Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 1 hour 42 minutes
MPAA Rating: R
Directed by: Peter MacDonald
Written by: Sheldon Lettich & Sylvester Stallone
Starring: Sylvester Stallone, Richard Crenna, Kurtwood Smith, Marc de Jonge, Sasson Gabai & Doudi Shoua
In 1982, FIRST BLOOD surprised audiences by being an action movie with more on its mind than mere explosions and violence. In 1985, RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD Part II cemented itself as one of the most entertainingly bombastic action extravaganzas of the 80’s. The sequel was so over-the-top, ridiculous and enjoyable that it instantly cemented the character of Rambo as a staple in the action genre. The character’s popularity grew to a point where an animated series was made, comic books were published and plenty of cheap rip-offs followed. By the summer of 1988, RAMBO III had a lot to live up to and though it banked at the box office, this third installment falls far below the previous two films.
After fighting a corrupt small town sheriff and rescuing POWs from the jungles of Vietnam, John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) has taken a breather in Thailand. He helps Buddhist monks repair their temple with money earned through underground fight clubs. Rambo’s past comes knocking when former friend Colonel Sam Trautman (Richard Crenna) attempts to recruit the hardened veteran for a top-secret mission to stop Soviet forces in Afghanistan. Rambo refuses and the mission goes horribly wrong. Driven by guilt and a desire to rescue the now captive Trautman, Rambo journeys to the Middle East to band together with Afghani freedom fighters against a heavily armed, vicious Soviet force. Bullets fly. Rambo yells. Things go boom.
RAMBO III’s problems emerge in the opening minutes in which we see a softened, reclusive Rambo receiving a clichéd as hell speech from Colonel Trautman. This more humanized version of the titular action hero might have been well done if it were directed by someone with more experience. Instead, first-timer Peter MacDonald (who served as a second unit in the second film) can’t seem to pull it off. Rambo’s Thailand Buddhist scenes are a combination of silly and stupid, being rightfully parodied to no end by plenty of comedies (HOT SHOTS 2, ACE VENTURA 2, MACGRUBER, etc.). MacDonald stated in later interviews that he attempted to turn Rambo into a funny and vulnerable character, but that he “failed miserably.” At least the director can own up to his short-comings, because the non-action sequences of RAMBO III are an endurance testing chore to sit through.
The first 40 minutes of the 101-minute running time needlessly pad the film with filler, including: extra characters, sentimental moments of Rambo indulging in local customs (like playing a horseback game), and an annoying little kid who compromises a would-be suspenseful moment by becoming a gun-toting sidekick. Stallone seems slightly bored as Rambo and is going through the motions of his stone-faced, gruffy-voiced action hero. Meanwhile, Richard Crenna is given slightly more to do as Colonel Trautman and actually saves Rambo’s ass a few times. Crenna’s smaller moments were a nice change of pace from a series that frequently shoved Rambo into the spotlight.
The supporting characters in RAMBO III aren’t given much to do at all. Kurtwood Smith (a regular face in cheesy action flicks) only shows up to tell Rambo that Trautman has been captured. Sasson Gabai plays a charismatic freedom fighter, but doesn’t receive too many moments to shine. His character mainly exists to cover Rambo, shoot off-screen bad guys, and make wise-cracks about Rambo being a “tourist.” Though there’s one scene near the end that I’m sure received applause when this movie originally played in theaters, Gabai’s charming sidekick is sadly wasted for a majority of the film.
Still, Gabai’s underused freedom fighter is more interesting than boring Soviet villain Zaysen (played by a dull-as-dirt Marc de Jonge). Though his eventual demise is a show-stopping set piece and one of the film’s biggest highlights, Zaysen is a boring antagonist. At least, his Russian companions receive hilariously bad subtitled dialogue before they bite the big one. A moment in which someone yells “To the motherland!” while charging down a hallway made me laugh hysterically. These Soviet baddies contribute to the film’s whopping body count of 108 kills. If Rambo was waging a war in the second installment, then this third film is all-out genocide. It should also be noted that RAMBO III actually broke the Guinness World Record for “the most violent film ever made,” though it was eventually surpassed by 2008’s RAMBO.
Seeing that director Peter MacDonald helped create the second film’s explosive action, it would be safe to assume that RAMBO III’s combat scenes more than deliver. These long fiery chaos-filled sequences are easily the best part of the film and mostly balance out all of the bad acting and boring patches to make for a middle-of-the-road experience. There are great fight scenes, creative bad guy deaths, a “Ra! Ra! We can do it!” attitude, and plenty of explosions. Still, the action only makes up half of this movie and the rest is dedicated to a flimsy story, Stallone trudging through the dull motions and shadows of better films in the series’ past. RAMBO III is made especially disappointing by how entertaining its two predecessors are, but remains a watchable, okay-at-best action flick.