Sylvester Stallone has a habit of returning to his most bankable franchises, so you can never guarantee that the end is ever truly the end for any of them. This is especially true in regards to the Rambo series. The third sequel, released in 2008, would have been a fitting — and peaceful — finale to the character’s journey. That said, here we are in the year 2019, and Rambo: Last Blood is here to supposedly give the soldier a sendoff while simultaneously leaving the door open to at least one more battle down the line.
Last Blood reintroduces us to John Rambo (Stallone), now living on the family ranch that he relocated to at the end of the last film. He’s joined by his old friend Maria (Adriana Barazza) and her granddaughter Gabrielle (Yvette Monreal), and their unit is the closest thing Rambo has ever had to a normal family experience since we’ve known him.
When Rambo isn’t hanging out in his self-built underground tunnel system having Vietnam flashbacks, he and Gabrielle ride their horses together. Throughout the years, the pair have developed a bond that’s akin to a father-daughter relationship. Understandably, he’s worried about her going to college and venturing off into the world by herself. However, when Gabrielle reveals that she wants to go to Mexico to find her deadbeat father, Rambo becomes even more concerned about her safety. Despite Rambo’s warnings about the world being a dangerous place, Gabrielle sneaks off to Mexico after her friend informs her where her old man is living. It turns out that Rambo’s warnings weren’t the ramblings of a madman, though, as she’s kidnapped by cartel sex traffickers shortly after arriving in a town south of the border.
This is when the film will test many viewers’ mileage. What ensues is a violent, nihilistic nightmare, as Rambo brutalizes the traffickers to rescue Gabrielle. Not only is the violence hard to stomach at times, but the majority of the Hispanic characters are depicted as criminals and scumbags, which doesn’t make for the most socially responsible movie experience of 2019. Of course, this franchise has never been a bastion of progressive politics, so these elements probably won’t surprise any viewer who’s familiar with the movies.
The comparisons to Taken are unavoidable due to the similar plots of both films. However, Last Blood establishes its own identity through its somber, elegiac tone and a commitment to punching the viewer in the gut, reminding us that the world is cruel. There is fun to be had eventually, but only after the film has established that everything is bleak and hopeless for the characters who populate this story.
There are moments in Last Blood that are nauseating to watch, especially the scenes featuring Gabrielle’s plight. At the same time, we’re used to seeing mainstream action movies that treat violence as aesthetically pleasing, while boasting stories that tend to go the way that we want them to play out. In this case, though, the brutality is often unsettling and the awful events that transpire aren’t sugar-coated for the purposes of escapist entertainment. Last Blood deserves credit for taking the horrific route, sticking to it, and achieving its desired effect.
Of course, the bleakness and nastiness of Last Blood will be off-putting to some viewers, but the Rambo series has adopted a similar approach before. First Blood is a gritty exploration of the poor treatment of veterans following Vietnam, while Rambo is an uncompromising bloodbath that gives most horror flicks from the torture porn period a run for its money.
Last Blood also leans into the series’ psychological elements, as Rambo is forced to contend with PTSD and survivor’s guilt whenever he isn’t disposing of criminals and perverts. These aspects aren’t explored with much substance, but Stallone’s performance as a broken man is convincing, making the emotional beats serviceable enough throughout to sympathize with his situation. The rescue-revenge narrative that fuels the violence is also well-executed, even if it is reminiscent of other movies of a similar ilk.
When the final showdown arrives, the movie changes tones and becomes more of a romp through Rambo’s underground tunnels of death. That said, by this point most audience members will be craving some form of release, and the action set-pieces deliver some thrills as bad guys are shot, slashed, and destroyed with elaborate booby traps. Think Home Alone, but with a PTSD-stricken killer at the center of it all as opposed to a funny kid.
Last Blood isn’t the best movie in the Rambo series, but it’s easily the darkest, and the carnage will pull many viewers through the emotional wringer as this swansong isn’t interested in giving its hero a happily ever after. The horrors of the past will forever haunt his mind and soul, and trouble will find him wherever he goes, destroying everything and everyone that he loves. Enjoy.