If you can tell a lot about a movie from the kind of audience it attracts, I wonder what you can infer concerning Adrian Grunberg's Rambo: Last Blood? Uniquely in my recent experience, the turnout for the screening that I attended was made up entirely of men – young and middle-aged – all of whom seemed to have come on their own – no-one had brought a friend. Is this a sign that people are embarrassed to ask their friends to go and see a Rambo movie with them? Or is it just that this is a film solely appealing to sociopathic loners? It's a tough call.
Forget about The Matrix or The Terminator: the index case of a good, thoughtfully-intentioned movie being slimed in the minds of the public by dodgy sequels is surely First Blood, the original Rambo film from 1982 (well, along with Robocop). Though a highly influential action movie, buried in there somewhere is something quite heartfelt and serious about the plight of American veterans of the Vietnam war – the subsequent transformation of Rambo into a Reaganite wish-fulfilment figure means all this tends to get lost.
But here we are with Rambo: Last Blood. Rambo is one of the two characters, along with Rocky, whom Sylvester Stallone never seems entirely capable of leaving behind – when he revives one of them, it's usually followed by a return appearance by the other. The well-deserved success of the recent Creed movies perhaps should have tipped us off to the fact that Stallone would be dusting off the bow and arrows – anyway, now he has.
The new movie finds John Rambo (Stallone, of course) now living on the family ranch in Arizona in something close to a state of peaceful contentment, although he has spent the last ten years digging an alarmingly extensive system of tunnels and engaging in various other survivalist hobbies. The apple of his eye is his innocent young niece Gabrielle (Yvette Monreal), soon to go off to college. As a going-away gift he has forged her a letter-opener, but being Rambo it is about a foot long and probably capable of disembowelling a rhino. (Given the fuss the film makes about the knife, I was expecting this to be the set-up for a concluding beat where it ends up buried in the villain's head, but the movie kind of fumbles this point.)
Well, the thing on Gabrielle's mind is the fact that her father abandoned her and her mother when she was very young, and she wants to know why. (Rambo's excuse that her father just has a black heart full of evil cuts little ice with her, possibly because it is borderline-unintelligible.) A dodgy friend down in Mexico has managed to track him down, and so – ignoring Rambo's pleas that the world beyond the ranch is a horrible, chaotic place full of bad people – Gabrielle, who is presented as naïve to the point of actual imbecility, drives south of the border and promptly gets herself drugged and captured by an evil cartel.
The intelligent reader will probably be able to imagine Rambo's response to this news, when it arrives, and there is indeed a good deal of torture, mutilation and brutal violence before everyone involved has settled their differences. Certainly, there are a lot of things about this film which are problematic, to say the least – quite apart from the extended sequences of grisly, graphic violence, the film's depictions of Mexico as a depraved hell on Earth, and the majority of Mexicans as wholly morally bankrupt, are also difficult to stomach. We should not overlook the misogyny which the film is also arguably shot through with – women are almost exclusively objects or trophies, to be used, protected, fought over, or avenged – or the film's grindingly simplistic moral schema: some people are just born evil, and a man's got to do what a man's got to do, especially when that comes to exacting a brutal revenge.
And yet, and yet... Last Blood is never entirely as bone-headed or offensive as you might expect it to be: parts of it bear a startling resemblance to last year's You Were Never Really Here, an art-house darling which had the critics swooning. Stallone brings a massive physical presence to Rambo, but more than just that – he is an essentially ambiguous figure throughout, not simply a hero to be cheered on. I remember reading somewhere that the first book about the character is at its heart a riff on Frankenstein, with Rambo a sympathetic monster created by forces he barely comprehends. Here, too, he is terrifying, but also damaged and somehow pitiable – the fact that Stallone only seems to have about 10% of the normal movement in his face isn't actually that big a problem, as the alarming mask that results just adds to the impression of a frightening, not entirely human creature running somewhat out of control. I should say that he makes the most of the subtler elements of the script (Stallone co-wrote, as usual), and even manages to bring Rambo a rather soulful quality, verging on genuine pathos. Or perhaps it's just the usual disagreeable right-wing sentimentality; it may be a matter of personal taste. Certainly, the final act of the film, which is essentially a cross between Home Alone and a live feed from the CCTV in a slaughterhouse, is disappointing in the way it sublimates all other concerns to a string of rather unimaginative gory deaths.
That said, the whole film has a kind of sincerity to it which I did find myself responding favourably to – the story may be simple to the point of predictability, but it's solid and involving and may well surprise the unsuspecting viewer at one point, at least. This isn't a film trying to tick fashionable or especially progressive boxes – you may not agree with its politics or morality, but for all that they are simplistic, they are also coherent. And I suspect that, for good or ill, people (all right, mostly men of a certain age range) will respond to films like this (that said, one person at my screening hooted with laughter at each grisly demise during the climax, which alarmed me somewhat).
Obviously Rambo: Last Blood isn't for everyone. Obviously, this is a film which has serious issues, more than it is actually about them. We really should hope that the ambiguity of the ending here does not indicate that further outings for this character in future (by rights, he should end up doing serious time in some kind of mental institution). However, it is always a little bit cleverer, a little bit more subtle, and a little bit more surprising than you expect it to be. A horrible film, but somehow not a bad one.