In 1982, “First Blood” was an instant classic of survivalist action-adventure, introducing Green Beret vet John Rambo who fled into the mountains of the Pacific Northwest to wage a one-man war against the prejudicial town sheriff, showcasing Sylvester Stallone’s talents just six years after “Rocky” (1976).
The sequel “Rambo: First Blood Part II” (1985) dropped him back into the jungles of Vietnam, cementing his imagery of a red headband and ammo bandoleer straps. The disappointing “Rambo III” (1988) moved the fight to Afghanistan, while the reboot “Rambo” (2008) showed Stallone’s age in war-torn Burma.
Now, we get the unnecessary fifth installment “Rambo: Last Blood” (2019), which unlike the “Creed” renaissance for the “Rocky” franchise, doesn’t breathe new life into the series. Instead, it cheapens a once beloved character by forcing its aging action star to deliver some of the most gruesome violence ever put on screen.
Set 11 years later, Rambo now lives in Arizona on his late father’s horse ranch with longtime friend Maria Beltran (Adriana Barraza) and her granddaughter Gabriela (Yvette Monreal), who locates her absentee father Miguel in Mexico. Rambo and Maria forbid her to go, but Gabriela secretly crosses the border, getting kidnapped by a Mexican cartel and forcing Rambo to seek revenge.
Stallone is still a compelling screen presence in the right role. In “Creed,” it made total sense to have him play the aging boxing manager of a new young prospect. He wasn’t the one in the ring throwing punches; he was the wise sage sharing his wisdom. In “Rambo,” he’s not coaching some upstart; we’re supposed to believe that he is still a badass marksman himself, straining plausibility from the start.
That’s not to say it can’t work; Clint Eastwood directed himself to Oscar glory as an aging gunslinger trying to escape his violent past in “Unforgiven” (1992), from which “Rambo: Last Blood” borrows a lot of graveside imagery. The difference is that Eastwood’s William Munny was an original character meant to be grizzled, rather than a shell of a character never meant to live this long at the box office.
“I haven’t changed,” Rambo says. “I’m just trying to keep a lid on it.” However, this character has changed, now more bloodthirsty than ever. Original author David Morrell tweeted, “I’m embarrassed to have my name associated with it” and “I felt degraded and dehumanized after I left the theater. Instead of being soulful, this new movie lacks one. I felt I was less a human being for having seen it.”
The premise is meant to capture the excitement of Denzel Washington in “Man on Fire” (2004) or Liam Neeson in “Taken” (2008), mining thrills from a scorned macho man seeking revenge against the evil doers who have endangered his loved ones. But unlike those highly enjoyable films, this script — co-written by Stallone, Matthew Cirulnick and Dan Gordon — feels oddly structured.
After an intriguing setup at the ranch, Act Two tanks as Gabriela ventures to Mexico. Rather than a truly introspective look at a child searching for a parent like “Central Station” (1998) or “The Kid with a Bike” (2011), Gabriela’s journey is an excuse to get her kidnapped so that Rambo can race across the border. Of course, Rambo saves his adopted daughter way too easily at the midpoint, all so he can stage a giant contrived finale as the cartel follows him back in Arizona.
The entire thing feels reverse engineered to get to a climax in a series of tunnels beneath Rambo’s ranch. As Gabriela says, “My friends keep asking why you dug these tunnels. I told them you like digging and you’re kind of crazy.” Such lame reasoning isn’t enough. It made sense when Jamie Lee Curtis built a basement trap in “Halloween” (2018), knowing that Michael Myers might return. In “Last Blood,” it makes no sense why Rambo would construct such elaborate passages.
The explosive finale is booby traps galore, but unlike the family friendly pratfalls of “Home Alone” (1990) or “Swiss Family Robinson” (1960), this one is the gory culmination of an overly graphic film. In one scene, Rambo rips out a man’s collar bone. Later, he decapitates a guy and drops the head on a highway. We won’t spoil his final act of violence, but it’s the type of shock violence that should be reserved for villains (i.e. “Temple of Doom”), not for beloved action heroes.
It should come as no surprise that the film is directed by Adrian Grunberg, who served as second unit director on “Man on Fire” (2004), made his directorial debut in “Get the Gringo” (2012) and directed portions of TV’s “Narcos” (2017) and “Narcos: Mexico” (2018). Sensing a theme here? When you have Americans killing a bunch of Mexicans, Grunberg is the guy that Hollywood seems to call.
This has opened the film to charges of xenophobia against Latinos, as every Mexican is presented as a drug dealer, gang banger or sex trafficker. There’s one exception, an investigative journalist (Paz Vega) who comes to Rambo’s aid because her sister was kidnapped by the same exact cartel, but her role is disappointingly small. At a tense time when films like “Coco” and “Roma” are trying to build bridges between communities, “Rambo” drives a bloody wedge.
Thankfully, the entire exercise is only 89 minutes, so you don’t have to feel like you wasted too much time. If you want funny banter with your action, check out “Hobbs and Shaw.” If you want carefully choreographed violence, see “John Wick 3.” If you want to throw up in your mouth, buy a ticket to “Rambo: Last Blood.”
Like “Rocky V” (1990), the best part is an end-credits montage of franchise highlights, but this time there’s no Elton John singing “Measure of a Man,” only composer Brian Tyler wishing he were back on “The Expendables.” The film concludes with Rambo in a rocking chair, then riding a horse off into the sunset. We can only hope that this is the final image of an action hero we used to love.