Have you ever wanted to watch a movie where a 72-year-old man engages in gratuitous violence against racially-defined enemies? Rambo: Last Blood delivers. In this world of remakes, reboots, and endless installments of cash-cow franchises, Rambo: Last Blood is refreshingly current and lucid, even if it is a product of its time and rehashing culture.
Now, when I say current and lucid, I’m not gonna say fresh. The film is an Irish stew of plot devices that is surprisingly nourishing. There’s an element of Gran Torino, in which an elderly white man passes the torch to a young non-white; an element of Taken, where a father figure tracks down his kidnapped charge from sex traffickers; an element of Death Wish, where the death of a loved one sparks a murderous rampage; and even a dark reprise of Home Alone, where a determined defender fends off a home invasion using clever traps. The movie’s plot is not original, but then again, few things are in this decadent age. Ultimately, I don’t think any of its makers intended to produce an original film. After all, if you’re making a Rambo in 2019, you’re making it for an audience hopped up on member berries. And yet as far as action films and cultural signals go, it’s one of the best to come out of Hollywood recently.
If you’re milling around Counter-Currents, you’re probably aware of Carl Schmitt’s concept of the political, the notion that the political is that which distinguishes between friend and enemy. Identifying the friend and enemy is key to politics and governance. For large-scale entities such as nations, this distinction is made not by explicit signaling — for example, by marching orders from generals or political leaders — but by cultural institutions and cultural artifacts. For a large swathe of the American population, the friend/enemy distinction is signaled by action films, and the Rambo franchise in particular seems to have a finger on America’s pulse. It is for this reason that Rambo: Last Blood is a culturally important movie.
When I was born, Rambo was already a byword for a tough guy who can single-handedly mow down hundreds of enemy soldiers. Watching Rambo II and III at a very young age, I found myself wanting to be Rambo and wanting to mow down the enemies of freedom. Like other ’90s kids, I also grew up with the Saturday morning cartoon Rambo: The Force of Freedom, which was pure fun, lacking the political nuance of the films.
Of note is that the first three Rambo films establish very clearly the friend/enemy distinction for Red America — which is to say those Americans who are pro-American, and the heritage of these Americans as well as the nation’s armed forces.
The first film, First Blood, clearly establishes the sense of betrayal which Vietnam veterans felt when returning to a country which hated them.
The second film portrays the Vietnamese as the enemy, but doesn’t treat them with malice, instead directing its anger towards the US government, ending with John Rambo’s appeal that “the country love its soldiers as much as they love her.”
The third film can be easily construed as the most patriotically gung-ho one, with its clear-cut demonization of Russia’s conduct in Afghanistan and its dedication to the brave Mujahideen (later recut to honor the “gallant people of Afghanistan”) has not aged well at all. However, you’re liable to get this impression only if you’ve skipped through the boring talking parts to get a look at Rambo driving a tank through the evil commie colonel’s helicopter. Ultimately, Rambo’s loyalty isn’t to America (the betrayal still stings, and he treats the embassy man with contempt), but to Colonel Trautmann, his commanding officer who has been captured. Much like the Roman legionaries who followed their generals against Rome, human loyalty is portrayed as man-to-man, rather than as man-to-nation.
Which brings us to Rambo: Last Blood, the fifth installment of the franchise. The film opens with a rescue operation to find and retrieve three lost hikers during a thunderstorm in the mountains. The authorities have deployed vehicles and helicopters to try to locate them, but to no avail. In a conversation between the state police commander and the local sheriff, we learn of “a volunteer on horseback” who cannot be contacted by radio. That volunteer is John Rambo. He finds the first of the hikers, a woman, horribly mangled by a fall. The remaining two, a young woman and the dead lady’s husband, are hunkered together. As Rambo tries to extract the hikers, the man rushes off to find his wife just as a flash-flood hits. Thanks to his training, Rambo manages to save himself, his horse, and the young female hiker, but the man is killed. As he returns to the search-and-rescue op’s field HQ, he is tormented by his inability to save them all, reflecting his loneliness as the last surviving member of his squad all the way back in the first film. He returns home with the gratitude of the young female hiker and a heavy heart.
Rambo is now retired and lives on his father’s horse ranch in Arizona along with Maria Beltran, an elderly Mexican woman whose relation to Rambo isn’t established. She seems to be a combination of live-in maid and trusted friend. Living with them following the death of her (single) mother is Maria’s granddaughter, Gabriella, who is preparing to go to college. Rambo has dug an entire network of tunnels under the ranch “because he likes digging and he’s crazy,” where he houses his memorabilia from the various conflicts he has fought in and the forge where he crafts knives and other weapons.
