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Non-Review Review: Rambo – Last Blood

There’s something almost disappointingly pedestrian about Rambo: Last Blood.

The sequels to Rambo: First Blood have often struggled to live up to the original film, to capture the aspects of that early eighties action drama that elevated above so many of its contemporaries. Watched today, First Blood is a surprisingly sensitive piece that exists worlds apart from the gleeful revenge fantasies of Rambo: First Blood, Part II or Rambo III. It exists a world apart from superficially similar action movies like Missing in Action or P.O.W.: The Escape, a surprisingly meditative and reflective piece of work.

Parting shots.

It isn’t really a surprise that Last Blood strips out a lot of that meditation and reflection. Even the best of the sequels – the no-nonsense Rambo, from 2008 – was relatively straightforward in its ambitions and its methods. What is disappointing about Last Blood is how mundane its own ambitions and methods really are. The bulk of Last Blood is given over to a story that feels lifted from the most crass of the spiritual descendants of the original Rambo, with the eponymous Vietnam veteran embarking on a mission into the Mexico underworld to recover his surrogate daughter.

That said, Last Blood roars to life in its final act, recapturing some of the thrills that distinguish the series from so many of its imitators and successors. There’s a pulpy absurdist thrill to the film’s final act, which tries awkwardly to combine the wry commentary of the original film with the hyper-violence of the sequels. The result is a film that averages out to somewhere around “just about fine.”

Take a bow.

The second act of Last Blood is pretty much everything the audience might dread from a Rambo sequel in 2019. Unsurprisingly, given that director Adrian Grunberg’s only previous feature credit is the Mel Gibson vehicle Blood Father, the film plays into the familiar “aging action star plays protective patriarch in a foreign land” action template that was largely codified by Taken over a decade earlier. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this idea. In fact, there’s a wealth of interesting directions in which a Rambo sequel riffing on the template might do, distinguishing the series for its (increasingly) distant relations.

Unfortunately, Last Blood has no real insights to offer and no real ideas to bring to the table. The film isn’t particularly interested in engaging with a generation of action films that can arguably trace their roots back to First Blood, simply in slavishly imitating them. Last Blood is a film that feels curiously out of date, but not as a sequel to a film that is over thirty-five years old. Last Flood feels like it arrived a decade or so too late to cash in on the “young and innocent American tourists are brutalised abroad” template that was so popular during the War on Terror, codified and exemplified by the Hostel series.

Soldiering on.

The basic plot of Last Blood finds John Rambo retired on the Arizona frontier, breaking horses and living with his housekeeper Maria and his surrogate daughter Gabrielle. Gabrielle has discovered that her deadbat dad is living in Mexico, and conspires to confront him about his absence. Rambo tries to convince her not to go. “I know the darkness inside men’s hearts,” he warns her. Gabrielle insists that he is projecting his own formative experiences of Vietnam upon her world, insisting that the world in which she lives is fundamentally different. “It’s worse,” he assures her.

Naturally, Gabrielle crosses the border from Arizona into Mexico, and things (almost immediately) take a turn for the worse. Rambo finds himself embarking on a search and rescue mission into the dark underbelly of Mexican society, with the film even clumsily evoking You Were Never Really Here at a certain point. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this set-up. On paper, it’s remarkably similar to the premise of the previous sequel: some people want to cross a border, Rambo warns them not to, they ignore his advice and get into trouble, and Rambo has to mount a rescue mission.

Not a man you want to cross(bow).

However, there are two big problems with this middle stretch of the film. The most obvious is that it feels a little too cynically calculated to capitalise on simmering tensions within contemporary America. Last Blood is hardly Sicario 2, but it has a plot that seems just as likely to be cited by the President of the United States as justification for a harsher border policy. More than that, the film leans heavily into this angle. The closest thing that the film has to a joke is the blackly “humourous” shot of the waist-level barbed wire fence that counts as a border divider at certain stretches of the America-Mexico frontier.

