“Rambo, force of freedom!” I’m not sure how it came to be but incredibly, between “Rambo: First Blood Part II” (1985) and “Rambo III” (1988) America’s favorite war veteran was downsized into living rooms as a kids cartoon. Bulging pecs, dangling headband and all, the John Rambo character was animated for 65 episodes, though the program never made any mention of his service in Vietnam, his kill stats, or the kind of homegrown discrimination that pushed him to devastate a small American town and its police force in “First Blood” (1982). No, the storyline was cozied into something far more benign, bloodless entertainment or par with G.I. Joe or the Super Friends, skilled do-gooders with gym memberships who kept evil on a short leash. Probably for the best.
The Rambo films are something else, macho fantasies with mixed messages. Nationalistic? Humanistic? Warmongering? Anti-war? Anti-government? Pick one. Sure they’re lacking in clarity but I’ll admit it, I like them and I like Stallone in them, a terrific physical actor with a talent for bringing extremities to life. His portrayal of writer David Morrell’s character in “First Blood” was sympathetic, intense and vulnerable. On “Inside the Actors Studio,” a talk show where stars discuss their careers and craft, Stallone described Rambo as a “modern case of Frankenstein,” a man who was trained, mechanized, used and then cast aside. We know now that the idea took, giving Stallone his second bankable film franchise and viewers some of the highest body counts in cinema. In dollars, the Rambo series has grossed over $700 million worldwide. In stuff, its popularity has made available mugs, posters, action figures, knives, lunch boxes, arcade games and even baby clothing (for the warrior in your child). As for his Razzie for worst actor in “Rambo III,” Stallone, unlike Rambo, seems an easy target. Other raspberry-flavored contenders in that year included Steven Seagal, Jean Claude Van Damme and Yahoo Serious. Just sayin.
Different war, same movie. “Rambo III” is a near exact minting of Part II and a quasi-minting of Part IV (known simply as “Rambo”) Jungle has been swapped for a tanned tableau of deserts, caves and cliffs (filmed in Israel and Arizona) but otherwise, not much has changed. There’s a mission in a foreign land and once again the US government needs its Frankenstein. The story can be summed up in a single sentence – Rambo does the Soviet-Afghan War – but we’ll go further. After rescuing several American POWs from a Vietnamese prison camp (in the second film) and earning a Presidential Pardon (for his actions in the first film), Rambo walks off into the Thai sunset in search of a new normal. As the opening credits roll we discover that he’s hung his shingle in a Thai monastery, fixing wagon wheels and living a pastoral existence in the company of orange-robed monks. It’s hard to suppress the ol’ eye of the tiger however, and in order to raise money for his new friends, Rambo enters a savage stick-fighting contest in Bangkok (cool scars!). Colonel Trautman (Richard Crenna), Rambo’s Special Forces commander in Nam, is there. He’s tracked John down and asks for his help in supplying a group of Afghan rebels, the mujahideen, with Stinger missiles to fight the Soviet incursion. Rambo refuses. “It’s gotta end for me sometime,” he says, meaning the constant warring. Fortunately for our love of bloodshed…sorry, action…Trautman and his men are routed by a cruel Soviet commander (Marc de Jonge), strung up in his mountain fortress and tortured. “Rambo, force of freedom!” Yeah, here he comes. What are friends for? No, a better question…what would Rocky do?
Nothing I’m sure. He fights bare-chested and against the odds but that aside, he’s a different kind of warrior, gregarious for one thing but also self-doubting. Hence the need for his lady. John Rambo though has no Adrian to pump up his confidence before a battle. But he doesn’t need one either. In the first three Rambo films at least (there are four in total, a fifth kinda sorta in the pipe), we’re given scenes where our hero pointedly tells some Mr. Nasty just what they’ve gotten themselves into. In order: “Don’t push it or I’ll give you a war you won’t believe,” “Murdock…I’m comin’ to get you,” and from “Rambo III” the dark-but-comically-beefcake-enough-to-make-you-choke-on-your-popcorn, “I’m your worst nightmare.” We believe him of course. We pay to see Rambo roll like a medieval lawnmower over ridiculous odds and by that standard “Rambo III” kicks butt, expanding his repertoire from M16s and helicopter gunships to horses and tanks. Helmed by second-unit director Peter MacDonald (“Tango & Cash,” “Wolverine”), the film is professionally made with real explosions and pre-computer era stunts that deliver with a fist. Scenes that include a grisly patch-job on a shrapnel wound and a brawl that ends in a simultaneous hanging and detonation have a certain sadistic charm to them. Twenty-five years later however, a disappointment overall.
As to why, I can’t nail it down to one reason. I’m a quarter-century on to begin with and have different expectations for a film (a hero who can button a shirt is a start) but 25 years deeper into the Information Age also assumes that I am, that we are, better informed film-goers than ever, and less satisfied with historical fiction that skimps. No, I don’t think that “Rambo III” qualifies as historical fiction, but after the likes of “Black Hawk Down,” “The Hurt Locker,” and TVs “Band of Brothers,” it’s all the more clear that action and authenticity can live under the same roof (and even succeed). When it comes to the modern war film, it seems more…responsible. Yeah I know, a dirty word for some hard-core action fans but fear not, my only concern is you, and the battle for your hearts and minds.
Characterization is a factor in that battle. No stranger to doubling up on acting and writing duties, Stallone co-wrote “Rambo III” with director/screenwriter Sheldon Lettich (“Bloodsport,” “Double Impact”). But for the third film of a series named for its main character, you’d think by now we’d know this man. Heck, if “The Karate Kid Part III” could engineer a falling out between Daniel and Miyagi, the least Stallone could do is apply a microscope to his own character. It doesn’t come. A full trilogy in and Rambo is more a closed book than ever in “Rambo III.” Trautman is also written as strangely insensitive to a man we’d assumed was his friend. After John turns down the Afghan mission, Trautman drops his “full circle” speech on him.
“I know the reasons you’re here, John, but it doesn’t work that way. You may try, but you can’t get away from what you really are.”
“And what do you think I am?”
“A full-blooded combat soldier.”
“Not anymore. I don’t want it.”
“That’s too bad, because you’re stuck with it.”
Frankenstein indeed. And by the time Rambo finds his latest sunset, even that humanizing moment of self-perception that closes the earlier films is dropped. For Rambo, sadly, it’s just another day at the office.