Rambo III (Peter MacDonald, 1988)

by Douglas Buck April 4, 2020 6 minutes (1425 words) DVD

‘Are you insane? One man against trained commandos? Who do you think this man is… God?’

‘No. God would have mercy. He won’t.’

Now, we all know who this myth-building dialogue – with the villainous commie torturer Colonel Zaysen (Marc de Jonge), operating from pure Russian animalistic libido (and Machiavellian opportunism), contrasted against the ever-steady, trustworthy American-ish Colonel Trautman (Richard Crenna, nice to see him back yet again), whose steadfast nationalism allows him to bare any cruel Russkie torture techiques without breaking – is announcing, don’t we?


It’s the world-weary, scarred-bodied, ridiculously uber-buff (those pecs, those abs – and without the slightest hint of body fat, making him look like he’s wearing some kind of ultra-tight skin suit over pure muscle – it just keeps getting more impressive with each outing), long-haired Christ figure (cuz he does for us what most of us don’t have the courage to do… which seems to include killing boatloads of Asians and commies)… namely, our very own white man übermensch, John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone).

Mirroring the change in decades, oh, how far things moved from director Ted Kotcheff (and author David Morrell)’s original cautionary tale of the return of the troubled Vietnam Vet, which, under the considerable fireworks (nowhere near as massively impressive as they would become for the sequels), was a lament for how orchestrated military chaos abroad brings emotional wreckage — and monsters – back home (and, hell, with the town cops as the bad guys!).

Instead, the jingoistic sequels wash away any remnants of complexity, or even hints at criticisms of America’s imperialist nature (oh, there may be a cold, calculating pencil-pushing government agent mucking things up, or sending Rambo on his mission with some deliberate misinformation – like the sweaty, jittery Charles Dance character in the first sequel — the one with the ridiculously unwieldy moniker of Rambo: First Blood Part II — or the oddball-faced Kurtwood Smith as the ‘embassy official’ in the far more reasonably titled Rambo III, but they’re just the bad apple corporate types, allied with the politicians, placed within the narrative to be put in their place by our hero in the name of all those good honorable fighting soldiers) in a wave of impressive explosions, death-dealing heroism, action scenes galore (with Sly, in this third one, clearly doing a lot of his own stunts, including some simple horse-riding tricks even more impressive than being dragged under tanks and the like), and ultimately, Russkie bad guys getting all blow’d up like they deserve (in moments constructed to elicit maximum audience cheers).

This second sequel has a somewhat similar construction to the previous one, with staccato-talking Trautman and the aforementioned slime-ball ray-ban-wearing government operative played by Smith showing up to beg Rambo to take on an impossible mission, only instead of going back into Vietnam, this time it’s to Afghanistan to aid… I mean… it’s hard to believe this as true but… the Mujahideen, in their battle at the time with America’s Cold War rival, the Russians.

Yes, the Mujahideen, played here as deeply honorable tribes, ones who share an intrinsic bond with their American counterpart represented by Rambo, a righteous people unafraid to fight to the death for the beliefs and traditions of their country… only for that all to change, naturally, many years later, long after the Russkies had gotten the fuck out, their tails between their legs, with the US rescinding the Rambo Seal of Approval to rechristen them the evil-est of evil scourges the world (and certainly freedom) has ever known, now to be known as Al Qaeda and ISIS (their ultimate bad-ass title supplanted temporarily by this virus thing – apparently even they are telling their suicide bombers to stay home and self-isolate – but, trust me, once this whole thing blows over, no matter how long it takes, ‘Merica will get back to full-scale fighting them all across the Middle East – after all, the military complex demands it!).

Instead of Rambo getting captured and tortured as he did in the first sequel, however, it’s the elder Trautman’s turn, which is what leads our bushy quaffed hero back into the fray, after first turning down the mission (you see, he was busy deluding himself into thinking he was happy hiding out with those Asian monks not yet understanding what Trautman knows… ‘John, you can’t run from who you are… a killing machine’). Alas, the sweaty torturers are written as cardboard cut-out villains, but where at least the first sequel had the sadistic Russian leader role helmed by Steven Berkoff — a character actor so perfect at projecting just the right levels of (kinda) charm, swarm and sleaze, he secured himself the high profile gigs of a James Bond supervillain (Octopussy) and Hitler ( War and Remembrance), Rambo III, alas, gives us the underwhelming de Jonge (I looked him up to discover he was actually quite a popular actor in France… until, that is, one night in 1996, when he forget the keys to his Paris home, decided to climb the building to get inside, slipped and died on the fall. He was only 47. Yeesh.)

After reading Morrell’s novelization of the first sequel, a pretty much scene-for-scene (sometimes even word-for-word) adaption of the shooting script, Rambo III’s novelization turned out to be much more of a surprise by being chock full of differing and additional material, likely cut down to fit running time (gotta allow room for all those impressive pyrotechnics!). The novel deepens the playing field of both the Mujahideen tribal leaders and introduces a number of additional Russian characters (and their internecine relationships including a disillusioned Colonel, whom Zaysen naturally despises, who has had enough of the cruelty of his country’s actions – sort of a ‘one good apple’ in a mostly rotten bunch), creating a bit more complexity, true, but far from entirely diluting the jingoist flavor to the film.

Hell, there’s so much action this go round, the writers didn’t even consider time for one of those unlikely romances for Rambo (in novelization or film), though with a mention paid (in a nice nod to continuity) to the good luck totem around his neck that he acknowledges he will never let go of, that those paying attention will remember as given to him by his last almost-fling with the Vietnamese guide Co (who coulda been a supermodel in another life) in the previous outing, handing it off to him from bloody hand after getting shot up, dying before the two could consummate.

There’s also significant plot revisions between novelization and final script, with Trautman’s torture given far more brutal detail in the reading, leading to him barely surviving through the final act of the film, delirious in pain, mostly carried by Rambo (including getting shot during the breakout scene!), rather than joining him, side-by-side, tearing into the bad guys (which includes this wildly preposterous, if enjoyable, scene where the two take on an entire Russian battalion — helicopters, tanks and jeeps — by themselves) and unfortunately exchanging a bad pun or two along the way.

Sly looks fucking great, Crenna’s Trautman is fun to have around and the action set-pieces are impressive (the fortress in the desert, and all the battling that ensues around it are positively magnificent), but lest we forget how these sequels are basically dumbed-down, testosterone-laden, Cold War-promoting perversions of the original Rambo, let’s take a last look at the film’s final genuflection, as our conquering hero — hair full-puff, muscles rippling with each step — walks off into the sunset with his new-found brown-skinned allies:

‘This film is dedicated to the gallant people of Afghanistan.’

Well, little did Johnny Rambo know, with this huge blockbuster film helping spread all that good will propaganda (hell, even war hawk, right wing President Ronald Reagan was referencing Rambo), that after a few decades of Uncle Sam’s military spending all those gobs of American taxpayer money to train those gallant people into bringing out the meanest, most effective killer in each of them… the good ol’ USA would find itself in the reverse business (with the continued help of massive amounts of US taxpayer money, naturally) on now blowing those same people they trained, and their families, off the face of the Earth.

Wonder what a new Rambo film in Afghanistan would look like? One thing is for sure, it would have a very different closing dedication… but certainly one still military-approved.

My, how that worm just keeps turning… over… and over…

Rambo III (Peter MacDonald, 1988)

Douglas Buck. Filmmaker. Full-time cinephile. Part-time electrical engineer. You can also follow Buck on “Buck a Review,” his film column of smart, snappy, at times irreverent reviews.

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