John Kerry once asked how we could ask a soldier to be the last man to die for a mistake; John Rambo is the last man to kill for one. The novel that created the character was published in 1972, the year after Kerry’s Senate testimony urging the U.S. to end its military involvement in Vietnam, but by the time First Blood was made into a movie 10 years later, remorse had been replaced by righteousness. At first, Sylvester Stallone’s discarded veteran was just trying to keep to himself, but over the course of its 1980s sequels, Rambo: First Blood Part II and Rambo III, he became the embodiment of the idea that all it takes to vanquish evil is sufficient willpower, an unlimited arsenal, and a minimum of outside interference.
After being called back into symbolic action for the war on terror with 2008’s Rambo—the series’ attempt to keep using the same title is the perfect illustration of its penchant for retelling the story without ever rethinking it—John Rambo sat out the Obama administration. But the discursive return of the “forgotten man” has made him relevant, or at least marketable, again, and so Rambo: Last Blood picks up right where the last movie left off: with Rambo homesteading on an Arizona farm, nominally home but still cut off from the world. His only contact seems to be with his Mexican housekeeper, played by Adriana Barraza, and her granddaughter, Gabrielle (Yvette Monreal), who chooses the occasion of her high school graduation to track down her long-vanished father south of the border. “I need to go to Mexico,” she tells Rambo, who responds, “Why would you wanna do that?”
The question feels rhetorical, and we soon see why: In Last Blood’s cosmos, all that’s south of the border are deadbeat dads and sex traffickers, the latter of whom ensnare Gabrielle just after her father shuts the door in her face. A master of guerrilla warfare and improbably accurate machine-gun fire, Rambo has vanquished literal armies single-handed, but the best plan he can come up with to retrieve his surrogate daughter is to march up to her captors with a handgun and a knife in his pants, which gets him beaten nearly to death and her singled out for special punishment. But once his mission turns from rescue to vengeance, he comes up with a better plan: Lure the traffickers back to his ranch, where he’s fitted out his network of underground tunnels—what, don’t most farms have them?—with a string of booby traps into which they obligingly march, one at a bloody time.
This last section, the equivalent of a Saw movie in which Jigsaw is the protagonist and not the villain, is Last Blood’s whole reason for existence, but it takes a surprisingly long time to get there. (You might not think an 89-minute movie could drag, but boy does this one.) The movie lingers on John Ford–by-way-of–Jon McNaughton images of Gabrielle’s grandmother in a rocking chair on Rambo’s porch, of Gabrielle’s brutalized body and her mascara-smeared face, the better to reassure us that no matter how extreme Rambo’s vengeance might seem—at one point, he blows a man’s head apart with a shotgun, then shoots him several times in the torso for good measure—he’s doing it because he’s driven, not because he enjoys it. Enjoying it is our department, as we watch one brown-skinned bad guy after another get blown up and dismembered and tortured, but the movie can’t even bring itself to savor the spectacle. Last Blood is clearly an attempt to cash in on Trump-era fears of immigrant invasion—as the Mexican traffickers gather themselves for their assault on Rambo’s home, there’s a pointed shot of the border fence—but its climactic American carnage is a joyless grind.
Rambo ends the movie not victorious but spent, rocking on his porch as he gazes out at the ruined earth. A slow-motion montage interspersed with the closing credits recaps the franchise in toto, up to and including scenes we’ve only just watched, as if hoping to instill nostalgia for the simpler time of 20 minutes ago. But there’s a hint of a fugue state about it too, as if Rambo, and whatever audience for his movies remained, is trapped in an endless loop, savoring past traumas as a way to avoid facing the present. At the end of First Blood, a sympathetic fellow veteran tries to reassure John Rambo that he can put the war behind him, and Rambo screams back, “Nothing is over! Nothing!” Last Blood’s title promises an end to the saga, but the movie can’t let him go.