Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Summer School: 'Rambo III' (1988)

Once again, I'm looking back at previous installments of some of this summer's big returning franchises.

As absurd as Rambo: First Blood Part II was, at least it attempted to connect to John Rambo's history with the Vietnam War and his conflicted feelings about how it ended. Rambo III makes no such efforts, instead plugging its title character into a generic action story that could have been a vehicle for Chuck Norris or Dolph Lundgren just as easily as for Sylvester Stallone. After the events of the second movie, Rambo seems to have settled down in Thailand, living on the grounds of a monastery, where he helps the monks with maintenance jobs and probably meditates or something. He also, uh, participates in underground stick fights, which is where Col. Trautman (Richard Crenna) tracks him down.

Trautman and American government functionary Griggs (Kurtwood Smith) want to recruit Rambo for a mission to Afghanistan, where the Soviet army has been waging war against local rebels. Apparently there's one Soviet commander who's so ruthless and effective that Afghan forces can't make any progress against his forces. So Trautman is going on a covert mission to aid the rebels, and he wants Rambo to come along. There's some hand-waving about Rambo being the best soldier of all time or whatever, but otherwise the movie doesn't really care about why Rambo's being recruited for this particular mission. In the movie's only consistent character beat, Rambo declines the offer, but when Trautman goes in alone and is captured by the Soviets, Rambo decides he has to rescue his friend.

Up to that point, Rambo III is actually somewhat restrained compared to the previous movie, but once Rambo gets to Afghanistan, he just goes ballistic, mowing down every Russian in sight in his quest to rescue Trautman. At one time, Rambo III held the records for both the most expensive movie ever made (surpassed just a year later by Back to the Future Part II) and the most violent movie ever made (a dubious record, but certified by Guinness), and it's not hard to see that onscreen. The second half of the movie features near-constant explosions (which Rambo always easily escapes, of course) and the wholesale slaughter of enemy soldiers, along with most of the Afghan rebels who are foolish enough to offer to help Rambo.

Stallone once again co-wrote the screenplay, and he and co-writer Sheldon Lettich give Rambo some cheesy one-liners and a kid sidekick, making the character's transformation into a cartoon pretty much complete (Rambo had, of course, starred in an actual cartoon series for kids two years earlier). Crenna at least gets more to do here, even though it makes no sense that a senior officer like Trautman would be sent alone into a war zone. Marc de Jonge sneers as the Soviet villain but doesn't do much else, and Smith, who is great at playing callous government and corporate functionaries, disappears after his first couple of scenes, never turning into the kind of petty, power-tripping bureaucrat that Rambo took on in the first two movies.

Even more than the intensity and excess of its violence, Rambo III has become notorious for the way it positions the guerrilla fighters of the mujahideen (who would later form the Taliban) as the underdog heroes, with some uncomfortable political prescience when Trautman tells his Russian captor that Afghanistan will be their version of Vietnam. The movie doesn't really have any kind of political message beyond the same patriotic "might makes right" nonsense of the second installment, but its choice of the Afghan setting is telling. At this point, Rambo just needs somewhere he can go and slaughter dozens of people who can be dismissed as soulless enemy fighters, and in 1988, Afghanistan happened to be that place. The closing dedication to "the gallant people of Afghanistan" is just as hollow as all the onscreen ultraviolence that precedes it.

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