Sylvester Stallone in Rambo: Last Blood (Photo: Lionsgate)

★½ (out of four)
DIRECTED BY Adrian Grunberg
STARS Sylvester Stallone, Paz Vega

There’s a scene in Rambo: Last Blood in which the teenage Gabrielle (Yvette Monreal), who views John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) as a surrogate father, informs him that she plans to journey from their Arizona home down to Mexico. “Why would you want to do that?” he asks incredulously. Given his reaction, one would think she had just stated, “I want to push elderly women in front of speeding trucks” or “I want to shoot newborn puppies in the head with a staple gun.” Indeed, Rambo probably would have preferred those options to the one actually presented before him.

Despite Rambo’s advice to stay home, Gabrielle nevertheless heads down to Mexico to search for her deadbeat dad (Marco de la O) and, in record time, she’s betrayed by her friend (Fenessa Pineda) and sold to a cartel for use in their whorehouse. Rambo heads across the border to rescue her but ends up getting beaten to a pulp by various cartel thugs. But like The Terminator, he’ll be back, and that’s when things will get really messy.

Look, let’s go ahead and get the politics out of the way. Slow thinkers like to believe that all films exist in a vacuum free from the real world (“It’s just a popcorn movie!” they cry), but that’s simply not the case, as anyone with even a rudimentary understanding of cinema history can attest. A movie that employs Mexicans as the heinous villains? Hey, fair game. (See the excellent Sicario.) But a movie that employs Mexicans as the heinous villains at a time when this nation’s ersatz leader is gleefully demonizing that country and having its kids thrown in cages (among countless other offenses)? No, there’s a reason this movie is coming out now, and it’s a reflection of its chickenhawk star. It’s no coincidence that there’s a scene where Rambo crosses the U.S.-Mexico border by driving through a flimsy fence. That was too easy — if only a sturdy wall resided in its place!

Of course, this propaganda is Stallone’s right, even if it’s an ugly one. But you can have controversial viewpoints and still make a good movie. Clint Eastwood often injects his conservative beliefs into his pictures, but at least they’re generally watchable and well-made — ditto liberal Aaron Sorkin on the other side of the aisle. But aside from the original film in the Rambo series, 1982’s First Blood (based on David Morrell’s novel and co-scripted by Stallone), the sequels, all also co-written by Stallone, have been mindless, jingoistic junk, and that holds true for this one as well. In style, tone, and characterization, this doesn’t even feel like a Rambo flick as much as a generic action film starring any Tom, Dick or Liam.

Any nuances found in the character of John Rambo in First Blood were immediately stripped for the follow-ups (1985’s Rambo: First Blood Part II, 1988’s Rambo III, and 2008’s Rambo), with the character thereafter nothing more than a one-man killing machine. Because Stallone is now much older, he tries to add some complexity back into his portrayal in the film’s early scenes, but that gets discarded once he ventures into death wish territory. There’s little wit, inventiveness or originality to be found anywhere in this tedious picture — even the gruesome action sequences at the end feel rote and mechanical. These scenes find the members of the Mexican cartel swarming down on Rambo’s isolated country home, which has been booby-trapped in countless ways. Eh, Skyfall did it better … much better.

Morrell’s novel First Blood ended with John Rambo getting killed, but Stallone would have none of that, deciding that as the hero — and highly paid star — he had to live. If ever a film should have been a one-and-done, First Blood was it. Instead, Stallone has now been trying to draw blood from this stone for 37 years, but it’s proven to be a particularly rocky endeavor.

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