After the success of “First Blood” and its sequel, “Rambo: First Blood Part II,” Sylvester Stallone was stymied. His character, monosyllabic killing machine John Rambo, had already defended himself against a small town’s police force and the National Guard, followed by a trip to Vietnam to rescue some POWs. What could he do next? It was the late 1980s, and America wasn’t at war, which was pretty inconsiderate. Luckily, America did have an enemy by the name of the Soviet Union, and the Soviet Union was at war with Afghanistan, and if Rambo helped Afghanistan fight against the Soviets, that would be sort of like helping America beat the Russians, which is what everyone wanted in those days, the 1980s.
Thus we have “Rambo III,” in which the taciturn butcher is persuaded to sneak into Afghanistan to save his old Army buddy, Col. Trautman (Richard Crenna), who went and got hisself captured by the Russkies whilst slipping missiles to the Afghans. Rambo has been chilling in Thailand since the last movie, mostly helping monks build stuff but occasionally canoeing into town to make a few bucks stick fighting. (That’s where the participants, um, fight each other with sticks. Apparently this is a thing.) Before Trautman gets captured, he and a U.S. diplomat named Griggs (Kurtwood Smith) take in a stick-fighting match, just to make sure Rambo is still as well-versed as ever in the art of hurting others. He is. So they ask him to help get those secret missiles to the Afghans.
No can do, Rambo says. He’s staying out of the Russia/Afghanistan/America love triangle. The Soviets are killing civilians? Well, yeah, you’re gonna have some of that. How is that Rambo’s problem? “My war is over,” he tells Trautman.
“But not the one inside you,” Trautman responds. (THIS IS VERY DEEP.) He explains that Rambo will never be happy until he accepts what he is, “a full-blooded combat soldier,” i.e., a human being who has been programmed to kill. Like Jack Bauer, a shark, or Betty White, Rambo is only at peace when he’s violently ending someone’s life. Rambo is loath to admit this. Despite having spent so much time with Buddhists, he is impervious to self-reflection. He doesn’t WANT to be a one-man murder factory! Too bad, Trautman says, because that’s what you are. Oh, and by sheer coincidence, right now Uncle Sam could REALLY USE a one-man murder factory. So, heh, it’s pretty lucky that that’s the one and only thing you’re good for, am I right, Rambo?
Rambo says he’s not getting involved; Trautman and Griggs go away; Trautman gets captured by the Soviets; Rambo immediately changes his mind. Helping the underdogs fight a just war and prevent civilian slaughter was not enough of an incentive. Getting his friend out of jail, now you’re talkin’. What Trautman should have realized is that Rambo only does something when he stands to gain personally by it. That’s how he’s different from, say, Justin Bieber, who kills for pleasure.
So Rambo heads to Pakistan, which allegedly borders Afghanistan, if you can believe anything the liberal left-wing map industry tells you. He meets up with Mousa (Sasson Gabai), a weapons dealer who works with the United States. Griggs already supplied Mousa with the usual things Rambo would need (guns, explosives, body wax, chest oil, etc.), so Mousa escorts our surly, guttural hero to an Afghan village where leaders of the resistance movement are camped. These rebels are called Mujahideen, a term you might remember because later, after the Soviets left and the U.S. stopped being interested in Afghanistan, they went to war with each other and became the Taliban. (Sound effect: sad trombone.)
The freedom fighters are in relatively good spirits, considering the Soviets have killed most of their families, and considering they live in the @&#*% desert. In their downtime, they play a sport that involves riding on horses and throwing around a dead sheep. Rambo is invited to play. Naturally, he turns out to be awesome at sheep polo, because Rambo is awesome at everything he tries, with the exception of public speaking. This also fits with the running theme of the Rambo films, which is that America is better than foreigners at everything, including the foreigners’ own sports.
Then some Soviet helicopters show up and shoot everybody at the camp, right in the middle of the sheep polo game. This makes Rambo angry, on account of he was starting to become friends with these guys, and also on account of he was winning.
Meanwhile, at the Soviet base not far from here, Col. Trautman is being moderately tortured by the evil Russian Col. Zaysen (Marc de Jonge), who wants to know where the U.S.-supplied missiles are. Trautman tells Zaysen that the missiles are up his, Zaysen’s, butt. This is demonstrably false, however; if it were so, Zaysen would not be attempting to ascertain their whereabouts, as he would be fully aware of it. It turns out Trautman was employing belligerence and sarcasm.
Trautman warns Zaysen that his buddy Rambo is coming to rescue him, and hoo boy, you do NOT want Rambo mad at you. Zaysen scoffs. Rambo, against the entire Soviet army?? “Who do you think this man is? God?” he says. Trautman replies, “No. God would have mercy.” Ha ha, Rambo will not have mercy, he will slaughter you and drink your blood, AND YOU WILL LIKE IT. Trautman also taunts Zaysen with the fact that the long, fruitless Afghanistan war is the Soviet Union’s Vietnam. But unlike our Vietnam, it doesn’t have any jaunty protest songs.
Rambo and Mousa sneak into the Soviet base, accompanied by a young boy named Hamid (Doudi Shoua), a junior Mujahideen who took a shine to Rambo back at the camp. The lad could have a promising career as a professional sheep polo player, but he’d rather fight the invading Russians. Makes Rambo’s heart swell with pride, it does. Then Hamid gets shot in the leg and Rambo makes Mousa take him back to the camp. Rambo kinda wanted to do this alone anyway. The film isn’t called “Rambo, Mousa & Hamid,” is it? Besides, what kind of wuss gets shot in the leg five minutes into a battle?
The movie has been pushing the basic Rambo buttons pretty consistently up to this point. First there was the stick-fighting, which reestablished Rambo as a tough guy who can hit people with sticks. Then there was the sheep polo, proving that Rambo is awesome even when he is engaged in recreation.
Now comes the time when Rambo has to do something so incredibly hardcore that the 13-year-old boys the film was made for will tell all their friends at school about it. And that thing is this: Rambo gets some wood shrapnel lodged in his side from an explosion, pulls the wood out, pours gunpowder on the wound, then lights it on fire to seal it. Any Boy Scout will tell you that this is exactly the procedure to follow if you are injured and do not have a first aid kid (but do have gunpowder and matches, and are Rambo).
From here on the movie consists mainly of things blowing up or being shot, usually by Rambo, occasionally by Col. Trautman. It’s those two versus the entire Soviet army. The Mujahideen lend a hand, but let’s be honest, you don’t need a scrappy and dedicated squad of freedom fighters when you have one psychologically disturbed Vietnam veteran with an unlimited supply of ammunition and a speech impediment. The film was conceived as an anti-Soviet rah-rah piece, which made sense at the time. Alas, it was released in May 1988, just as the Soviets were withdrawing from Afghanistan anyway, probably because they heard about this Rambo fellow and got scared. Their withdrawal the whole thing moot. I mean, it was a fairly moot movie to begin with, but that made it mooter. Twenty years passed before Stallone got around to making another Rambo film, and by then the only enemy left for him to fight was senility.