How 'Last Blood' Destroys Rambo's American Myth
"When you're pushed," John Rambo once said, "killing's as easy as breathing." In his decades-long career as an action-movie icon, Rambo has been pushed plenty.
In 1982's First Blood, the traumatized Vietnam vet ran afoul of a small-town sheriff in the Pacific Northwest and proceeded to all but level that town in a quest to simply be left alone. In 1985's Rambo: First Blood Part II, he was extracted from prison and sent back to Vietnam on a hunt for American POWs, slaughtering Soviet and Vietnamese communists in service of one of the great American right-wing myths. In 1988's Rambo III he journeyed to Afghanistan to rescue his old mentor from Soviet captivity, and in the process helped the country's mujahideen fighters make the place Russia's Vietnam. And in 2008's inimitable Rambo, he rained death upon a Burmese warlord in order to free missionaries who'd been tending to he needs of the country's oppressed Karen minority.
And now, in Rambo: Last Blood, he kills some guys who killed his niece.
Directed by Adrian Grünberg from a script he co-wrote with star Sylvester Stallone, Last Blood strips the Rambo franchise of any overt political ideology whatsoever. He's not on a rescue mission, at least not for long. He's not fighting for his country, or for some nostalgic, patriotic version thereof. He's spilling blood because he wants to -- because he feels he needs to. It's all red; no white, no blue.
This process was already underway 11 years ago, when Rambo (retitled John Rambo for its more character-driven director's cut) saw the title character enter a conflict in which the US government had no rooting interest. "This frees writer-director-star Stallone to explore a sort of pure war," I wrote in an essay on the film's tenth anniversary, "without the extra thematic and ethical burden of American patriotism or Cold War rivalry to complicate matters." As if in response, the brutality of the violence ratcheted up to unprecedented, horror-movie levels.
But while they may not have been our politics, Rambo was at least somewhat concerned with a politics. The film saw Rambo take the side of rebels fighting an authoritarian, genocidal regime, with American missionaries and Western mercenaries thrown into the mix. Governments, armies, and the people caught in between were its primary concern, even if the overall portrait being painted was less America-centric than its predecessors. This is what made the film's coda, which showed Rambo returning to the ranch where we find him in Last Blood, ring so false. How had this nightmare earned him a shot at the American dream?
By comparison, the plot of Last Blood is simplicity itself. By now, Rambo has lived on his family ranch for 10 largely happy years, running it with a family friend and her teenage granddaughter Gabrielle. With college and an uncertain future ahead of her, Gabrielle decides -- against the wishes of her "Uncle John" -- to travel to Mexico to seek out her biological father, who abused her mother prior to abandoning the family. After their unhappy reunion, however, she is drugged, kidnapped, and sold into sexual slavery.
When Rambo finds out, his initial and unsuccessful attempt to free Gabrielle leads her pimps to treat her more cruelly. His second effort springs her from captivity, but she's so sick and injured she doesn't make it home alive. The rest of the film is simply Uncle John's roaring rampage of revenge on both sides of the border; it concludes with him turning his ranch, and the network of tunnels he dug beneath it as some kind of hobby, into a house of horrors that helps him eliminate his enemies one by one, like a slasher villain. In lieu of Rambo's spectacular machine-gun turret massacre, he rips the ringleader's still-beating heart out of his chest and shows it to him before he dies.
It's difficult to extract a political message from the film, not that people won't try. There's a good reason for trying, after all: This country's ruling regime has made brutal enforcement of the Mexican border a top priority and turned immigrants from over the line into near-mythically monstrous avatars of crime, disease, and the death of the American body politic. Any movie that makes hordes of largely anonymous and interchangeable Mexican gangsters its antagonists in 2019 must reckon with that reality.
Yet there's something small, almost intimate, about Last Blood's plot, something that makes it hard to enlarge or exploit for MAGA purposes. For one thing, the heavies are never identified as being part of a drug cartel, the bête noire of border fanatics; as best I can tell, they're just well-armed pimps. Human trafficking ranks way up there in the cautionary tales told by the right as well, but there's no cross-border component to what these villains do, other than kidnapping an American when the opportunity presents itself. They're a provincial group.