We learn that Rambo has raised Gabrielle with Maria after her mother died and her father abandoned her. He dotes on her like a daughter. This is symbolic of Red America’s fatal flaw: Even though it is masculine and warlike, family-oriented America and conservative America is racially colorblind, and worse yet, blind to biology. For all his strength and nobility, Rambo is not a father, but rather LARPs as a father to a child not his own — the daughter of an absolute piece of shit, as we’ll see later in the film. Rambo’s efforts and resources are put toward caring for a child who has been dumped in his lap. He is a literal cuckold in the very biological sense of a bird duped into caring for a cuckoo hatchling. The even deeper tragedy here is that he is not even deceived into believing that the child is his, but rather engages in this cuckery of his own volition in order to experience the pleasure and pride of parenting, satisfying his own desire to nurture. By adopting the Mexican girl, he indulges an instinct without paying the biological price — a behavior we’ve come to expect from Boomers.
Gabriella is called by a friend, Giselle, to come to Mexico, where Giselle has managed to track down Gabriella’s father, Miguel. Rambo and her grandmother are adamant that Gabriella is not to go to Mexico, the grandmother calling it “that dangerous place.” Rambo tries to dissuade Gabriella. She retorts that her world is not his world, to which he responds that her world is worse.
In a sense, he is right: The anarcho-tyrannical state of the West and the outright anarchy of failed states like Mexico is worse than a warzone. In a warzone, at least, the friend/enemy distinction is clear and a man can have a measure of confidence in his skills and companions.
Gabriella feigns agreement, but secretly drives to Mexico to track her father down. There, the petite and attractive Gabriella meets her overweight and ugly friend Giselle, who is quite the picture of subtlety with the glowing raccoon make-up caked on and the requisite chola hoop earrings. Fat is a bad look on any woman, but Mexican women seem to become particularly ugly when they gain weight. Giselle’s ugly appearance betrays spiritual ugliness, as it is heavily implied that she is a low-end prostitute or otherwise engaged in petty crime. She lives in a shithole apartment in a shithole town in a shithole country, the claustrophobia of which is masterfully portrayed and contrasted with the wide-open spaces of Rambo’s ranch in Arizona. The photography conveys the mood of the town, which is evil and foreboding, recalling the jungles of Rambo II and IV.
Ugliness is strategically placed all around the film, especially in the Mexican scenes, to accentuate Gabriella’s youth, beauty, and innocence. As she knocks on the door of her father’s apartment, an ugly woman answers. She is apparently his father’s new wife, and we can hear the sound of a baby crying from inside the apartment. When Gabriella asks her father why he abandoned her and her mother, he answers that she was a mistake, and he never cared for them. In short, he is exactly the sort of man who abandons a sick wife and an infant daughter, exactly as her grandmother described him. Yet who among us can resist the temptation to find a lost father? Devastated, Gabrielle allows Giselle to take her to a night club, where a shady character drugs her and she is kidnapped.
She is taken by the Martinez brothers: the level-headed, business-oriented Hugo and the violent and vulgar Victor. In a meeting with a fellow human trafficker, we see the conflict which lies at the heart of every organized crime syndicate personified in the two brothers: the tension between the organization as a money-making business venture (as conceptualized by Hugo) and the organization as a means of attaining sovereignty for the criminal (as conceptualized by Victor), or more succinctly, money versus honor — themes of a kind with the conflicts I explored in my review of The Sopranos.
Of note is the imagery involved in the costumes, hair, makeup, and casting of the Martinez brothers and their cartel underlings. I believe that native-looking actors were deliberately chosen and their hair and clothes styled to look like Aztec warriors for a reason. The Mexican drug war, in this film as in real life, is in a sense a low-level race war between the white (or white-ish) Mexican ruling class — with help from white America — versus the native and Mestizo cartels. Like the Mexican revolutionaries from almost a century ago, the cartels are the vectors of America the great Death-Continent, as described by D. H. Lawrence. Pancho Villa rides again, and the Plumed Serpent traces his warpath across the skies. The white man, in his arrogance, believes he can tame America. Whether Spanish or English, he appears to be woefully not up to the momentous task.
As he learns of Gabriella’s disappearance, Rambo drives to Mexico in an attempt to rescue her. He first interrogates her father, and then Giselle. We learn that Giselle sold Gabriella to the cartel when Rambo notices that Giselle is wearing Gabriella’s armband. Rambo forces Giselle to divulge her cartel contact: El Flaco, a pimp who drugged and took Gabriella.
