***/**** Image A- Sound A Extras B
starring Sylvester Stallone, Paz Vega, Sergio Peris-Mencheta, Oscar Jaenada
screenplay by Matt Cirulnick & Sylvester Stallone
directed by Adrian Grünberg
by Bill Chambers SPOILER WARNING IN EFFECT. Rambo: Last Blood, hereafter Last Blood, became irresistible to me the moment John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) decided to score his own climactic bloodbath with The Doors' "Five to One," flooding his homemade tunnels with it to taunt and ridicule the small army hunting him. A Kevin McAllister move, one might say. Lyrics-wise, "Five to One" is a little on the nose ("Five to one, baby/One in five/No one here gets out alive, now"), but it's still a deep cut from a band in many ways synonymous with the Vietnam War's acid-rock energy, making it a loaded choice indeed. This was probably the soundtrack to Rambo losing his innocence; what matters is that it could've been. There's a certain frisson, too, that comes with hearing a pop song in a Rambo movie for the first time, at least diegetically. It makes for a set-piece that is, in the context of le cinéma de Rambo, unusually exuberant, and one begins to suspect that without music it would be merely nauseating, maybe unbearable. Indeed, the slickness of Last Blood is the only thing keeping it from being a snuff movie.
It should be said that Last Blood and its predecessor, Rambo, are a breed apart from the original trilogy of First Blood, Rambo: First Blood Part II, and Rambo III. Those were A pictures, however sordid; these are Avi Lerner productions, the sort of B-movies packaged over breakfast at Cannes. The first three had a responsibility to the bottom line that isn't as urgent in the last two--smaller budgets have brought Rambo back down to Earth since the live-action cartoon Rambo III, at the time the costliest movie ever made. (Adjusted for inflation, it was almost three times more expensive than Last Blood.) He was always a flawed hero, but in the '80s his flaws were distilled to an anti-authority streak that is the essence of the American underdog. Whatever the problematic politics of the second and third films, especially, cheering Rambo on in them is an uncomplicated task that feels like sticking it to the Man. Empowered and emboldened by the success of his earnest relaunch of/conclusion to the Rocky series, 2006's Rocky Balboa, Stallone resurrected his second-most iconic character as a true antihero--a homicidal maniac, arguably. If First Blood flirted with slasher tropes by spending less time with the protagonist than with his prey, Last Blood crosses the line into full-fledged Texas Chainsaw Massacre territory. (The symmetry is actually rather poetic.) There's a moment in Last Blood where Rambo throws away what are, for all intents and purposes, his anti-Rambo pills. Unless you're a sociopath, it's not a cue to cheer. It broke my fucking heart.
In 2008's masterful Rambo, Rambo finally returned to America after surviving the innermost circle of Hell on Earth. The closing images of that film mirror the opening shots of First Blood, with Rambo, once more attired in a surplus jacket, duffel bag slung over his shoulder, approaching a family homestead--his. He's ready to deal with old ghosts, ready to heal, but whatever ember of hope is burning at the end of Rambo, Last Blood crudely and cruelly snuffs it out. It appears that Rambo has enjoyed a kind of peace in the decade following the events of Rambo. Having taken over his late father's ranch in Bowie, Arizona, he now lives next door to a Mexican woman, Maria (Adriana Barraza), and her granddaughter, Gabrielle (Yvette Monreal), who calls him "Uncle John" and seeks out his paternal advice. Rambo enjoys loving these people and being loved by them. Beneath his home he's dug an elaborate system of tunnels that acts as his private sanctuary, like those ex-POWs or North Korean escapees you hear about who end up sleeping on the floor for the rest of their natural lives. When Gabrielle throws an 18th birthday party for herself, however, Rambo is so eager to nurture their connection that he volunteers the use of his tunnels for the occasion. Something to impress her friends with.
