Rambo III (1988) – A Review

Rambo 3 movie poster

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.

Rambo III
Stallone staring down his opponent

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 returns to the 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.

No rush with the mission, there’s time for play too

Of course at that point Rambo volunteers 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.

Sylvester Stallone desert Rambo sequel
Now Rambo takes this war personal

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.

Sylvester Stallone Rambo bow arrow explosion
Rambo’s bow and arrow makes a return

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, 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.

Richard Crenna Sylvester Stallone Rambo 3 1988
Richard Crenna and Sylvester Stallone
tear up the desert in Rambo III

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.

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6 Responses

  1. Capt Nemo says:

    Ya know!

    I often thought that "Rambo III" was a success because it had been parodied death. The logic being that if you have a bland film no one would bother with parodying your film in the first place. I remember the opening of "Hot Shots Part Deaux" referenced the stick fighting scene.

    It's funny how you latched on to the practical effects of this film. The scene were Rambo barely escapes a firebomb by letting go of a climbing rope was accomplished by places a piece of glass at a 45 degree angle and having the fire footage playing to the side of the camera while Stallone did his stunts in front of the camera. Capturing the whole thing in-camera. The effect is pretty good. And I think it carries a better authenticity.

    But the finale is something to behold. Lots and lots of machine guns, rockets and explosions. And the scene of Col. Zietzen going head to head with a tank(!!!). Boy that was fun, even if it was totally ridiculous. You'd figure a guy with a helicopter would try to stay out of the way of a tank gun barrel. But I am not a conquer of Afghanistan.

    Lastly, you mention that "Rambo III becomes one of the last big gasps of 1980s testosterone action cinema." I think you are more right than you know. Schwarzenegger may have been able to continue it on into the 90's for a little while longer but the image of the muscled hero was definitely on the outs. From then on, we would get a bunch of metrosexual underwear models for action heroes (Speed, Matrix, Goldeneye, Bourne Identity). The appeal of Sly and Arnold was that they looked like they could rip a guy apart with their bare hands. Their bodies being special effects unto themselves. The current crop of action hero don't look like they could punch their way out of a wet paper bag. And yet we're supposed to believe they could take down whole armies.

    • Capt. I was meaning to look up the release dates of Rambo III and Die Hard. I can't remember which came out first, but I think we can pinpoint Die Hard the changing point of ending of those 'ultra 80's action films'. After Die Hard it became more about 'every men', heroes that were more identifiable and like you said Sly and Arnold's muscles they weren't enough to carry an action flick after that.

      Some of the stunts and pyrotechnics are decent – it's obvious they spent a lot of time on them, but it all just feels like such a hollow exercise. I do love Crenna's melodramatic line readings though. They're so over the top I can't help but enjoy them! I have to revisit Hot Shots Part Deax now…

  2. Capt Nemo says:

    Maybe I should backtrack my statement a little bit.

    My statement about the current crop of actors not being able to punch their way out of a paper bag was true…for a time. What I meant to say is that Hollywood swung too much in the other direction with the "every man" routine. Action stars started to look like lean dancers. Which somewhat made sense because martial arts films became popular and fight scenes started to look less like brawls and more like ballet.

    The action star was less a Panzer tank and more like a Ferrari.

    But about the time "300" came out, muscle started to come back in. "Captain America" had a actor that buffed up to play his part. Tom Hardy(Bane of "Dark Knight Rises" fame) had a career turnaround when he quit heroin and became a musclehead. Not to mention Stallone's recent spat of action films bring back some of those muscled heroes.

    My own opinion: I think muscle should play a part in a action film. While it may not be the "every man" approach, it does add some vermistude to the proceedings. So I welcome it back in to the mainstream. Even today, Jim Carrey(a guy who's lanky exterior in his early career would make meth addicts nervous) has muscled up for his turn at a action role in "Kick Ass 2."

    Let's not go back to the days when just looking good with your shirt off equaled tough.

    As a side note, Steven Seagal was the other end of that spectrum. His flabby hero was fun for a time. But just look at him lately. In the end, his weakness seems to be the buffet table.

  3. Anonymous says:

    The only Rambo movie in the series to not have any scenes whatsoever on US soil, First Blood was set entirely in Hope, Washington, Rambo: First Blood Part II had an intro scene in Arizona where Col. Trautman visits Rambo at a military prison, the location is never mentioned in the film, but is actually filmed in Acapulco, Mexico according to Rambo: First Blood II director George Pan Cosmatos in the Ultimate Edition DVD of that film, and Rambo had an ending scene where Rambo returns to his home in Bowie, Arizona to visit his estranged father.

  4. spaceodds says:

    Re-watched it since I haven't seen it in years. It is very much the weakest entry in the entire series, even though it was the first Rambo film I ever saw at the tender age of five. Irresponsible parenting!

    Having said that, I agree that Rambo III is one of the last gasps in testosterone action cinema. Even on its release the film was already dated. The Soviet/Afghan war was already used a year previously in the brilliant Bond film The Living Daylights, and by the time the film was released, the Soviets were already pulling out of Afghanistan. Not to mention also that both Lethal Weapon and Die Hard were released, films that involved character introspection, brilliant dialogue, and amazing set pieces to boot.

    One thing I would like to mention is the alternative ending of the film had Rambo actually staying behind with his freedom allies and aiding them in their conflict. Glad that ending was jettisoned, I mean it was bad enough that Rambo was helping out our future enemies, but can you imagine Rambo becoming a member of the Taliban?!

    Can't believe this was at the time, the most expensive film of all time. Carolco pretty much dominated the late 80s and early 90s headline grabbing mill. First Rambo III cost $63 million (even though I read somewhere the studio raised over $80 million through multi platform pre-sales) Two years later, Carolco would come under fire on the over spending on Total Recall, a year later they would break the $100 million budget barrier with T2, followed by paying £3 million for the rights to Basic Instinct. Then by 1995 the studio would collapse due to cash flow problems, with the terrible Cutthroat Island being their swansong. Unlike other independent studios/production entities of the era, Carolco really did throw its raised capital on the films they produced. I read somewhere that thanks to Mario Kassar and Andrew Vajna, the major studios had to increase their offers to both stars and directors due to the fact that Carolco were spending so much money on them. I mean these guys spent nearly $3 million just developing and earlier attempt on Spider Man which James Cameron was supposed to have directed. If it wasn't for Showgirls and Cutthroat Island, they would've gone on to produce Independence Day, X-Men (which they had the rights to) and Titanic. Hollywood sure is eerie.

  5. Anonymous says:

    Loved the Russian in Rambo 3

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