It goes without saying that some of the most iconic heroes of action cinema have been brought to life by Sylvester Stallone. The ‘Italian Stallion’ himself, Rocky Balboa, obviously springs to mind, but that’s equally true for John Rambo.
With the character’s humble (and finite) beginnings in Dave Morrel’s 1972 novel “First Blood”, Rambo burst onto cinema screens around the world with the eponymous film adaptation in 1982. However, it was with the 1985 sequel, “Rambo: First Blood Part II” and its 1988 follow-up “Rambo III”, that our collective image of the impossibly ripped super-soldier that is John Rambo would truly take hold.
Our hero would later return after a long hiatus with 2008’s “Rambo”, which proved to not only be worth the two-decade long wait, but a major high point in the series – a truly rare feat for a decade’s later franchise revival to pull off.
Surprisingly, John would take another long break before finally returning for his newest battle in “Rambo: Last Blood”. Taking our hero out of the series’ usually occupied territory of the jungles of Southeast Asia or the mountainous deserts of Afghanistan, “Last Blood” gives Rambo the “Logan” treatment by dropping him into a contemporary Western-setting right out of a Clint Eastwood movie.
With nearly as much over-the-top battlefield carnage as Rambo’s last go-around, “Last Blood” manages to feel almost nothing like a typical Rambo movie, in a good way, while Sly shows how much of a command he still has over the role even into his seventies…
Following his battle in the Burmese jungle, John Rambo seems to have finally found the peace he’s searched for his whole life, working on his deceased father’s Arizona horse ranch. He’s joined by his old friend Maria, played by Adriana Barraza, and becomes a surrogate father to her granddaughter, Gabrielle, played by Yvette Monreal.
When Gabrielle’s friend Gizelle, played by Fenessa Pineda, locates her illegitimate father in Mexico, Rambo and Maria try to talk her out of reconnecting with him. Ultimately, Gabrielle ventures down to Mexico to meet him for the first time, only for him to coldly push her away. While still reeling from her father’s rejection, Gabrielle is drugged and sold to one of the local drug cartels by the duplicitous Gizelle. When Rambo learns of her kidnapping, he wastes no time in heading straight to Mexico to rescue the girl he’s come to see as the daughter he never had.
Of all the movies in the series, “Last Blood” certainly feels like the least “Rambo”-like. Where “Rambo” put our hero right back in his familiar warzone setting, with John practically taking out the entire Burmese army single-handedly in the finale, “Last Blood” feels more like cross-pollination of “Taken”, “Logan” and, of all things, “Home Alone”.
That isn’t a criticism, but it does serve to illustrate how much the film dances to its own drum next to its brethren in the series. Ever since 2006’s “Rocky Balboa” and even more so with “The Expendables” movies, Sylvester Stallone has stood as perhaps the modern example of aging action stars whose energy has barely diminished.
To be sure, the film is cognizant that this is a tale of “Old Man Rambo”, and goes out of its way to remind us of his human frailty when Rambo is beaten nearly to death in his first attempt to rescue Gabrielle. However, Sly still knows how bring the thunder, and the film is surprisingly light on the ballistic-oriented action that defined John’s 80’s heyday.
In fact, Rambo’s methods are a lot more down-and-dirty than they’ve ever been in the past, as seen when our hero pulls an “Oldboy” by charging through the crack house Gabrielle is imprisoned in with no more than a claw hammer. By that point, its also visible how much of a rising scale Rambo is placing on the punishment that each party responsible for Gabrielle’s kidnapping receives, according to how direct their involvement was.
His vendetta ranges from simply giving Gabrielle’s father and the two-faced Gizelle a good scare, to quite literally snapping the collar bone of one of her kidnappers like a wishbone. Be forewarned squeamish viewers – “Rambo: Last Blood” pulls no punches (or hammers, knives, spikes, shotguns, and machetes).
The film’s most truly memorable set piece is one for the ages in the “Rambo” series, when our hero lures the cartel into a series of tunnels underneath his ranch. With his skills in guerilla warfare, our hero leads the cartel into a series of exceptionally gruesome deaths with one spiked or bladed booby trap after another, with Rambo himself often popping out of the shadows to chop up an unsuspecting drug runner.
The finale actually rivals the ending of “Rambo” for how thoroughly our hero destroys an entire army of enemies. It makes the film feel freshly unique among the franchise with our hero defeating his adversaries with a series of (more) deadly “Home Alone” traps.
It truly can’t be overstated just how much squeamish viewers will want to sit this one out, especially when one particularly unfortunate evildoer meets a particularly “Mortal Kombat”-inspired demise.
Stronger viewers, meanwhile, will surely appreciate the poetic justice entailed in Rambo’s relationship with Gabrielle that couldn’t have been more on the nose if the film had tried.
While “Rambo: Last Blood” might not quite rise to the same heights as John’s previous return to the battlefield in 2008’s “Rambo”, it nevertheless is a worthy entry into the series.
In comparison with the rest of the series, it feels the least like a typical “Rambo” movie, but that proves to be one of its great assets as it positions itself as a Neo-Western with a battle-hardened old geezer saddling up, one last time.
Sly hasn’t missed a step with his command of the role of Rambo, and the film wraps up with an action-packed finale that’s an instant Hall of Famer for the series.
Admittedly, international audiences have gotten to see a bit more of Rambo’s return with an introductory sequence of our hero lending his services to a flood rescue, omitted from the US and UK releases. Let’s hope the Blu-ray rectifies that with the ever reliable “Unrated Edition”!