Rambo III is the last Rambo movie released during the glory years of macho action cinema: the 80s and early 90s. Once again everybody’s monosyllabic Vietnam veteran John Rambo has to take on an entire army by himself. At which he of course succeeds. Not to spoil anything, but these movies never end with hero failing. Rambo III shifts the action from the Vietnam jungle to the deserts of Afghanistan where Rambo’s mentor Colonel Trautman is caught by the invading Russian forces. Those pesky Russians. He was only trying to get some Stinger missiles to their adversaries, the Afghan rebels.
With his only friend caught, Rambo sees no choice but to head off to Afghanistan himself. He receives help from local forces who go by the name of Mujahideen and who have been fighting the Russian invaders. Fun fact: the Mujahideen later became the Taliban and where therefor partially responsible for the 9/11 attacks by Osama Bin laden. But in 1988 they were the good guys so they even dedicate this movie to the gallant people of Afghanistan. The politics in this movie are kind of awkward by today’s standards.
Rambo III was, at the time, the most expensive movie ever made. Something you can hardly tell by what’s on screen. Not surprising considering $12 million of the $63 million went to a private jet for Sylvester Stallone. It’s said that Stallone’s salary was $16 million but I’m not sure if that includes the jet. If not, then almost a third of the budget would have gone to Stallone alone.
The reason I’m so focused on the budget is because Rambo III is underwhelming. Especially when comparing it to part 2. A lot of stuff blows up and there are some great pyrotechnics on display here, but the movie never connects. It largely feels like a rehash of the previous movie. Rambo is given an assignment, he goes to a foreign war zone, befriends some locals and in the final act goes on a full scale war against some Russians with attack helicopters.
But instead of Asia it now takes place in the Middle East.
Part of why it’s underwhelming lies in Rambo being bulletproof. There is hardly any tension when none of his Russian opponents is apparently able to hit their mark. Even when he’s got nothing to hide behind. Much like Schwarzenegger in Commando, but without the self-mockery. Even though the movie has some cheesy one-liners, Stallone’s Rambo is still a depressed loner who takes himself really serious. Despite all the events around him getting more and more over the top with every movie.
I also never had any real connection to the good guys here: the Mujahideen. They are presented like a noble people, but with what I know about life in Afghanistan under the Mujahideen it’s hard to cheer for them. Women are almost absent in their camp and children are armed to the teeth in order to fight for the cause. Their favorite pastime is a game in which they have to throw around a dead sheep. Besides the fact that they are nice to Rambo, I never had any reason to care for them.
As the villains, the Russians are underdeveloped. Most of the time we see them either torture Trautman for information or trying to blow up the rebels of which Rambo is now a part of. Because I had no real love for the Afghan rebels it’s hard to see the Russians as these pure villains. They engage in combat, but they’re never extraordinary sadistic. Even the way Trautman is tortured is rather tame compared to the torture techniques on display in First Blood Part II.
Luckily the Afghan forces play second fiddle to Rambo. This is his movie after all. So the final act consists mostly of Rambo rescuing Trautman and them together taking on dozens of Russians. The highlight being a scene in a cave in which Rambo takes out one after another. The afghan forces are reduced to a mere deus ex machina. Much like the cavalry in old westerns.
But I think that timing is Rambo III’s biggest weakness. In 1988 the end of the cold war was in sight. Russians were already retreating from Afghanistan and the animosity between Russia en the US was deteriorating. Action movies like Red Heat were even depicting collaboration between Americans and Russians. Rambo III felt dated immediately upon its release, and still does today.
As an action movie Rambo III is entertaining. There are some nice action scenes, including a stick fight. Stallone really gives it all in terms of physicality. In terms of acting he still portrays Rambo as this depressed character who gets to utter thoughtful lines about war and such. But it’s Richard Crenna as Trautman who has most of the fun as he once again is responsible for all the Rambo exposition dialogue. Like this little gem when he’s sarcastically asked if he thinks Rambo is a god: God would have mercy. He won’t.