Saturday, February 15, 2020

Rambo: Last Blood (2019) - FilmReview

John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone).
Source: Official website

"Rambo, John J. Born 7-6-47 in Bowie, Arizona. Of Indian-German descent - that's a hell of a combination. Joined the army 8-6-64. Accepted special forces, specialization: light weapon, medic, helicopter and language qualified. 59 confirmed kills. Two Silver Stars, four Bronze, four Purple Hearts. Distinguished Service Cross and Medal of Honor" — Major Marshall Roger T. Murdock, Rambo: First Blood Part II

Our favourite son is back!

Sylvester Stallone returns as Vietnam War veteran John Rambo in the fifth instalment of the popular action franchise and it certainly doesn't hold back on the carnage.

When last seen in Rambo 4 (2008), J.R. was returning home to the family ranch in Bowie, Arizona. Eleven years later and Rambo: Last Blood catches up with him as he manages that very same horse ranch, originally owned by his father until his death. On the surface Rambo looks to have found peace; but below ground he broods in his maze of tunnels, surrounded by his past: military medals, rifles and knives, and photographs. He's clearly still haunted by demons and suffers with Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from his time in the Vietnam war; we saw flashbacks of the brutality he suffered as a POW at the hands of his captors in First Blood (1982). In one scene from R:LB we are shown bottles of prescribed medication with "John Rambo" and "Bowie, AZ 85605" printed on the labels, clearly to help him cope with his mental health.

Before we get to the main plot, the opening scene gives us a severe storm and rescue teams searching for three missing hikers in the forest and hills. One volunteer on horseback braves the worsening weather to locate them: John Rambo. It's a well written moment that reflects his compassionate side, risking all to try and save total strangers. Surprisingly, some regions didn't get to see this 10-minute opener with the flash flood at all.

It's all about family...

Little is known of John Rambo's family, though we do learn that his father was simply referred to as "R. Rambo" (the rusted mailbox seen at the end of Rambo 4 our only clue); also, in the novelization of Rambo: First Blood Part 2 John's mother is named Marie Drago and it is said that she was abused by her husband, who drank often and would fly into fits of rage.

Importantly for Rambo: Last Blood, Maria Beltran (played by Adriana Barraza) has worked on the Rambo farm much of her life and is considered as "family" - certainly she thinks of John as a brother-figure. When Rambo returns to Bowie, Arizona, in Rambo 4, he most likely meets young Gabrielle Beltran, Maria's grand-daughter, for the first time. Whether he knew about Gabrielle via letter writing beforehand is unknown.

And so Rambo spends the next many years running the ranch and working as a rescue worker. It is likely during this period that he dug out the tunnels that would be so important to him, a place of refuge for his tortured soul.

...both good and bad

When Rambo's adoptive niece decides to go to Mexico to visit her father and find out why he left her and her mother (now deceased), things don't exactly go to plan. Betrayed by her "friend" Gizelle, Gabrielle is drugged, abducted and given to human traffickers. The saddest part is that she was warned by Rambo not to go to Mexico, telling her that it is far too dangerous.

Realising that she is missing, Rambo leaves the ranch to find his niece. This is where things take an even more brutal turn. Confronted by gang members of the traffickers, Rambo is beaten, his ID taken and a photo of Gabrielle is found.

Rambo and adopted niece Gabrielle Beltran (Yvette Monreal)
Source: Rambo: Last Blood

Sadly this means that the young girl has now been "noticed" and will be made to pay for Rambo's attempted involvement. Over time she is abused and injected with heroine. It's a heartbreaking story. Meanwhile, Rambo is taken to the home of journalist Carmen Delgado and cared for until he is well enough to stand on his own two feet. With newfound determination, he vows to rescue his niece.

One of the criticisms of Last Blood seems to be the level of violence. It's been described as "grotesque" and "genuinely horrific". Well I don't know what people were expecting from a Rambo movie - just take a look at Rambo 4 and tell me that that is any less violent? In all honesty, anyone going into this with no knowledge of who or what Rambo is should stay well clear if they're sensitive to scenes of violence and decapitation.

Rambo creator feels "less a human being" for having watched Last Blood

Even First Blood author David Morrell has criticised the film, saying such things as, "I agree with these RAMBO: LAST BLOOD reviews. The film is a mess. Embarrassed to have my name associated with it" (Twitter, Sep 20, 2019). In an interview with Newsweek, the bestselling writer commented further, "I felt degraded and dehumanized after I left the theater. Instead of being soulful, this new movie lacks one... I felt I was less a human being for having seen it, and today that's an unfortunate message."

In another tweet he compares Last Blood to Richard T. Heffron's 1976 exploitation film Trackdown.

I respect Mr Morrell's opinions but don't agree with them. Having read First Blood (first published in 1972), I found the novel to be a put off showcasing a character with no redeeming qualities; he wasn't just broken - he was psychotic and a killer! However, in Ted Kotcheff's 1982 masterpiece Rambo is depicted as a victim of sorts, someone who you can relate to. This is indeed the same character we see in Rambo: Last Blood, a man who's new life is torn apart by others and is forced into making decisions that others would recoil from. He goes all "Rambo" on them. I've even checked "Rambo" online at Cambridge Dictionary and it describes the word as, "someone who uses, or threatens to use, strong and violent methods against their enemies".

As for the comparison to Trackdown, I do see it, but what doesn't borrow from everything else these days? I've not even seen Trackdown; but I've seen Rambo: Last Blood, and it was enjoyable.

Rambo: Last Blood is racist?

This is one accusation I have real trouble accepting. Yes, the timing of the movie has "President Trump" written all over it but the film isn't deliberately depicting all Mexicans as villains. This is a gang, you know, like ones you get all over the world, who prey on children and the vulnerable, who kill indiscriminately and sell drugs on the streets. If Rambo V had been set in China then there would still be accusations of racism. In fact, both Maria and Gabrielle are Mexican and Rambo loves them like family — and they're living with him on the ranch in the US with no sign of immigration authorities anywhere...

Final thoughts?

It took Rambo: Last Blood years to make it into theatres, as a project it had been on and off for so long that it didn't look likely to happen at all. Various plots had been mooted including a killer creature and the title Rambo V: The Savage Hunt, based on the novel Hunter by James Byron Huggins. That in itself would have felt like a Predator-type story that I'm sure would have been pointed out by some. There was even talk of a prequel television series where someone else would have played a young Rambo.

I'm just grateful we got a proper blood and guts Rambo, with Stallone still in the iconic role. He's older, a little slower, but still capable of dispatching the bad guys. If this is the end, then what a journey it has been.