No, I don’t know why I had high hopes for Rambo: Last Blood. Maybe because its title alludes to the film that started it all, Ted Kotcheff’s First Blood (1982), a starkly effective Vietnam-vet-comes-home tale (from an even better novel by David Morrell) that gave us our most vivid glimpse to that point of the Vietnam vet as a PTSD-ridden outcast, alienated from and rejected by the country for which he fought. Run out of a small town for vagrancy, Rambo (played by Sylvester Stallone) stood up for American values the way he had been trained: by camouflaging himself in the wilderness and setting booby traps for his thuggish pursuers. The novel was bloody and nihilistic — it ended with Rambo getting his head blown off by his old commanding officer, who regarded it as a mercy killing. But the studio ditched the downbeat finale it had originally shot and let Stallone’s Rambo live to become, in Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985), a muscle-bound Soldier of Fortune pinup — “What you call hell, he calls home” — worth $200 million domestic when that was real money. No longer would Rambo be a casualty of the Vietnam War. Now, he was the guy who’d go back and refight it and win it, rescuing our MIAs and giving President Reagan someone to point to as an exemplar of the American can-do spirit. (NB: Stallone sat out the actual war in Switzerland, teaching rich young women to ski.)
I’m getting to Last Blood, but I want to mention another reason I had hopes for it: the existence of Creed and Creed II. Consider that the same year as Rambo: First Blood Part II, Stallone took his customary two or three days and shat out the script of Rocky IV, in which a ‘roided-up Commie giant called “Ivan Drago” (How long did it take Stallone to think up that name?) sneered at the American way of life and for good measure punched the lights out of Carl Weathers’s Apollo Creed. The film was shoddy even by Stallone’s standards — its running time was padded out with flashback montages — but it was almost as big a blockbuster as Rambo, and the kids who grew up with it didn’t forget Apollo Creed (originally a racist cartoon) or Ivan Drago. Cut to 2015, when a terrific director and actors took that synthetic dreck and transformed it into a gritty, intense sequel, and then 2018, when Michael B. Jordan’s brooding Adonis Johnson (son of Apollo) decided he owed it to his old man to take on Ivan Drago’s son in the ring. Suddenly, Stallone’s lazy-ass stereotypes were invested with life (Dolph Lundgren’s aging Drago nearly stole Creed II), and we were witnessing one of the ongoing marvels of culture: how even the crudest lore can inspire new generations of storytellers. And it has always been so: The story of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, was a creaky standby in the late 16th century when Shakespeare exhumed it, and I imagine some of his theater colleagues said, “Will’s rewriting that old thing? Jesus, let’s hope he gives that stupid ghost some better lines.”
The above thoughts were sketched out before I saw Rambo: Last Blood, and I’ve decided not to waste them even though I admit they have fuck-all to do with the new movie. The premise does not — as I’d dreamed — come full circle, giving the still-traumatized vet a chance to deal with other good (or bad) vets coming back, traumatized, from one of the U.S.’s more recent military debacles. It has little in the way of a political context aside from its portrait of Mexican border towns as shitholes rife with sexual predators. The movie is basically a more downbeat version of Taken in which Rambo tears across the border from Texas to save his surrogate daughter, Gabrielle (Yvette Monreal), from the murderous, drug-pushing sex-slavers who’ve kidnapped her and pumped her veins full of dope. When things go south in more ways than one, the movie turns into full-bore revenge porn, of the sort where the bad guy doesn’t just die but has to scream and scream and stare aghast into the eyes of the man he knows has beaten him, acknowledging the hero’s superiority on every level.
For a dumb guy, Stallone is very smart. Reportedly stung when his father criticized his physique in Rocky (in which he looked great — and human-scaled), he went on to engorge himself and to move the camera way up close so that his muscles would fill the screen. He was huge, potent, indestructible. Thirty-five years on, he generates an enormous amount of sympathy by lingering on his vulnerability. “Are you lost, old man?” sneer the Mexican bad guys who kick him senseless and then carve up his face. Rambo has been gobbling pills, presumably mood stabilizers, to keep him grounded in the here and now instead of back in the jungles of Southeast Asia, but he flings them away in disgust. He tried to have a family. He tried to live like other men. Now, he will do what he does best. Build tunnels. Build booby traps. Shoot fat arrows with flesh-pulverizing tips. Turn grief into rage, pain into the infliction of pain. “I want him to know that death is coming,” he says of the man who made him “feel as if my heart has been cut out.” Hmmm, whaddya think would be suitable payback?
The director, Adrian Grunberg, has assisted some formidable action directors and is not your typical slob. By his design, Rambo’s kills are high-impact but hyperfast, with splatter cut to the point where it’s almost subliminal (no splashing, no sloshing). Quick as it is, though, you have time to wonder how these Mexican assassins can watch their comrades getting skewered, dismembered, and eviscerated by Rambo’s traps and not think, Maybe we should pull out and rethink this assault.
Rambo: Last Blood is too cruddy to waste time brooding on, but its hero’s 37-year trajectory (47 if you count from when Morrell wrote the novel) says a great deal about the narrowness of the macho-male fantasy life. Rendered unfit for society by a war that was bungled by higher-ups at nearly every level, Rambo nevertheless embraces the role of battered patriarch-protector, sitting around a Texas ranch waiting for young American women to be kidnapped and sexually violated by Third World types whom he can then waste in cool ways. Then he can sit back, gaze on his wounds, and wonder where the next assault on American innocence will come from.