Thursday, December 05, 2019

"Rambo: Last Blood": review

It's practically a palindromic 28/82 split, but as you see above, the "enthusiasm gap" over at review site Rotten Tomatoes once again shows the disconnect between liberal journalists and a far more centrist public. "Rambo: Last Blood" has been lambasted by professional reviewers for its supposed racism and xenophobia. As these critics point out, the movie features not a single frame that is a positive portrayal of Mexico, which is where much of the movie is set. My take is that the American public isn't so stupid as to take the movie to be some sort of bigoted condemnation of the troubled nation that lies south of the US border: by that logic, season 1 of "True Detective" ought to be condemned as a bigoted look at Louisiana—a place full of hicks, weirdos, Jesus freaks, perverts, and murderers. I thoroughly enjoyed "True Detective," and while I wasn't as enthusiastic about "Last Blood," I enjoyed that movie, too.

2019's "Rambo: Last Blood" is directed by Adrian Grünberg and stars Sylvester Stallone as the aging (and now pill-popping!) Vietnam veteran John Rambo, a man who has, over four previous movies, shown himself to be an unstoppable killing machine. Rambo has come home to his father's horse ranch, and he has more or less settled into the life of a ranchero. The light of his life is his friend Maria's granddaughter Gabriela, a bright seventeen-year-old who enjoys riding horses with Rambo, who has assumed the role of an adoptive dad because Gabi's real father, Miguel, abandoned her in Mexico years ago. But things take a grim turn when Gabi conceives a desire to return to the mean streets of Mexico because a "friend" of hers has discovered her biological father's location.

Despite Rambo's warnings and her grandmother's strident demands that Gabi stay put, the girl sneaks away and crosses the border. She finds her father, learns the awful truth that Miguel wants nothing to do with her (Gabi's mom died of cancer years earlier; Miguel was indifferent to her suffering), and gets nabbed by a local cartel that drugs Gabi up and tosses her into a human-trafficking ring. Rambo eventually learns what has become of Gabi; his first attempt at rescuing her ends with him getting beaten to a pulp by the much younger gangsters, who now vow to treat Gabi even worse because of this attempt at rescue.

Rambo recovers with the help of a sympathetic Mexican journalist (OK, the one good thing about Mexico that the movie shows) who lost a sister to the same cartel, which is run by the Martinez brothers. Armed with a hammer like Joaquin Phoenix in "You Were Never Really Here," Rambo goes back to the cartel's HQ, kills a few henchmen and one of the brothers, then absconds with Gabi back across the border to his ranch in Arizona. Alas, Gabi dies along the way, so Rambo is once again plunged into the nightmare hell-world of revenge. The cartel also wants revenge, given that Rambo has stolen Gabi and killed one of its two leaders. This leads us to the film's bloody climax, in which Rambo, having shooed away Maria and his beloved horses, rigs his now-empty ranch with all manner of booby traps. The ranch is shot through with tunnels, and Rambo uses these to his advantage when the attackers arrive.

It's a dead-simple plot, really, and the bloodiest violence is concentrated within the final twenty minutes of the movie. Most of the film is buildup, with Rambo at times channeling both the brutal interrogation style of Jack Bauer and the knife-throwing prowess of John Wick. This isn't a pleasant Rambo to watch: when he meets Gabi's "friend" Gizelle, the woman who told Gabi her dad's location, Rambo abuses her and threatens her with a bullet to the brain if she doesn't help him find his adoptive daughter. It may be strange, but I liked this Rambo, who clicked over into a machine with a single-minded purpose the moment he realized Gabi had gone missing. Such a man would be ruthless, even to young women like Gizelle (who is, truth be told, a nasty piece of work, so I didn't have much sympathy for her).

As a revenge tale, "Last Blood" works just fine. Many critics took the film to task for its scripting, but I've sat through far, far worse. "Highlander II" comes to mind when I think of cinematic turds. The final reel of "Last Blood" will satisfy the bloodlust of bloodlustful viewers. Rambo's rigging of his ranch will inspire all the usual "Home Alone" jokes ("Skyfall" had this same issue), and the way Rambo vindictively fires rounds into the corpses of already-dead enemies will have some viewers scratching their heads. The movie doesn't do a very good job of conveying the size of the cartel force arrayed against Rambo; we simply trust that, when Rambo radios Martinez to tell him that all of his henchmen are dead, Rambo isn't lying.

Some will take this movie in the goofy 1980s-era spirit in which it's intended. Others will see it as another example of Trump's America—a xenophobic screed about those dirty Mexicans. As we see from the above-mentioned enthusiasm gap, though, the public obviously thinks one thing while the cringing critics think another. I would say that this iteration of Rambo is brutal and will satisfy the killhounds. Don't watch this movie for philosophical depth, Oscar-level acting, or Pulitzer-level screenwriting. Author David Morrell, who wrote the novel First Blood, has effectively disowned the on-screen version of his creation; he wants nothing to do with this incarnation of his character. That's his right, and I respect his decision and even his distaste. All the same, "Last Blood," despite the corny title, will be entertaining for the action-movie set, and while I'm not exactly motivated to rewatch it any time soon, I thought the film was entertaining during its brief, 90-minute run time.

TRIVIA: Wikipedia notes that one Mexican movie reviewer found it risible that the cast included a bunch of Spanish actors attempting to affect Mexican accents. While I did catch on to the idea that the Mexicans' pronunciation seemed strange, I don't know enough Spanish to distinguish accents that way. I found the reviewer's observation amusing.

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