However, aside from how crass this feels in the current climate, the bigger issue is that the second act of Last Blood feels suffocatingly generic. Last Blood takes one of the most distinctive and influential action heroes of the past three-and-a-half decades, and plops him into a cheap no-frills knock-off of a films that was itself something of a bastard descendant of his earlier films. There is some meta-textual fun to be had in confronting Rambo with his legacy, in drawing a parallel between the cultural context of First Blood and the anxieties that simmered to screen in films like Taken, but Last Blood is uninterested in that.

The film has been cut to ribbons.

There is a sense that Last Blood loses sight of John Rambo. Grunberg makes a point to include many of the images and markers of the Rambo film franchise, but they are curiously disconnected. As Rambo makes his way to Mexico, the camera takes a moment to linger on a shot of a mail box, evoking one of the most iconic shots in First Blood. However, the shot means nothing in the context of Last Blood. Rambo is not waiting for a letter, Rambo has not posted a letter. There is no meaning to that particular camera movement, except that it is instantly recognisable as “an iconic shot from Rambo.” Divorced from context, it is vapid.

To be fair, Last Blood finds some life in its final stretch. The climax of Last Blood seems to remember – at least in the abstract – what distinguished First Blood from so many of its contemporaries. The third act allows John Rambo to bring the war home once again. As with First Blood, John Rambo finds himself restaging the Vietnam War on American soul. A large part of what made First Blood so compelling was the way in which it cast a Vietnam veteran as an insurgent on American soil, waging a guerilla war in his homeland. The final act of Last Blood makes an effort to bring it all back to that.

Barnstorming.

Last Blood reveals that Rambo is still working through the trauma of his time in Vietnam. He lives on an idyllic and pastoral American farm, wearing a cowboy hat and riding horses across the frontier. However, beneath that stereotypical image of American wholesomeness, Rambo has built a nest of tunnels that are explicitly likened to those designed by the Viet Cong. He keeps a forge where he fashions metalwork. He makes Gabrielle a letter opener. “I hate to break it to you,” she jokes, “but people don’t write letters anymore.” That’s okay, of course. Rambo can just as easily fashion it into a weapon.

Of course, Last Blood reverts to the superhero template that was simmering in the background of First Blood, but which really broke to the surface in First Blood, Part II. The climax finds Rambo luring his enemies into the tunnels beneath his idyllic home, where he might unleash horrors upon them. There are booby traps and body horror, carnage and violence. There are moments when Last Blood evokes the popular memory of the horror of Vietnam, but there are also moments when it evokes nothing so much as a bloody riff on Home Alone.

A straight arrow.

These wild swings are frustrating, but at least they are interesting. Solidifying the sense that the franchise has lost its own grip on John Rambo, there are moments when the film seems to slip into narrative rhythms more associated with Sylvester Stallone’s other iconic character. Rambo’s surrogate family feel like they’ve been drafted in from a late Rocky sequel, along with John Rambo’s well-intentioned aw-shucks old-man affectations. However, there is something delightfully and absurdly macabre in how the third act of Last Blood riffs on the classic Rocky training montages for incredibly specific bloody pay-offs.

While the climax of Last Blood works largely as an old-fashioned blood-and-guts thrill ride, there are a handful of moments when it almost becomes something more. There is something strangely affecting in the sequences of Rambo turning his home into a battle field, just as there’s something strangely evocative in the film’s overhead shots of the archetypal American ranch as the tunnels collapse to form trenches crisscrossing the idealised landscape. In those brief shots, Last Blood grasps at a genuinely big idea, literalising the scars that Vietnam carved across the American psyche and which linger still.

Borderline worth while.

Of course, these sorts of moments are few and far between. Most of Last Blood is a dull lifeless slog, a heartless imitation of inferior action movies. It’s only when Last Blood takes John Rambo home that it truly comes to life.

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