While some actors resist even playing the same type more than once, Sylvester Stallone has made a career out of, in effect, saying: “Bring it on.”
He’s portrayed one character, boxer Rocky Balboa, in eight films and counting, and he’s taken on mercenary Barney Ross in a trio of “The Expendables” epics with a fourth in the works. And then there is John Rambo.
Stallone has been playing the psychologically damaged Vietnam veteran with enviable combat skills for 37 years, and he’s brought him back for a fifth outing in “Rambo: Last Blood.”
After all these years, these characters function as kinds of alter egos for Stallone, and, questions of story aside, it’s intriguing to watch them age both physically and psychologically as the actor does. (Stallone often writes these films as well.)
What that means for “Last Blood” is that while part of the film offers the expected, unsparingly violent action tropes typical of the series, there’s another aspect to the story, a surprisingly brooding examination of a warrior in winter, a dark story of a berserker who can’t let go, that’s in its own way bleaker and more despairing than we may be expecting.
The John Rambo we meet, like the actor himself, is not the sleek killing machine of the previous films, visible in glimpses helpfully provided under “Last Blood’s” closing credits. Rambo moves slowly these days, almost like his own ghost, the weight of years hanging over him and his craggy face looking increasingly suitable for Mt. Rushmore.
Sure, Rambo is convincing when he ends up telling bad people, “I’m gonna hurt you real bad,” but there is also a kind of fragility that makes us worry about people putting the hurt on him.
The initial setting here is the horse ranch in Arizona hinted at a decade ago in the closing images of 2008’s “Rambo,” a place where, in an attempt to keep his raging PTSD in check, the man pops pills and has constructed an intricate system of tunnels he spends quality time in.
“I haven’t changed,” he says when asked. “I just try to keep a lid on it every day.”
What is new for Rambo is that he’s found a surrogate family, college-bound Gabriela (Yvette Monreal) and her grandmother Maria (Adriana Barraza, Oscar-nominated for “Babel”), both acquired when Gabriela’s mother died and her father skipped town.
As directed by Adrian Grunberg from a script by Matthew Cirulnick and Stallone, the plot kicks in when Gabriela insists she wants to visit Mexico to reconnect with her father.
Maria and Rambo try to dissuade her, with Rambo offering some personal insights into human behavior (“I know how black a man’s heart is”) that prove all too predictive.
Although Gabriela says she changed her mind and won’t go, there wouldn’t be any movie if she stayed home, so off she goes to Mexico (doubled by the Canary Islands city of Tenerife) and a world of trouble she cannot even imagine.
Of course, when Gabriela doesn’t return, Rambo gets into his trusty pickup and crosses the border, consumed with a drive to get her back.
Up to this point, everything about “Last Blood” could be predicted, including the fact that this unsuspecting young woman ends up in the clutches of Hugo Martinez (Sergio Peris-Mencheta) and his brother Victor (Óscar Jaenada), standard-issue pitiless slavers.
But once the action shifts to south of the border (featuring considerable dialogue in Spanish with English subtitles), things have a way of turning out worse than even Rambo anticipates.
More than that, Rambo really does seem to be the viejo, the old man the bad guys arrogantly mock, initially without any coherent plan for freeing Gabriela and needing the conveniently provided help of independent journalist Carmen (Paz Vega) simply to stay alive.
But when Carmen suggests to Rambo that what’s done is done and he would be better served by moving on, she does not make much headway with a man who darkly insists, “I’ve lived in a world of death. I’ve tried to come home but I never really arrived.”
Determined to have his revenge, Rambo dives into its complex preparations with an almost demented thoroughness, coming up with endless awful ways for the bad guys to die, mixing in everything from a reference to Akira Kurosawa’s “Throne of Blood” to a truly grisly Grand Guignol horror conclusion.
“I want you to feel my rage, my hate,” he says to one of the evildoers. We feel that for sure, but under it all we may also feel a kind of despair.
Running time: 1 hour, 29 minutes
Playing: In general release