Difficult as it may be believe, I never actually grew up watching or as a fan of the Rambo films (Various, 1982 to 2019) and my exposure to the works of Sylvester Stallone was comparatively now compared to that of Arnold Schwarzenegger. However, having recently watched the entire series from start to finish, I’ve been attempting to rectify that by dedicating Fridays to celebrating the fact that First Blood (Kotcheff, 1982) was released on the 22nd of October, 1982.
Released: 25 May 1988
Director: Peter MacDonald
Distributor: TriStar Pictures
Budget: $58 to 63 million
Stars: Sylvester Stallone, Richard Crenna, Kurtwood Smith, Marc de Jonge, and Spiros Focas
Three years after the previous film, events in Vietnam, former United States Army Special Forces soldier John J. Rambo (Stallone) has settled in a Thai monastery. Finally content, he refuses to assist his former commander, Colonel Sam Trautman (Crenna), in assisting Mujahideen tribes in Afghanistan against Soviet forces. However, after Trautman is captured, Rambo immediately agrees to undertake a solo rescue on the condition that he will be disavowed in the event of capture or death.
The impressive box office success of First Blood (Kotcheff, 1982) led to the even more financially successful Rambo: First Blood Part II (Cosmatos, 1985), which transformed the character from a tormented Vietnam veteran and into an explosive, one-man army of an action star. This time around, Stallone was even more hands-on with the production of the film as he not only helped write the script but also hired Russell Mulcahy as the direct…and then promptly dismissed him after creative differences. Sadly, this time around, Rambo III was a box office disappointment after grossing just $89 million (which, while slightly more than First Blood, was a massive drop compared to the sequel). Although Rambo III was also met with mixed reviews, it was the most violent action film ever made at the time and its ludicrous body count was only surpassed by its eventual follow-up.
Having witnessed first-hand the treatment and abuse he receives in his home country, and having extracted a measure of revenge upon Vietnam for his experiences during the war, Rambo is, understandably, quite disillusioned and reluctant to be a part of “normal” society and has, instead, retreated to Thailand. Here, he desperately attempts to reconcile his two sides (the side that wants peace and the side that craves conflict) by helping to reconstruct and repair a Thai monastery and earning money for the monks by participating in brutal underground fights.
Tired of war and content with his newfound life, Rambo is dismissive and uninterested when Trautman and United States field officer Robert Griggs (Smith) arrive with a new mission for him. This is in stark contrast to the previous film, where Rambo signed up to Trautman’s mission (though somewhat begrudgingly) in order to rescue prisoners of war from the same torture he endured and face his demons in familiar surroundings. It’s also a far cry from Rambo’s emotional breakdown at the end of First Blood, where he defiantly declared that “Nothing is over!”; now, he declares that his war is over and that he’s finally at peace. Trautman, however, sees through his claims and believes that Rambo is hiding and denying his true self; it’s an interesting exchange based on their experiences in the previous films, where Trautman was sympathetic towards Rambo’s plight and claimed to have “made” him. Now, his argument is that Rambo was always this way and he (as in Trautman) simply pointed him in the direction of the enemy and, rather than trying to talk Rambo out of fighting, he actively encourages him to “come full circle” and be the soldier that has brought him so much pain and suffering.
However, Rambo refuses and, honestly, after everything we’ve seen from him, I can’t say that I blame him. But, without Rambo by his side, Trautman is captured by Soviet forces. When Griggs informs Rambo of this, Rambo immediately volunteers to go in, alone and off the books; this time around, at least, Rambo is told upfront that the government will deny any official knowledge of the mission and leave him to be tortured and killed so there’s no subterfuge or deception regarding this mission. Rambo’s motivation for volunteering is based purely out of the loyalty and respect he still feels for Trautman and his mission takes him to Afghanistan and in conflict with the Soviet forces, led by Colonel Alexei Zaysen (Marc de Jonge) and Sergeant Kourov (Randy Raney).
Zaysen is largely similar to Lieutenant Colonel Sergei T. Podovsky (Steven Berkoff) from the last film; enigmatic and threatening, he attempts to intimidate Trautman with his eloquence. Trautman, however, is defiant and contemptuous towards Zaysen and his unwinnable war against the rebellious Mujahideen even while enduring ruthless torture at the hands of Zaysen and Kourov. Zaysen is very much the cool, calculating commander who only gets involved with the dirty work when his prisoners are held at his (or Kourov’s) mercy but grows increasingly frustrated by Rambo’s interference and disruption while Kourov is the more sadistic and brutal of the two and acts as Zaysen’s muscle.
