Franchise Expansion Or Implosion: Rambo III
by Ben Martin
Franchise Expansion (or Implosion) is a column that looks at franchises that have new installments or releases forthcoming. In looking at a franchise, each entry in a franchise will be given a review and then be examined as part of the bigger franchise. (i.e., Was this sequel a worthy expansion of this franchise or was it an implosion of sorts?)
Sylvester Stallone is a cornerstone of the action genre. Throughout his career, Stallone has created two of the most beloved underdogs ever. One of these underdogs is, of course, John Rambo. A character who, for better or worse, has become an American icon. The return of Rambo is right around the corner with the latest (and presumably final) installment in this movie series, Rambo: Last Blood. Now, we come to the much-maligned picture that ended the Rambonanaza of the 1980s, Rambo III (1988)!
The thing that’s special about the Rambo franchise is that it has a social consciousness about it. First Blood (1982) is, of course, a commentary on the fallout of the Vietnam War. Logically, Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985) is a continuation of said commentary; but during the full-swing of ra-ra Reaganism. Since the sequel made Rambo into the ultimate American hero, it’s no surprise that his enemies for Rambo III (1988), would once again, be those communist Ruskies! It worked for most audiences big time last time around; so why not do it again? Thus, Sylvester Stallone (Escape Plan: The Extractors) decided to set this third film in the little-remembered Soviet-Afghan War (1979-1989).
Rambo III finds John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) settled into a new, content life in Thailand. Alas, Colonel Sam Trautman (Richard Crenna); recruits Rambo to help him run a CIA-sponsored mission to supply The Mujahideen with weapons to fight the Soviets. Surprisingly, Rambo refuses, saying his war is over. However, after the invading Soviets capture Trautman in Afghanistan, Rambo feels he has no choice but to rescue his former commanding officer. And since Rambo can seemingly take on everyone, he decides to also join the Mujahideen in their quest to defeat the Soviets while on his rescue mission!
I’ll never be able to give this friendly reminder enough. No matter when you see a movie, you must view it in the context of the time in which the film was made and released. However, I’ll admit that it’s hard to do just that with some movies, and Rambo III is one of them. As stated in the plot summary above, our titular hero decides to fight alongside the Mujahideen in this picture.
For those of you who are unfamiliar, the Mujahideen is an Islamic guerilla group who consider themselves as spiritual warriors. Back in 1988, I’m sure it made sense for Rambo to ally himself with them considering that the U.S. was supplying arms to Afghanistan in reality at the time. Tragically though, history has not been kind to socio political narrative choices of the movie in review. Frankly, I’m a pretty liberal cat; but seeing Rambo partner up with a group of Islamic extremist, post-9/11, makes me squirm. If this flick gets that reaction out of me, I imagine it makes some other folks angry enough to disregard this picture outright.
Despite this inherent historical and sociopolitical issue, Rambo III is still has a better story and is a much better picture than First Blood Part II. Most notably, this third installment is a better made one. But, as always, producing a motion picture of any quality doesn’t come without its struggles. Initially, Highlander director Russell Mulcahy was hired to direct this entry. But, he left after two weeks of shooting due to creative differences with Stallone. Cinematographer Peter MacDonald then took the helm and had this to say about his directorial debut with the film. “I tried very hard to change the Rambo character a bit and make him a vulnerable and humorous person; I failed totally.” If I had to guess, I would say MacDonald holds this sentiment because of Stallone’s massive amount of influence and creative control over the picture.
More to the point, Stallone had found a formula with these flicks after First Blood Part II. Therefore, over-the-top action with a pinch of jingoism (unintentional otherwise) is once again applied to the entry in review. As a result, Rambo III has some of the same issues that the previous film did; especially in regards to pacing. Frankly, this film takes a while to get going. However, I didn’t find any of the build-up to the action, which plays out like a beautifully shot Nat Geo special, to be boring, but merely slow. However, once the action does kick-in at the 40-minute mark, it’s once again non-stop action and violence. At the time of its release, Rambo III was the most violent movie of all-time with a body count of 162.
While the action is fun, albeit, mostly ridiculous, that’s not the quality that appreciate most about this film. To the contrary, it’s the relationship scenes between Rambo and Trautman that I enjoy the most. It’s in these portions of the movie that we get a bit of humor. Some of which works; while others simply fall flat. However, what makes Rambo III a Franchise Expansion is that we see Rambo as happy as he can be and gives the character a good enough ending.
Alas, the audience at large did not share my sentiment. While Rambo III was a financial success upon its release on Memorial Day Weekend 1988, grossing $189 million on a budget of $63 million. However, it was also reviled by critics and audiences alike. As is his way, Stallone took the reception to heart and seemingly put Rambo to rest. But, as cinematic history has shown us, Stallone is a guy who never really puts his two big franchises. Therefore, twenty years later, in 2008, the character returned in the series’ fourth installment, Rambo (2008)! A movie which I’ll be looking at in all its brutality next time around!
Rambo III is available on Digital HD, 4K, Blu-Ray, & DVD!
Rambo: Last Blood is Now Playing
Read my other reviews from the Rambo franchise here
Rambo: First Blood Part II