In the review for Rambo: First Blood Part II, I lamented that the film marked the end of a budding First Blood franchise, and the start of the Rambo franchise. Indeed, demoting, and then finally excising, the First Blood string from the title is as much a sign of the creative direction in these films as it was a marketing decision to promote the character of John Rambo, and the man who played him.
From 1988, Rambo III was directed by Peter MacDonald from a screenplay by Sheldon Lettich and Sylvester Stallone. Sly, of course, returns to star as John Rambo, with Richard Crenna also reprising his role as Colonel Trautman.
Following the events of the second film, Rambo has been slumming it in Thailand, paying for room and board at a Buddhist monastery by helping to fix up the place and donating his winnings from back alley stick fights. That’s how Trautman finds Rambo — exorcising his personal demons by wailing on a local. It wasn’t all one-sided, but the look in Rambo’s eyes should have let his opponent know that Rambo meant business. This fight is all the evidence one needs to know that the PTSD angle, which was the very reason for Rambo’s actions in First Blood, has been reduced to a trope. Rambo’s history with war is his reason for being a reluctant warrior. Filmmakers couldn’t possibly show a lethal hero having too much fun, so there always has to be a healthy dose of angst in a character like John Rambo. Only, the filmmakers of Rambo III went a little too far with their protagonist.
Rambo doesn’t appear to be suffering from PTSD anymore. Rather, Rambo is a homicidal maniac whose hidden desires have been unleashed by the United States Army.
Trautman is in town because he needs Rambo for another mission. Trautman is heading into Afghanistan to provide aid to the mujahideen during the latter days of their victory over the Soviet Union. He wants Rambo to come along and share in the glory. Rambo, being the reluctant warrior, declines. He’s not ready to give up his life of peace, even if he does go out on occasion to beat on people with sticks.
Trautman winds up being captured by the Soviets and held at a mountaintop fortress. And Rambo is the only person who can rescue him.
At this point, it has to be noted that Sly spent this period in his life as the Reagan era’s chief Hollywood propagandist. The Soviet Union deserves no sympathy, but by the time Rambo III arrived in theaters, Stallone’s jingoism was absurd. Rambo: First Blood Part II, Rocky IV, and Rambo III all came within three years of each other and all feature Soviets as a cartoonish representation of evil. It’s funny how one-dimensional and heavy-handed it all is. It’s not enough for the Soviets to be bad guys in this movie. They have to be downright genocidal.
The Soviets are led by Marc de Jonge as Colonel Alexei Zaysen. He’s every bit as sadistic and cruel as the plot could handle without the film drifting into realism. Zaysen revels in torturing prisoners and the indiscriminate killing of civilians. This is driven home to the viewer not long after Rambo crosses the border into Afghanistan, when a village at which he is resting is attacked by the Soviets. Before, Rambo’s mission was just personal...now it’s PERSONAL.
Two major action sequences follow to round out the remainder of the flick. It took its sweet time getting to these sequences, as well. The setup time in this film is too long for a tale that lacks seriousness. Character and plot development just seem like wastes of running time when the meat of the film has no depth to it at all. What’s the point in lingering on Rambo’s growing appreciation of Afghan culture when just over the next rise a comic book villain lies in wait?
In short, way too much time is spent establishing Rambo’s bona fides as a stand-up dude. My cynical side can’t help but think most of this was Stallone pumping up his brand.
Rambo III was a successful film, but it very much felt like an idea that had run its course, even back in 1988. Once the action does get going, it is as reliable as any other big budget action flick of the era. Getting to these silly and satisfying sequences, however, requires accompanying Sly Stallone through an ego-satisfying romp of mediocrity.
From my notes: Those durn Russkies are at it again!
Rambo’s got a point. Why don’t they just leave him be? The dude fought the Vietnam War twice.
Rambo III, where jet-powered helicopters are so quiet that you can’t hear them until you see them. Fantastic Soviet engineering.
Rambo’s knife. HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!
This movie is historic. It contains the only successful horse charge against modern firepower in military history. No Charge of the Light Brigade, this. These boys went up against tanks, plural, and won.
This whole battle will be over if Rambo can just...reach...that...Molotov!