Rambo corners El Flaco and gruesomely tortures him in order to find out where Gabriella is being held. Normie critics will oy vey about the gratuity of the violence, but I have to admit that I enjoyed it intensely. Truly, there’s nothing more gratifying than seeing an enemy squirm in pain and humiliation, especially if you are the one inflicting it. Vicariously breaking a narco’s rib and pulling it out of an incision is probably the next best thing. This is especially important in light of the news that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi “died like a dog” and the media pointing and sputtering at Trump for daring to celebrate the shameful death of an enemy. There are those who’ll have you believe that your enemy is “a human being who deserves compassion.” They and their intellectual forefathers are very thoroughly discussed in the fifth chapter of The Culture of Critique.
After getting Gabriella’s location from El Flaco, Rambo stakes out the location. There are some great panoramic shots of the slum where the Martinez brothers keep their slave girls. The squalor sloping downwards towards the sea is an eerie reminder that a Latin American favela is a twisted mockery of the typical Mediterranean town, whose white stone houses descending to the sea are mirrored, darkly, by the favela’s corrugated metal shacks. I’ve mentioned before that non-whites tend to twist our memetics into pure ugliness. Here it is again in architecture and city planning.
Even though he was a master of stealth in all of the previous movies, Rambo sticks out like a hulking, 70-year-old gringo in the slum, and the cartel quickly discovers him, surrounds him, and kicks him half to death. The Martinez brothers are divided on how to proceed. Vito wants to kill him and Gabriella, but Hugo stays Rambo’s execution and singles Gabriella out for abuse, rape, and drugging. He allows Victor to brand Rambo on the cheek and gives Rambo a hard lesson in cartel property law as pertains to “putas.” Rambo is left for dead by the cartel, but is saved by a mysterious woman who has been following him since he confronted El Flaco in the club.
The mysterious woman is revealed to be Carmen Delgado, an independent journalist investigating the cartel. She takes the injured Rambo to her house and calls in a doctor to tend to his injuries. The casting here is again of note: Carmen is portrayed by the white Spanish actress Paz Vega. The doctor who treats Rambo is also visibly white, unlike all the previous Mexican characters. Now, while Paz Vega is an attractive woman, she is deliberately made up, dressed, and styled in a frumpy way in this film, and her house is full of cat imagery. I’ve no doubt this was done to, first, cement Gabriella’s status as the only attractive female in the film, and second, to underscore that the white man is getting old and tired and that his grip on the American continent, which was always tenuous, is slipping. Carmen Delgado is a woman under siege; the flowcharts and case files on the cartel which litter her house give it the appearance of a bunker. Her sister was kidnapped, raped, and ultimately killed by the cartel, who force-drugged her with heroin.
Rambo gets better, recovering from a serious concussion after four days (hey, he’s Rambo), and he manages to track Gabriella down in a brothel. He enters, posing as a john, but brutally kills the cartel members and johns before finding Gabriella, who has been force-drugged with heroin and is overdosing. Rambo hauls her into his truck and heads for the border, telling Gabriella that she was what gave him hope after his many years of suffering and despair. Gabriella dies from the overdose during the trip.
Determined to bring her body back home, Rambo crosses the border illegally (his papers were stolen by the cartel) by driving through a barbed-wire fence in a scene which I suspect is a dig at Donald Trump for his snail-like alacrity in constructing the border wall.
Rambo and Maria bury Gabriella next to her mother, and Rambo starts preparing for war. He builds innumerable traps around his house, barn, and, above all, the tunnels he has dug all around his property. He then drives to Mexico and enlists Carmen’s help in order to exact his vengeance. With her help, he infiltrates Victor Martinez’s house and decapitates him, fleeing Mexico shortly afterwards. The next scene shows the Mexican police maintaining a crime scene perimeter in conjunction with cartel sicarios openly carrying assault rifles (actual AKs and M-16s, not merely scary-looking Armalites) in a nice showcase of what failed states actually look like. Hugo Martinez’s shock at seeing his brother’s headless body (Rambo dumps the head on the highway) is palpable, and the previously clean-cut, even-headed businessman pulls his hair up in a savage ponytail reminiscent of his brother’s more native-looking hairstyle and prepares for war. No more LARPing as a gringo-friendly man of reason. Deep America arises within Hugo. He and his many sicarios infiltrate the US through a tunnel that goes under what appear to be sections of newly-built border wall (the metal spike thing), perhaps underscoring the importance of more comprehensive border security than merely building a wall. They then invade Rambo’s ranch.
