Rambo III (1988) – A Review
Sylvester Stallone returned for his third performance as Vietnam vet, lethal killing icon John Rambo in 1988. As the tagline for Rambo III told us – ‘The first was for himself. The second for his country. This time it’s to save his friend’.
And there’s our story.
When Rambo’s old pal Colonel Trautman (Richard Crenna) is taken prisoner deep in the Afghan desert by some pretty mean Russians it’s up to our musclebound, monosyllabic hero to save him.
Simply put it’s a rescue movie. Rambo III was the most expensive movie ever made at the time of its release. It reportedly cost in the neighborhood of $63 million bucks! Doesn’t that budget sound like a bargain basement price for a big action movie nowadays?
After being in two successful movies – the first a pretty solid smaller action flick and the second a dumb excessive carnival of carnage that was still fun – by 1988 the character had become an 80’s action icon. He had his own toy line and a cartoon show. Some of the cartoon adventures were at times easier to swallow than some of the stuff in the movies.
By the time number three came along the character of Rambo had almost become overly-saturated on audiences and I think people were a little tired of him.Which is strange since he was only in two movies. But Stallone and that character was such a presence in those years they both seemed everywhere.
Despite all the money that went into making it and the simple expectations of what Rambo fans wanted to see – lots of explosions and Stallone killing a lot of bad guys – Rambo III isn’t as much fun or exciting as the two previous outings. It’s routinely ranked as the weakest of the Rambo series by fans and it’s no surprise why.
It’s difficult watching Rambo III now and trying to get past the scenes that have been parodied to death from it. Rewatching it the movie plays as one long hammy cliche. I’m sorry I can’t help but shake my head when I see Rambo living in a monastery. Didn’t Johnny English and Ace Ventura do that too?
After finding Rambo engaged in a stick fight surrounded by cheering crowds – that’s another thing that I can’t take seriously anymore. Whenever characters go off the grid they end up in these sunny and hot foreign countries and instead of keeping a low profile they do all this outlandish stuff that large crowds gather around to watch. James Bond did the same thing in Skyfall!
Anyway, Colonel Trautman and embassy official Robert Griggs (Kurtwood Smith) ask Rambo’s help to go into Afghanistan to help resupply some rebel freedom fighters. Rambo refuses. Colonel Trautman isn’t much of a soldier as he gets caught by the Russians within seconds of stepping foot in the desert.
One of my favorite moments is when Griggs immediately travels all the way back to the remote monastery to let Rambo know Trautman is captured. He melodramatically says, “I just thought you should know.” Then he quietly starts to walk away. A phone call would of sufficed.
Of course we need that scene so Rambo can volunteer to go into Afghanistan to rescue Trautman and then we get to the stuff we’re really here for – the action.
But we still have to wait a long time for that to happen and the movie continues at a leisurely pace to familiarize Rambo and us with the plight of these Afghan rebels and to learn a little bit about their culture. The film cuts between Trautman getting tortured and Rambo listening to his Afghan allies and playing dead goat polo – a scene I always thought was very unexciting.
The Afghan allies Rambo meets aren’t very interesting. Even when I first saw the movie in 1988 and the little kid shows up I was rolling my eyes. The Afghan arms dealer Rambo meets who becomes his ally Mousa Ghani simply exists to recite expository dialogue and he leaves no impression whatsoever. In fact none of the Afghan characters do. Except maybe the kid, who is memorably tiresome.
Despite the film wanting to focus on the Soviet/Afghan war during this time, it’s just a superficial glossing over of it and it doesn’t even register on any level. It just bogs the story down and it moves the core ‘rescue mission’ goal to the backseat for an awfully long time.
Again some really hokey dialogue from all the supporting parts here. After their camp is attacked and Rambo walks through the smokey destruction towards the chief Masoud. I knew immediately what Masoud would say. I could feel it in my bones. I was just waiting…..and sure enough he looks at Rambo and says, “Now you see how it is here”.
It’s the perfect wrap up movie line to our lesson of this Afghan war. I’m picking on the politics, performances and dialogue of this when fans who watch it are not really interested in any of that. It’s like going into a fast food joint and complaining you weren’t given any cloth napkins.
After the quick attack by the Russians, NOW Rambo goes off to rescue his friend. There’s some halfway decent firefights, but nothing memorable. Fortunately Rambo fails to free Trautman during his first attempt so he has to try it again.
The second rescue attempt pays off a bit better in the action department and that’s where the best part of the movie lays. It’s too bad it’s over an hour into the movie. The bulk of Rambo III feels like a tedious slog to get to the good stuff, which honestly isn’t all that good.
It’s only in that last thirty minutes or so where we get the goods and Rambo III becomes one of the last big gasps of 1980s testosterone action cinema. I’m not saying it’s one of the ‘great last big gasps’, I’m just saying it is ‘ONE of the last big gasps’.
Stallone does his stuff. He runs around shirtless, fires his guns, sets off explosions, shoots his arrows, stunt guys go flying around and there’s some hand to hand combat. It’s an adequate fireworks show, but it never reaches the annihilation glory of the previous entries. And it has nothing to do with the body count.
At the time Rambo III took the honor of being ‘the most violent film ever made’. Yeah the kill count is high, but there are very few sequences that build up to a climax, where the situation begins escalating, the sense of urgency kicks in, the situation becomes more dire and it seems like it’s all completely hopeless until Rambo comes up with something creative and jumps into action.
A lot of it plays as a repeat of the second film. A deadly helicopter attack, narrowly avoiding a bomb being dropped, soldiers being picked off one by one with Stallone popping out unexpectedly.
Plus, the filmmakers don’t stage unique enough sequences utilizing the desert setting. Other than a detour into a darkened cave, the action mainly takes place in the desert fortress or simply in the middle of the desert.
The jungle in Rambo: First Blood Part II made it more interesting and fun to watch than just seeing Rambo constantly running through the sand. There was the rain, the trees, the rivers, the mud – there was more variety to the environment for Rambo to play with than just the brown sand and rocks.
Even in the original First Blood the location of the woods Rambo hides out in was mined for everything they could think up. Here the location and setting becomes, like most of the human characters, an uninteresting and underutilized portion of the movie.
There’s one-dimensional Russian villains, flat supporting players, Stallone is ripped and Crenna gets to say some of the funniest trailer worthy quotes ever. “God would have mercy. He won’t.” That’s not too over the top is it?
It’s a very long dull trek until you get to the explosions and when they happen the action is pretty routine and does little to distinguish itself. It is refreshing to see practical effects being done. There’s real fire, real stuntmen, real explosions, real helicopters (which I suspect took up a lot of the budget). Yet, besides for a few standout moments, it’s not worth the wait.
I hadn’t watched this since it first came out and after rewatching it again I remembered why I never bothered.