Rambo: Last Blood - Brutally Soulful. (REVIEW)

"I haven't changed.  I just keep a lid on it."

It's these words, uttered by John Rambo while trying to talk his niece out of going to Mexico that defines Rambo: Last Blood's theme.  Bad people don't change and an evil world, no matter how bright it may seem, it's still evil - a blunt reminder of reality for sure.  

Rambo: Last Blood, is less about what Rambo can do, but what Rambo can't.  Yes, Rambo, (the man who took out the entire Burmese army in the last film) fails, leading him into the darkest chapter of the Rambo franchise to date. 

There's no sugary, 80s-vibe, to this film.  It's hard, heavy, and emotional.  It's brutally violent and doesn't pull its punches when looking into the darkness and presenting its cruelty, nor does it shy away from the emotional pain such a world has on people.  

The film may be the best portrayal, at least since First Blood, into Rambo's psyche and how the ravages of war have taken their toll on him, even after returning home – peace is an illusion.

We find Rambo, eleven years after the events of the 2008 film living on his ranch in Arizona, close to the Mexico border.  Gone, is the long hair, the bandanna, the perfect killing machine (as Trautman once called him) is dormant.  His life has been replaced with tranquility and peace (at least on the surface), and Rambo is somewhat a different man. 

And to a point, Rambo has changed.  The love he has for his nieces, Gabrielle, (Yvette Monreal) has softened him some – he has basically raised her after her mother died.  This may be the first movie where Rambo says more than a few lines or grunts, which makes sense because he isn't the same man he was in the previous films.  His love for another human being, seeing that there can be goodness in the world, has helped him change.

Those who have complained the film doesn't seem like a Rambo movie, because Rambo has short hair and doesn't wear the bandanna, are missing the point in this small detail.  The short hair on Rambo represents his return to society; he's no longer wild, living off the land like an animal.  Nor is he the perfect killing machine waiting for the next battle; he's found peace, or so it would seem.

But under that exterior surface, there lurks a darkness in Rambo's soul – his past can never really be forgotten, and he'll always live with his demons.  There is a great scene in the first act of the film, where Rambo sits down to eat breakfast with Gabriella's Grandmother (who also helps Rambo out around his ranch).  He picks up a knife and fork and just keeps flexing his hands on the utensils, over and over, as if they are instruments of death; the internal rage inside Rambo is still trying to bubble to the surface like lava.  Rambo hasn't changed.  He's just keeping a lid on himself.

To add to this, Rambo spends most of his time digging tunnels under his ranch, almost like a makeshift bomb shelter.  Though it's never explained why Rambo is digging these tunnels under his property in the film, they are a metaphor for Rambo's psyche – there are a lot of dark tunnels inside Rambo's soul, some lead to light, others into darkness – as well as the film's final set-piece. 

Here is another small detail in which Stallone and fellow screenwriter Matthew Circulnick deeply dove into Rambo's head and past films.  Rambo had always been an individual that works with his hands.  In Part 2, we find him in prison, breaking rocks, which he tells Trautman he doesn't mind.  In Part 3, Rambo's living and working in the village, repairing and building things, not to mention stick fighting to make extra money.  In Part 4 he's a blacksmith and giving boat tours on the river.  Rambo doesn't do these things for no reason; this is how he works out his stress, by finding things to do with his hands and with his body – remember this is a man who was built for physical warfare and not much else.

But when Gabriella comes to Rambo, saying she's tracked down her father in Mexico, with the help of a friend, things take a turn for the worst after she's kidnapped by a Mexican human trafficking gang.  Rambo, though wanting nothing to do with another fight, heads to Mexico to find her.

The beginning of the film is set-up in a way that may seem slow to some, but when Rambo's revenge comes, it's not only delivered in spades; it's welcomed. And no, this is not Rambo meets Home Alone - Rambo has been setting traps long before Kevin did, and his are much deadlier.

The complaints about the film being overly violent and gory, have been lost on most viewers and critics.  This is the first film, in the Rambo series, where it's personal for him; he wants the bad guys (and us, as the audience) to feel every ounce of his pain and the pain he's inflicting on his enemies.  He doesn't just kill the bad guys in this film, he eviscerates them in such a bloody fashion that it would make Jason Voorhees envious.  

*Begin Spoiler*

Do not read the following section if you don't want the end spoiled.

At the end of the film, Rambo literally cuts the heart out of the main bad guy's chest, while it's still beating.  This is not done to be overly gratuitous or go into exploitation cinema territory.  The scene plays out, in all its gory detail, to drive home that what good was left of Rambo's heart had been taken by this man, and now, Rambo is going to take his just the same.  These are broad strokes of symbolism, but it's not done to be gratuitous.

*End Spoiler*

Unlike with Taken (which has a similar storyline) Rambo: Last Blood it is not a watered-down PG-13 film.  The disparaging details of what human trafficking could be like: how women are raped and beat; made to live in slums is all on display.  How women are forced drugs to keep them hooked and from trying to get away, and are sold to anyone with the right amount of cash; their age doesn't matter.  It also shows you how someone like Rambo would handle such a situation – he's not going to go into Mexico bargaining; he's going in by force and taking back what is his in the most brutal way possible – sometimes with only a hammer.

Rambo: Last Blood is Stallone's Unforgiven.  The only difference between John Rambo and William Munny, from Unforgiven, is that one wants to believe he's changed, and the other knows he hasn't.  Stallone's performance in Rambo: Last Blood may be his best portrayal of the character since First Blood.  Not only is Stallone able to dish out the pain (and make it believable) he delivers on the emotional level too; you feel every ounce of pain for the character, the conflict inside, the turmoil of being both man and monster at the same time while trying to find peace in a cruel world.  Had this film been anything other than a Rambo film, and had the reception from significant critics been better, we would be talking Oscar nomination for Stallone this year – yes, he's THAT good in the film.

Is this the best Rambo film in the series?  Sadly no.  And it does feel that Rambo: Last Blood should have come before 2008's Rambo, since that film had the perfect ending, coming full circle, closing the franchise.

The film does have a few problems, mostly the lack of good villains.  Though the villain's in the film are evil, vial people, and you want Rambo to take them out, they are not fleshed out enough to be more than just stereotypical bad guys. 

But Rambo: Last Blood is not about the bad guys.  This IS Rambo's film.  It's a personal look at Rambo coming to terms with himself, with who he is, and that what he wanted most in life – peace.  He will always be a man of conflict – wheatear internal or external – the war will never end for him.

As Trautman said in Rambo 3: "Let me tell you a story, John.  There was a sculptor.  He found this stone, a special stone.  He dragged it home, and he worked on it for months until he finally finished it.  When he was ready, he showed it to his friends.  They said he had created a great masterpiece, but the sculptor said he hadn't created anything.  The statue was always there, he just chipped away the rough edges.  You're always going to be tearing away at yourself until you come to terms with who you are.  Until you come full circle."

Sometimes, that's the harsh truth for people, and as bleak as that sounds, it can be true for men/characters like John Rambo as well – they are always going to be tearing away at themselves until they come to terms with who they are.

8 out of 10 Stars