At first it seems genuinely scary — until one of the cartel trucks hits a landmine. Then a sicario takes an arrow to the head from a booby trap. And then they descend into the tunnels. It is here that the movie segues into slapstick as the sicarios are brutally and humorously dispatched with plenty of gore and gibs. It’s Home Alone, but Kevin is a 72-year-old retired Green Beret. Rambo saves Hugo for last, pinning him to the barn wall with four arrows and cutting his heart out in a gruesome pastiche of the Aztec sacrifice ritual. Battered and wounded, having dispatched his enemies, he then limps to his porch, where he vows to fight for his people to the last.
So, what can we draw from this film? Well, in the strictest Schmittean sense, it redraws the lines of conflict. Whereas Rambo spent the last three films slogging it out in Asia, this film signals to Red America that the new enemy is in Mexico and increasingly penetrating into America. Tellingly, there is no indictment of incompetent or malevolent bureaucrats at home (a notable feature of earlier films), making it a very clear us-versus-them kind of signal. The absence of obstructive bureaucrats in the film is probably symptomatic of the Boomer generation’s blindness to America’s many internal enemies.
Speaking of Boomers, Rambo is very much one. You know who else is? Donald Trump, Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, and Bernie Sanders. One of those four septuagenarians will be the next President of the United States. Much like the latter days of the Soviet Union, America is now a gerontocracy.
Waiting in line at the movie theater, I noticed that all of the other new features were reboots, rehashes, or remakes. There’s a new Terminator coming up. In it, Arnold Schwarzenegger will portray an aging Terminator. America is no spring chicken, and this movie is both symptomatic and emblematic of it.
There are no young men willing to take up the bow and knife. It’s up to grandpa Rambo to hurl his weary old bones at the enemy. Maybe it’s because nobody paid attention to young Rambo from the second film, when he demanded that his country love its soldiers as much as they love her. The Reaganite patriotism of the ’80s turned out to be hollow, and for all the explosions, ’80s Rambo could not save his country from inevitable decline. There is no more patriotism, just mercenary soldiers fighting to wipe out their college debt, pick up combat skills (to resell as sicarios and actual mercenaries), or to have a steady-ish job. The young are jaded by their realization that the game is rigged against them.
A note on the racial aspect of the film. On its face, it is a race war between white America and Amerindian Mexico. However, the issue of Gabriella, who is herself visibly brown makes this not a racialist but an American conservative conceptual struggle. There is the same sense of “passing the torch” which is seen in Gran Torino, only the non-white beneficiary doesn’t live to receive the torch in this film. The cartels are presented with nuance, but the plot doesn’t quite speak with the same tenor of the imagery, which clearly communicates that the cartel is inherent to the Mexican nation, whereas the plot portrays them as a force of evil outside of the Mexicans. There are even overtones of magic dirt, with the good Mexicans being either in America (Maria and Gabrielle) or white (Carmen and the doctor), the implication being that the brown Mexicans need the good juju of American soil to project goodness on them. Rambo is himself not entirely white, canonically. The movies make him German-Navajo, whereas the novels portray him as Italian-Navajo. Sylvester Stallone himself is Italian, Breton, and Jewish in descent, though phenotypically he is very Italian and has portrayed Italian characters in almost all of his major roles. Overall, race in the film gets about the best treatment it can get from a conservative who can’t quite think racially, but still has strong racial instincts.
I don’t like Boomers, yet I find myself strangely attracted to this film in which an actual Boomer plays a badass Boomer who fights the cartel — as imagined by Boomers — in order to protect a sainted (but stupid) Mexican teenage girl who behaves like how Boomers imagine Mexican teenage girls behave, all the while appealing to Boomer nostalgia. Maybe it’s that disconnect between imagery and plot. Much like with other forms of communication, the non-verbal reveals that which the verbal cannot convey, and the photography, sound, lighting, hair, makeup, casting, and dress reveal that which the dog’s breakfast of Boomer and Boomerite plots dare not say. The Left is not wrong when it speaks of implicit racism. Your cuckservative uncle’s voice shakes when he proclaims “as long as they come here legally . . .” because deep in his heart he understands that, legal or not, Mexicans means cartels, which means violence, rape, drugs, kidnappings, and that awful, disgusting noise they call music — and even good Mexican grandmas like Maria light candles for Santa Muerte. That’s why he shrinks back when the Left cries “racist.” He has been found out.