Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (March 21, 2016)
Most thought that 1988’s Rambo III would reign as one of the year’s box office champs. Of the first three films in the series, it was the only one with much pre-release hype behind it. 1982’s First Blood and 1985’s Rambo: First Blood Part II became surprise hits that arrived in theaters without big expectations.
After the $150 million gross of the 1985 flick, however, Rambo III couldn’t sneak up on anyone. Along with another 1988 sequel - Crocodile Dundee II - the newest iteration of the Rambo series was supposed to scarf up some big bucks.
It didn’t happen, at least not for Rambo. According to IMDB, Dundee II actually made a good piece of change; that source relates that it earned a positive $109 million. That doesn’t live up to the $174 million of the 1986 original, but it seems pretty solid. In my memory, I retained the notion that Dundee II bombed, but assuming IMDB is correct, I was wrong.
However, my memories of the fate accorded Rambo III don’t seem erroneous. IMDB states that it made a mere $53 million, which represented barely a third of what the prior film earned. It also didn’t even manage to surpass its own $63 million budget.
Since the Rambo films play well overseas, Rambo III ended up in the black with a worldwide take of $189 million, but it nonetheless had to be a considerable disappointment for its producers, and it killed the franchise – well, for 20 years, at least.
First Blood offered a pretty good action drama that actually had a reason to exist. It presented the pain of the Vietnam vet in a superficial but still interesting manner. First Blood Part II, however, degenerated into nothing more than a killfest and boasted little resemblance to the original film.
Rambo III takes us even farther from the character as originally conceived. Any semblance of his emotional distress or trauma vanished as Rambo became a larger-than-life prototypical American hero. During those “morning in America” years of the Reagan presidency, however, people seemed to want that. I thought - and still feel - that First Blood Part II stunk, but it obviously connected with a substantial audience.
So what happened to Rambo III? Perhaps the character became too generic. At least First Blood Part II continued the Vietnam theme of the first film, but Rambo III strayed from that path. While this seemed to be a wise decision - another Vietnam-based flick would risk serious overkill - it appeared to backfire, as audiences clearly didn’t care to see Rambo turn into a general action hero.
Ironically, I actually think Rambo III is a better film than First Blood Part II, despite its silly name. (As many noted at the time, it should either be Rambo II or First Blood Part III.) However, I consider that to be faint praise. While Rambo III offers a moderately more engaging experience than did its predecessor, it still seem bland and inane.
As we start Rambo III, we quickly learn that our man’s (Sylvester Stallone) taken up residency in Thailand. There he helps out at a monastery and earns spare change as a stick fighter.
Rambo’s old boss Colonel Trautman (Richard Crenna) comes to recruit him for yet another mission. This time he wants Rambo to assist with the anti-Soviet forces in Afghanistan. Rambo declines to participate, as he seems content to live his simple life.
Trautman proceeds but gets captured by the Soviets. As one might expect, this spurs Rambo into action, especially when the local bureaucrats - led by Griggs (Kurtwood Smith) - decline to make any official response. They toss him a bone and set him free to do what he can.
In Afghanistan, Rambo meets his contact Mousa (Sasson Gabai), who doesn’t think our hero can accomplish the mission. Nonetheless, Mousa offers aid and Rambo starts his task. Inevitably, he runs up against Soviet warlord Colonel Zaysen (Marc de Jonge), a sadistic sort who tortures Trautman. Rambo soon comes to save the officer, but their escape won’t come easily, as they go up against superior Soviet numbers. Gee, I wonder who’ll win?
Yes, folks - that’s sarcasm, and in its lowest form, too! It’s hard to resist cheap shots when I encounter such a generic film, however. As I noted, I do prefer Rambo III to First Blood Part II, simply because it executes its story with a bit more life and a little less cheese. The dialogue still stinks, but the script includes fewer groaners.
However, Rambo III tries much harder to offer comic relief. Those moments start slowly, but by the time Rambo and Trautman team up, they turn into a regular comedy duo. They trade lame witticisms that further mar the dramatic imagery originally accorded to the Rambo character. In prior films, neither Rambo nor Trautman seemed too light-hearted, so while their comments here never appear ridiculously jovial, they come across as forced and artificial.
But so does the whole movie. Yes, I like Rambo III more than First Blood Part II just because it seems more competently executed and it lacks the same level of stupidity. However, at least the second film offered a certain level of iconic power that totally evaporates here.
Rambo became an archetype in the first sequel, but here he turns into nothing more than another generic action hero, replete with silly one-liners and unbelievable action sequences. As a mindless shoot-em-up, Rambo III has some moments, but it never does anything to distinguish itself.