A Movie Version of a Bodybuilder: Over-Big Arms But Shaky Legs
About the Film
To let you know where this reviewer stands, I have enjoyed the Rambo series up to this film without irony or apology. That has not been easy to do because the series has ruffled feathers on all sides since Sylvester Stallone brought the character of John Rambo to the screen in First Blood (1982). The Rambo series has thumbed its nose at political progressives by boldly and single-handedly winning on-screen wars that the United States did not, in fact, win. At the same time, the Rambo series has not curtseyed to conservatives through denying that America’s wars deeply damaged its soldiers or pretending that those wars were, in reality, won. Rambo: Last Blood (2019) continues to rail against both sides of the American political spectrum, while acknowledging it is likely the final film in Stallone’s iteration of the series (a tedious reboot feels inevitable).
Rambo is not an actual person, nor is he even a fictional person. Rambo does not even represent anything particularly real. Instead, his movies have presented him as what the American soldier longs to be: a person unencumbered by the normal frailties and limitations which are necessarily part of human beings in this life. Rambo personifies the view of justice that rests alongside the US Constitution’s words about juries, judges, and laws: Americans like their justice overwhelming, swift, personal, and bloody.
On the Surface—(Profanity, sexual content, violence, etc.)
This movie has blood in its title, and the bloodletting will subdue almost any audience. A crucial difference between horror violence and action violence is that violence in an action movie is wanted by the audience. The actual people who see this movie may be appalled at the violence but find it difficult to argue that the bad guys did not deserve death. Although the movie contains some profanity and non-nude scenes at a forced brothel where girls are being drugged, Last Blood heavily condemns these other sins (at the same time it celebrates inventive ways of killing).
Beneath the Surface—(Themes, philosophical messages, worldview, etc.)
1. Innocence Lost and Mourned
Healthy grownups are refreshed by the innocence of children, and the fresh goodness children posses (compared to adults, at least!) brings a smile to the faces of their family. Nothing wipes a smile off a grownup’s face, however, like people forcing a child to lose his or her innocence. It angered Jesus too, who reacted with the violently indignant statement that people who scandalize children would be better served to have a giant stone tied around their neck and be thrown into the sea. When a child’s innocence or life is taken away, the remaining family members are likely to say, with a character in this movie, “I’ll spend the rest of my life sad; it’s like I’m living without a heart.”
2. The American Monomyth
Readers are asked to forgive this single deep-dive sentence, but Rambo is the embodiment of the American monomyth. Back in 1977 before the first Rambo movie was made, theologian Robert Jewett pointed out that a foundational story has undergirded the United States since its inception. In other words, the American people are captured by one particular, archetypal story, and we tell it to ourselves repeatedly. In this story, a single man must save the community by “bucking the system” to violently confront a substantially larger enemy. The man, whose propensity for violence is only matched by his inherently righteous morality, is able to defeat the enemy not through law or even through the help of a truly loving female friend but through a superior trigger finger. The Rambo series has told and re-told this story. This final film in the series stumbles because it does not try to re-tell the American monomyth—or perhaps tries to tweak it so much that it no longer holds together.
Unlike the first four films in the series, Last Blood is frankly frail. Character introductions, development, motivation, and sympathy are badly under-developed. While thrilling and even frightening at the time, the movie’s climactic battle scene substitutes relentless killing for emotional resonance and ultimately seems to have substituted violence for depth. Once the adrenaline wears off, the movie reminds you of the sad occurrence of eating grandma’s bad-for-you dessert and noticing it does not taste as good as before. It is sad to see Last Blood ends a powerful series with a bang that feels more like a loud whimper. I wanted to like this Rambo movie as much as I enjoyed the last one. While Rambo himself may ride off into the sunset as the American monomyth prescribes, it’s hard not to feel like he’s bleeding out on the porch.