Over the past two days we’ve looked at the evolution of John Rambo from First Blood to Rambo: First Blood Part II. After all, it’s fascinating to observe how a character that was rooted in a critique of American militarism became the avatar for American militarism. It’s not something that just happens over the course of a single film. First Blood Part II was step towards making John Rambo a figure of rampant jingoism and its massive success ensured that Rambo III would push the character over the edge. Once again, Rambo will go head-to-head against the Soviet Union. This time, it’s personal. And this time, it’s in the rocky terrain of Afghanistan.
After the events of First Blood Part II, where he relitigated the Vietnam War and took on the Soviets, John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) has settled in Thailand where he lives the quiet life. He’s taken up residence in a monastery where he helps with repairs. To pass the time and to earn a little spare cash, Rambo has taken up the hobby of stick fighting, where he pummels his opponents while drunken yahoos bet on the outcome. Finally, after all these years, John Rambo is at peace.
In John Rambo’s world, peace is short-lived and it’s only a matter of time before Colonel Trautman (Richard Crenna) tracks down his former super-soldier to ask him to take up arms once again for the good ol’ red, white, and blue. Along with a CIA liaison Robert Griggs (Kurtwood Smith), Trautman tries to get Rambo on board for a mission into Afghanistan, where Soviet forces have invaded and unleashed a reign of brutal terror on the simple Afghan people. At first, Rambo refuses because he’s enjoying his quiet life surrounded by monks and stick fighting. When Trautman goes into Afghanistan and is taken prisoner by the Russians, John Rambo gets locked and loaded for a one-man mission to win the impossible fight.
Stallone rips the story from the day’s headlines as the Soviets did invade Afghanistan in 1979 and the conflict lasted for nearly a decade, concluding in 1989 – less than a year after Rambo’s third adventure took him the war-torn nation. In this fantasy rooted in reality we see Rambo team up with mujahideen soldiers battling their invaders. This includes local elders and even a single child soldier.
There’s a hint of tragic irony to the film, as in one scene where a captured Colonel Trautman lambasts his Soviet captor Colonel Alexi Zaysen (Marc de Jonge) for entering into their own Vietnam as invaders of Afghanistan are historically unsuccessful. Just over a decade later after the events of 9/11, America invaded Afghanistan. The heroes portrayed in Rambo III became foes. Now it was America, once again, stuck in an endless war of attrition in a hostile region without a John Rambo to ensure victory. American forces have been in Afghanistan longer than the Soviets.
This third go-round for Stallone as Rambo, all of which he co-wrote, is the most absurd of a series defined by its escalating absurdity. John Rambo is able to evade Soviet helicopters blasting bullets and missiles from the sky as he rides on horseback. You know, the kind of grounded realism you’d expect in film ripped from the day’s headlines. The film’s insane conclusion has John Rambo taking on a helicopter in a tank. This should be dumb fine like its predecessor and yet it doesn’t cohere.
First Blood Part II was and is far enough removed from the Vietnam War that time combined with the maximalist direction of George Cosmatos makes the film absurd escapist fun. Today, as America is still entangled in military conflict in Afghanistan, it’s hard to find Rambo III as effective escapism. Part of that is the flat direction by Peter MacDonald, who was a late replacement for the fired Russel Mulcahy. There’s a kind of journeyman’s indifference to the film’s direction, one that doesn’t wow nor does it distract with incompetence. That’s not entirely the fault of MacDonald as Rambo III was made when Stallone’s star and ego was at its highest and the co-writer and star exerted control over his projects. You could see Peter MacDonald, who was mainly a second unit director, wouldn’t want to make waves on the set of his blockbuster directorial debut.
In First Blood, Rambo was a man weary of war, a man whose scars were on his body and his mind. The first film in the Rambo saga is a searing indictment of American institutions and how they warp masculinity with no thought of the cost. First Blood Part II saw Rambo returning to the horrors of his past and fighting the past in the present. It’s absurd, violent revisionist history. It’s in Rambo III that the formerly weary super-soldier enters into a whole new fray, taking on Russian enemies in a new foreign land. At this point, the pain of the past has left the muscular, sweaty body of John Rambo. Rambo III came as Ronald Reagan was in his last term in office and yet proved to a fitting conclusion to the Morning in America. New battles and new wars were on the horizon. The nation thought itself full of that John Rambo moxie. We’re still waiting for John Rambo to win this war.
An absurdist adventure into Soviet-occupied Afghanistan, Rambo III ignores the character’s roots as war-ravaged veteran and fully embraces its macho jingoism as John Rambo becomes the face of American militaristic interventionism.