“This film is dedicated to the gallant people of Afghanistan,” so ends the third installment, 1988’s Rambo III (again, the marketing people are honing in on what the draw is at this point), and a really, really weird film to watch in 2020.
In short, the premise is that Rambo (Sylvester Stallone again, of course) goes into Afghanistan to save Colonol Sam Trautman (Richard Crenna is back here, and gets a lot more to do and say) from the Russians (yes, the Russians are back, too) amid the Soviet-Afghan War of the 1980s.
On a production budget of between $58 million to $63 million (about $127 million in today’s money, which puts it right in line with a comic book film budget), Wikipedia says Rambo III was the most expensive film ever made up to that point, which, whoa. And I can sort of see it given the set pieces and action shots throughout the film, as we get the return of more helicopter action and even helicopter vs. tank action. Yes, helicopter vs. tank. It’s a second sequel, come on.
But man. Since the Russians are the bad guys again and this is while the Soviet-Afghan War is still going on, the Afghan people are treated like, well, gallant heroes and people to be helped by Rambo, and therefore, by extension, the United States of America. Which, in real life, was indeed happening. The Mujaheddin, the “freedom fighters,” as America called them, were fighting against the Soviet Army for nearly 10 years between 1979 and 1989. America helped the Mujaheddin, and some of them, like a little known figure, Osama bin Laden, would later go on to form a little group known as Al-Qaeda. I’m being smarmy because the obvious point here is that yesterday’s freedom fighters become tomorrow’s terrorists. And the country we recognized as being stupid to invade, Afghanistan (Trautman even has a long, passionate monologue about how America had its Vietnam and now Afghanistan would be the Soviet’s Vietnam in what is such a surreal speech), we would go on to invade. When we recognize that the Afghans are a people that will never stop fighting invaders, we invade. And we’ve been there twice as long as the Soviets, so far from 2001 to 2020, with no sign of stopping.
It’s utter incoherent madness. America didn’t help the Afghans because America actually understood anything about them or cared about them; America helped them because the Soviets were the enemy at the time. I digress from my soap box, but this is just a heck of a film! Some might even go as far as to say it’s a rather obvious American propaganda film. And maybe Stallone really did love and understand the Afghan people! But I’m far more cynical about the U.S. government.
All of that aside, I do actually like this film quite a bit. I like that they changed up the location again, first from American streets to Vietnam in the second film, and now it’s set in Afghanistan and a little bit of Thailand (although it’s actually filmed in Israel and Arizona, which, heck of a job on making it look like Afghanistan). It allows for honestly some of the most beautiful shots of the franchise by director Peter MacDonald of the landscapes. He also has some great shots of Rambo riding on a horse, which I didn’t know I needed until this film. But MacDonald also has some of the weirdest shots of the franchise when he does odd closeup shots of Rambo and others in the film. So, you take what you can get.
Again, that money was worth it because something you can say about all of these Rambo films, including this one, is that the special effects, both the big set pieces, like the explosions, and the more close-up effects, like Rambo fixing a wound on his stomach, hold up more than 30 years later. The latter is particularly hard to watch because it’s so realistic.
Another positive you can say about this film is something I’m not sure many people realize when they think about Stallone, this ripped, beefed up guy: He helps write these films. In my opinion, a lot of Stallone’s best films, including the Rambo franchise, are great because of the recognizable heart that Stallone infuses within them. In the case of Rambo III, there’s a nice relationship between Rambo and Mousa Ghani (played by Sasson Gabai) and between Rambo and a little kid, Hamid (played by Doudi Shoua). To where, at the end, Rambo and Trautman even joke, “Are we getting soft?” It’s damn-near touching!
Perhaps the weirdest thing about a film where Rambo rams a tank into a helicopter and survives is the opening of the film where we find Rambo in Thailand competing in a krabi-krabong match (fighting with sticks). In a 100-minute film, we seem to spend an inordinate amount of time on that fight, but that’s not even the weirdest thing. The weirdest thing is that the person Rambo is “fighting” seems to be kicking Rambo’s butt the majority of the time? I didn’t understand that. It made Rambo, who in the prior two films, along with his Vietnam record, has easily wasted scores and scores of men by himself. Yet, this one guy with a stick was trouble. Maybe you could argue Rambo was taking it easy on him? I don’t know.
Even though the film more than made back its budget globally, it was seen as under-performing domestically, and that’s probably why we didn’t get another Rambo film for 20 years. While 1985 was peak Stallone, even three years later, I think audiences at this point were starting to tire on the big, glistening muscled action heroes and horror icons, too.
But overall, as someone who appreciates the Afghans and their story, and obviously, the fun action elements inherent to the Rambo franchise up to this point, I quite enjoyed this film, even as propaganda-like as it is. The messages are right even if we would go on to be total hypocrites 13 years later. It’s obviously the weakest of the three up to this point because the formula is starting to wear thin, and having the Russians as the villains again is a bit much, but yeah, it’s still fun. You still know what you’re getting with Rambo, and Rambo gives it to you.
What did you think of Rambo III?