After 2008’s surprisingly intense and entertaining Rambo, it was hard not to be curious as to what sort of bloodbath would be cooked up for the reluctant warrior’s next outing. Alas, the familial revenge story portrayed in Rambo: Last Blood feels like it was written for another character entirely — a much luckier and stupider one — and not the cunning, lethal combatant we’ve come to know and love. Suddenly introducing a pseudo-family life and the ability to express emotions beyond morose murmuring (Rambo smiles!), the story gets too bogged down in its half-baked drama before finally remembering the reason everyone came to see a movie about a guy who used to fire two machine guns at the same time in the first place. And by then, it’s too rushed, too little, and too late.
For those looking to get to the pulpy meat of the matter, be warned that Rambo: Last Blood instead takes its sweet time telling the hackneyed story, with a few false starts just to keep action fans frustrated. So, having mowed down hundreds of people across the world (especially in Burma), John Rambo has unceremoniously returned to the good ol’ U.S. of A. in search of that peaceful life that always seems to elude him in war-torn countries. To that end, he has somehow acquired a large ranch, where he for some reason is good at training horses, and somewhat okay at being an “uncle” to the 17-year-old Gabrielle, who is ready to leave her life on the ranch with her grandmother and this grizzled veteran, and head off to college.
When Gabrielle makes the idiotic (but understandably teenage) decision to disobey the guy who actually knows what he’s talking about when he says that the world is full of black-hearted people, she winds up drugged, kidnapped, and held prisoner in Mexico by sadistic creepos who deal in the sex slave trade. Sure, Rambo: Last Blood takes a little too long to get here, but the hostage scenario is ripe for the kind of one-man assault upon a bunch of dudes who more than deserve a serrated knife to the chest that this franchise specializes in (for reference, see Rambo: First Blood Part II, Rambo III, and Rambo). As Rambo gets that familiar crazy look in his eye, it appears that’s exactly what’s going to happen, but writers Matt Cirulnick and Stallone have other ideas.
Audiences have grown accustomed to the stealthy, sneaky tactics of Sly’s special forces soldier, and so when Rambo — who has rarely made a misstep in his pursuits of killing folk — blunders like a naive fuddy-duddy into an obviously unwinnable situation, the result is both a jarring and disappointing setback from which the script is never able to recover. Had Rambo: Last Blood foreshadowed this critical brain fart by depicting an aging lethal weapon losing control over his mental faculties (popping some glossed-over medication doesn’t do the trick), perhaps this behavior might have flown. But the labyrinthine tunnels and later booby traps (oh yes, there will be plenty of booby traps) suggest that this guy has still got it. Except for that one time, apparently.
The majority of Rambo: Last Blood is wasted on trying to get audiences to care about Rambo’s thinly constructed relationships with people they’ve never met, as if that will somehow make the multitude of deaths to come more personal. But because of the shoddy build up — including an underused Paz Vega as an “independent journalist” also affected by this crime ring — it just doesn’t seem to matter why these thugs need to die. They’re cartoonishly evil; let’s get to it already.
Unfortunately, by the time the action arrives, Rambo: Last Blood operates as if it’s on the clock, already needing to wrap things up. Whereas now would be the time to revel in the catharsis of blood-spattered stabbings, steel poles through the head, and grisly dismemberment, impatient editing cycles through each killing as if quickly ticking off boxes. Cringe-worthy moments are cut short, never allowing the gruesomeness to sink in, to affect. Add to that a disorienting lack of proper staging that splits up the dumbest assailants ever and allows Rambo to appear out of thin air right behind nearly all of them as if he were everywhere at once, and the whole thing end’s up a confusing, unsatisfying mess.
Director Adrian Grunberg — whose much more interesting Get the Gringo knew how to use violence for shocked giggles — also hurts the effort with a bland visual style that is annoyingly claustrophobic. Seemingly unable to place his camera anywhere that might visually enhance a scene, Grunberg instead pushes in too far on the action, and winds up showing little that’s comprehensible. He carries this tendency into conversations as well, getting overly intimate with craggled faces and greasy beards, sacrificing blocking in the process. There’s not much to look at here outside the beautifully deserted, southwestern ranch setting, but do you think Rambo: Last Blood will use this intriguing, open prairie environment for a different take on jungle warfare? Even the horses don’t pay off.
This is all a shame, as Stallone still has that dour Rambo charisma when he’s not trying to be a father figure, and few characters can perform such gruesome deeds with an audience still behind them. But though the beleaguered battler at one point insists that he hasn’t changed, Rambo: Last Blood drains some of the edgy fun from the franchise. If it truly is the end, then it’s a dull finish for one of cinema’s keenest he-men.