For a decades-later fifth entry in a franchise that really wasn't very good to start with, Rambo: Last Blood is surprisingly non-terrible. To be sure, Rambo III, way the hell back in 1988, set the bar extremely low for "not the worst Rambo film", and I'm not willing to make any stronger claim for Last Blood than that. But I am willing to make that claim, and I feel like that counts for at least a little bit.

Not that Last Blood really feels very much like a Rambo film, when you get down to it. Over the course of its very weird life, the Rambo franchise has gone to a hell of a lot of different places, but somehow, it's always seemed like there's a cord connecting the 1982 character drama First Blood to the 1985 conservative fable Rambo: First Blood, Part II to the histrionic what-the-hell of Rambo III to the miserably angry violence of 2008's Rambo. That cord is not related to naming conventions, obviously. But there is, anyway, a certain uniformity to John Rambo, the PTSD-haunted Vietnam vet played in all incarnations by Sylvester Stallone at his most sluggish and meaty. He is the same kind of person throughout these films. And now, in Last Blood, he sort of isn't? This is a John Rambo who, when we first meet him, runs a horse ranch in Arizona, along with Maria Beltran (Adriana Barraza) and her teenage granddaughter Gabriela (Yvette Monreal). He's a calm, collected, mostly untroubled John Rambo, if you ignore the tunnels he's dug all underneath the property as a physical manifestation of his 'Nam-related terrors. And the film sort of ignores those except when it doesn't; it feels not so much like the tunnels exist because Rambo has PTSD, but that Rambo has PTSD because the filmmakers needed to motivate those tunnels.

Anyway, he feels like Rambo has been grafted onto an early draft that was just a cartel thriller, and the graft was sometimes done with more care and thoughtfulness than at other times (this was not the case: Stallone developed the story from scratch). Hell, he doesn't even have a moment where he binds his forehead with a red headband to keep the sweat and/or blood out of his eyes, or because it looks cool. He is, in most ways, just a generic "grizzled old man with a very particular set of skills" hero in a generic "they wronged me, now I'll wrong them even worse" story, with the Rambo-ness mostly serving as a cosmetic decoration. Not that I am any kind of Rambo partisan, speaking from a place of outrage that my beloved character has been misserved. But it does seem a bit frivolous to haul a character out of mothballs eleven years after his last outing (which was twenty years after the one previous), and press him into such an off-brand adventure.

The adventure, anyway, is exactly as I said, a generic cartel thriller: Taken that turns into Home Alone for the last act, set on the U.S/Mexico border. Gabriela has learned where her no-good father is hidng from a dissolute former classmate, Gizelle (Finessa Pineda) now living the life of a run-down junkie on the Mexican side, and over both Rambo's and Maria's sharp objections, she's decided to travel south to pay him a visit. This goes spectacularly badly, but not as badly as when Gizelle sells her to the cartel led by Hugo Martinez (Sergio Peris-Mencheta), who has recently branched into human trafficking. Gizelle feels enough shame over this to let Maria know, in extremely vague terms, what has happened, and Rambo immediately travels to find the girl and kick ass. Alas, he is the one whose ass is kicked, and he spends the next five days lying insensate in the home of crusading journalist Carmen Delgado (Paz Vega). It's the vicious bastard John Rambo of old who wakes up, ready to avenge himself on the cartel, which he does in large part by converting the horse ranch into a veritable Disneyland of deadly traps.

I am torn about what to do with Last Blood. It is, for the most part, a deeply ineffectual piece of filmmaking and storytelling. The script (by Stallone & Matthew Cirulnick, after a story by Stallone & Dan Gordon) is dithering and meandering, full of elaborate loose threads - Carmen Delgado, introduced into the plot in such a showy way, and given such a particular job and motivation, ends up having only one narrative function, and it's one that could have been equally well-served by Homeless Man #3 - and burdened with a there-and-back-and-there-once-more-and-back-a-second-time structure that requires Rambo to make two separate trips into Mexico, when it would be the work of an afternoon's story conference to tidy all of it up into just one. The film is a scant 89 minutes long (blessed be its name; it's also one of the only 2019 releases of any running time that doesn't feel too long), but that's every bit as much as the writers appear to have been ready to fill, and they weren't tidy about doing it.

It's also just, like, shoddy. There's nothing more showily bad than the end-credits montage, in which Rambo rides a horse, and artificial slow-motion has been applied to make it look more dramatic or what have you, and this artificial slow motion makes the horse's legs smear across space like they were a mistake in a first-timer's Photoshop project. That's the only purely amateurish thing that happens in the film, though there's not much that's admirably professional in the editing (which does a shitty job explaining where characters are in space, and routinely cuts at the exact instant that a line of dialogue is finished, without giving it any room to settle), the cinematography, the sound recording, or the acting.

But then! The final act comes along, and it is pretty damn satisfying, I cannot lie. Director Adrian Grunberg doesn't have many interesting ideas, but he does know how to showcase a top-notch gore effect, and whenever Last Blood abandons everything else to show the destructibility of the human body, it's impressively dedicated to its cause, if nothing else. It's pure exploitation cinema, wallowing in watching bones jutting out of flesh, rebar ripping through faces, and (somewhat lousy digital) blood jumping up and spattering faces. But the film knows this to be its best and only strength, and leans into it as much as possible. The entire final act - the most Rambo-ey part of the whole, not coincidentally - does much the same, mechanically showing us how traps get set up and then triggered, and building an entire protracted thriller sequence around us having a checklist of all the tricks Rambo has set up. It's crude and mechanical filmmaking, but I can't really think of a reason it would benefit from being any less so. The film's pleasures are raw and artless, and it is quite aware of this, and it feels like it has arranged absolutely everything around getting to the violent stuff as fast and often as possible. It's kind of the best way for an '80s action sequel to position itself; pointless narrative interspersed with terrific gore effects describes many of the best examples of that genre. And in 2019, there's been a solid 30 years of evolution of gore effects that makes them even more impressively repulsive. I wouldn't mind if the film surrounding all of the violent setpieces was even slightly well-made, but I walked out of Last Blood feeling like I got what I was promised and had no regrets about the time spent, and that's really the only thing it feels appropriate to demand of the fifth Rambo movie.