John Rambo’s “final” adventure is upon us, and (spoiler alert), he rides off into the sunset—no matter that he’s critically injured. Will he be back? Or has the character finally overstayed his welcome?
In a word: perhaps. The fact that the “First Blood” franchise has lasted nearly forty years over five films is kind of amazing in and of itself. Unlike Rocky Balboa, John Rambo has never precisely been known for his depths. “First Blood,” from 1982, showed a haunted Vietnam veteran whose demons were unleashed in horrifying flashbacks when the minions of a small-town sheriff (Brian Dennehy) push him well beyond the breaking point after Rambo is arrested for “vagrancy.”
Sure, he spent a portion of that film’s running time blowing stuff up real good and setting Green Beret traps for the sheriff and his men, but in the end, “First Blood” was really “about” something: the fact that America had no plan for dealing with the psychological scars of the highly trained warriors we set loose in Southeast Asia after their mission was over.
What *can* Rambo do when he comes home? In the film’s heartrending final moments, he breaks down before Col. Sam Trautman (the late Richard Crenna), saying you don’t just “turn it off.” It’s a sobering conclusion to a complex film with a lot on its mind, but know this would be the last time the Rambo franchise had anything enlightening to offer about the cultural divide between military personnel haunted by their actions and a civilian populace who would just as well forget the United States recently lost a rather unpopular war.
In “Rambo: First Blood Part II,” John Rambo essentially became the anti-Rocky Balboa: fighting not as the glorified underdog but as the avenging angel rewriting history. Rah rah ’80s revisionism masquerading as patriotism.
“If only we had men like Rambo,” the second film seemed to say, “we could ‘go back’ to the Nam, free all of our POWs and MIAs, and give those commies an extra-big ass-whooping in the process.”
For good measure, Rambo was pulled out of retirement (that old saw was old even back then) in 1989 to fight the Communists one time in “Rambo III,” but this time under the guise of rescuing Trautman from Russian captors in Afghanistan. In a plotline that would seem hilarious if it hadn’t aged so poorly, Rambo becomes Lawrence of Afghanistan, uniting that land’s mujahideens to push back against those Soviet goons in the name of a free nation.
Remember, this was a year before the Berlin Wall fell and two years before Gorbachev was forced to step down, the latter drawing the final curtain on the USSR. Thus, in ‘89, you could still get away with this kind of thing. Beefy Americans fighting strangers from other lands (“Rocky IV”) or outer space (“Predator”) was all the rage—and you could really make that kind of entertainment with a straight face.
There’s an argument that John Rambo should never have been on screen again, but as everything old is new again, Sylvester Stallone brought the aging warhorse back again for 2008’s simply titled “Rambo,” in which the grizzled warrior was at first seen working a peaceful gig as a snake-handler in remote Thailand, until a group of church missionaries asks him to escort them into civil war-wracked Burma. (Never mind the country was officially known as Myanmar even then.)
What made “Rambo 2008” so amazing was not only did it not take itself in any way ironically, it boasted a blood count that would seem ludicrously vulgar from any other mainstream filmmaker (Stallone also directed and co-wrote) were it not so over-the-top gruesome. Some might say needlessly; I say it was beyond entertaining.
So where could Stallone possibly go from there? In the final scene of “Rambo,” the vet finally returns home to the family farm in Arizona—a border state, mind you. Thus, the possibility for a fifth adventure seemed almost too obvious—and it was—but the way Stallone and “Rambo: Last Blood” co-writer Matthew Cirulnick chose to frame Rambo’s one last ride leaves us scratching our heads long after the pandering end credits (more on this later) have rolled.
(A detailed description of the plot begins now)
Whereas 2008’s “Rambo” set the tone right up front by having Burmese soldiers cold-bloodedly massacring civilians with mines and machine guns *in the first minute,* “Last Blood” makes us wait forty-five minutes for anything even remotely awesome to happen. Rather, that first quarter-hour is devoted to what can only laughably be called setup as John Rambo, aping the CMT Awards wardrobe catalogue, lassoes horses and plays at his little blacksmithing forge in tunnels he has apparently dug underneath the ranch “just in case.” What seems to bring him the most joy is watching over his niece Gabrielle (Yvette Monreal), a precocious lass who should know better than to go south of the border into Mexico to reconnect with her father.
But go south she does, as do her fortunes. Her standoffish padre wants nothing to do with her, and before long she’s sold into sexual slavery. Nothing’ll get an American audience hotter under the collar than a beautiful young white girl being serially raped by brown people.
Now, let’s put aside for the moment the very real and very awful problem of human trafficking. It’s an abominable situation that deserves attention and should be stopped immediately. But as a plot device in a Rambo flick, it veers on the pandering. Granted, we have to see the bad guys do something mean to a character we like in order to know why we don’t like them, so check that one off the list. But has anyone seen the news lately? Remember those kids in cages and families seeking a better life north of the border who are separated from their children as they seek to escape gangs and drug wars, corruption and poverty in their home countries?
You wouldn’t know any of that exists to judge from “Last Blood.” All we need is a reason for Rambo to go crazy on some baddies. Mission briefing complete.
