Politics is Not the Issue With the Terrible RAMBO: LAST BLOOD

Rambo: Last Blood is a terrible movie. It is poorly written, even more poorly executed, it is stupid and half-hearted and insanely, excessively violent to the point of being repulsive, and it probably should have never happened in the first place. The critics may be right that it’s bad, but trying to frame this as some racist right-wing fantasy really is, aside from being a bad-faith argument, giving the film too much credit; it’s silly to apply anything heady to this disaster.

Rambo 5 is similar to Rocky V in that it’s clearly the worst film of its respective Stallone series. This was either written by someone who had a couple of hours to spare on a weekend, or an Eli Roth bot built by algorithms fueled exclusively by mid-2000s direct-to-video horror flicks – it is barely pieced together to get us to the killin’, and the first thirty minutes feel like an eternity.

We pick up where we left off with Rambo at the end of the 2008 film, at the ranch from those closing credits. Now, Rambo is taking it easy at the ranch, training a horse, pounding hot steel into large stabbing weapons that definitely won’t play a factor in later scenes, and building an extensive network of full-sized tunnels running all under the farm. Aside from it being literally impossible for even John Rambo to build these tunnels by himself, in his senior years, after decades of physical abuse, these tunnels become crucial in the film’s not-so-subtle budgetary corner cutting. It’s a cheap, easy set to light and shoot, and all the added darkness will help to disguise all those pesky details that would otherwise have to be filled in by art directors and set designers during a painfully extensive third act showdown. And really, who has the money for that?

Rambo lives on this ranch with his… housekeeper? It’s not really explained, because it doesn’t matter, because we gotta get to the killzzz. The housekeeper has an 18-year-old granddaughter whose father is an asshole who ran out on her after her mother died, leaving Rambo… you know what? Stallone and the other screenwriters are right, it doesn’t matter. Rambo advises Surrogate Daughter not to go to Mexico (not because it’s evil Mexico, but because he knows the dad and knows where in Mexico she will have to go), Surrogate Daughter goes, gets drugged and kidnapped and sold into slavery, Rambo goes to save her, and the plot is off and running. Well, that’s the plot, I don’t know about any running. Oh, and Paz Vega appears in Mexico (at the same time as Rambo, how fortuitous!) as a journalist whose daughter was killed by the bad guys, but saying she has a thankless role with nothing to do would be a disservice to previous roles where supporting characters were given thankless roles with nothing to do.

The story goes along, then horrible things happen, then there is a burst of disgusting violence, and everything eventually escalates to a brutalized Home Alone riff, sending everyone home with their bloodlust satiated. It’s kind of hilarious watching Rambo set up all these elaborate traps for the faceless gang members headed his way. Violence in films has never bothered me when it’s done with purpose and a sense of scene and story, or with style, or with love and attention the way it’s done in 80s horror. This sort of violence and the violence in the previous film is gratuitous for the sake of being gratuitous, a cheap ruse to distract us from the cheap craft on display; it feels gross and exploitative in all the wrong ways.

I spent many of the last few minutes of this mercifully short movie looking away from the screen, weary and over it. Everyone involved knows they have no time or money to devote to a competent story resembling anything from the first three films – which feel like classics at this point – so they replace it with buckets of gore and overt cruelty. Aside from the low-rent splatter fest, every frame of Last Blood looks cheap and ugly and is shot almost entirely using close ups. It’s astounding how close we are to everyone’s face at all times. Every dialogue scene has Stallone’s grizzled mug two inches from the screen to block out any necessary background detail, driving scenes are digitally-inserted using cheap software, and one scene in particular appears to have noticeably, digitally, touched up Sly’s face, one of the many incongruous bits of a lazily constructed mess. The makeup work is poor, the effects mediocre at best… the whole movie is just plain bad. But to paint it as some sort of politically-charged commentary on the U.S./Mexico border relations or (gasp) those scary MAGA folks and their murder fantasies, well, that is somehow more idiotic than this movie.