It's a touching gesture--he's a dad showing his daughter he loves her by letting her drive his car--but there are red flags aplenty. For starters: he dug an elaborate system of tunnels beneath his home. Secondly, he spends his time down there forging blades and muttering to himself, half-Popeye, half-Son of Sam. When Gabrielle interrupts one of these blade-making sessions, his expression turns on a dime from intense to the forced nonchalance of a guy pretending he wasn't just caught jerking off. Stallone, far from incidentally, does not wear a mullet for the first time in a Rambo film. Prior to seeing Last Blood, I thought this was a terrible miscalculation, fearing the character derived his power from his long hair à la Samson, or Mel Gibson's Martin Riggs--and maybe, from a commercial standpoint, it was a gamble that didn't pay off. (The picture's worldwide gross of $91.5M is a franchise low. As all icons are silhouettes, hair is important.) But this is extreme makeover Rambo: For the first part of the movie, he's Tarzan in a tuxedo, trying desperately to shed his vigilante super-soldier image. When he rides a horse in Last Blood, he keeps his shirt on and doesn't throw any Molotov cocktails. Moreover, he hopes to break that horse. To tame the beast is to prove to himself that such a thing is possible.
Gabrielle has a biological father, Manuel (Marco de la O), who walked out on her and her mother years ago. She's desperate for insight into this choice he made. A family friend, Gizelle (Fenessa Pineda), informs her of his whereabouts in Mexico. Gabrielle seeks Rambo's blessing to pay him a visit but he begs her not to go, insisting her dad is not someone who's worth whatever risk is inherent in a young, pretty señorita crossing the border. He tells her that his own quixotic search for answers at her age led him to join the military, but the regret in his voice doesn't resonate because he's spent years cultivating an avuncular façade for her. (You wish he could show her tapes of the last four movies.) She follows her heart to Manuel's doorstep in Mexico, and Manuel proceeds to break it. Gizelle saw this coming as much as Rambo did--and she was counting on it: she scouts sex slaves for the cartel and just needed a pretext for getting Gabrielle to come out with her for a night on the town. When Gabrielle subsequently goes radio silent, Rambo's Rambo-sense kicks in and he hightails it to Mexico, where he quickly finds himself outnumbered by her traffickers. They beat him to a pulp and brand his face with a knife, promising to do the same to Gabrielle. Because this is an asshole movie, they make good on their word. That said, there is pulp poetry in their matching scars: beauty and beast reflecting each other in a funhouse mirror, they really are family now.
Rambo survives by virtue of Carmen (Paz Vega), a journalist who's been tracking his attackers ever since they killed her sister. There is a flicker of chemistry between Rambo and Carmen (and between Stallone and the gorgeous Vega), though the movie knows better than to ship them, and our recognizing the absurdity of shipping them only amplifies the picture's sadness. I messed up, for a second time, in reviewing those first three films when I said that having Rambo meet and fall in love with his distaff counterpart in Rambo: First Blood Part II was silly and, ultimately, cynical. The truth is these are Frankenstein movies, with Col. Trautman as the scientist. (In First Blood, he literally says, "God didn't make Rambo, I did." He says it in that inimitably chummy Richard Crenna way.) And the first sequel is, accordingly, The Bride of Frankenstein; it's genuinely tragic that Rambo stumbles on this unicorn among women, someone built from the same bricks, only to lose her, even if George P. Cosmatos's heavy-handed direction reduces their brief dalliance and her subsequent assassination to camp. Sarah in Rambo and Carmen in Last Blood show Rambo a great deal of kindness, but you can't date a golem. Summoned by suffering, Rambo is vengeance personified at this point.
In an extraordinarily savage sequence that owes something of a debt to Park Chan-wook's Oldboy (surely the most low-key influential action movie of the current century), Rambo storms the castle (a Mexican bordello) with a hammer and rescues the princess (Gabrielle), so to speak, but he's too late. She expires on the drive back--he pointedly takes a shortcut across the border through a wall that isn't doing jack shit to deter migration--because of all the drugs they put in her system to keep her pliable, just like Carmen's sister. It's the ugliest death in any of these movies, almost Haneke-ian in how it's so beyond the pale you want the characters to rewind the film. Rambo returns to Carmen's place, asking her where the bad guys live--information she's reluctant to provide, for his sake. There's a tradition in American revenge cinema of never uttering the "r" word--a vestige, perhaps, of the cosmetic piety by which Hollywood abided for decades under the Production Code. Too unpretentious to indulge in these hypocrisies, Last Blood deserves a measure of respect from its detractors for having Rambo lay it all out on the line in a monologue that may represent the longest he's talked since that beautiful speech at the end of First Blood: "I want revenge. I want them to know that death is coming, and there's nothing they can do to stop it. I want them to feel our grief and know that's the last thing they will ever feel. And I know you want it, too."
