I could’ve killed ’em all, I could’ve killed you. In a town, you’re the law. Out here, it’s me. Don’t push it! Don’t push it or I’ll give you a war you won’t believe. Let it go. Let it go! — First Blood.
You started this. I’ll end it. I’m going to tear your heart out so you’ll know what it feels like. — Rambo: Last Blood.
Has any actor bore the halves of his soul so frequently, decade to decade, as openly as Sylvester Stallone?
His Rocky movies are odes to the triumph and redemption of the human spirit time and time again, with the Creed sequels translating his positive ideas across the cultural gap to a new generation.
His Rambo movies, far more sporadic, appear when cultural tension is at a peak and old Sly has something to say about the violent nature of men. For all the jingoism and outsized violence that define his cultural identity, the character of John Rambo has always been a vehicle for Stallone to mourn the way innocent souls are wantonly used up, tarnished and discarded by others. None of Rambo’s other adventures since First Blood has been so openly misanthropic and bleak as Rambo: Last Blood, which, for better or worse, feels right at home in 2019.
2008’s Rambo remains the most graphic of the bunch, an unforgettable primal scream of dismemberment and blood. That movie ended with Rambo returning home to his ancestral farm in Arizona, bringing his character full circle with his vagabond beginnings at the start of First Blood. “Die for nothing or live for something” is the idea that permeated that movie, offering some solace to the old soldier who started that film hiding away in Southeast Asia, the place where anonymity allowed him to detach from society.
Last Blood opens 11 years later, with Rambo having enjoyed some semblance of life in Arizona and reconnected to the world around him. His niece, Gabrielle, lives with him and helps him deal with the PTSD that still haunts him. Unable to ever escape his past, Rambo has built, underneath his farm, a series of underground tunnels — a labyrinth filled with weaponry that gives him a sense of purpose and control. The farm is his home, melding together the man John Rambo wants to be and the man John Rambo will never escape.
Inevitably, a tragic sequence of events unfolds in the strangely low-key first two acts, and once again Rambo is out for blood. This time, his targets are a Mexican cartel who happen to kidnap Gabrielle while she’s searching for her birth father across the border. Suffice to say there’s plenty to unpack about the fact that Last Blood openly uses Mexican cartels as a foil for Rambo and actively depicts different areas of the border as permeable. My take? Mexican drug cartels are real, and Stallone and company don’t attempt to depict their presence as the sole defining element of Mexican culture. Nor does it take the Sicario: Day of the Soldado route of depicting them as boogeymen out to kill Americans for sport. Their role in the story is tied solely to Rambo’s by way of Gabrielle’s choices and, ultimately, his decision to lure them home for systematic, revenge-fueled slaughter.
Could it be more sensitive to contemporary political issues, and maybe find a more “acceptable” group farther south, north, east or west for Rambo to fight? Maybe have him come up against police brutality like in First Blood? Ideally the latter, but alas, it doesn’t. There are plenty of pieces that have been written about the dated mode in which Last Blood delivers its story and they’re not wrong. It is what it is, and given that Rambo largely brings their violence upon himself in the end, the movie does its best to avoid besmirching an entire people. If you feel strongly either way about Last Blood depicting cartels as the villains, you will feel precisely the same way walking out of the movie.
Likewise, if you’re concerned with the way in which Last Blood depicts the border wall, it appears in two sequences. In the first, Rambo himself drives through light fencing in a rural area while rushing home to take care of someone; in the other, the cartel members walk right under a large, flashy area of tall wall that would make a Trump orgasm. I don’t think Last Blood has any strong pro-wall message. In fact, it has the same basic message as all four preceding Rambo films: Rambo was a soul that got fucked up and discarded, and he will never be OK again no matter how hard he tries. But he is a broken soul in a world filled with them, and he’s sure as shit going to kill some bad guys to protect or avenge innocents. The politics are as problematic and present as you interpret them to be and basically incidental to Rambo’s personal story, which is the most interesting element of the film.
Last Blood takes the darkness to a whole new extent by paring down the drama to an intimate level, focusing on Rambo, his relationship with Gabrielle and his ultimate and questionable search for revenge. His role in the tragedy is one that feels very Death Wish, a plot template that usually fetishizes violent retribution (particularly the recent remake, a far more politically nasty movie than this). It’s the same here, although not without an introspective and dour perspective. In the other four movies, Rambo is at first a victim of cruelty and subsequently a man dropped into war zones where he massacres violent oppressors to save civilians or POWs. Here, Rambo’s role in the violence is exacerbated by his own decisions, and his showdown with the cartel is defined entirely by his choice. Rambo starts the movie fantasizing about life where he’s like Ed Tom Bell, the weary lawman at the end of his line in No Country for Old Men; in the end he finds regressive self-actualization as something akin to Anton Chigurh, an unbridled spirit of violence from the same story. Self-immolation of the spirit.
When the third act drops and Rambo lures his adversaries to his farm loaded with guerrilla-style traps, it almost isn’t fun anymore (except, of course, it is). Credit to Stallone for once again being exactly as good at playing this character as he needs to be, working within his range as an actor. His face can’t emote like it used to except those eyes. Those eyes. And that voice. The catharsis is tinged with the dissonance of knowing it’s all downhill from here.
First Blood ended with a show-stopping moment where Rambo explains to his old superior (and hype man) Colonel Trautman (the late Richard Crenna) that coming home from Vietnam to find himself spat upon and forgotten was traumatic. In Rambo: First Blood Part II, Rambo flipped the bird to the (Reagan-controlled) system and said “This one’s for the forgotten men who suffer overseas for you.” In Rambo III, Rambo rescues the brave people of Afghanistan from the Soviets and then tells them he cannot stay with them. In Rambo, he finally decided he had to live for something. In Last Blood, he finally accepts that all he can truly do is kill, kill, kill.
Contrast Last Blood with the John Wick movies, the ultra-popular mainstream revenge movies that also depict graphic slaughter. The Wick movies feature a vast conspiratorial and comic-book like array of secret assassin clubs, filled with celebrities who murder with dance choreography and video-game arsenals. Wick’s endless thirst for vengeance is fueled by something as petty as a dead puppy. No matter how much it meant to him, the pettiness is part of what makes his character so deeply entertaining. “Don’t you wish you could lash out against those who wrong you for small slights, even when you know it’s not the right thing to do?” the Wick films ask, shamelessly playing into that desire in truly entertaining fashion. Those movies are great. Last Blood, with a smaller body count but more gruesome kills, questions what endless vengeance does to a soul no matter what was taken from them to enact their ire. It’s not really a great movie, but it feels like a sharp contrast to the contemporary expectations of violent cinema and valuable because of it.
What is the cost to this man built for war by a country that quickly forgot him? What is our culpability in lionizing violence, revenge, cruelty? Is it just part of us? If so, what is our responsibility when we tell stories that utilize it for entertainment value? Stallone doesn’t seem content to make violent movies without a statement attached, and the result is a film where America’s ’80s action hero submits to the nihilistic realization that, in the end, we’re only one step away from being our worst selves. Through his fall from grace, Stallone pleads to the audience, heart in hands, that embracing darkness won’t amount to anything but broken dreams, a pile of bodies and an endless long night of the soul.