Rambo III was the most logical next step not only for our reluctant hero, but for Sylvester Stallone, who had managed to turn both of his successful franchises into political mouthpieces for correcting America’s mistakes of the past, and securing the future. In the summer of 1985, First Blood Part II longed to heal the wounds of Vietnam to the tune of $150 million; that fall movie season, Rocky Balboa delivered a pointed call to action to end communism after defeating Ivan Drago, and Rocky IV dominated the box office with $127.8 million. That gave Stallone two of the top three films of the year. Continuing in that tradition, and with his sights set on another dominant year, Sly Stallone set his sights on defeating the Russian invasion of a meek Middle Eastern country called Afghanistan.
“Most people can’t find it on a map.” That’s what Griggs, the shady CIA operative played by Kurtwood Smith, tells John Rambo when he and Colonel Trautman visit John Rambo at a monastery in Thailand. Rambo wants nothing more than to live his life in peace, even if he does tangle in an incredibly photographed stick fight as the film opens. Griggs and Trautman want Rambo’s help to help the feeble Afghan army defend itself against the invading Ruskies. But he turns them down; it’s only when Trautman, his surrogate father, is kidnapped by a sadistic Russian colonel that he decides to take on another fight.
The rest of Rambo III is a journey across Afghanistan with several familiar action beats and a few iconic franchise moments, like Rambo healing a wound with gunpowder, and the line “I’m your worst nightmare,” which became parodied into oblivion. Stallone had originally hired Russell Mulcahy to direct based on his latest film, Highlander, but when Sly arrived in Afghanistan to see dozens of blonde-haired, blue-eyed extras instead of threatening Russian heavies, the director and star had reached an impasse on the direction of the film. Clearly, the star won that battle, and Mulcahy was replaced by second-unit director Peter MacDonald.
The direction is nothing spectacular, but it’s also not a hindrance to the film. It’s a brisk 100 minutes, and there are aesthetic elements of the film that work better than First Blood Part II. John Stanier’s cinematography (which passed through three different hands prior to the shoot) has more texture and depth than the soft, soap-opera tones of Jack Cardiff’s photography in the first sequel. There’s also the fascinating matter of the story at hand, and how it all fits together in a post-9/11 world.
Basically, in this fictional world set in a real-world conflict, John Rambo is fighting the evil Colonel Zaysen (Marc de Jonge) alongside Osama bin Laden. Nobody knew it at the time, but this is definitely a more problematic battleground than Vietnam in the years after that conflict ended. The fact that these very Afghan soldiers would turn against America within a decade casts a strange, one-of-a-kind pall over an otherwise underrated action adventure.
At the time, Rambo III was the most expensive movie ever made at a budget of $63 million. To create even more pre-release strife, the conflict in Afghanistan had ended and the Cold War began to crumble in the weeks and months before the film’s release, making it dated before it ever opened. It opened Memorial Day of 1988, and landed in second place with $8.2 million, behind Crocodile Dundee II in its second week. The Paul Hogan sequel had already made $47 million on its way to a $109.3 million domestic haul. Just an amazing time to be alive.
Rambo III, on the other hand, never gained any traction with audiences who had moved on from the character and his new adventure. It ended it’s seven-week domestic run with a paltry $53.7 million. Luckily for everyone involved, the foreign box office was $135 million, enough to make the film a global success. Alas, it seemed like the end of the road for John Rambo. The 80’s were closing their doors, and for a time Rambo was hermetically sealed off in that decade’s vault.
Until, in 2008, Stallone decided to ramp things up to an absurd level.