To reiterate, it’s almost an hour before Rambo injures anyone, and still a good twenty or more minutes before he murders someone in cold blood. By my informal count, it’s the longest-delayed kill of any of the five films, and the least “earned.” Going back to “First Blood,” if you recall, Rambo never intended to kill anyone! Only one person dies in the first film, and it was entirely an accident as Rambo threw a rock at the sheriff’s chopper as they chased him through the woods, the pilot jerked the craft, and a deputy fell to his death. As the franchise went on, however, Rambo veered away from reluctant warrior to unfeeling terminator, and thus ever further and further from the sympathetic veteran we first met in “First Blood.”
By “Rambo 2008,” all he needed to put his killing shoes back on—and to smelt a new knife!—was a call to help rescue the missionaries from those Burmese baddies alongside a gang of mercenaries hired by the group’s church back home (my memory may be dulled by age and booze, though I’m fairly certain “mercenary” was not one of the likely occupations of the congregants at my childhood church in New Jersey.)
There’s absolutely nothing personally at stake for him in that mission. In “First Blood Part 2” Rambo felt a duty to free American POWs still trapped in Vietnam, and in “Rambo III” he wanted to save his friend and former commander from Russian goons. But then it was just missionaries who went where they shouldn’t, and Rambo wasted hundreds of bad guys in a gratuitously bloody climax that has never, ever been topped. The reluctant hero was back, but this time risking his life for total strangers.
OK, so for “Last Blood,” this time, it’s really, really, really personal. Because although he in fact rescues Gabrielle (spoiler again), she dies in transit back to Arizona. Now he’s super pissed.
(Sidebar: How precisely Rambo and Gabrielle are related is never precisely spelled out either. He calls her his niece but her Mexican father is clearly not Rambo’s brother, so was Rambo’s sister Gabrielle’s mother? Was Rambo ever married? Was this his wife’s niece? Is “Rambo” perhaps an Ellis Island anglicization of “Rambeaux”? The screenplay does not specify.)
Two major missteps happen to our hero in the new flick. The first is he walks right into a group of Mexican gangsters, all of whom draw guns on him. Pretty sloppy tactics from a former Green Beret whom we’ve seen take out hordes of Soviets and Burmese soldiers in days of yore. And certainly not a move I’d ever advise for any man over seventy.
[“Last Blood” came out on September 20th, 2019]
Second, when stuff gets real, Rambo baits the baddies to follow him back to Arizona, where he rigs his entire farm with booby traps that would make Macaulay Culkin envious (and yes, I must break in here to say that the last third of “Last Blood” apes “Home Alone,” which itself channeled “Straw Dogs”—and both of which were copied yet again in “Skyfall”–nothing’s original).
Let’s set aside for one moment that the Mexican gangsters would have to have some pretty keen detective work to find out where the Rambos farm their cacti. How precisely did their convoy of heavily-armored vehicles slip so easily over the border?
Simple: They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. I assume some of them are good people. This “invading horde” is a full-on Fox News nightmare, the likes of which only a good ol’ American superman like John Rambo can stop.
I know that Stallone is a long-tenured Republican, but this is a far bridge to have crossed in 2019. I always assumed that, like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis, Stallone hewed to the low-taxes, strong military, small government conservatism married to an enlightened social agenda, i.e., the Barry Goldwater model (coincidentally or not, the late senator was also from Arizona).
I know that this is just a movie, but sometimes movies miss the zeitgeist in spectacular fashion. Who remembers “The Green Berets,” the pro-Vietnam War film starring and directed by John Wayne, which fell flat on its face in 1968 as the culture had largely turned against the war? Border bad guys who are singularly evil marks a new level of deafness given the headlines of the past few years.
That said, “Last Blood” pulls no punches in the big showdown, as Rambo hacks, slices, shoots, burns and dismembers his enemies in grisly fashion that is capped off by a kill that proves the former soldier clearly paid attention in anatomy dismemberment class at Green Beret camp.
The bad guys adequately—and in several pieces—disposed of, our hero nurses his wounds while seated on a rocking chair, as if to remind us, hey, he’s old and stuff. And here I interrupt with the news that the running time of “Last Blood” comprises a scant 89 minutes. So at about minute 79 begins a greatest-hits reel of the five films—including, yes, the one we just saw.
Then, as the final part of the credits sequence, Rambo rides off on a horse into the darkness Shane-style. Earlier we saw him “freeing” the horses lest they get mulched into glue in the big climax (alas, my hopes for the protagonist to chase down a baddie on horseback and then hack his head off with the Bowie knife were dashed), but being good ol’ horsies, the steeds returned to their jockey.
So what exactly are we to take away from all of this? Did this even really need to be a Rambo movie at all? Couldn’t it have been Stallone as, say, Ray Smith, a retired soldier who gets roped into such a misadventure? Or is “Last Blood” merely the ultimate manifestation of a certain type of contemporary xenophobia?
“First Blood” author David Morrell has disowned the film. Never mind that he killed off Rambo in his book and likely kept his mouth shut as the royalties rolled in the last forty years. It’s still Rambo, but not his Rambo.
Whose Rambo is it, anyway? Should we even take any of this at all seriously?
Probably not. But I’ll certainly be back for “Rambo’s Final For Real This Time Last Blood” in 2028. Stallone will be 81 and Clint Eastwood will still be making movies—and if there’s any justice in the universe, Eastwood will also direct.
Maybe we’ll all look back upon this time and laugh, just as we do now peering back at those rah-rah eighties Rambo adventures.
Did I mention Rambo also became a late-eighties cartoon? I promise, I couldn’t make that up if I tried.
Eric Althoff is a film critic and world traveler (@singerwriterEFA)