‘Rambo: Last Blood’ Is a Trumpian, Anti-Mexican Nightmare
Yes, Sylvester Stallone’s Vietnam veteran John Rambo has gone full MAGA (just like the real Sly).
Right-wing American extremism has never been more extreme, so it’s hardly surprising that Sylvester Stallone has once again resurrected his embodiment of jingoistic USA militarism, John Rambo, for Rambo: Last Blood (in theaters Sept. 20).
An unnecessary “final” sequel that finds the now-73-year-old Green Beret fighting south-of-the-border invaders in Home Alone-style fashion (no, seriously), it’s a film that feels like the dying gasp of a series that refuses to go gently into that good night—especially since it can tailor its xenophobic bloodbath for our current Trumpian era.
It wasn’t always so for John Rambo, who in 1982’s sturdy First Blood was cast as a Vietnam veteran still grappling with PTSD, and forced to battle for the respect and appreciation he—and, by extension, his fellow returning soldiers—was denied by countrymen like Brian Dennehy’s hateful small-town sheriff. For all its brutal one-against-many forest combat, it was a character study of sorts in which Rambo had to relive his ‘Nam trauma—and in doing so, come to grips with it.
Alas, he did no such thing, as evidenced by Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985) and Rambo III (1988), blockbuster follow-ups that dispensed with any serious interest in Rambo’s deep-seated issues. Instead, they transformed him into a one-man Stars-and-Stripes wrecking crew capable of, respectively, victoriously re-waging the Vietnam War and defeating the Soviets in Afghanistan (alongside the pre-Taliban mujahideen, no less).
Rambo (2008) stripped away much of the character’s pro-American nature—he was now just a loner saving missionaries and civilians from vicious Burmese baddies—but to little avail. Having long since become a symbol of gung-ho steroidal Reaganism (the Gipper even famously gave him a shout-out), the film still argued that violence was the only answer, albeit in nastier-than-usual form. Similar to his later performances as his other icon, Rocky Balboa, Stallone tried, with his fourth outing as the bandana-wearing badass, to transform Rambo back from an American superhero cartoon to a broken-down, flesh-and-blood warrior. Yet the gesture was all pretense. A lifelong conservative (and Trump supporter), Stallone ultimately can’t resist making Rambo a reactionary action figure who solves the world’s problems with a gun, a bow and arrow, and his supersized phallic hunting knife.
Which brings us to Last Blood, a film that doesn’t feature Rambo learning the error of his brutal ways (spoiler alert?), but does have him facing a Hispanic threat designed to prove the president’s claim that we need to Build That Wall. Living a rancher’s life in his childhood Arizona home, grizzled Rambo spends his days training horses and, by the looks of his massive, vein-bulging physique, shooting up steroids and working out like a fiend. He also cares for his niece Gabrielle (Yvette Monreal), who’s about to head off to college. First, though, she decides that she must meet the father who abandoned her and her mom years earlier. When a friend calls with information about his Mexican whereabouts, Gabrielle floats the idea to Rambo and her grandmother. They object (the guy was apparently an abusive horror), but she sneaks off anyway to confront him.
The generic Mexican slum she visits is full of graffiti-covered buildings, trash-strewn streets, barking dogs and scary-looking locals, and after a thoroughly unrewarding chat with her dad, virginal Gabrielle is abducted and forced into prostitution by a gang led by brothers Victor (Óscar Jaenada) and Hugo Martinez (Sergio Peris-Mencheta). They’re villainous caricatures who equate their captives with dogs and shoot them up with drugs, and when Rambo hears that Gabrielle has ignored his wishes and gone missing, he naturally takes it upon himself to rescue her. That doesn’t initially go as planned, resulting in both him and Gabrielle receiving a horrid “V” carved into their cheeks by Victor. Last Blood, however, barely tries to pretend Rambo won’t eventually get payback for his innocent niece’s defilement at the hands of these creeps, whose sadism (and their country’s lawlessness) is intended to make Americans think they’d be best off barricading themselves from their raping-and-murdering southern neighbors.
Leadenly scripted by Stallone and Matt Cirulnick, Last Blood often plays like thinly veiled political propaganda aimed at red-state moviegoers. For those with simply carnage on their minds, meanwhile, director Adrian Grunberg provides the goods, and in a manner that’s mostly in line with 2008’s Rambo—which is to say, his set pieces are chockablock with impalements, stabbings, beheadings, and shotgun blasts that literally detonate adversaries’ noggins. Most of this takes place during a videogame-ish finale in which Rambo fends off a siege at his home, which he’s booby-trapped with deadly traps that would make Macaulay Culkin’s Kevin McCallister hurl. There’s something altogether noxious about Stallone’s fondness for gratuitous violence here, epitomized by Rambo not only dispatching enemies with extreme prejudice but then repeatedly shooting up their corpses for psychotic measure.
Because he’s “crazy” (yes, we have to put up with one brief ‘Nam flashback), Rambo has built a network of interconnected tunnels beneath his house, presumably as a safeguard against the very sort of “The Mexicans Are Coming!” menace that befalls him. Last Blood doesn’t even try to sugarcoat its exploitative ugliness; at every turn, including the wholly needless death of a key character, the film trades in cheap fearmongering and gruesomeness. Moreover, it celebrates revenge as a noble and necessary end unto itself, with Rambo getting back at those that have harmed him and his loved ones simply because (as he tells Paz Vega’s plot-device journalist), they deserve to suffer, and he wants to watch them do it—and, Stallone assumes, we want to watch that as well.
Fittingly for a soldier who can’t stop reliving past American failures in order to come out on top the second time around, Rambo gets his very own Alamo to win in Last Blood—against, notably, the very types of Mexican “monsters” that our present commander-in-chief warns are intent on overrunning (and overtaking) our nation. Stallone looks creaky and inexpressive throughout, his movements as wooden as his fury is excessive. Yet even more than its star’s tortured-He-Man routine and its grisly action (topped off by a closing kill that’s absurdly over-the-top), it’s the film’s ghastly worldview that’s truly archaic, and in need of retirement.