RAMBO: LAST BLOOD ★★½
(R) 101 minutes
Hollywood cinema gave us many action heroes in the 1980s, but only one whose name has entered the English language as a synonym for "gung-ho purveyor of ultra-violence".
So all hail John Rambo, who deserves some sort of medal for having endured into his 70s along with the actor who plays him: the one and only Sylvester Stallone.
Sylvester Stallone’s sheer stubborn conviction still fascinates in Rambo: Last Blood.
True, the character may not be the gleaming mass of muscle he was in his prime, but as his latest adventure demonstrates exhaustively, the survival skills he honed long ago in the jungles of Vietnam are very much intact.
This is, to put it plainly, one nutty movie. To begin with, there is no evident reason for it to exist.
Rambo’s story was wrapped up as neatly as anyone could want in the previous chapter of the saga, titled simply Rambo, released in 2008 with Stallone as co-writer, director and star. This saw our hero cutting loose one last time in the wilds of Burma and then returning home to his family ranch in Arizona for a well-earned rest.
It's here he remains a decade on at the start of Rambo: Last Blood (the title clumsily echoes First Blood, the initial Rambo adventure directed by Ted Kotcheff in 1982). Haunted as ever by his horrific past, he’s a relic all but alone in the world as he visits the graves of his parents in scenes recalling the films of John Ford (his mother was named "Helga Rambo" — who knew?).
Still, he shares his humble home with a family of sorts, consisting of his long-term housekeeper Maria (Adriana Barraza) and his teenage niece Gabrielle (Yvette Monreal), whom he views almost as a daughter (they ride horses across the fields together).
When Gabrielle decides to track down her long-lost biological father in Mexico, Rambo warns her with typical bluntness that no good will come of the quest. Inevitably, she ignores his counsel and just as inevitably lives to regret it, meaning he has to cross the border and crank himself up into killing machine mode yet again.
If the credits can be trusted, Rambo: Last Blood was directed by Adrian Grunberg, whose one previous feature — the Mel Gibson vanity project Get the Gringo — must have won him some kind of reputation as a codger whisperer.
This is not to say, however, that Stallone has given up his "total filmmaker" pretensions. He co-wrote the script (with Matthew Cirulnick) and his earnest yet zany pulp sensibility infuses every scene, reinforced by Grunberg’s taste for heavy close-ups and portentous silhouettes.
"Old age is not for sissies," Bette Davis famously said. There is more than a touch of the diva in Stallone, a near-heroic refusal to acknowledge his own absurdity as if he were bent on remaining a star by willpower alone.
For all his limitations as an actor this sheer stubborn conviction still fascinates, nor has time lessened the genuine singularity of his screen presence. The bleary gaze, the disdainful frown, the voice that rarely rises above a rasp; staring into the heart of darkness will do that to you and so apparently will 40 years of global fame.
You have to wonder if he can possibly be for real, or if, perhaps, there's a satirist lurking somewhere behind Stallone's mask. Evidently it's by design that the film comes closer than ever to turning Rambo into an all-out monster, in the tradition of slasher movie villains such as Freddy Krueger.
He confesses to staring at Gabrielle’s friends inappropriately and when he invites them to explore the caves he has dug beneath the ranch, any sane teenager would run a mile (the visit goes off without a hitch).
When the mayhem does kick off, the deaths are predictably brutal and gory, to the point of cartoonish overkill. There’s a hilarious moment when a couple of thugs are impaled on a bed of spikes: Rambo starts spraying them with bullets, seemingly less to guarantee their demise than from some notion of poetic justice.
Whether this is deliberate or accidental camp is perhaps beside the point — either way, there’s no denying the moment is brought off with a certain lunatic panache.
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