If you can manage to ignore the pink elephant in the room–that is, the plot and the dialogue — it’s pretty clear from the get-go that Rambo III, released in May of 1988, is a more technically accomplished film than its predecessor. The drama may be delivered from a pulpit, but the action is solid. Director Peter MacDonald, who worked in the camera department of Rambo: First Blood Part 2, proves a more deft hand in terms of pacing, framing and movement almost immediately. And the script, written by Sylvester Stallone and Sheldon Lettich, shows a far more advanced sense for structure than the second installment of the franchise.
Indeed, the plot of Rambo III has taken on an odd, eerie tone in hindsight, and its very existence supplies an almost too perfect irony. Rambo (Stallone), now leading a peaceful existence in a small Thailand mission, is jostled out of yet another self-imposed banishment to stop the Russian scourge, this time in the hilly deserts of Afghanistan. His task: Rescue the franchise’s only other constant, Col. Samuel Trautman (Richard Crenna), Rambo’s only trusted friend who has been taken captive by a ruthless, sadistic Soviet higher-up, Colonel Zaysen (Marc de Jonge). An obligatory government drone, played by Kurtwood Smith, gets Rambo to Afghanistan, but it is our hero’s quick kinship with Mousa (Sasson Gabal) that finally brings the mega-mercenary to Zaysen’s front step. Mousa introduces and ingratiates Rambo to the Mujahideen, who serve as a makeshift army during his assault on the Russians. Stallone’s continued brazen vilifying of the Soviet Union is here not entirely without reason, but in an ironic trade, he becomes the Western hero and idol of the group that helped spawn Osama bin Laden and many of his 9/11 co-conspirators.
One could watch Rambo III and Mike Nichols’s Charlie Wilson’s War as a double feature, given that Nichols’s film addresses, if far too briefly, America’s hand in the rise of armed Islamic fundamentalism in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Of course, you can’t really fault Rambo III for not having the foresight to see this coming. (It’s just an action movie sequel, after all.) Still, it does lend the film a peculiar fascination, turning it into a pompous strut that presages inconceivable tragedy, reaping the whirlwind even as it indulges in blow-stuff-up-real-good action fantasy.