Thanks to the presence of the Mujahideen, Rambo is, again, not entirely alone in his campaign but, intimidated by the Soviet’s power and numbers, the tribe are reluctant to help Rambo beyond informing him of the general layout of the Soviet base. Indeed, for his initial assault on the base, Rambo is joined only by his guide, Masoud (Focas), and a young Mujahideen boy, Hamid (Doudi Shoua); the two join him against his wishes and it is through their inexperience that we get so see how cagey Rambo is, as he spots traps they don’t. Once again, Rambo’s greatest advantage for most of the film is his stealth, which allows him to enter the base undetected (by hiding up in the rafters and clinging on the bottom of a tank!), acquire weapons, and plant a number of explosive charges throughout the base to deal significant damage.
Similar to the second film, Rambo III wastes little time in reacquainting viewers with Rambo and his newfound life but, again, builds towards its more explosive and action-packed moments. A great deal of time is spent dwelling in the Mujahideen village and watching as Rambo learns their ways and customs; apparently, Rambo has the time to waste talking with Masoud and Hamid and participating in the tribe’s odd (and, if we’re honest, quite cruel) idea of sport rather than formulating a reasonable plan of attack and, as a result, it’s no surprise when the village is suddenly attacked and destroyed by the Soviet’s attack helicopters. As a means to further add to Rambo’s motivation, this isn’t quite as effective as the brief romance from the last film; he’s gained a greater appreciation for the simple life and the ways of the innocent, for sure, but this attack mainly exists to explicitly show how persecuted the Mujahideen are and as an excuse to add to the film’s incredibly-high body count.
Once the killing starts in earnest, Rambo III almost descends into a parody of the high-octane action films of the time; casting aside all attempts at stealth and subterfuge, explosions and gunfire fill the screen as Rambo wages his largely one-man war and the Soviet forces being blown all over the place and running head-first into a hail of bullets while Rambo stands completely still and out in the open. The firefights actually remind me a lot of Commando (Lester, 1985) in that way and you can’t tell me that the ridiculous conclusion of that film, where musclebound hero John Matrix (Arnold Schwarzenegger) literally mows down hundreds of miscellaneous bad guys in very much the same way, wasn’t an influence on Rambo III’s absurd action scenes.
Nowhere is this more explicit than in Rambo’s brutal fist-fight with Kourov; a mute mountain of a man, Kourov poses a significant physical challenge for Rambo and results in the most visceral and brutal fight scene of the film as Rambo manages to not only knock Kourov down a pit with an impressive spinning kick but also breaks his neck and blows him up with a grenade! To top this elaborate death, Rambo III ends with an explosive and ludicrous showdown with Zaysen; with Zaysen piloting a gunship and Rambo at the controls of a tank, Rambo III ends with one of the more unique vehicular firefights I can recall and yet, as a massive fan of Commando and mindless action, I’m okay with this. Seeing Rambo completely unhinged and gunning down or blowing up countless bad guys is very thrilling and it’s even more exhilarating to see him and Trautman finally in the thick of it together. Previously, Trautman was little more than Rambo’s friend and publicist and, while he said that he had been in the midst of all the horrors of Vietnam in First Blood, we only saw Rambo’s time as a victim or torture or out in the field so it’s nice (well…not “nice” but refreshing, maybe?) to see Trautman getting his hands dirty rather than being safely out of harm’s way. Even more surprising is the banter between the two when they’re out in the field; Rambo had a few little quips here and there in the second film but he’s full of little snarky comments this time around which, while amusing and help to cement the unique bond between these two, do feel a little out of character for the normally tormented and focused Rambo.
In a lot of ways, Rambo III is very similar to Rambo: First Blood Part II but lacking even the small amount of nuance and subtext that film had compared to the first. Everything has been dialled up to eleven this time around, transforming Rambo from a haunted, persecuted veteran and into another snarky action hero. With more explosions, more bullets, and a far greater body count that the previous film, Rambo III is almost a parody of the second film and it definitely feels as though Stallone was trying to compete against other over the top action films of the time. As a fan of the genre, I’m okay with this as mindless, explosive action and gun fights are always fun but it can’t be denied that something has been lost in emphasising these aspects. Although Trautman accuses Rambo of denying his true self by hiding in Thailand, it’s pretty obvious that Rambo is much more at peace at the start of the film and perfectly happy to have left behind his war and put his skills to use in building, rather than destroying, while indulging his more animalistic sides in stick fighting. In a lot of ways, it makes very little sense for Trautman to even want to deny Rambo the peace he’s found and I can’t help but feel like the film might have landed a little better if Trautman had never visited Rambo to ask for his help and we’d spent a little more time getting an idea of Rambo’s mentality so it meant a little more when he found out that his friend was in trouble.
Are you a fan of Rambo III? How do you feel it holds up today, especially compared to the first two films and the sequels? Were you disappointed that the film emphasised violence and action more than its predecessors or were you a fan of its glorious excess and action tropes? What did you think to Trautman’s extended role? Would you have liked to see more of Rambo’s new life to make his decision to return to war more meaningful? Which Rambo film is your favourite? Whatever you think, feel free to leave a comment below and be sure to check back in next Friday for the final part of Rambo Month.