There’s no film franchise with a narrative arc quite like Rambo‘s. Despite its status in the action-hero pantheon, it began as an almost seventies-style, disaffected riff on the alienation returning veterans from Vietnam felt. That was 1982’s First Blood, which notably didn’t even have “Rambo” in the title.
John Rambo became a full-fledged superhero in 1985’s Rambo: First Blood Part II, in which Rambo was sent to Vietnam to recover POWs who’d been hung out to dry by pencil-necked politicians, and in essence retroactively re-won a losing war for the USA. Rambo III sent Rambo to Afghanistan to fight the Soviets, in a film initially dedicated to “the brave men and women of the Mujahideen” (oops!).
Rambo has always personified the meathead Boomer id of whatever era in which the corresponding sequel was released. First Blood now feels more like Dog Day Afternoon than Commando, but in the subsequent sequels, Rambo became an integral part of Reaganism’s jingoistic overcompensating. When Rambo returned in 2008’s Rambo, a 62-year-old, HGH-inflated Stallone spent a good 40 minutes of screen time murdering Burmese soldiers in ways much more graphic and gory than anything in the “original” trilogy. Rambo no longer simply killed bad guys, he mutilated their corpses as an example to others. With no Evil Empire left to fight he just kind of stood in a field screaming “COME AT ME!”
Rambo was peak late aughts gore porn. His fight was less geopolitical than existential. Instead of overcompensating for America‘s past failings, he’d become vicarious overcompensation for every aging meathead’s fear that they could no longer kick ass. You can essentially measure every dad and grandad-bro’s sense of mortality by Stallone’s chest and the total ccs of onscreen blood and gore in that era’s Rambo movie.
It’s Stallone’s unique gift to be able to tap directly into that vein of secret homicidal discontent. Thus, it’s fitting that Trump-era Rambo is essentially a human border wall keeping out Mexican rapists and murderers.
In Rambo: Last Blood, 73-year-old Sylvester Stallone has completed his transition from comely leading man to grievance politics human gargoyle. He’s more jacked than ever and impressively spry, but his face looks like a sewn together flesh mask made from Buffalo Bill’s murder victims. His lower lip juts out at an impossible angle and facial surgeries (one assumes) have pulled his cheek skin so taut that the red goo of the tear duct matrix beneath his eyeballs is constantly exposed to the breeze. If once you had to know that Rambo was a former Green Beret and ‘Nam-era super soldier to believe he was a bad guy’s worst nightmare, now all you have to do now is look at him. He’s legitimately terrifying, the stuff of North Korean propaganda cartoons.
Last Blood is somehow both a rollicking good time and a racist rape-revenge fantasy you can imagine ISIS recruits and school shooters separately jerking off to. In Rambo, Rambo was an ex-pat running river tours and killing cobras in Southeast Asia. Last Blood begins on John Rambo’s horse farm in rural Arizona, where he breaks horses, builds a system of tunnels for fun, and has apparently been raising his high school-aged niece, Gabrielle (Yvette Monreal) since she was a child.
Hold on, whose child is this? (Later there’s a shot of a headstone reading, I shit you not, “Helga Rambo”). When did Rambo buy a ranch in Arizona and learn Spanish? Who is this Mexican woman (Adriana Barraza) running his household who he seems to be related to? That Last Blood can only sorta-kinda be bothered to explain any of these things is part of the beauty of it. It knows that the justifications for ownage matter less than the ownage itself.