Rambo III (1988) (part 1 of 4)
Rambo: Action icon of the ‘80s, a testament to brazen machismo and mindless patriotism, and the one thing in his acting career besides Rocky that Sylvester Stallone can look back on and feel somewhat good about.
In 1982, Sly starred in a little film called First Blood. It told the tale of John Rambo, a decorated Vietnam War veteran who’s abused by small town sheriff Brian Dennehy and his deputies. He engages them in a guerilla war, which is only ended when his former commanding officer is able to talk him down.
The film was a surprise success, not to mention a solid action movie, so it led to the mega smash hit sequel Rambo: First Blood Part II, which made the character a national icon. There were even toys and a cartoon series. Not bad for an R rated action movie.
The sequel was a big, loud, dumb action epic, with a nicely over the top turn by Steven Berkoff (his third action movie villain role in as many years), and it ended up being one of the most successful films of 1985. It also garnered several Razzie nominations, and even won for Worst Picture.
In addition, it took the relatively realistic Rambo character and replaced him with a comic book action hero. Gone were most of the faint traces of humanity, replaced by grunting, yelling, the occasional line of dialogue that had only a 30% chance of being coherent, and of course, Stallone’s bulked up physique.
With that much success, another sequel was inevitable. But then Stallone and company whizzed it all right down their legs trying to duplicate the previous film, and killed the franchise for twenty years.
By 1988, the Cold War was thawing, and the Soviet Union was no longer the evil empire, and action movies were beginning to look elsewhere for villains. Unperturbed by this, Stallone set the next Rambo adventure in Afghanistan, which had been embroiled in a war with the Russians for quite some time.
Unfortunately for the filmmakers, by the time the film came out in May of 1988, the war in Afghanistan was over, and the Russians were pulling out. Rambo III was dated before anyone even got the chance to see it. At least the James Bond film The Living Daylights, which also took place partially in Afghanistan, had the good fortune to come out in the middle of 1987 when the war was still going on.
Rambo III’s box office was less than spectacular. It was completely overshadowed by a little film called Die Hard, and it ended up being nominated for a ton of Razzies, but only won Worst Actor for Stallone. Bear in mind, this was also the year the Tom Cruise film Cocktail was released, and while the Razzie folks may tend to go for the most well-known actors and films, they’re smart enough to know that a film that’s essentially “Top Gun in a bar” is far worse than Stallone running around with no shirt on, grunting and killing people.
I have to agree; this is hardly the worst movie I’ve ever seen. But then again, I did watch Wild World of Batwoman willingly, so your mileage may vary.
The film itself has a curious case of split personality. On the one hand, it wants to show the plight of the Afghan people and gain the sympathy of the audience. On the other hand, Rambo’s whole “one man army” thing is compromised if he has too much help, so the film has to push all those Afghanis into the background so it can stay true to the hero’s gimmick.
Actually, that’s a bit of an understatement. The rebels are shunted to the back after the first 45 minutes or so, save for two characters, and they don’t show up again until the last action sequence.
The end result is a loud, violent, over the top action movie that only sporadically touches on the issues it uses for a story setup, and when it does, the execution is heavy-handed to the point of hilarity. The film only really wakes up after the first 49 minutes, but after that, it’s gold.
I give it 5 out of 10 greased pectorals for the first 49 minutes, and 8 out of 10 for the rest. Let’s check it out.
Opening credits time. We cut between the U.S. Embassy in Thailand, where Colonel Trautman (Richard Crenna) and a man named Griggs (Kurtwood Smith) walk out to a car and proceed to search various locations for Rambo, and a boat where an as yet unseen man is getting ready for some sort of activity, while a young monk hands him some fabric, which he wraps around his hands and wrists.
By the way, movie, we can already guess it’s Rambo. I know you want to give Stallone a nice big Movie Star Intro, but really, we can do without. The guy is pretty damn hard to miss. Of course, this buildup can also be attributed to one of the screenwriters, who also happens to be our star.
Finally, we get the big reveal of Rambo, and Stallone looks as huge as ever, with muscles on top of muscles, and a face that registers… Well, not a hell of a lot. It’s Stallone, not Pacino or DeNiro. What do you want? The man doesn’t really have facial expressions when he plays Rambo. He has a facial expression.
Rambo enters an arena to compete in a stick fighting competition, and now is as good a time as any to mention that Hot Shots! Part Deux basically spoofed this entire movie from stem to stern. Hell, they even got Crenna to play a similar role, and used dialogue taken directly from the film. Oddly enough, I think the serious version we’re looking at right now might be funnier than the parody that came out five years later.
Rambo squares off against his opponent as bets are placed. While this is going on, Trautman and Griggs enter the arena to observe. As for the fight, it basically uses the template of the average fight in a Rocky movie. It’s actually a decent fight, though it is pretty obviously shoved in so the audience isn’t sitting around for 45 minutes before Rambo springs into action.
The fight starts off with the two men on fairly even ground, until Rambo’s opponent begins to turn up the heat, so to speak. This only makes Rambo mad, and he comes back with a flurry, finally defeating his opponent and standing over him with a really hilarious—um, I mean intense look on his face while the crowd chants his name.
Rambo helps his opponent up, and they share respectful nods before Rambo gets back on the boat with the monks. He gives them the money from the fight, and sails off before Trautman can get to him.
Later, Trautman and Griggs show up at a Buddhist temple where Rambo is fixing a roof. Trautman gets Rambo’s attention, and they have a reunion where we learn that the monks are letting Rambo stay there in return for his services as a handyman, while the stick fighting is to earn some extra money. I’d guess these are quite liberal monks, since beating the shit out of your fellow man doesn’t exactly mesh with a peaceful search for inner harmony.
They get down to business, with Griggs briefing Rambo on a mission that Trautman is going to be leading into Afghanistan, specifically mentioning the “exceptionally brutal” Russian commander who we’ll meet later. Trautman wants Rambo to go with him, but Rambo refuses, stating, “I’ve put in my time.”
He further says his war is over, and walks off to the chagrin of Griggs and… Well, it’s kind of hard to read Richard Crenna’s face here. He could be disappointed, he could be perturbed, the lunch he had from the roach coach could have just hit his lower tract, hard to tell, really.
The scene itself is not too awful, but if this were any more of a riff on the opening of the second film it would border on plagiarism. In fact, the entire movie falls into the same trap most sequels fall into. The fourth one does too, to an extent. It’s basically “Let’s tell essentially the same story, but change some things around, so audiences don’t fully realize they’ve paid to see the same movie twice.” The mark of a good sequel is how well it avoids this trap. This film, as I said earlier, whizzes it right down the leg.
It’s also interesting to note how the fourth film tries to redo this one, only with a grimmer tone. It succeeds in terms of tone, but both films are seriously dumb on a deep level. At the very least, this one is a little more fun to watch.