RAMBO III: kesseljunkie Revisits Stallone’s Afghanistan Adventure

I revisited Rambo III this week. I grant you that a child’s discernment is not the same as an adult’s, so I’m not trying to go back through the whole “own your tastes” thing. But it was the first time I’d seen it since the 1980s.

At least this time it wasn’t for a podcast!

This is more a long-form blog post combined with review, coming from a place where I marvel at how Rambo III is hypnotizingly ludicrous and a perfect time capsule of sensibilities.

There’s Some Legitimately Good Stuff

There are clear character motivations, interesting arcs, and a political message that is endlessly ironic in hindsight. Richard Crenna is always a great deal of fun to watch onscreen, especially as Rambo’s mentor Colonel Trautman.

There are some solid dialogue moments in the movie, too. Overall, the things that work are the personal moments that highlight the humanity of the people suffering Soviet oppression.

There’s some good humor that got real laughter from me. One of those dialogue gems:

Mousa: “God must love crazy people.”

Rambo: “Why?”

Mousa: “He makes so many of them!”

I have no idea if that line originated outside the movie. It’s a solid exchange and played well. There are a few others.

There are elements that we see resurrected in 2008’s Rambo, a simpler and more direct sequel that rings truer to the character we met in 1982’s First Blood. Our hero has retreated from society into a sedate life in a jungle land, seeking nothing more than to purge his demons and find peace.

Granted, in this iteration he also makes money through violent stick fighting. They got it better the second time, at least.

The most positive thing about the movie is how respectful it is of Afghan, and Muslim, culture. It certainly flies in the face of the narrative that action movies don’t do their research. It also flies in the face of certain other narratives, but I’ll let you all think on those.

This is tempered by the fact that, like much of the world at the time, it understands this culture through the narrowing lens of US/Soviet antagonism. This is understandable. I know I’m getting older, but I wonder how well people who didn’t live through it, understand how much it dictated everyone’s priorities.

So long as I’m mentioning the Cold War, the antagonist here is chewing scenery like it’s bubble gum. He knows why he’s there, and he knows the audience doesn’t want nuance and conflict. They want a Soviet Darth Vader, or at least a Tarkin. He delivers it, with a gloriously overproduced accent and appropriate glowering.

Spyros Fokas gives what I thinks is a great performance as one of the rebel leaders, and Sasson Gabai is tremendous fun as the overwhelmed sidekick to Rambo’s sinewy death machine.

Sylvester Stallone Rambo III
80’s workout video? Action movie about a Vietnam Vet fighting in Afghanistan? You decide!

There’s Also Some Stuff That’s Not So Good

It’s a mistake to include a kid in the action. It’s meant to underscore the tragedy of children becoming soldiers. Giving Rambo a child who idolizes him is a humanizing element on the longer arc of his rejoining society as a whole. It just doesn’t work. It’s not the kid’s fault, it just feels stitched into the plot.

The action scenes are something of a cacophonous mess. While they’re not hard to follow, they do a middling job with the rules of pace and place. Cuts are substituted for tension at key moments, which undercuts any rhythm they’re trying to establish.

While the cave battle is good fun, it occurs immediately after a ludicrous moment where Rambo ignites gunpowder in a gaping wound that blows flame through his abdomen and back. The spot is just south of the liver. He’s not even slowed down afterward.

I understand the rules of combat in action movies. I celebrate them. I also understand that suspension of disbelief can only take so much abuse before it breaks.

Later, Rambo’s shot in the leg from the gunship. Per action movie rules, I’ll allow the idea that his leg doesn’t blow off the rest of his body like a Ken doll with a firecracker. Having him acknowledge the hit, which doesn’t even pass through his leg, and then run around with a slight limp afterwards is more than a little much. I played along though.

There’s also a missed opportunity – as much as producers and audiences would have rejected this move on its face – to cut without the big battle scene. It could have created an unforgettable tableau.

Imagine a Butch & Sundance-style freeze frame into legend. They cock their weapons, smile, and launch into the end credits.

Instead two people manage to last longer than 15 seconds against a garrison, a tank, and a (facsimile of a) Russian helicopter gunship known as the “flying tank.”

While I won’t spoil it, the final confrontation between the tank and the gunship is where I started wishing again for an ending with Rambo and Trautman, student and mentor, side-by-side and charging into their fate with machismo. We could have a frozen moment in time where our heroes, defiant to the last, rush into a battle that never was.

Instead we get the battle that is. It’s an underwhelming note on which to end, which is surprising with how many explosives they used to try to create a grandiose final battle. It just feels flat.

Sylvester Stallone John Rambo Richard Crenna Colonel Samuel Trautman Rambo III
Deadliest Heavy Metal band ever.

The Final Verdict

It’s not the flaming mess that many have made it out to be. At the same time, I understand why it basically ended the series for 30 years.

While I have problems with the movie, it’s still aggressively working to please the audience. I respect that. I admire it. It kept me watching.

What’s my final star rating, that heralded paragon of true taste? You’ll have to go to letterboxd to find out!