Sunday, April 21, 2024

‘Rambo: Last Blood’ Drips With Racism, Gore

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John Rambo is a reactionary hero whose legacy all but outstrips his humble beginnings as a Vietnam Vet fighting back against a brutal and capricious police force. With Rambo: Last Blood, a specious promise at best, he has now gone so far round the bend he is beyond recognition; both as a character and as a human being. 

Sylvester Stallone is back as Rambo and he’s as stoic and vicious as ever. Stallone co-wrote the script which means he bears additional responsibility not only for the racism, intentional or unintentional but for the brazen dullness which permeates much of the film. The rest goes to the other writer Matthew Cirulnick and the director Adrian Grunberg.

The plot of Rambo: Last Blood could fit neatly onto a torn cocktail napkin. Rambo loses a loved one. Rambo goes Rambo. The End.

I’m only half-joking. For an action movie, heck, even for a Rambo movie it is a plot which would normally be just fine. But Stallone, Rambo, and I are all getting old and tired. 

Stallone seems to be sleepwalking throughout the film. Which is strange, with his name on the writing credit it would seem to imply some kind of emotional investment? Apparently, he is as bored with this material as everyone else is. 

Rambo works on a farm now-well, not a farm so much as a ranch. He lives with an old Mexican lady Maria (Adriana Beltran) along with her niece and his quasi adopted daughter Gabriela (Yvette Monreal). She’s getting older now and is preparing herself to go to college. Meanwhile, Rambo tends to the horses and stares quietly out into the pasture.

Had Last Blood stayed on the ranch I might have enjoyed the film more. Stallone has his faults but he has a nice craggy face and he knows how to work the camera. Frankly the last Rambo movie consisting of just John Rambo puttering around his ranch, tending to his horses and adopted family while they all go about their day is a wildly sensible ending to the character.

Instead, Gabriella wishes to cross the border to Mexico to meet her biological father. I imagine there will be much debate about whether Last Blood is racist, or at the very least, a MAGA fantasy. Let the face Rambo makes when Gabriela says she’s going to Mexico all but cement the argument that Last Blood is at the very least, like other Rambo movies xenophobic as all get out.

His face pales in horror as he tries to talk her out of it. What follows is a dull back and forth as Grunberg cuts between Gabriela in Mexico and Rambo riding around his ranch and taking care of his tunnels. Oh, I forgot to mention the tunnels.

Underneath the ranch, Rambo has been systematically digging and creating a massive byzantine framework of tunnels. It’s a metaphor for his tortured psyche. I think.

Rest assured, Grunberg isn’t stupid. He knows about the old writing rule “Checkov’s tunnels”. It’s an old rule whereby if you show the audience a mass of underground tunnels made by the hero who is trained in guerrilla warfare and suffering from massive PSTD whose loved one is about to meet a tragic end-you must stage your bloody free for all third act climax in those same tunnels. Or else risk being kicked out of the union.

Gabriela goes to Mexico after promising she wouldn’t and ends up being drugged and kidnapped into a human sex trafficking ring. Rambo goes to save her, fails, she dies. Let his bloody vengeance rain down upon us all.

Look, as you have guessed, I kind of like Rambo-the character. I love First Blood, the first movie in the franchise. Though that could be because I love Brian Dennehey to bits and pieces. But each subsequent Rambo movie has required me to ignore more and more the political commentary pulsing throughout the films.

But while watching Last Blood I found myself unable to just flick that part of my brain off. On some level, I’m aware that yes, the cartel is a thing, and yes they are bad. But why is it when I see a movie about Mexicans from Hollywood, it ALWAYS has the cartel? Are there no stories Hollywood (white people) can tell with or about Mexicans without using the Cartel? 

Grunberg is interested in little else than a simple exploitation vengeance flick. But it’s hard to ignore all the brown bodies being slain onscreen when I am acutely aware of old Japanese Internment camps being crammed full of live brown ones. Last Blood may not mean to be a MAGA fantasy come to life but the film only seems to think there are two types of Mexicans, traffickers, and non-traffickers.

Even more insidiously Last Blood argues the one person who could save them is a literal old white man who happens to have a convenient murder maze on his ranch in which he’s laid a plethora of booby traps. Incidentally, one of these days we should really talk about the far-reaching and everlasting cultural effect of the Home Alone movies, yeesh.

Much like Taken, the modern equivalent of the Rambo movies, Last Blood wishes to play on our anger at a perceived intransigent society. Like any exploitation, film, it exploits our fears and desires in a more naked way than most films. How comfortable you are with that will depend on you and you alone. For myself, I was left feeling each and every passing minute while being disgusted at others.

Brendan Gavin’s camera work tries it’s best to frame Rambo in a heroic light. But the material and his actions too easily reveal the monster within. Todd E. Miller and Kurpanek edit Last Blood to a lean and bare-bones simplicity. The trio, along with Grunberg, gives us a brutal looking film, perhaps the most straightforward and effective visually of the modern Rambo films.

To Grunberg’s credit, despite my overall disgust with the film, I couldn’t help but smile at how he showed the Cartel “crossing the border”. As they grab their weapons to chase Rambo, Grunberg cuts to the border wall. He then cuts to the cartel in a tunnel, clearly not one of Rambo’s. Grunberg then cuts to the wall once more before cutting to a warehouse where we see the Cartel emerge from the floor, on the other side, and rush to their vehicles

Last Blood is a vile and disgusting film, whether it means to be or not, is beside the point. To the film’s credit, I squirmed at the more violent moments. So at the very least, it was effective. Effective or not, I could care less. In the end, Rambo: Last Blood is a film about the good, the bad, and the dull.

Image courtesy of Lionsgate

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