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In the first act of Rambo 3, Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) shoots down a Soviet attack helicopter with a mounted machine gun. In the second act of Rambo 3, Rambo shoots down a Soviet attack helicopter with an explosive arrow. In the final act of Rambo 3, Rambo takes down a Soviet attack helicopter with a tank. The Soviet Hind-D attack helicopters were fearsome, well-armed machines and seeing a muscled, glistening Sylvester Stallone shoot them down told viewers everything they needed to know about Stallone and about the American jingoistic patriotism of Rambo 3.
The plot of Rambo 3 is a scaled down yet somehow scaled-up version of Rambo: First Blood Part 2 all at the same time. Rambo goes to rescue his best friend and former commanding officer Colonel Sam Trautman (Richard Crenna) from Soviet-occupied Afghanistan. It’s a scale down because Rambo is only saving one prisoner this time as opposed to an entire camp of them. It’s also scaled up because the film used to hold the world record for most violent film ever made before Rambo – the fourth film in the series – eclipsed it.
Rambo: First Blood is a good, uncomplicated political statement of an action movie. It depicts how poorly American veterans were treated after the horrors of Vietnam and how devastating this treatment was on their mental health. At a time when PTSD was still dealt with using booze and pills, Rambo: First Blood understood that talking was the first step – even if it was during a police station siege. Part 2 was more of an ultra-violent Action Man ad and so was Rambo 3 but with more discomfort.
It’s probably hindsight but the idea of an American super-commando helping the Mujahideen smacks of imperialism. It reeks of the proxy wars America and the USSR fought all while their own Cold War went on. Arguments persisted for years that the end credits of Rambo 3 said “Dedicated to the brave Mujahideen fighters” and was later changed to “Dedicated to the gallant people of Afghanistan”. Unfortunately, it’s not true – turns out even Stallone had some degree of foresight. Still Rambo 3 shows us everything what was wrong with American conservative ideologies of the 1980s.
Rambo, had he not stalked off into the jungle in First Blood Part 2, would probably have had a direct line to Ronald Reagan in 1988. Even if America hadn’t been ‘observing foreign interests’ under Reagan, Rambo would probably have been used to wage war on the homeless, the urban ghettos of Detroit and probably Cuba. Fun fact: Stallone later waged war on “Cuba” in The Expendables. He’s a Captain America with none of the conscience, pathos or wit. Rambo used up what little vulnerability he had before becoming the mass murdering, witless dick he is in the second, third and fourth films.
With all that said Rambo 3 is still a badass action film on a par with anything Schwarzenegger did in the 1980s. The set-pieces are continuously amazing – from the first helicopter assault on the Mujahideen stronghold to the final cavalry charge against the Soviet troops.
However, the most impressive action scene is on a smaller scale. After Rambo and Trautman’s escape from the camp, Colonel Alexei Zaysen (Marv de Jonge) – the commander of the camp – sends Spetsnaz commandos after Rambo. John Rambo systematically eliminates them all. The final commando – Colonel Zaysen’s henchman Sergeant Kourov (Randy Raney) – meets an especially brutal end. After rolling around on the sand for a while Rambo wraps a rope around the big Russian’s neck before ripping the pins from Kourov’s conveniently placed grenades and kicking him down a hole. Mercifully Kourov’s neck breaks before the grenades blow him to pieces. No wonder UK censors demanded a full minute of cuts for its theatrical release.
When I say Rambo 3 is on a par with anything Schwarzenegger did in the 80s I mean it – except maybe Predator. It’s as if Commando had a more coherently political plot and a star who was just as hard to listen to as Arnie. Stallone obviously wanted what Schwarzenegger had and he eventually got it with Rambo 3. All he had to do was take out all the pansy bullshit PTSD. For a film in which many were fired halfway through, Stallone heavily doctored the script, as well as the fact it had a director who’d never helmed a feature before, it all comes together pretty well.
Peter McDonald, a veteran second unit director, directed Rambo 3 and would go on to make smash hits such as The NeverEnding Story III and The Extreme Adventures of Super Dave. In fairness he was also second unit director of The Empire Strikes Back and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. On working on Rambo 3 he said, “I tried very hard to change the Rambo character a bit and make him a vulnerable and humorous person, I failed totally.” At least in Commando and Predator Arnie is all guff and bluster to distract from the fact he’s committing mass murder. Rambo is completely humourless and it’s something Sylvester Stallone learned for future films. Even Rocky had a personality as did Barney in The Expendables.
Rambo 3 was released at a weird time. In 1988 anti-USSR sentiment was nearing an all time low thanks to Gorbachev. It’s weirder ending did it no favours where a little Afghan boy waves goodbye to Rambo as if saying farewell to American foreign policy. Die Hard was released in the same year and heralded a massive change in action cinema. The massively muscled monsters of the 1980s were soon to be forgotten to be replaced by people like Bruce Willis, Nicolas Cage and Keanu Reeves. A film like Rambo 3 would never be seen again until twenty years later when the Burma-set Rambo came out. Just recently Rambo V was announced to be in production with Stallone’s molten face and muscles to take on the Mexican cartels and presumably reach new levels of tone deafness.