The Rambo films have an enduring popularity as a franchise but there doesn’t seem to be a lot of love for Rambo III specifically. It tends to inspire a ho-hum response from fans and critics alike, getting received like the cinematic equivalent of a guest who stayed too long at the party and wore their welcome out. There’s also the unfortunate matter of the film’s heroic desert rebels including the same people who would later become the Taliban, an accidental sin that few will forgive in a post-9/11 world. That said, the film is more interesting than it gets credit for and has at least one element that points towards the franchise’s 21st century future.
Rambo III begins with the title character (Sylvester Stallone) living anonymously in Thailand, where is sought out once again by Col. Trautman (Richard Crenna) to help him in aiding rebels fighting against Soviet invaders in Afghanistan. Rambo demurs, wanting no more warfare in his life. However, he changes his mind when Trautman is captured by Soviets while trying to fulfill the mission. He goes behind enemy lines on a Mission: Impossible-style basis, aided only by weapons dealer Mousa (Sasson Gabai), to save his old friend. He’s got to contend with another commie military leader in Colonel Zaysen (Marc De Jonge) and also finds himself wanting to aid the rebels against their well-armed Russian adversaries.
The resulting film starts off as one thing and finishes as something different, experiencing a metamorphosis reel by reel before the viewer’s eyes. At its outset, it’s a surprisingly serious piece of work that returns a bit of complexity to Rambo and takes some novel chances, like actually getting Trautman involved in the main plot of the film and placing him in danger. It also shows surprising sympathy for its Afghan characters, something that was rare at the time. Modern critics are quick to point out that the Mujahideen forces that aid Rambo in this film would later spawn the Taliban. That said, they usually fail to contextualize this info by mentioning that this depiction was in step with U.S. foreign policy at the time and that the U.S. actually funded the Mujahideen to the tune of $20 billion.
However, the film begins to shift once Rambo reaches the desert, becoming more like Rambo II and deploying a series of big action setpieces near the end. Things get cartoonish in the third act, with highlights including a fight with a gruesome punchline involving a grenade plus a long drop on a rope as well as a jaw-dropping scene where a tank and a Soviet attack copter play a game of chicken(!). The prior Rambo film took on a singular tone and stuck to it but this one wants to have in both ways and has a schizoid feel as a result.
That said, Rambo III isn’t dull. You’ll often read criticism of this film being dull or stodgy and it’s hard to get where this comes from. The plot favors a slower burn in its first half than either of its predecessors but it works. The direction by Peter McDonald is a bit anonymous in style but efficient, maintaining a steady pace that builds in intensity during the second half. The scene where Rambo raids a Russian compound to save Trautman is appropriately suspenseful and the outlandish battles of the final twenty minutes will keep your attention. Stallone does confident work, as does Crenna in a nicely expanded role (there’s also a brief turn from Kurtwood Smith). The results are the least of original Rambo trilogy but much more watchable, at least as a programmer, than they get credit for.
Finally, it’s worth noting that Rambo III had one forward-thinking aspect that seldom gets mentioned: its plot progression predicts the structure of the much more successful fourth Rambo film 2008. Though there is a different setting, characters and a number of new plot elements in the later film, both lean on the same essential structure: Rambo is in retirement when he is approached for a mission, he initially refuses, the people who asked for his help get captured and he staves off personal demons to rescue them. Both films even have a surprise scene near the end where unexpected help shows up. Thus, this film remains worth seeing for fans who might have ignored it because it has the seeds of Rambo’s future revival.