(UN)POPULAR CULTURE

The home of writer & author A. J. BLACK

Last Blood, ostensibly the final chapter of the Rambo saga, serves as a fitting portrait of America’s dark, lumbering national psyche.

In a film which starts predictable and just keeps getting more so, Last Blood gives us a growling, jaded old warrior in John Rambo. Having survived Vietnam (twice), Afghanistan and Burma’s killing fields, this veteran now fights entirely on home turf for the first time since the franchise began. Rambo ranches cattle, looks after his adopted Mexican immigrant family, and for fun appears to build an entire underground lair filled with weapons beneath his traditional American prairie homestead. This isn’t even a Rambo planning for the apocalypse. This is a Rambo living his *own* eternal apocalypse, trapped somewhere between a grizzled Rooster Cogburn and damaged Captain Willard, living only in the reveries of his tortured past and the hope of a young girl in which he sees a future. Which naturally gets snatched away, as it wouldn’t be a Rambo film if Stallone’s hero didn’t traverse a river of pain to attain some inner peace.

Last Blood, however, maybe unknowingly, doesn’t seem to know if Rambo is a hero at all anymore. As an audience we may appreciate Sly’s innate, snarling Italian-American nobility—in the same manner we consider his Austrian compatriot Arnold Schwarzenegger—but Adrian Grunberg’s film is at pains to remind us this guy isn’t Rocky Balboa. Rambo is psychologically haunted by Vietnam, even all these years later, literally replaying events from First Blood and the conflict in his mind. When Gabriela (Yvette Monreal), his naive ‘ward’, ends up the victim of lawless Mexican organised crime gangsters, Rambo unleashes one-man savagery on anyone even tangentially connected to them. He admits he just wants revenge, pure and simple. He is past healing. He will live in his anger for the rest of his days.

Rambo feels like the haunted reflection of a growling, aged, vicious and vengeful America at the end of a long road. It’s dreams and hopes are dead. Now all that’s left is monstrous.

Last Blood does not seem a film entirely aware of these deeper sociological parallels. In some respects, it feels oddly disconnected from our time.

It feels strange that Stallone chose not to square the focus of a story which bridges America and Mexico with the pressing crisis of refugees, immigration and border controls. Last Blood is a film where Gabriela is an immigrant with college prospects, who crosses the border with ease, and who ends up the victim of pure Mexican caricature; sleazy assholes in clubs, slick gangsters with sharp suits and loud moustaches, ultimately pure ‘foreigners’ who display absolutely no nuance beyond pure, unadulterated evil. These are the kind of Mexicans that Donald Trump likely sees in his nightmares; gross, sub-capitalist racist sadists out to corrupt the virtue of innocent American women. Last Blood’s story is more exploitation revenge flick than any kind of commentary on American politics on the surface, but scratch deeper and the troubling actions of Rambo suggest a darker truth.

Historically, Rambo’s own wars have taken place on foreign soil, First Blood Part 1 aside. The first two Rambo films in the early 1980’s turned the existential and psychological trauma of Vietnam we saw in Apocalypse Now or The Deer Hunter into a cathartic return to save his own sundered comrades from the trifecta of sadistic Vietnamese soldiers, Russian allies and corrupt American officials.

Rambo III, in the shadow of growing perestroika, pulls a similar trick to Rocky IV later in the 80’s; it turns the decaying Russians into safe villains for Rambo to slaughter in the deserts of Soviet-held Afghanistan, long before that country would breed insurgent Arab terror in the echoes of the fallen USSR. As part of Stallone’s career Renaissance in the late 2000’s, a period which saw resurgent franchises and action stars across the board, the fourth Rambo turns the warrior into a Christian protector in a land of Asian savages. Though he is haunted by the demons of conflict, Rambo across these films is, at the very least, a pure-blooded, recognisable anti-hero.

By Last Blood, it is hard to recognise Rambo as anything or anyone Americans should aspire to. He is a ghost walking a changed world, an anachronism in an age of smartphones and youth culture. Stallone is a greying, chiselled old statue who feels unearthed from a different age, and while the film never plays on Rambo’s age or any difficulty with the modern world, it is hard to place him beyond the arid plains of Arizona or the dark, dingy favelas of northern Mexico, battering gangsters with a claw hammer.

Giving him a daughter figure to care for and lose shows humanity within Rambo, but the moment she falls prey to the aforementioned ‘alien’ criminals, Rambo loses any pretensions of being measured. “I want them to know that death is coming. And there’s nothing they can do to stop it”. And nor do they. Last Blood is not ultimately about any challenge to Rambo’s skill or strength. The most he faces is one beating, from which he swiftly recovers. By the end, Last Blood is a grotesque hybrid of Home Alone, gorefest action horror, and the last act of James Bond film Skyfall. It is Rambo’s pure, unadulterated revenge fantasy brought to life and it’s more dour, depressing and oddly sickening than fun or entertaining. It crosses a threshold into slightly uncomfortable.

Primarily because you never feel the film’s catharsis is in any way a heroic rescue, or noble act, or even some kind of salvation. Last Blood is simply Rambo’s vengeance brought to bloody life and it’s designed for maximum audience entertainment. It wants you to hate the swarthy Mexicans, purely there as fodder for Rambo’s (admittedly impressive) cavalcade of traps and weapons, as much as Rambo himself does. It wants you to consider them invaders who deserve every incredibly gory demise the film delivers once they reach Rambo’s homestead.

Last Blood has the chance to invoke some level of lawful justice, given Paz Vega’s (underwritten) role as Carmen, a freelance journalist who herself wants revenge, but it never takes that option. She is purely designed to get Rambo out of a bind as the script threatens to write him into a corner, but she symbolically represents a film which suggests an America beyond compromise or nuance. You are either good or bad. You are us or you are them. And if you are *them*, all bets are off.

Consequently, Rambo: Last Blood is an unsettling experience. It lacks the mythic resonance to emerge as a dark, neo-Western yet has dramatic aspirations to exist as more than just an exploitative revenge picture. Sylvester Stallone is approaching the end of his two signature cinematic roles, with Rocky maintaining a stoic resolve by the end of Creed II having nurtured his successor, but Rambo’s end is far more, appropriately, tortured. He doesn’t truly find peace, he rather endures, and in this he reflects the troubled country for which he exists as a cinematic icon. A true warrior without a master, Rambo is a sad, old, haunted reflection of a nation built of disastrous 20th century conflicts grappling with its own past and future, and struggling to reconcile either with the world around them.

If Last Blood truly is Rambo’s final war, it is fittingly for our current world, violently free of purpose or hope.

2 thoughts on “RAMBO: LAST BLOOD – a violent, hope-free reflection of a vengeful America

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