Rambo III (1988, Peter MacDonald)

RamboIII

A series of reviews looking at Sylvester Stallone’s two most famous characters, Rocky Balboa and John Rambo, film by film…

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Living off the grid in southeast Asia, John Rambo learns that his mentor has been captured by an evil Soviet commander…

What does Stallone do? He worked on the script, reprised the title role, and used his influence behind the scenes to have the film’s director replaced midstream… We first see John Rambo in Thailand. He’s working at a local monastery but also taking part in stick-fighting duels for spare cash. Then, just as in the previous film, his mentor Colonel Trautman shows up and asks this clearly damaged war vet to go on another life-threatening mission. There’s an area of Afghanistan, it seems, where the occupying Soviet forces are especially cruel so the US wants to do something about it. (This is therefore the third Rocky/Rambo film in a row with Russian villains. It was the 80s, after all!) John is understandably reluctant, but then Trautman goes on the mission alone and is snatched by the Soviets. ‘Can you get me in?’ asks John when he learns the news; yes, says Trautman’s colleague, but it’ll have to be an unofficial rescue mission. So John travels to Pakistan, meets up with a local guide, crosses the border, hangs out with the mujahedeen resistance, and hunts down the camp where his former boss is being held…

Other main characters:
* Colonel Sam Trautman (Richard Crenna) presumably never trained any other half-decent covert agents in his military career, given that this is the second time in three years he’s sought out a mentally scared loner and begged for his help.
* Robert Griggs (Kurtwood Smith) is a diplomat who shadows Trautman when the latter arrives in Thailand to ask John to go on the mission. Later, after Trautman has been captured, Griggs returns to the monastery – which is up a mountain, a long way from any town – for a 23-second chat with John before turning round to head back home.
* Mousa Chanin (Sasson Gabai) is the US government’s ‘man in Pakistan’. Rambo finds him in a prosthetic-limb shop (it does good business due to all the landmines in the area). Chanin then acts as a guide as well as supplying information, equipment and history lessons for the audience.
* Colonel Alexi Zaysen (Marc de Jonge) is the regional commander of the Soviet forces in Afghanistan and, obviously, as they always are in action films, is a sadistic, arrogant prick. He interrogates and tortures the captured Trautman for information. Being an American, Trautman is able to resist and even taunts Zaysen, saying Afghanistan is Russia’s Vietnam (ie, an unwinnable folly). Zayzen also personally leads a helicopter attack on a local village, just to emphasise how evil he is.
* Hamid (Doudi Shoua) is a young Afghan orphan who tags along on Rambo’s mission.

Key scene: Having escaped from the Russian compound, John and Trautman end up cornered in a large area of rocky wasteland. They’re in the open, with no available cover, and an helicopter piloted by Zaysen is hovering in front of them. It’s armed to the teeth, with torpedoes, machine guns… probably even flame-throwers knowing this film. Over a loud-speaker, Zaysen warns them they have no way out. ‘What do you say, John?’ asks Trautman. ‘Fuck ’em,’ snarls Rambo and the pair start shooting. The fact that not one bullet of the returning fire hits anywhere near them is, of course, a motif of action films. The fact they suddenly find a convenient gash in the landscape to hide in is a similar stretch. But the subtext – that a pair of vastly outgunned people can get out of this situation simply because they decide to – sums up this movie’s macho attitude perfectly.

Review: After clashing with Stallone, this film’s original director, Russell Mulcahy (Highlander), was fired mid-shoot and replaced by second-unit director Peter McDonald. ‘I was intrigued by the challenge,’ McDonald later said. ‘I tried very hard to change the Rambo character a bit and make him a vulnerable and humorous person. I failed totally.’ He wasn’t wrong. Rambo III is as amped-up and unsubtle as its lead character’s sweat-glistened biceps. We get lots of worthy talk about the indefatigable spirit of the Afghan people and the evils of the USSR aggression, but for a rescue plot there’s a distinct lack of urgency. John even takes time out to play a local version of polo that uses an animal carcass as the ball. Then, after Rambo has eventually freed Trautman, the film plummets into mind-numbingly drab action: a thousand gunshots, a hundred deaths, a dozen explosions. There *is* a way of doing this kind of story. Compare Rambo III with the superficially similar Arnold Schwarzenegger film Commando (1985) and you can see a gulf of difference. The latter is just as violent and simplistic. It also has a weak central performance and a naïve political attitude towards foreigners. But it’s also knowing and genuinely flamboyant and a lot of fun. Rambo III, on the other hand, is just empty-headed, jingoistic drivel.

Two worst nightmares out of 10

Note: In the three years since the previous Rambo flick, one of the more bizarre spin-offs in pop-culture history had hit TV screens. Animation production company Ruby-Spears decided to produce a kiddie-friendly cartoon version, Rambo: The Force of Freedom, which ran for 65 syndicated episodes between April and December 1986. John Rambo and Colonel Trautman were carried over from the films, sans any mention of PTSD, and were now complemented by zappily named characters such as Edward ‘Turbo’ Hayes, Katherine Anne ‘KAT’ Taylor and TD ‘Touchdown’ Jackson. As a team, these heroes battled terrorists called SAVAGE (Specialist Administrators of Vengeance, Anarchy and Global Extortion). None of the film actors took part.

Next: Rocky V

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