Rambo III

February 2, 2012

Rambo III lurches under way with one of Sylvester Stallone’s most outrageous concepts ever: that the “full-blooded combat soldier” and full-time war wacko John Rambo would find solace in a Buddhist monastery in Thailand. Yes, the one-man wrecking crew is seeking inner peace when he’s dragged again into the violent fray.

But this time, as the ads so lugubriously put it, it’s for his friend. That is, the colonel (Richard Crenna) who appeared in the first two Rambo films.

He’s been kidnapped by the Soviet army while on a covert mission within the borders of Afghanistan. When Rambo gets wind of this, he suspends his Buddhist studies and heads west.

That’s the set-up, and if you can’t guess the rest of the movie, you obviously lead some sort of rarefied life. With the intermittent help of some Afghan rebels (one labeled Comic Relief and one labeled Youthful Apprentice), Rambo lays waste to a lot of desert country.

Once the clunky half-hour opening is past, Rambo III really gets into its weave of destruction, and jogs through a bunch of sadistic details: Rambo and the Afghans playing an ancient game that involves the corpse of a sheep; Rambo and friends navigating the sewer system underneath the Soviet prison; Rambo shooting down a state-of-the-art helicopter with a bow and arrow; and, most spectacularly, Rambo removing a piece of shrapnel from his side and cauterizing the wound, a sequence that had the preview audience stamping its feet with approval.

Moments such as the latter almost suggest that Stallone is aware of the ridiculousness of these movies. If so, he didn’t tell director Peter MacDonald, who shoves the action sequences along with grimly efficient regularity. There isn’t anything like character development here. As in comic books, it is assumed that the audience already knows the characters and expects them to do what they always do.

The movie cost something in the neighborhood of $63 million, which puts it among Hollywood’s most expensive ever. (Most reports have pegged Stallone’s fee at $20 million.) The sum is amazing, especially since there’s no sense of it on the screen; how can it cost so much to blow things up? There certainly weren’t any cost overruns on rehearsal time for the actors.

Rambo III will make back a good chunk of that money over the next few weeks, though it will have to perform strongly to match the take of the previous sequel, Rambo: First Blood Part II. remember, was about refighting the Vietnam War, and in its own pulpy way it touched a national nerve. You have to wonder: Were Hollywood producers kicking themselves when the Soviets began withdrawing from Afghanistan, thus robbing Rambo III of its cultural urgency? But that may be as cynical a suggestion as Rambo himself.

First published in the Herald, May 1988

I know what you’re thinking: I saved the “most spectacularly” designation for Rambo pulling shrapnel out of his side, not for shooting down a helicopter with a bow and arrow. That should tell you something about the shrapnel scene. How Stallone resisted sending Rambo back to Afghanistan when he brought the character back in the 21st century I don’t know, but perhaps by sifting again  through this original somebody will find a foreshadowing of the U.S. war there. I myself won’t be doing that.


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