Multiple reviews of Rambo: Last Blood have made the film appear as if it’s painting some disingenuous portrait of Mexico as a drug-infested war zone when, in fact, it’s just telling a specific story. It’s being called “anti-Mexican,” despite the fact Rambo is trying to rescue a Mexican girl for her Mexican grandmother. Sorry the sex traffickers are portrayed as bad guys? That doesn’t stop “serious critics” from decrying it as a “MAGA Fever Dream,” citing examples like when Surrogate Daughter wants to go to Mexico and Rambo simply asks why. He doesn’t ask her why because he’s repulsed by the history and culture of Mexico and its people; he is asking because he knows why Surrogate Daughter wants to go, and where that means she will have to go. Even in a movie this stupid, a line delivery like the one Stallone gives here could not be more clear. Claiming that “[t]he tone and shocked look on Stallone’s face make it seem as if she just asked to join ISIS and not the tropical border country within driving distance of his home in Arizona” is intentionally misreading the line for the purposes of painting the movie in a certain way – just like the use of “tropical border country,” which is absolutely the first time anyone has used that term to describe Mexican border towns.

So I find myself in an interesting spot, defending a terrible movie. Last Blood isn’t trying to be political, because that would indicate this movie had anything on its mind at all. Last Blood isn’t worth the energy it takes to apply such duplicitous political warning labels.

The RAMBO Revisit: RAMBO (2008)

It had been twenty years since John Rambo fought alongside the Afghan soldiers in Rambo III, a high-budget, low-profit misfire that seemed to wrap up the character for good. But Sylvester Stallone’s nostalgia senses were tingling in the mid-2000s, and he had a sneaking suspicion that a fourth adventure with the reluctant super soldier would attract moviegoers. And, when all is said and done, he wasn’t wrong.

Sly signed on to direct Rambo, and he just needed to find a conflict in which to insert his hero. He settled on Burma, a country in constant turmoil under the threat of dictatorship and genocide. It made sense that Rambo would live here, just outside of the conflict, aware of it but never engaging with it. “Fuck the world,” Rambo tells Michael Burnett (Paul Schulze), a missionary doctor imploring Rambo to take them up river to Burma, to help the citizens. But Rambo has long since checked out of “the world” and its citizens, retreating to the jungle to wrestle wild cobras – because what else would he do?

To the surprise of no one, Rambo’s abstinence from conflict doesn’t last long. The missionary group, made up of predictably wooden, nondescript actors, is kidnapped, and in a twist unfamiliar to the franchise, a team of mercenaries enter stage left to work alongside Rambo. They are, of course, inept compared to Rambo, and they only accept him as the badass he is when he ices a half dozen soldiers with his trusty bow and arrow. It is one blood-splattered geek show scene in a long string of excessively violent and mean-spirited scenes, a side effect of the era in which Rambo was filmed.

The mid-2000s were an era in Hollywood where “dark” and “gritty” and “realistic” were the hot-button terms. Christopher Nolan stripped away the camp of the Batman in 2005, The Departed won Best Picture in the spring of ’07, and 2008 brought us The Dark Knight and Grindhouse, films dedicated to making their movies look a certain way. In horror, Hostel II had just come out, and the Saw torture porn franchise was running strong. Things looked grim and bathed in blue filters and shadows. Stallone decided to capitalize on these aesthetics for his story, and that meant tapping into the CGI blood machine.

Bodies regularly explode into goo in Rambo to the point where the visual is numbing; the same effect was used once in First Blood Part II, and it was a thrilling and shocking action beat. Now excessive gore dominates. Heads are chopped off, jaws blown apart by bullets and arrows, one poor bastard is liquified after catching a .50-cal machine gun in the chin from three feet away, and the purple-tinted CGI blood spraying everywhere is distracting and silly. On top of the gore fest, the villains in Rambo are excessively horrific. I understand fully that these militia commit atrocities, but we get it. This is supposed to be entertainment, and these are the villains in your Rambo action picture; the close-up murdering of children and raping of women feels gratuitous in the vain of Eli Roth carnage.

It was clearly Stallone’s intention. He defended the violence, stating it was authentic to what would really happen in these situations. That’s fine, but it also doesn’t look particularly good on the screen. Critics took the predictable stance on the film – all three First Blood sequels average between 37% and 41% on Rotten Tomatoes – but the demographic interested in this franchise was never going to stay away. Rambo capitalized on its built-in audience, and it opened in second place with a beefy $18.2 million in ticket sales. The domestic gross only hit $42 million against a $50 million budget, but $70 million overseas bolstered its profit.

In the end, we see John Rambo walking down an Arizona farm road, headed back to his family home, accepting the world again and moving on as an active part in it. It’s the farm house we see in the previews for Rambo: Last Blood, at least that will be the intention when we pick up with our reluctant hero one more time this weekend.

Thirty Years Ago, SEA OF LOVE Rescued Al Pacino’s Career

Al Pacino had a strange decade in the 80s, and it was Sea of Love that steered his career back on track.

