Home has always been an abstract concept for John Rambo, and that’s what the last scene of 2008’s otherwise expendable “Rambo” sequel finally gave the iconic Sylvester Stallone character: a moment when this unsettled Vietnam War survivor, looking very much the worse for wear, lumbers up to a mailbox bearing the character’s surname. At last, somewhere in Arizona, this dutybound embodiment of American military might have found his way back to the family ranch.
Such closure was in nearly every way antithetical to the spirit of “First Blood” — that is, the PTSD-fueled franchise’s inaugural movie and the eponymous David Morrell novel that inspired it, both of which traded on the notion that a good man who’d gotten a taste of killing had serious difficulty turning off that deadly skill set upon his return. As a result, a sum total of zero viewers saw that ending as a sign that Rambo would take this long-overdue homecoming as a chance to park his keister and raise chickens, or whatever. The only surprise, really, is that it’s taken more than a decade for Stallone to make another Rambo movie (as it happens, the actor-producer was busy rebooting a far better series, via “Rocky Balboa” and “Creed”). And the only unanswered question has been what group of unlucky so-and-sos would be the next to face his wrath.
In “Rambo: Last Blood” — another cruel and ugly showcase of xenophobic carnage squeezed into barely 80 minutes and packaged for export — the tired, now-septuagenarian action figure turns his notorious sense of loathe-thy-neighbor vengeance toward the Mexican cartels, who’ve kidnapped his college-bound niece Gabrielle (Yvette Monreal) and turned her into a smack-addicted sex slave. Call it “Rambo: Bad Hombres Edition” — featuring fresh south-of-the-border mayhem from “Get the Gringo” director Adrian Grunberg — in which screenwriters Matthew Cirulnick and Stallone adopt the racist view of Mexicans as murderers, drug dealers and rapists, devoid of cultural context or exceptions, beyond the “independent journalist” (Paz Vega) keeping tabs on their whereabouts.
Before all hell breaks loose, the movie reveals what a “peaceful” day on the ranch looks like, opening in the elaborate system of tunnels Rambo has constructed beneath the pasture that surrounds his country home — a sort of precautionary measure borrowed from his friends the Viet Cong, and a perfect playground in which to booby trap and torment his adversaries in the movie’s spectacular climactic bloodbath. (Amusingly enough, “Last Blood” lensed in Bulgaria, doubling for Mexico, whereas “Rambo: First Blood Part II” used Acapulco to stand in for Vietnam.)
Singlehandedly doing more to support the Second Amendment than Charlton Heston ever has, “Rambo” movies view weapons the way Quentin Tarantino does feet, turning a well-greased gun barrel into a whatever-cocks-your-bazooka fetish object. To wit, this film’s opening shot dollies past a well-stocked ammunition rack, in which we spy a pair of M16s, a shotgun or two, and several rifles, plus a machete for good measure. So much for background checks. Rambo is clearly waiting for the war to come to him. And if it doesn’t, well, he can be counted on to start one.
Disregarding her uncle’s advice (which sounds like some kind of sociopathic fortune cookie: “I know how bad a man’s heart can be”), Gabrielle crosses the Mexican border to meet her deadbeat dad (Marco de la O), only to be drugged, kidnapped and sold to the Martínez brothers, Victor (Óscar Jaenada) and Hugo (Sergio Peris-Mencheta). A pair of retrograde stereotypes clumsily recycled from ’80s action movies — neither as scary as the “Sicario” drug lords nor as memorable as Robert Davi’s Bond villain — these two siblings so intimidate their captives that the young women dare not run away even after Rambo liberates them.
Early on, Victor threatens one such escapee but stops short of punishing her in a scene that feels as if it may have been softened after test screenings — whereas no brutality has been spared against the anonymous platoon of cartel thugs Rambo later decimates. Yes, but they deserve it, one might argue. This is the reductive one-man-against-the-world reasoning by which Rambo has always operated, and I don’t buy it.
Rambo — who is bludgeoned till his eyes won’t open, and gashed on the same cheek that was scarred in “First Blood Part II” — always sustains some kind of humiliating beatdown before getting his payback. That’s the long-established formula for this franchise. In the past, he’s used military operations to justify his rage. This time it’s personal, or so the cliché goes, although the sentiment has seldom been less convincing (same goes for Stallone’s crocodile tears). Here, it’s the screenwriters, not the cartel, who should be held accountable for conjuring a virginal relative only to violate and degrade her. Suddenly, the infamous wall along the U.S.-Mexico border seems inadequate — less in containing the cartels than in protecting them from Rambo’s brand of vigilante justice.
After decapitating one of the Martínez brothers, Rambo returns to his ranch, where he proceeds to perform one of his signature montages — an extension of the gratuitous gun-barrel worship we got brefore, only this time, it involves setting a dozen or so grizzly death traps, every one of which audiences will have the pleasure of seeing sprung upon faceless henchmen. One actually cleaves a goon’s face in thirds, sparing Rambo the trouble of his usual skull-bursting finishing move. It’s horrible, gut-wrenching butchery to behold, and yet, it’s been calibrated to elicit whoops and cheers from fans, who’ve faithfully followed along as Rambo evolved from long-haired drifter, scuffling with an overzealous local sheriff (in the relatively realistic “First Blood”), to bare-chested, bandanna-wearing global enforcer (in a series of increasingly outrageous sequels).
For many, this will be their first Rambo movie, which they can enjoy unencumbered by the psychological baggage of his past. What a frightening sight Stallone must be to neophytes, stumbling Frankenstein-like through his tunnels, bellicose veins bulging in his swollen temples. Rambo always favored brute force over the more reasonable “hearts and minds” approach to modern warfare, and here, as if to prove his point, he rips both of those body parts from his foes’ chests. This character is a mess of contradictions, representing on one hand the permanent damage that military service can do to one’s soul while simultaneously suggesting what the ideal soldier looks like. Rambo wins the wars that America can’t. And the blood isn’t likely to stop here, or anytime soon.