This hasn’t been a good year for iconic film franchises.
Just ask the minds behind high-profile duds like “Charlie’s Angels,” “Men in Black,” “Terminator” or “Dark Phoenix.” Sylvester Stallone’s “Rambo: Last Blood,” now on home video, doesn’t fall too far down that IP rabbit hole.
Its head-scratching finale comes perilously close.
Stallone’s “other” franchise has had a good run, and it’s wise to officially cap the saga with one last installment. “Last Blood” plays out like it can’t wait to do just that, spending less than 90 minutes with its tortured anti-hero.
John Rambo is at peace. Finally.
He lives on an Arizona ranch with his sort-of adopted daughter Gabriela (Yvette Monreal) and a kindly housekeeper (Adriana Barraza). Rambo tames horses, tends to his underground bunker (???) and shares life lessons with Gabriela, whose biological pappy split years ago.
The stubborn teen learns where her deadbeat dad lives in Mexico and wants to pay him a visit. Rambo and the housekeeper urge her against it. He’s not a good man, and the trip could be dangerous.
John Rambo knows a little something about danger.
She’s a headstrong teen, so she goes despite their warnings. And you know what happens next, only it’s far worse than anyone could fear. She’s kidnapped and forced into a sex slave operation.
Only one man can save her…
FAST FACT: 1982’s “First Blood,” which introduced audiences to John Rambo, earned $47 million at the U.S. box office.
So far, so generic. Still, director Adrian Grunberg (“Get the Gringo”) captures the grit of both Rambo’s humble home and the impoverished town where the sex traffickers roam. The latter is captured in moody shades of green, a landscape teeming with uncertainty.
Grunberg is equally adept at making the 73-year-old Stallone look as ferocious as John Wick on a bender.
Our main villains, played by Sergio Peris-Mencheta and Óscar Jaenada, get little in the way of back story or depth, like every other element in the film. Still, the actors offer portraits of evil both brief and indelible.
There’s a bigger problem in play beyond the tight running time. Couldn’t this abduction tale apply to any vigilante figure? Why Rambo?
The screenplay, co-written by Stallone, flirts with themes evoking the rich franchise history. Few know the darkness in mankind better than this Vietnam veteran. His ranch, his surrogate family, simply camouflage the rage still burning in his soul.
Great. We want more. We crave it. It never fully arrives.
— Rambo: Last Blood (@RamboMovie) December 3, 2019
Even the introduction of a Mexican journalist (Paz Vega), with personal ties to the sex traffickers, doesn’t juice the drama. One sequence finds Rambo and the journalist in a heated debate, and we see their facial silhouettes in stark relief. It’s a powerful moment, one that doesn’t last long enough.
And then there’s the blood-soaked finale. “Last Blood” is grislier than most horror movies, even the “Hostel” variety. Buckshot and blades turn the villains into piles of pulp. Grunberg’s camera captures it all, never flinching.
Are we seeing the depths of Rambo’s despair, the visual embodiment of the fury that cannot be satiated? Do these monsters deserve nothing less than literal evisceration?
Perhaps. It’s still overkill in any artistic scenario. Far worse is the climax’s repetitive tone. We’re rooting for Rambo to put this gang down for good. There’s no other moral way to approach the subject. Death may be too kind for them.
Yet the finale is stripped of any tension or suspense. Yo, It’s Rambo! He’s a killing machine. We know the drill. Heck, we love it.
We still need suspense, and stakes, that make the slayings matter on some level.
“Rambo: Last Blood” fails here in spectacular fashion.
Let’s address the Trump-sized elephant in the room. The critical community slammed “Rambo: Last Blood” on more than its artistic merits. Review after review proclaimed the movie racist to the core, and, even worse in their eyes, pro Trump.
Well, did Stallone and co. concoct Mexican sex traffickers out of thin air? Let’s ask Karla Jacinto. She estimates being raped more than 43,000 times as part of a gang like the one showcased in the film.
Her story highlights the brutal realities of human trafficking in Mexico and the United States, an underworld that has destroyed the lives of tens of thousands of Mexican girls like Karla….
U.S. and Mexican officials both point to a town in central Mexico that for years has been a major source of human trafficking rings and a place where victims are taken before being eventually forced into prostitution
Art imitates life. It’s not racist at all, even if some sensibilities are tweaked by the truth.
The official Blu-ray edition is as lean and maddening as the film itself. We’re treated to production diaries and a look at the film’s muscular score. Where’s the history of Rambo? Stallone’s thoughts on the legendary character? Why did the Hollywood legend want this story, above any other, as Rambo’s coda?
Unlike the aforementioned franchise flops, “Rambo: Last Blood” never panders to the politically correct mob. It does the opposite, rubbing our noses in inconvenient truths as the best artists do. And Stallone, who occasionally phones in his genre films, suggests Rambo’s soul will never be at peace.
That’s powerful stuff. So why don’t we see more of it in Rambo’s swan song?