Sylvester Stallone’s restless all-American killing machine John J. Rambo is back, though one would be forgiven for not recognizing him. It has, after all, been 11 years since Rambo gave this Reagan-era reactionary superhero a belated return to the screen. His shaggy long hair and sweatband are gone. In Rambo: Last Blood, we find him improbably settled down, running a horse ranch in Arizona and looking after a teenager, Gabrielle (Yvette Monreal), whom he has effectively adopted as his daughter. (She calls him “Uncle John.”) He even smiles and cracks a joke every now and then, bringing to mind another indelible Stallone creation, the lovable Rocky Balboa. But make no mistake: Rambo exists to kill.
It wasn’t always this way. In Ted Kotcheff’s First Blood, which introduced the character as a traumatized, hitchhiking Vietnam veteran, Rambo’s only casualty was unintentional; he never set out to kill anyone. (And was originally supposed to kill himself, as in David Morrell’s source novel.) But by the ridiculously overproduced Rambo III, in which our hero joined forces with the Mujahideen to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan, he had become a one-man army. For a time, the film was even said to hold the record for the most onscreen deaths in a Hollywood movie, subsequently broken by Rambo, in which some 250 people meet their grisly, tattered demise. Of course, neither Stallone nor Rambo are as young as they used to be. In Last Blood, he kills maybe 40 people at most.
The reasons, as befits a world champion’s return from retirement, are personal. Against Rambo’s advice, Gabrielle takes a trip to Mexico to track down her deadbeat biological father, and ends up in the clutches of a gang of sex traffickers led by Hugo Martinez (Sergio Peris-Mencheta) and his psychopathic brother, Victor (Óscar Jaenada). Given the Rambo series’ overall track record with geopolitics, it will come as no surprise that Last Blood (which was actually shot in Bulgaria) depicts Mexico as a hellhole of murders and rapists with bad fashion sense—an impression that is hardly mitigated by the introduction of an extraneous journalist character (Paz Vega) who appears to be the only person living south of the border who isn’t worthy of contempt. Thus, faced with insurmountable odds and an army of sicarios with gold-plated AKs, our hero does what he is wont to do: He goes Rambo on them.
Despite the lack of homicidal intent, the original First Blood played at times like a slasher movie in which the audience was expected to root for the maniac. (In fact, it shares a few tropes with that genre, among them ineffectual small-town cops and a misty backwoods setting.) In many ways, the exponentially less accomplished Last Blood also feels like an inverted horror movie: less emphasis on the wanton machine-gunning of faceless combatants that defined the second, third, and fourth Rambo movies; more emphasis on Rambo’s (and presumably the audience’s) sadism. Early on, while interrogating a sex trafficker about Gabrielle’s whereabouts, he slices the man’s shoulder open down to the clavicle and then reaches in to snap the bone with his bare fingers. Later, he returns to Mexico to decapitate a gang leader and tosses his crudely severed head out the window of a pick-up truck as he speeds back to the United States. Which leads one to wonder: How long was that thing in his lap?
For a movie so gruesome, bleak, and brief, Last Blood is surprisingly lugubrious, often slowing down so Stallone (who co-wrote the script) can feign introspection, delivering his trademark mumbled monologues about violence and regret. (“I know how black a man’s heart can be,” he intones.) Adrian Grunberg, who previously directed the Mel Gibson vehicle Get The Gringo, never really gets a handle on the material’s inherent ludicrousness or its sentimentality, apart from some John-Ford-aping master shots of the Rambo homestead. But he does a generally good job of ensuring that we always know which of the villains who have crossed Rambo are well and truly dead, especially in the gory climax, in which the ex-Green-Beret leads what’s left of the Martinez gang into a trap-filled network of tunnels that he’s conveniently dug under his property.
To the strains of The Doors’ “Five To One” (because of, uh, Vietnam), Rambo stalks his prey like a murderous Kevin McAllister, sneaking up from behind to deliver point-blank cranial blowouts with a sawed-off shotgun when he isn’t setting off traps that impale intruders through the skull, chest, and groin. The sequence is Last Blood’s pièce de résistance, and perhaps the only compelling reason the movie has to exist. But it’s also pure, relentless, grimacing punishment at the end of a joyless film, choreographed like a ritual sacrifice. Rambo has always been a monster, but in his old age, he has become something even worse: no fun.