The character of John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) has been a beloved icon within the action genre since 1982 with First Blood. The classic painted him as a broken man tormented by PTSD and thrust him headfirst into violent conflict after the world he fought for turns on him. With First Blood, John Rambo became an action hero many gravitated towards given the horrors of war engulfing society at that time. His struggles were very real for many who had experienced the horror themselves.
This gravitational pull continued with First Blood: Part II and Rambo III. Yet along the way, Rambo became a near unstoppable killing machine, his sole purpose to save some old friends and eradicate evil so the greater good could triumph. John Rambo had become the definition of 80’s action cinema – less a person than an archetype of the era. However, Rambo went away for a while. 20 years to be exact.
When Rambo returned in 2008, things changed hugely. Disconnected from old friends and living a life of solitude, John Rambo was once again forced to use his exceptional survival skills to take things to the absolute extreme. Rambo 2008 took the template of the three previous entries and expanded into territory reminiscent of a slasher movie. Yes, it was gritty, shocking and unflinching in its attention to violence. But at its core, it resembled the Rambo of old.
Now eleven years later, disappearing once again after his Burma encounter, John Rambo returns with what many believe to be his last movie (I’m not convinced), Rambo: Last Blood. Rambo 2008 managed to successfully transition John Rambo into modern action cinema territory via gritty modern realism, ultra-violence and a focus on the real-life struggles of a country like Burma. But with Last Blood, Stallone and director Adrian Grunberg (How I Spent My Summer Vacation) aim to bring something new and unfamiliar to the table. The question is – does it work?
Last Blood is a simple story. Our anti-hero has left his violent past behind him and is now living with an old friend, Maria (Adriana Barraza) and her granddaughter, Gabriela (Yvette Monreal) at a ranch he inherited from his late father. John’s life is now a far cry from the wars that occupied his life for so long. Now, he lives lovingly with this small family and will do anything to keep them safe.
John’s life is calm for once. That is until against his and Maria’s advice, Gabriela makes the terrible decision of travelling to Mexico to see her absent dad. Eventually, she wakes up disorientated and finds herself drugged, kidnapped and forced into prostitution by a Mexican Cartel. With no sign of Gabriela’s safe return, John Rambo sets off to Mexico to bring her home.
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At its core, Last Blood is basically 2008 Liam Neeson action vehicle Taken. However, while that film at the time of its release felt fresh and suspenseful – partly down to the Irish actor’s believable compelling portrayal of a father who would do anything to get his daughter back – the characters and events of Last Blood are as generic as they come.
The villains have no depth, only serving as an upgrade to the inevitable kill count. Characters like Gabriela’s friend Gizelle (Fenessa Pineda) or independent journalist Carmen (Paz Vega) aren’t in the movie long enough to have any real impact. In particular, the latter feels like she has a huge part to play when she is introduced yet disappears from the fray far too quickly. It’s disappointing because if these characters were fleshed out more, Last Blood would benefit hugely.
There’s no denying Stallone gives an admirable performance as a man hellbent on rescuing someone he loves dearly. He is easily the best thing about this latest entry in the franchise. But the problem is Last Blood is just too slow in building to a satisfying conclusion, especially when it’s all been done before. When it does eventually get going and things speed up, the finale hits you before you even expect it. This is both a positive and a negative. On the downside, Last Blood is completely disjointed and by its climax feels like two separate movies spliced together. On the plus side though, it’s in this finale that the film begins to finally feel like a Rambo joint and not a Taken knockoff.
Last Blood’s ultra-violent (those who know me know I don’t say that lightly) finale is probably the part of the film most in keeping with the franchise as a whole. Those who enjoyed Rambo 2008 and its ultra-violent approach will not be disappointed by this new climax. Limbs are severed, bodies are riddled with bullets and many people die. It is exactly what’s expected from a new Rambo entry – an unstoppable killing machine doing what he does best.
Where the plot took a Taken-esque approach and failed, the finale is more Home Alone/The Equalizer and works surprisingly well. John Rambo had built this large tunnel system under the land he owns. With the bad guys set to invade his ranch, he takes to the tunnels and fights back. We are even gifted a montage segment where John sharpens his tools for slaughter, creates traps and even rigs the whole system to detonate if needs be. It’s utterly ridiculous but completely entertaining and is what the film needed from the start.
The finale works so well because for the first hour of the picture Last Blood is a super serious, slow affair, one which tries to replicate the tone of the original 1982 movie but lacks the interesting themes and story to make it gripping rather than sluggish. At least, the violence of the last act is so extreme (Stallone basically becomes Jason Voorhees) it’s humorous. With the finale, audiences will be cringing, laughing but also cheering for Rambo.
Overall, Rambo: Last Blood is a surprisingly bare bones action movie, lacking the depth of the original 1982 picture, as well as the pace of other franchise highlight Rambo 2008. It’s serviceable, but with a franchise this iconic – that’s not enough.