Last Blood was greeted with near-universal disdain last fall, owing largely to its fear-mongering about Mexico. Honestly, the politics of this series are a hot mess; only the first film's ideological pretzels--is the good guy good? Are the bad guys bad?--cohere with any moral clarity. (Never forget that in Rambo III, he kinda sorta invents the Taliban.) I'm probably too forgiving of Rambo's warlord being a pederast--to me, it's a comment on his gluttonous, omnivorous appetites, a display of power extremes (he's Caligula of the swamp), although I have no urge or desire to defend the characterization from charges of homophobia. As for Last Blood, I would point out that Gabrielle and Rambo are the interlopers in this scenario: they--and America--are safe until they poke the hornet's nest, with Rambo practically having to send these 'bad hombres' an engraved invitation, like vampires. Yet it is no doubt a reactionary film, and I'm not sure its three "good" Latin characters--all notably female (father to three daughters with his wife of 22 years, Stallone is surrounded by women in late-middle-age)--balance out the portrayal of Mexico as a cesspool of crime. My theory is that Stallone is a Democrat when he writes Rocky movies and a Republican when he writes Rambo movies.
The most vocal opponent of Last Blood was author David Morrell, who wrote the source novel for First Blood and brainstormed ideas for Last Blood with Stallone that envisaged a humanitarian Rambo. (This incarnation of the project stalled in development.) He claimed the character no longer bore any resemblance to his creation, a pacifist driven to violence; let it be said that the line separating a pacificist driven to violence from one driven to sadism is narrow but substantial. "My feeling about the character is that he usually reflects something happening in the culture of the time," Morrell told THE SANTA FE NEW MEXICAN. "If this film is a representation of what's going on in our country, we're doomed." Well, no shit. I mean, I'm writing this in the middle of a global quarantine because the president of the United States caused a pandemic after dividing his country with hateful rhetoric and transforming America's borders into a war zone. Welcome to Doom. Like Rambo, Last Blood builds to a crescendo of violence once unheard-of in R-rated fare. Both films prove the MPA, formerly the MPAA, is a racket, yet Last Blood seems gorier as a result of Rambo enjoying inflicting pain this time. (The great Keith Uhlich compared it to a Looney Tune, which isn't far off.) And make no mistake, it is intensely gratifying to watch everybody get what's coming to them. What it isn't, unlike Rambo, is cathartic. The cost, Rambo's sanity (if not his soul), is too high. As in First Blood, violence isn't the path to redemption but rather the road to ruin--but this time, he takes it all the way. Although Rambo is alive at the end of the film, he's figuratively dead, because every institution that matters to him has either failed him or been destroyed: the military, the law, family. He's Shane, a wounded warrior in a rocking chair drifting off into the proverbial sunset. Alas, no one's calling after him.
THE 4K UHD DISC
Lionsgate brings Rambo: Last Blood to 4K UHD disc in a 2.39:1, 2160p transfer with Dolby Vision and HDR10 HDR encoding. (We audited it with the latter activated.) The picture was finished at 4K, and the high resolution depicts Stallone's face with a clarity at once daunting and spellbinding. Simply put, he looks like he stepped off the side of Mt. Rushmore. Sly, Sly's clothing, and the trees around him exhibit a level of relief begging for the touch, while Gabri's hair has such shine in the early going that you can almost smell the Pantene. This is a luminous presentation with some stunning highlights, such as the porch-glow emanating from Rambo's farmhouse in the dark--a yellow beacon in a blue bubble. The wonders of HDR are obvious in the establishing shots of Mexico: the sunlight bouncing off the white walls is brilliant without clipping or obscuring surface detail. (Sure enough, in SDR these buildings just look washed-out. Even worse is the backdrop of Rambo's farm whenever it's seen through the windows of his home--the time of day is all but unidentifiable without the depth of light HDR brings to the image.) The feature-or-bug question is whether the intermittent though not insignificant amount of camera noise throughout is acceptable or not. It is if Brendan Galvin's cinematography isn't supposed to behave like film. In fact, in a few of the night scenes I was reminded of Michael Mann's work in digital, especially the grainy shootout in the woods in Public Enemies. While it never bothered me, this documentary spontaneity doesn't necessarily mesh with the unreal Hitchcockian rear-projection in a couple of driving scenes, which sticks out in UHD. Cinema, it's fickle. The attendant Dolby Atmos track, in its 7.1 Dolby TrueHD downmix, sounds rad when it needs to, boisterous and thunderous in equal measure. Stallone is intelligible, the violence hurts, and Brian Tyler's score drapes itself over the viewer like a blanket.
