When we last saw John Rambo — Vietnam vet, social pariah, savior of POWs and stoic killing machine — he was saving missionaries and mercenaries in war-torn Burma at the end of Bush II’s second term. Then our man returned home to Arizona, walking down the dusty path to the front door of the Rambo family ranch and, presumably, towards a sense of peace. That was then; this is now. Rambo: Last Blood, the maybe, possibly, could-be final chapter of the franchise (though does anything besides scores of nameless, faceless bad guys ever really die?), finds the warrior at rest and in full Marlboro Man mode. He now spends his days breaking wild horses. In his spare time, John fixes up a series of interconnected underground tunnels running throughout the property and forges knives as gifts. A matronly housekeeper takes care of him and his college-bound niece, Gabriella (Yvette Monreal). Life is good.
Until, of course, it isn’t, because this is Rambo we’re talking about here. His eternal pessimism regarding human nature is well-earned. He knows the blackness that lives in a man’s heart. (We know he knows this because the sentence is uttered at least three times over 90 minutes.) Gabriella gets a call informing her that her long-lost deadbeat dad has finally been located. “I have to go to Mexico,” she tells her uncle. “Why would you want to do that?!” he exclaims, which is the first hint that this movie may not have the highest opinion of our southern neighbors. Sure enough, once the teenager gets past the American border, she finds herself in a country that’s populated by nothing but tattooed thugs, duplicitous gangbangers, narcos locos and mustache-twirling white traffickers. Eventually, we’ll meet a kindly doctor and Paz Vega’s noble investigative journalist, but Last Blood is a film whose overall attitude veers toward viewing everyone living below Texas as drug pushers, criminals, rapists…and some, it assumes, are good people. This ideology may sound familiar to you.
Soon, Gabriella finds herself in the clutches of feared brothers/bad hombre caricatures Victor (Óscar Jaenada) and Hugo Martinez (Sergio Peris-Mencheta). Rambo goes in search of the missing girl. Per the franchise’s usual stations of the cross, he will be tortured and beaten and left for dead. Then after several days, he will rise again and dish out payback. Heads will roll, which we should note may not be just a figure of speech in this case. Once the girl has been retrieved courtesy of a vicious hammer attack — apparently Rambo caught You Were Never Really Here on cable late one night and became inspired — the battered ex-soldier sends a message to her captors. Then he returns home and begins to fortify the ranch; cue booby-trap-preparation montage. “I’m going to rip your heart out, just like you ripped out mine,” Rambo promises the chief villain. Again, such threats aren’t necessarily metaphorical here.
Ever since the series started adding its hero’s name to the title with its second, straight-outta-Reagantown 1985 entry, these movies have hewed to more or less the same template: Stallone’s iconic character just wants to be left alone. He gets dragged into a conflict, he gets knocked down, shit gets crazy — Rambo, rinse, repeat. Audiences know the drill, and should some fans feel that the Stallone-helmed 2009 Rambo not have delivered enough humans-as-two-legged-squibs carnage, rest assured that director Adrian Grunberg (Get the Gringo, which could be an alternate title for this one as well) has them covered. After nearly an hour of perpetuating a filmmaking style best described as functionally brutish, the director and his collaborators deliver an extended, rapidly edited siege, complete with the sort of violence and Grand Guignol-level gore that’d put most slasher flicks to shame. Those tunnels we mentioned earlier? They are there for a reason. Same with the spiked boards, randomly placed firearms, scattered landmines, gasoline-filled trenches and plentiful steel-tipped arrows.
As for the usual jingoistic chest-thumping, that’s saved for a climactic voiceover. But Last Blood‘s basic takeaway — that heroes wear white hats and bad guys have brown skin — will be trumpeted throughout the whole bloody affair, from beginning to things-go-boom end. This is apparently what a Rambo movie circa 2019 now means. The man-vs.-cartel action you crave will be smothered in irresponsible fearmongering. The taste of toxicity will overwhelm whatever pulpy grindhouse pleasures you might have experienced. A franchise that started off with a sense of betrayal and righteous anti-authoritarian anger ends by parroting authoritarian talking points that betray what this country is about. Let this please be the last of its kind.