What's more, the film appears to make light of the very notion of Trump's border-wall obsession. (I say "appears" because I'm not sure the movie ever cracks a metaphorical smile about anything.) When he is headed home with the mortally wounded Gabrielle, Rambo is momentarily stopped by a barbed-wire border fence, which he simply sneers at and plows right through. When the gangsters pursue him to his home in Arizona, a birds-eye-view shot of a more solid and sophisticated border fence is followed up with a sequence in which they use tunnels to traverse the obstruction with ease. "I know how black a man's heart can be," Rambo tells Gabrielle before her ill-fated trip; it's that blackness that's the problem, not which side of a farcical border the man in question happens to live on.
And if Rambo is right in saying he knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men, it's because it lurks in his heart as well. One of Last Blood's most striking developments, established right in the opening sequence, is that Rambo is taking prescription psych meds to help keep his demons at bay. The tunnels he digs beneath the ranch, in which he suffers Vietnam flashbacks despite his medical regimen, come across like physical overcompensation for his psychological inability to delve into the darkness within him. Of course he throws his meds away when his search for Gabrielle gets serious. Of course the tunnels are the site in which the bulk of his killing gets done.
The killings themselves are as gory and inventive as anything Jason Voorhees or Freddy Krueger ever dreamed up. We watch Rambo dig his thumb into a man's shoulder, peel his clavicle up out of the skin, and snap it. We watch him toss a severed human head from a moving vehicle. Between his personal, hands-on killings and those executed by his elaborate booby traps, we watch him cut off men's feet, ram spears through their heads, impale them on spikes, set them on fire, slash their skulls to ribbons, burst their bodies apart like water balloons filled with blood, nail them to the wall with arrows. We watch him -- I mentioned this already, but it bears repeating -- carve out a man's still-beating heart and show it to him.
The most amazing thing about this rampage is not how unnecessary it is -- it's that the movie acknowledges how unnecessary it is. In nearly every case, the enemy combatants incapacitated by the booby traps receive the coup de grace directly from Rambo himself, who pops up to shoot them to death before the fire or pitchfork or sharpened rebar or whatever can finish the job. In some cases he wastes time, energy, and ammo firing at people who are already dead as they lie on the ground.
"I could have killed you 10 times already" he tells the last man standing, and he's right. This Rambo isn't killing for his country. He's not rescuing prisoners. He's barely even defending himself, given that he went out of his way to ensure his attackers knew who he was and where to find him. (He pinned a picture of his late niece to the headless corpse of the guy whose noggin he then tosses out the window.) He is killing for revenge, which is to say he's killing for himself, for the sheer pleasure of killing.
To do so, he rigs explosives throughout his tunnel system that reduce the ranch to a no man's land of craters and trenches. He physically unmakes the idyllic home he'd built for himself after years on the run. It's as if he's destroying the American dream, or at least his personal version of it. The heart-ripping comes afterward, but the real killing blow has already been dealt.
In the end, a wounded Rambo sits in a rocking chair on his porch -- his house, at least, is still standing -- while voiceover narration offers a concluding statement. It's all over the map, frankly. He says he never really came home, but "my heart was still here where I was born, where I would defend to the end the only family I've ever known." He says everyone he ever loved is dead, but "I will fight to keep their memories alive -- forever." Over the closing credits, a montage of moments from all five films plays out in chronological order, concluding with a shot of the wounded Rambo climbing onto one of his ranch's horses and riding off into the wilderness, away from "the only home I've ever known." How any of the pieces of this puzzle fit together is beyond me.
But the unmaking of the Rambo myth, the reduction of John Rambo to a killer with no motive but personal bloodlust? That's crystal clear. In its way, it's a welcome final revision to what was once the most jingoistic action-film franchise Hollywood had to offer. Last Blood may not feel like as dramatic a break from the franchise as the deeply unpleasant brutality of its 2008 predecessor, and Grünberg is a slicker director than Stallone and his insider-outsider art style. But it also corrects that film's one major mistake. When Rambo strolled back to the ranch at the end of the fourth film, it never felt like a happy ending; it was more like Hannibal Lecter disappearing into the crowd at the end of The Silence of the Lambs. What would happen the next time he was pushed? Last Blood answers that question, whether intentionally or not, and the answer is murder.