Yes, one of the greatest actors in a generation of all-timers, responsible for a staggering number of classics in the New Hollywood renaissance of the 1970s, had almost a solid decade of duds, save for the story of one outrageous Cuban immigrant. Coppola’s Godfather films and his work with Sidney Lumet in Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon had cemented his status as one of the hottest, most compelling young stars in the game in the 70s, but 1979’s …and Justice for All was a middling film, and William Friedkin’s highly-controversial and oft-protested Cruising – also a bomb at the time – seemed to level off Pacino’s upward trajectory.

His next film was Author! Author!, Arthur Hiller’s story of a playwright stressing over his latest production. The movie went absolutely nowhere, a shrug. The next year, Pacino did bounce back in Brian DePalma’s garish pop-culture touchstone, Scarface. It was praised by some critics and did well at the box office, though many voiced their disgust with the ultra violence of the picture. Pacino took this new Scarface cache and used it to make Revolution, a $28 million historical epic set for a Christmas release in 1985. It was wholly dismissed; Revolution closed its run after two weeks, and a $350,000 haul.

Pacino retreated to the stage, and didn’t star in a movie in 1986, ’87’, or ’88. He’d become an afterthought in Hollywood, a great actor with an untouchable run whose time had come and gone. Enter Richard Price, a novelist who’d just written a detective thriller about a woman killing men she meets through personal ads in the newspapers – these were ancient times. Price’s screenplay had been optioned, and he’d written the part of Detective Frank Keller – the investigator who poses as a blind date for a series of women in an attempt to catch the suspect, only to fall for a woman who may or may not be the killer – for Dustin Hoffman. But Hoffman was being fussy, demanding rewrites, so the production moved on and Al Pacino recognized the potential.

Directed by Harold Becker, Sea of Love turned out to be anything but your typical noir mystery. It’s a more emotional film, its characters more human in their imperfections than the heightened miscreants of the pages of Raymond Chandler or Elmore Leonard. Keller is a good cop, tough but fair, as evidenced in the opening scene where he gives us a reason to root for him:

Pacino’s partner is Sherman, played by John Goodman, whose work through the 80s and 90s as “the cop hero’s partner” is, on its own merits, quite impressive. Keller and Sherman set up an undercover operation at a restaurant where they try and match fingerprints at the murder scene with wine glasses from the date to figure out who might be killing these men. These montage sequences of the dinner dates are airy and smartly constructed, the monotony played for laughs and the banter gives the scenes terrific energy, until Helen Cruger arrives. Cruger, played by Ellen Barkin at her absolute peak sultriness, practically overpowers Keller with her boundless sexual energy. Clad in red leather when we first see her, Helen turns out to be not what she seems in some surprising ways. The way Barkin evolves in her performance from beginning to end, and the way small details can create doubt or suspicion, is the best work of an underrated actresses career. She is the perfect pairing for Pacino, who is putty in her hands. We never doubt her control for a second.

Is she the killer? That’s the big question. The story around that is equally as interesting, perhaps even more so, than the stock thriller elements that allow us to solve the mystery. Thankfully one side of the film never outweighs the other, and Becker never toys with us when it would be so easy to do just that. The initial sex scene between Pacino and Barkin is perfect, and Barkin sinks her claws into the viewer when she pulls herself away from Pacino, only to slowly circle the room, remove her jacket, and go back in for the kill. It is a masterful mood setter. Their relationship evolves like few do in this genre or this setting, and the result is a much richer experience than so many thrillers in this era, where action and gore superseded intelligence or realism.

The mystery of Sea of Love comes and goes, but the relationship between Keller and Helen endures, and it’s why the picture was met with the best reviews of Pacino’s career since the late 70s. Buzz was properly in place, and the film opened in mid September at number one with just over $10 million. It bowed with $58.6 million, a robust hit for 1989. More than that, it was return to form for Al Pacino. His name was back in the trades, back on shortlists, and he was gearing up for a second half of his career that would have moments of sheer greatness before the eventual descent into self parody.

Pacino was rewarded with a Golden Globe nomination for Sea of Love, and he was off to the races. He was in Dick Tracy, he played Michael Corleone one last time in a polarizing end to Coppola’s Godfather saga, and he dominated a handful of scenes in Glengarry Glen Ross. In 1992 Pacino won what’s often considered a “make good” Oscar for Scent of a Woman, which was more a reward for a career of excellence. It happens to the best of them, see: Paul Newman. It was an appraisal of a career of a great actor, one that had been rescued from the pit of obscurity in 1989.