Appearing on the 4K and 1080p platters alike, the two big extras are a so-called production diary in four parts--"New Blood" (8 mins.), "Something to Fight For" (6 mins.), "Heaven Above/Heaven Below" (13 mins.), and "Nothing is Over" (9 mins.), all in HD--and a featurette on the score. Except for one on-camera interview with actress Yvette Monreal, who becomes very emotional over the plight of trafficked women, the set diary consists of disembodied voices narrating behind-the-scenes footage--mostly Stallone's, though director Adrian Grünberg, actress Paz Vega, and production designer/unsung hero Franco-Giacomo Carbone chime in as well. Stallone is typically candid, getting in an early dig at superhero cinema for failing to show what happens once the costumes come off. It's provocative, but I don't know if his own movies are the best rebuke against Marvel, et al. He says the lesson he learned on Rocky Balboa was "downsize"--in other words, to return to the quasi-independent-film days of Rocky and First Blood both on screen and off. (The reason Rocky V feels so disingenuous is because Rocky goes back to being poor in a movie that cost 38x as much as the original.) We learn that Bulgaria (!) stood in for Arizona and of Grünberg's bona fides (a veteran of the Netflix series "Narcos", he's lived in Mexico for the past 20 years), and Stallone talks about his newfound desire to pass the torch instead of taking the helm himself, although he appears to be shadow-directing in much of the B-roll. I liked Vega's confession that if someone ever harmed her daughter, she would go after them with a machete. She admits the closing scene of Last Blood--something Stallone, somehow without sounding egotistical, describes as "bittersweet poetry"--made her cry in screenplay form.
Lastly, "From First Note to Last Blood: Music for the Massacres" (17 mins.) features composer Tyler, who bears an uncanny resemblance to Stallone's frequent co-star Dolph Lundgren, dissecting his approach to scoring the last two Rambo films (Last Blood in particular), i.e., honouring Jerry Goldsmith's legacy while simultaneously developing material that reflects Rambo's evolution. He sometimes struggles to articulate his objectives but makes up for this with his unbridled enthusiasm. The piece is long enough to drift into areas these things usually avoid, such as the difference between mixing for 7.1 surround and mixing for the soundtrack album. Love the titular Depeche Mode pun, incidentally. As an aside, I do wish that Lionsgate would start subtitling their bonus features for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. It's time. A HiDef trailer for Last Blood rounds out the 4K supplementals. Note that the Blu-ray additionally contains startup trailers for Angel Has Fallen, Escape Plan: The Extractors, and Semper Fi. A voucher for a digital copy of Last Blood is included in the keepcase. For what it's worth, an extended version of Last Blood exists or is in the works. Either way, Lionsgate has elected not to offer it with this release.
89 minutes; R; UHD: 2.39:1 (2160p/MPEG-H), Dolby Vision/HDR10, BD: 2.39:1 (1080p/MPEG-4); English Dolby Atmos (7.1 TrueHD core), English DD 2.0 Optimized for Late-Night Listening, English DVS 5.1, French DD 5.1, Spanish DD 5.1, French DD 5.1; English SDH, French, Spanish subtitles; BD-66 + BD-50; Region-free (UHD), Region A (BD); Lionsgate