WHAT IT'S ABOUT:
After years on the run, John Rambo has finally found a place to call home but his new-found peace is quickly shattered when a human-trafficking cartel in Mexico kidnap on his surrogate niece. Calling on all the skills he accrued over the years, Rambo launches a one-man war on the cartel in a last-ditch effort to save the young woman whom he sees as nothing less than his very life and soul.
WHAT WE THOUGHT:
In my decade of reviewing films, I’ve given out more than my fair share of harsh reviews to films that I consider to be “bad” to various degrees. From the likes of Michael Bay’s ghastly Transformer movies to a slew of unwatchable Adam Sandler “comedies” that would drive anyone to the brink of insanity, I’ve suffered more than my fair share of cinematic excrement. Some of them are inept, some are unpleasant, and many are a bit of both. I do not believe, however, that I have ever called a movie “evil” before. Here we are, though, with a rather unlikely culprit: Rambo: Last Blood isn’t simply the worst movie of the year by a country mile, it is – and I say this without any irony – about as close to being purely evil as any film I can recall from the past few years. Certainly any that got this sort of major, widespread theatrical release.
Last Blood, like all Rambo films before it, is incredibly violent and utterly, unironically macho to the extent that we probably haven’t seen since in mainstream Hollywood since the 1980s. These alone certainly don’t make the film “evil”, though.
I, for one, cannot stand this sort of humourless, witless hyper-masculine posturing and have only grown less tolerant of it as I’ve gotten further and further away from adolescence but, in and of itself, I’m far more likely just to have me rolling my eyes than have me clenching my fists in righteous, moral fury. It’s undoubtedly why I never warmed up to Rambo like I warmed up to Rocky but, to be fair, I don’t think you were ever really supposed to love John Rambo in the way that you’re so clearly supposed to – and I challenge anyone not to – love Rocky Balboa.
As for the violence, it’s so ludicrously over-the-top that had it appeared in a movie that had even the smallest amount of a sense of fun about – to say nothing of a sense of its own ridiculousness - it would be genuinely, laugh-out-loud funny. It is fairly well choreographed and almost impressive in its head-popping, gut-spilling revoltingness, in fact. Sadly, there’s absolutely nothing self-aware or fun about Rambo: Last Blood and even its best choreographed and edited action scenes get lost in its overall grubbiness. Again, though, absurd levels of violence in films has never been enough to provoke any sort of moral outrage in me, and there are plenty of ludicrously violent films that I genuinely love.
The problem, really, is that director Adrian Grunberg and co-writers Matthew Cirulnick and Sylvester Stallone have put together a film that combines its reductive form of macho, alpha-male masculinity and its often quite revolting violence into a film that is, in no uncertain terms, morally repugnant.
Putting aside the already politically questionable aspects of the film that portrays almost all Mexicans as evil incarnate (you would swear that the entire film was financed by Donald Trump), this fairly straightforward revenge story is exploitative in a way that all but the most extreme of ‘70s exploitation cinema wasn’t. This is a film that exploits the grotesque suffering of a young, pure-hearted woman not just to condone but glorify vigilante justice and extreme violence. It does so with no sense of humour or irony and, most alarmingly, with a sense of earnestness that makes it clear that the makers of the film don’t mean this as entertainment but as a serious statement about the moral goodness of cold-blooded murder.
Stallone is an established right-winger, it’s true, but considering just how much warmth and humanity he puts into every one of his Rocky movies (yes, even the otherwise awful Rocky V), it’s genuinely surprising to see something like this coming from him. Rambo: Last Blood isn’t an action film; its a duplicitous, exploitative piece of far-right propaganda with a rotten moral message and an even more rotten heart.
The absolute worst thing about it, though, is the way it uses women in its perverse tribute to xenophobia, vigilante justice and “toxic masculinity” - and this has nothing to do with political correctness, which is just a bit too quick to deploy the term, but is as pure an example of what “toxic masculinity” actually means as any you might hope to find.
Since the 1990s, the phrase “women in refrigerators” (or in its verbal form: “fridging”) has entered the pop-culture lexicon as a blanket term to refer to stories that have a female character whose only purpose is to be violently and often grotesquely tortured or murdered to give the story’s male protagonist a motivation or character arc. The term comes from an issue of Green Lantern (volume 2, #54, if I recall correctly) where the “Last of the Green Lanterns”, Kyle Rayner, finds his girlfriend gruesomely murdered and stuffed in a fridge by a supervillain, Major Force (yup), which acts as a major motivation for Kyle’s career as a superhero going forward. Fellow comic book writer and former columnist, Gail Simone, called out the writer of the issue, Ron Marz, for the scene and coined the trope along the way.
It’s a trope that is often abused by some on the very far left who cry “fridging” every time a female character is not the star of the show or if anything bad happens to them regardless of context. This is not one of those cases. The film spends just enough time on Rambo’s surrogate niece, Gabrielle, to make us like her, not because she’s a massively complicated and beautifully drawn character but because she is written (and played as such by Yvette Monreal) as such a ray of sunshine in the otherwise dingy world of the film that it’s impossible not to take to her. Once our sympathies are set in the first twenty minutes of the film, the entire rest of the time we spend with her is just to watch her be verbally degraded, betrayed, sexually assaulted, tortured, drugged up and beaten – all to put us very firmly on Rambo’s side once he starts to enact bloody, gory vengeance against her enemies.
If something this repulsive, morally repugnant and nasty (or evil, in short) still appeals to you, have at it. Me, I just wanted to bath in paint thinner in the vain hope of getting the acrid stench of the hell off of me. It’s no good, though. A week later, and it’s still there.