John Rambo is as American as apple pie. Actually, maybe that’s too sweet a comparison. John Rambo is as American as a border wall.
Yeah, that feels right.
In the catalogue of creations that litter three time Oscar nominee Sylvester Stallone’s career, it’s Rocky Balboa and John Rambo that remain constants. Balboa is the gentle and caring family man to Rambo’s fractured war veteran. The series kicked off with Rambo suffering from PTSD from his time as a soldier during the Vietnam War, and has consistently found ways to put the monosyllabic grunt into raging battles in different countries. Whether it’s Thailand, Pakistan, Burma, or Mexico, John Rambo has a way of making ‘bad men’ pay for their actions, and it usually involves a lot of bullets, a few arrows, and a massive knife or two.
Rambo: Last Blood kicks off with John Rambo working alongside a rescue team somewhere in Arizona during a flash flood. Atop his trusty steed, and just before the flood waters arrive, Ol’ John finds the people they’re looking for, but only manages to save one of them. The following day, back at the ranch, John sits down at the dining table of Oscar nominee Adriana Barraza’s Maria. The two share stories, lament the past, and talk about Maria’s granddaughter Gabrielle’s (Yvette Monreal) future. John is sad that Gabrielle is going off to university, because gosh, she can really ride a horse and horse riding is good.
But, Gabrielle has plans other than horse riding or university learning. Instead, she wants to try and reconnect with her father down in Mexico, and ask him why he left her and her mother. Both Maria and John are not keen on this idea, but plot necessitates that Gabrielle do the thing she seems smart enough to not do, and so, to Mexico she goes. There, she reconnects with an old friend, Jezel (Fenessa Pineda), who has information about how Gabrielle can track down her dad. All is not what it seems though, as her dad is a dick (naturally), and Gabrielle is upset that he is a dick (read the room Gabrielle), and Jezel convinces her to drown her sorrows at a bar.
This needlessly long set up exists so that Gabrielle can be taken into an illegal prostitution ring, which allows John Rambo Esquire to trundle on down to Mexico and bump off some ‘bad guys’ in retaliation. John’s feeling every bit of his seventy something years of age, but he’s still got a brain that knows how to fight, and he thinks he can take on these thugs who enslaved his niece. Turns out, he can’t. As he stands up to the Mexican crims, John fails to realise he’s greatly outnumbered and cops a walloping. Paz Vega appears to remind people that she’s an actress that is continually underserved by the roles she’s given and helps mend Rambo.
I’ll cut off the narrative retelling before this turns into a play by play of the entire film (you know how it goes, there’s five of these things), and cut to the part you’re interested in. The action and the violence.
This is as brutal as you’d expect, earning every ounce of the blackness that makes up the R18+ label. When in Mexico, John interrogates a thug to find out the location of the hideout. He does so by stabbing him in the leg, and cutting open the crims chest and breaking his collarbone by sticking his finger into the wound and snapping the bone. As far as torture techniques go, this one is pretty darn brutal. But, it’s only the beginning, with an ever escalating symphony of gore leading to a cacophony of violence that makes up the climax of the film. This is a ninety minute film that appears to exist just for the gloriously over the top finale, and about one third of me is perfectly fine with that.
The other two thirds on the other hand can’t help but sit here wringing my hands over the eyebrow raising political issues within the film. Look, it’s not as overtly political as say, Sicario: Day of the Soldado, which is decidedly anti-Mexican from the first frame, but there is certainly a curious level of diluted Trump-speak on display here. Part of the reason that Gizmo from Gremlins 2: The New Batch’s idol, John Rambo, doesn’t want Gabrielle to go down to Mexico is because he knows that there are bad people down there. She protests, no! I’ll be fine! And he responds, yeah, but, I know they’re bad because I know what I know, and they have deep, black hearts full of hate. See, just like Gizmo and the Gremlins that the little fuzzball unwillingly creates, John Rambo is from the same ilk as these ‘bad guys’ down in Mexico. He’s cut from the same red bandana cloth as the soldiers in Thailand, or Vietnam, or Burma, or whatever other ‘third world country’ he finds himself in.
But the difference between these ‘bad guys’ and John Rambo is that they’re not American.
No matter how much gung-ho, sweat driven, defence focused corrective violence that John Rambo enacts on the ‘bad guys’, it’s always delivered in a purely patriotic manner. Sure, occasional cassette tape listening, forever horse training John Rambo has his issues, with his plot necessitated PTSD appearing like a bad headache, but his heart is in the right place, and that place is in the God loving land of the United States of America.
Can I get an Amen?
