrinth of tunnels that Rambo has built under the farm, evidence that he’s still dealing with his PTSD, but he even grudgingly opens those up to Gabriela and her friends for an impromptu party.
Gabriela gets intel from a friend that her biological father, who long ago abandoned her and her late mother, is alive and living in Mexico, so she heads across the border on her own to find him. In the world of Rambo, Mexico is just one stop on the bus line short of hell, so it’s not long before Gabriela is kidnapped and made part of a sex trafficking operation. Cue the arrival of the lazily written, stereotypical Mexican cartel members and long, loving shots of whatever fragments of the Wall are currently standing as Last Blood makes its obligatory pitch to the Trump crowd.
Of course, Rambo must head south and rescue his surrogate granddaughter from an escalating and tragic series of consequences that eventually seem like the entire cartel somehow sneaking across the border themselves and laying siege to the Rambo compound. Those tunnels we saw in the first act? You can bet your AR-15 that they come into play in the third.
Directed by Adrian Grunberg (Get the Gringo), Rambo: Last Blood actually succeeds for much of its first half in creating a melancholy tone–and Stallone is as big a screen presence as ever, handling things well here. This may not be the Rambo we know from the earlier films but it is a man who is looking for some semblance of peace and may have finally found it. It’s just a shame that the rest of the story around him–from his at first unclear connection to Maria and Gabriela to the predictably offensive Mexican villains (plus an undercooked local journalist played by Paz Vega) is only perfunctorily sketched in.
Once the action begins in earnest, however, Last Blood will either seize your attention or turn you off for good. The siege on the farm is staged well by Grunberg, but the mayhem and violence are so over the top that a number of kills inspired laughter in our screening–unintentionally dissipating whatever weight and emotional resonance the earlier parts of the movie had managed to build up. I’ve watched plenty of hardcore violence onscreen, so I didn’t find it disturbing per se, but rather jarring in the way it takes on an almost comic book tone after the more elegiac effect the movie was striving for earlier.
Still, if you want to see John Rambo spill as much blood as possible, Rambo: Last Blood ensures that you’ll get your fill. Whether this is the last blood that Sly Stallone will ever actually draw as the character is up to the audience and Stallone’s own stamina, but we’re not sure if there’s anywhere else he can go to find it.
Rambo: Last Blood is out in theaters Friday, Sept. 20.
Don Kaye is a Los Angeles-based entertainment journalist and associate editor of Den of Geek. Other current and past outlets include Syfy, United Stations Radio Networks, Fandango, MSN, RollingStone.com and many more. Read more of his work here. Follow him on Twitter @donkaye