It’s been a long, bumpy road for John Rambo, Sylvester Stallone’s muscle bound, bandana wearing icon of ’80s hypermasculinity. For most of my life, I have followed along behind him, though not always eagerly. I spent my formative years watching First Blood on a heavy HBO rotation, loving every moment. I was a bit too young to grasp the strong anti-war message, or to appreciate Stallone’s gut-wrenching emotional breakdown by the end, but I always connected to his sad, quiet decency. Plus, he rides a motorcycle and jumps off a mountain into a tree! My appreciation for the character dipped dramatically when he returned three years later in the awkwardly titled Rambo: First Blood Part II. Being a cynical middle schooler, I felt they had changed the character from a good man pushed too far into a jingoistic Reagan era cartoon. When Rambo III (the title still doesn’t make sense, but I suppose it is better than Rambo II: First Blood Part III) exploded onto the screen in ’88, it barely left an impression. It was just more of the same. The franchise had become a bore, as had Stallone’s monosyllabic, Planet Hollywood sized ego.
I was cinematically unsophisticated in those days, though, without a full appreciation of the action genre. My pallet has since widened to encompass the subtle charms of Direct-to-Video face pounders, the excess of big-budget extravaganzas, and all flavors of martial arts, from Bruce Lee to Iko Uwais. I often wondered if I had unfairly written off the Rambo sequels, so twenty years later, when the ultra-violent and simply titled Rambo arrived in 2008, I picked up the complete series Blu-ray pack for a reappraisal.
It turned out to be less of a reappraisal than a confirmation. First Blood was still a great as ever, but Rambo: First Blood Part II infuriates me just as much as it used to. The big surprise came when I realized all my hazy memories of Rambo III were really the scenes with the Russians from Part II mixed with a few scenes from the trailer. I only assumed I’d seen the third movie, but really had never gotten around to it. Seems I was not alone. Rambo III made a little over a third of what the previous sequel had raked in domestically. The only thing notable about the third instalment seemed to be how little people made note of it. When I returned to the movie all these years later, it dawned on me why it had faded quietly into obscurity. It has little to do with quality (I rather liked it, actually). The real reason no one remembers Rambo III is that it suffered from catastrophically bad timing that only got worse with age.
In case you haven’t seen it, the story goes something like this. After being hassled by ‘The Man’ and re-waging war with Vietnam, John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) now lives a simple life of Buddha repair and competitive stick fighting. He’s tracked down by his old pal Col. Trautman (Richard Crenna), who offers him a job sneaking into Afghanistan and messing with the Soviets. John politely declines, since getting twice screwed over by the government has left him a little gun-shy. Plus, Trautman is accompanied by Kurtwood Smith, and everybody knows better than to trust the guy who played Clarence Bodicker from Robocop. Undeterred, Trautman decides to do the mission himself, despite being a 62 year-old man who probably gets winded walking up a flight of stairs, and is immediately captured. Now Rambo has no choice but to get back into the Commie-stabbing, explosive-arrow-shooting game in order to rescue his friend from the dastardly Soviets, and he makes some interesting new friends along the way.
Why was Rambo III destined to be forgotten? For one thing, it came out in the summer of 1988, the same summer that would grace the world with a little movie called Die Hard. Personally, I think Rambo III is a decent action flick, with action that is head and shoulders above Part II’s standing still while firing a machine gun and grimacing nonsense, but come on. Going toe-to-toe with THE BEST ACTION MOVIE EVER MADE? Sorry John, bu you’re bound to come up short. It gets worse, though. Throughout the Eighties, the Soviet Union had been the ultimate go-to bad guy, an all-purpose boogeyman for patriots to rally against. But by the time Rambo III was released, the Cold War was thawing, Mikhail Gorbachev was promoting glasnost, and the Berlin Wall was about to come down. The boogeyman was losing its boo. The real kick in the nuts came just 10 days before the movie’s release, when the USSR began withdrawing its troops from Afghanistan. Can you imagine having the near decade-long conflict that you built your ENTIRE movie on ending less than two weeks before your premiere? Director Peter MacDonald can.
Of course, the real 800 lb gorilla in the theater is the storyline itself. The U.S. has had a complicated relationship with Afghanistan, to say the least, and the image of Rambo charging into battle alongside the mujahideem is incredibly jarring when viewed today. Even though feeling less like propaganda than its predecessor, Rambo III was still made with an agenda reflecting the times. It is interesting how sympathetic the Afghani rebels were portrayed when they were involved in someone else’s war. With very little mention of religious or ideological beliefs, they are simply freedom fighters, underdogs struggling against a (genuinely) brutal invader. Putting aside the slight feeling of cognitive dissonance, it’s easy to root for these guys. Reportedly, one of the mujahideem leaders in the movie was one in real life, fighting against the Soviets and later against the Taliban. They seem legit. Still, it makes for some severely awkward moments, like when we catch sight of women in burkas, or the shop that sells automatic weapons side-by-side with prosthetic limbs. The Soviet commander, Zaysen (Marc de Jonge) bemoans “You can’t defeat a people like that,” and later describes Rambo as a terrorist. Gulp. Also, somehow I think inclusion of a plucky child soldier played a little differently in the ’80s than it does now.
So yeah, this isn’t the easiest movie to market.
That’s a shame, because Rambo III has a lot going for it. Despite its bombastic story, MacDonald handles the direction with a degree of subtly not found in the previous sequel. Zaysen is not a complete moustache-twirling caricature, at least not a first. When he tells Trautman “You are alone here, abandoned by your government,” he does so while looking at the small pictures lining his mirror, presumably the family he has been separated from while exiled on assignment to a desert outpost. And MacDonald skillfully brings out Rambo’s introverted, soft spoken nature, particularly when talking with his guide, Masoud (played wonderfully by Spyros Fokas). Even with all the politically questionable heaviness, the movie delivers more fun than it’s predecessor. The pace is snappy, the action well choreographed, and it covers the classics, like quick and dirty self-surgery (including gunpowder cauterization), fetishistic bow building, and the John Rambo patented jump-out-of-the-water-and-kill-some-guys trick. They even throw in a little levity, to varying success (as buddy cop banter goes, Rambo and Trautman are no Tango and Cash).
I even kind of love the precocious child soldier, Hamid. Right off the bat, he asks Rambo if he can have his gigantic knife (John says no), and he sneaks along during a covert raid after Rambo tells him it’s too dangerous. He’s like the kid in a Spielberg movie, except carrying a gun. I would love to have seen a Kindergarten Cop style comedy sequel where Rambo plays Hamid’s clueless adopted dad.