Rambo: Last Blood (2019)
Director: Adrian Grunberg
Screenwriters: Matt Cirulnick, Sylvester Stallone
Starring: Sylvester Stallone, Paz Vega, Sergio Peris-Mencheta, Adriana Barraza, Yvette Monreal
The first four films in the Rambo franchise aim to celebrate the individuals fighting for good in complicated situations. First Blood deals with how poorly Vietnam veterans were treated after returning home from war – while the conflict was wrong in the first place, the soldiers didn’t deserve to be held accountable for the actions of their government. Men like Rambo, who were lucky enough to be physically intact, came home traumatized and broken. Part II is again about the treatment of veterans, but this time it’s about those who were believed to be (based on real theories that were factually incorrect) left behind in Vietnam by the government. III and Rambo (the 4th movie) show the plight of locals caught in the middle of wars in Afghanistan and Burma. There are innocents being preyed upon by the foes in the film, and the films give off an air of empathy for the people affected by those conflicts in reality.
The franchise’s latest offering, Rambo: Last Blood (2019) is a huge deviation from the preceding films by focusing more on Rambo himself than any particular place or people. Rambo (Stallone) lives on his ranch in Arizona with his friend Maria (Barraza) and her granddaughter Gabrielle (Monreal). Rambo is a father figure of sorts after taking on the role following the death of her mother and resulting adoption by Maria. When Maria discovers that Gabrielle’s father is in Mexico, Gabrielle wants to go and see him. Rambo advises against it, but she goes anyway and ends up being kidnapped by a cartel. Rambo, naturally, must leave his life of ranching and go on one final mission to rescue the person he values the most.
This film does take a new visual direction for the series. The jungles, deserts, and smalltown US lack the striking lights on display in Mexico. The streets, homes and clubs are filled with blue and yellow lights foreshadowing danger, and cautioning the protagonists against physical and emotional pain. The bold lighting may be the best aspect of the film, especially in comparison to the flat, emotionless landscapes of Part II, III, and Rambo. Last Blood also improves on the CGI gore in Rambo, which looks primitive by comparison. The camera work may also contribute to the improvement, with the composition of shots allowing for more subtlety.
The performances were also really strong for the most part. Sure, Sly is over the hill, but his physical presence was more intimidating than I expected for someone in his seventies. There’s nothing he does that is particularly unbelievable for an old person, and that’s what matters most about Rambo and his particular style of gruesome presentation. Additionally, Gabrielle’s friend Jezel (Pineda) shows a lot of range in her small amount of screentime, and will convince anyone watching that she truly is the character. The cartel leaders were also both menacing and cruel, the actors playing their single note to a tee. What more can you expect from what is essentially a dumb action film?
Where the film struggles is in its pacing and its narrative. Last Blood isn’t novel, and feels more like a vehicle for box office revenue than a necessary chapter in a story that appeared to be finished. The plot could do with being a bit more straightforward, as momentum starts and stops as the script tries to hit specific beats rather than flowing naturally. For example, the film shows Rambo imparting wisdom on Gabrielle, but then she has a house party that doesn’t matter and barely happens, and then she goes to Mexico alone. The picture also jumps from America to Mexico, then back again, and so on, changing perspective so many times it borders on the nonsensical. Why not just have Rambo go down there with her in the first place? Why not have the whole film take place in one location, Mexico, like the previous iterations? There are other questionable decisions made throughout, including introducing a journalist that is barely a character, and having a third act that is a bit discordant with the rest of the film.
That third act is marvelous, though. It’s everything a fan of the Rambo films has ever wanted to see, and truly brings the character’s arc full circle. Without revealing too much, Rambo busts out his guerilla fighting skills against an enemy with greater tech and numbers. This is undoubtedly an intentional parallel with the Vietnam War, as Rambo rigs incendiary devices and uses a confusing location to his advantage. It’s brutal, and, like in Rambo, the camera doesn’t shy away from the violence. It’s definitely the most creative and exciting final act in any of the films.
For as much as critics have read it as a Trumpian work demonizing Mexico or its people, I didn’t see any sort of intentional political message in Last Blood. I won’t deny that the film seemingly paints a negative picture of Mexico, with scary men on every corner and cartel agents in every nook and cranny, but no character ever speaks ill of the country. At one point, Rambo criticizes Gabrielle’s father for being a bad guy, and the film makes explicit mention of why, but he never criticizes Mexico or Mexicans in any way. From reading about production, it seems the studio was pushing for a story about Rambo fighting the cartel, and I doubt a movie studio (whose ultimate goal is to make money) would go out of their way to make a racist film in 2019. It would also be out of character for the series to suddenly become xenophobic. The films have never aimed criticism at a particular country or ethnic group, aside from implicit denunciations of the imperialist, militarial actions of Russia, Burma, and even the US. Last Blood isn’t exactly cerebral, and I don’t see any kind of message in this film at all except that Rambo is a badass and fights for those he loves. Any claimed instances of racism or xenophobia are based more upon lazy interpretations than the filmmaker’s willful impression.
Conclusively, Last Blood is basically Taken in Mexico, but I’d take this movie over the other any day. There’s a little more personality to Rambo in civilian life and seeing him care for people as family members was a relateable and positive addition to his characterisation. This, coupled with the positives, audience satisfying final act, make Last Blood a must-watch for fans of action, movies like Taken and Sylvester Stallone.