The beating that John Rambo, tourism enthusiast, gets when he visits Mexico is brutal and impactful. Hats off to the effects team on this one, because gosh, Sylvester Stallone has never looked as beaten and broken as he does here. But, unlike other films, globe-trotting John Rambo can’t bring the fight to Mexico. No siree. He has to bring the fight home, to America. After further plot necessities occur, the machinations are finally in place that ensure that these ‘bad guys’ will come to America, land of the free, home of the brave, and place of the apple pie, <insert eagle cry here>, all to take John Rambo, all American hero, on at his home.
There’s a brilliant homestead weaponisation preparation sequence that will no doubt provide substantial inspiration for the rebooted Kevin McAllister to pull from in the future. In it, John Rambo, failed House Rules contestant, sets up his farm with all manner of devastating devices that intend to relinquish ‘bad guys’ of their limbs, faces, skin, and souls. I forgot to mention that there was an elaborate tunnel setup that John Rambo, ever the fan of the burrowing mole, had set up with little pushback from Oscar nominee Adriana Barraza. (The takeaway from this is that people need to pay more attention to what their housemates are doing in the backyard.)
It’s this sequence alone that warrants a ticket purchase, especially as the violence escalates to the point of pure mania, with each pierced limb making way for another blood curdling scream from a faceless Mexican ‘bad guy’. One third of me applauds this finale, all the while the other two thirds are pondering in my head whether Arizona is a ‘stand your ground’ state or not. Turns out, Arizona is a stand your ground state, which means that the violence on display is, theoretically, legal. After all, these ‘bad guys’ have traipsed onto John Rambo’s, humble American home owner, land with the intention of killing our hero, and by doing so, they cause all manner of destruction. It’s messy, but it’s ok!
I keep mentioning the term ‘bad guy’, mostly because it’s the phrase Donald Trump likes to use when describing why his precious wall between America and Mexico is needed.
‘When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. … They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.’Donald Trump, actual President of America
See, in regards to Rambo: Last Blood, it’s the women that are the ‘good Mexicans’, and the men, they’re the bad Mexicans, so it’s ok to obliterate them completely. John Rambo is the ultimate ‘good guy with a gun’ stopping the ultimate ‘bad guy(‘s) with a gun’, and clear as day, that’s the ultimate American way.
There was always going to be something problematic about having John Rambo, failed diplomat, head to Mexico for his last violent venture. Given the current political climate, there is no other way of approaching such a narrative other than with political goggles firmly in place. Director Adrian Grunberg certainly doesn’t help matters by stoking the fire with a casual shot of Trump’s glorious border wall just prior to the explosive third act. The shot exists as a reminder to viewers, hey, folks, don’t forget that what you’re about to see is why we have this wall in the first place.
The Mexican villains are generic and rote, coming straight from the token villain stereotype handbook. There’s an active dehumanisation of the villains at work here, which is saying something given the lead foes are brothers (a plot point that means little and merely exists to kick the narrative down the road). They exist merely to spew hate, take drugs, and objectify women. They’re one kicked puppy away from being over the top evil. As with all the other enemies that one man genocidal machine John Rambo has obliterated in his lifetime, the more generic and stereotypical they are, the easier it is to not be bothered when they’re torn limb from limb by bullets. We have, after all, signed on to watch Rambo kill people, it’s just that we don’t stop to consider that it’s always someone foreign that is being killed, and not the good white folks of America (that reads like I’m saying Rambo should be killing Americans, and I want to stress, that is not the case). It’s startling how easy it is to make the ‘lone soldier’ trope devastatingly heroic, rather than horrifyingly wrong, like it should be.
For Sylvester Stallone, he considers himself a ‘political atheist’, saying that he’s ‘not smart enough’ for the character of Rambo to be a political statement (which, given he called himself a ‘political atheist‘, is almost believable, even if there’s something distinctly Libertarian about the term). He’s aware that the character has become a political statement, but it did so without his active involvement. But there’s nothing apolitical about John Rambo, with his actions being so purely Republican that it’s a wonder why they haven’t made him a poster figure for their causes. I don’t personally believe that Stallone ‘isn’t smart enough’ to realise the political aspects of John Rambo, especially in today’s climate, which is why I struggle to applaud the narrative decisions with this film.
And, it’s why I feel conflicted in applauding this film entirely. I had one heck of a time watching it, devouring every minute of violence on screen, and relishing the balls to put this kind of action on display. That’s the action loving one third of me that is doing the cheering, the action loving one third of me that respects this level of gore. But the other two thirds of me can’t help but ask, how did this kind of Trumpian politico-babble end up getting made? And, most importantly, what does it mean that most of the audience will fail to see the politically tense antagonism towards Mexico on display for what it is – active hate towards a country that is in genuine peril.
Director: Adrian Grunberg
Cast: Sylvester Stallone, Adriana Barraza, Yvette Monreal
Writers: Matthew Cirulnick, Sylvester Stallone, (story by Dan Gordon, Sylvester Stallone, based on the character created by David Morrell)