This might seem strange now, particularly if you are thirty years old or younger, but there was a time when the United States looked upon Afghanistan as a close friend. I give you the heady days of the 1980s, when the Soviet Union was in its last years, yet still trying to expand its influence. Sound familiar? Anyway, its target was Afghanistan, invading it in 1979. When Ronald Reagan was elected president in 1980, his administration did much to support those he labeled as “freedom fighters” waging a guerilla war against the Soviet invaders. If you are keeping score at home, this means people like Osama bin Laden. Yes, that Osama bin Laden. What Washington hoped would be a short conflict lasted nearly a decade and wrecked Afghanistan. This gave rise to the Taliban, and you know the rest from there, I think. As such, if you find yourself unwittingly kidnapped into watching Rambo III (1988), think about this during its ridiculous proceedings, particularly when at the end we see that the film is dedicated to the Afghan people.
You would think by Rambo III they would come up with a different way of introducing John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone). But, no, we get the inevitable visit from Colonel Sam Trautman (Richard Crenna). This time he finds Rambo participating in a Thai stick fighting match, watching his former top Green Beret win his match, before catching up with him at the Buddhist temple he is helping to rebuild. Of course, there is another mission with which Colonel Trautman needs help, and the enticement is that now Colonel Trautman will be accompanying. The target for this incursion is Afghanistan, to help with their resistance against the Soviets. Rambo says no, which Colonel Trautman seems to understand. Still, being the older fellow, it is probably not surprising that he is captured before too long into his work deep inside Afghanistan. Rambo learns of this turn of events from the representative of the United States embassy in Bangkok, Robert Griggs (Kurtwood Smith). Griggs informs Rambo that an unofficial rescue attempt is being planned, and that they want him to be a part of it. Since it is his old friend, Rambo is on the next plane to Afghanistan, and soon he is far into the foothills meeting with the leader of the local branch of the Mujahideen, Masoud (Spiros Focás). Rambo must first earn the trust of the villagers, which he begins to do by playing a game on horseback popular with the tribesmen of the area. Unfortunately, just as the match is concluding, they are attacked by Soviet helicopters. Rambo’s assistance in defending the village, such as it is, further cements the bond he creates with the locals. One of them is especially keen to help Rambo, a boy named Hamid (Doudi Shoua). He guides Rambo to the Soviet compound where Colonel Trautman is being brutally questioned by the Russian leader, Colonel Alexei Zaysen (Marc de Jonge). Because of Hamid’s diminutive size, he is able to help Rambo gain access. What derails Rambo’s first rescue attempt, though, is Hamid getting wounded, which causes him to send the boy back with another villager that came with them. Gathering himself, the next day Rambo is successful in getting Colonel Trautman out, but in typical fashion, not without bring half the Russian army down on the two of them. This is where the zany meter gets cranked up a few more notches. After surviving an encounter in a cave with a number of Soviet special forces troops, Rambo and Colonel Trautman are surrounded by their pursuers. Just when all seems lost, the Mujahideen attack on horseback, and a largescale battle ensues. Buzzing around above it is Colonel Zaysen and his overly large helicopter, exactly like the one seen in the climactic moments of the last movie. In this one, though, Rambo does not use a smaller helicopter and his own wits to bring down his foe. Instead, he clambers into an abandoned Russian tank, and then uses it to ram the flying vehicle. You read that correctly. A military vehicle that rolls along on the ground is used to destroy a different military vehicle that flies through the air (and is doing so at the time) by colliding with it. Rambo emerges from the fiery wreckage because, well, he is Rambo. With that, he and Colonel Trautman saw goodbye to their Afghan friends, and the third installment of this franchise comes to a merciful end. Only two more to go!
I take it as a sign that even those behind Rambo III felt they were running out of ideas when Rambo is asked when he is going to leave his past behind. Of course, this is a running theme throughout all the movies, but the horse that it is died somewhere in Rambo: First Blood, Part II (1985), and such is the kicking of the corpse by this point that you will feel yourself cringe while watching it. Because Rambo cannot seem to let it go, it also means that there is no character development. To put this in Catholic terms, think about the sacrament of reconciliation, or confession, more familiarly. As the session ends, one of the things most priests ask for is that you recite an act of contrition. It is a prayer that summarizes the reason for the sacrament. There are a few different forms of it, but the one that I like to use involves a phrase that adjures the penitent to amend one’s life. In other words, the hope is that one will make changes so that the next time you are in for confession, you have something different to talk about than the old sins. The idea is that growth takes place. There does not appear to be any of that with Rambo. He is a killer and the end of the movie reiterates that causing mayhem is his main purpose in life. Put differently, there is no character arc for him. I get that these are not meant to be deep, introspective films. Yet, without character development, is there a movie at all?
If you hoped that Rambo and Colonel Trautman essentially riding off into the sun in Rambo III might signal the end for this nonsense, then I am sorry to say there are two more films. There is nothing really that stands out about this one, other than the historical background that I discussed in the introduction. Otherwise, there is no earthly reason to watch this film.