Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Film Appreciation - He Ain't Heavy, He's Your Worst Nightmare

Cody Hamman's Film Appreciation for Rambo III includes memories of a 1988 viewing.

Titles of sequels are often rather nonsensical these days, but Sylvester Stallone and his collaborators were ahead of the game when they decided the third film in the Rambo franchise - following 1982's First Blood and 1985's Rambo: First Blood Part II - should be called Rambo III. (And twenty years later, Stallone made things even wackier when he chose to simply call the fourth film Rambo.) But while the title may not make sense, the concept does.

First Blood showed us John Rambo, played by Stallone, returning to the United States after serving in the Vietnam War and bringing the war home with him when he's pushed too far by some idiot police officers. What do you do for a sequel? Of course, you send Rambo back to Vietnam to rescue American POWs. And what do you do for a third film? Dropping Rambo into the Soviet-Afghan War, a conflict that was being referred to as "the Soviet Union's Vietnam", was a logical choice. But, as it turned out, Rambo III just missed its chance to be relevant. Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev had been planning to get the country's troops out of Afghanistan before production started (and even before the previous year's James Bond film The Living Daylights dropped Bond into the Soviet-Afghan War), and the Soviet Union's final withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan began on May 15, 1988. Rambo III reached theatres on May 25, 1988. Movie-goers weren't very interested in seeing Rambo fight in a war that was already ending, but I still think it was a solid idea, as Stallone has always used this franchise to comment on or draw attention to real world conflicts.

The Soviets had invaded Afghanistan at the end of '79 and put a leader of their choice in charge, thinking they would have the country under control within a year. Instead, they were locked into a conflict with resistance fighters called the mujahideen throughout the '80s. It has been said that during this time half of the population was either killed, wounded, or driven into exile. Like the Soviets had supported North Vietnam and the Viet Cong insurgents during the Vietnam War, the United States supported the mujahideen rebels during the Soviet-Afghan War. In Rambo III, Rambo ends up fighting Soviet forces (as he had in the previous movie as well) alongside the mujahideen. In years since, the film has been reductively referred to as the one where "Rambo helps the Taliban", as if all of the mujahideen were one group that became the Taliban as soon as the Soviets left. They were actually split into several groups, and after the Soviets withdrew from the country a civil war broke out between mujahideen armies. The Taliban rose to power in the midst of this civil war, were opposed by other resistance fighters, and are being fought by Afghan soldiers to this day. So the movie shouldn't be brushed off in that way, Rambo isn't working with the Taliban. As the dedication at the end of the movie says, it's about Rambo aiding "the gallant people of Afghanistan" against the invading Soviets.

Stallone wrote the screenplay with Sheldon Lettich, a Vietnam veteran whose other film credits include Thou Shalt Not Kill... Except, Bloodsport, Lionheart, Double Impact, Legionnaire (yeah, he worked with Jean-Claude Van Damme a lot), and Only the Strong. When we catch up with Rambo, we find that he has spent the time since he walked off at the end of Part II living at a monastery in Thailand, doing handyman work for the monks and making some extra cash participating in stick fights. Then his former commanding officer Colonel Samuel Trautman (Richard Crenna) shows up.

Trautman was helpful when he talked Rambo down at the end of First Blood. He was helpful when he got Rambo out of prison at the beginning of Part II. He's not helpful in this movie, showing up to ask Rambo to accompany him on a mission to Afghanistan. While Afghan forces are starting to hold their own against Soviet air strikes thanks to the Stinger missiles they've been supplied with, there is one region where an exceptionally brutal Soviet commander has been able to cut off all aid from the outside. Trautman is going in to "investigate the problem". Rambo says he likes living at the monastery, so Trautman should just allow him to stay there in peace. Instead, Trautman insists that Rambo is a natural born fighting machine and needs to be a combat soldier. Rambo stands his ground and declines the mission.

Trautman goes through with the mission... and ends up being captured. When Rambo is notified of this turn of events (by an embassy officer played by Kurtwood Smith), and told that nothing can be done to help Trautman, he volunteers to go to Afghanistan to rescue his old pal who thinks he isn't good for anything but fighting and killing. This is an unofficial mission, so if anything goes wrong the American government will deny any participation or knowledge of Rambo's existence. Rambo says, "I'm used to it."

Rambo III has a bit more of a sense of humor than its predecessors. When Rambo arrives in Pakistan to collect gear and meet a mujahideen contact before entering Afghanistan on horseback, his contact Mousa (Sasson Gabai) says he can tell by Rambo's appearance that he has no experience in war. Mousa says he will accept no responsibility if Rambo fails on this mission, to which Rambo replies, "Sounds familiar." There's also a moment where Mousa notices that Rambo has snap light sticks in his gear and asks what they are. Rambo says they're "blue light", and snaps one to show that it glows blue. "What does it do?" "Turns blue."

It's mainly because of these moments of humor that I still have memories from my first viewing of Rambo III, which would have been when it reached VHS in late '88. I turned 5 at the end of '88, but I had already seen the other movies by then (and had watched the Rambo cartoon), so when I saw the little standee advertising the VHS release in the video section of the local Rite Aid I was excited to know that a third Rambo adventure was on the way. My family likely rented it as soon as it came out, and I remember my father laughing at those humorous lines.

Stallone wanted to get to the action as quickly as possible in Part II, but it feels like he decided to take his time on Rambo III. A lengthy stretch of the 102 minute running time (a running time that makes it 9 minutes longer than First Blood and 6 minutes longer than Part II) goes by before Rambo enters the fight in this movie. It's tough to count the 30 seconds of gunfire and explosions that occur when Trautman is captured as a rousing action sequence, and oddly the first two times we see Rambo do anything exciting he's participating in some kind of sport. There's the stick fighting scene up front (and it is quite cool), and when he reaches a village of mujahideen fighters in Afghanistan he joins in on a game called Buzkashi, which is played on horseback and involves scoring goals with the corpse of a sheep instead of a ball.

A lot of time is spent on Rambo's ride into Afghanistan, during which Mousa discusses the history of Afghanistan and its people. They pass mountains, go through a cave system, cross desert. There's definitely a sense that the movie is trying to make sure the audience realizes they're going to see Rambo in action in a different sort of location than we've seen him in before; this terrain is far from a Pacific Northwest forest or a jungle. At the village, Rambo plots his rescue mission, only asking for the help of a couple people, and interacts with a young boy named Hamid (Doudi Shoua), who inquires about the necklace Rambo now wears, which belonged to his brief love interest Co in the previous film, and asks if he can have the giant knife Rambo is carrying. He can't, Rambo needs that.

While Rambo is slowly making his way toward the action, Trautman is being held prisoner at an old cliffside fort and being interrogated by that brutal Soviet commander, Marc de Jonge as Colonel Zaysen, about those Stinger missiles that have been coming into the country. Trautman doesn't give answers, he just taunts Zaysen and compares the Soviet-Afghan War to the Vietnam War. He tells Zaysen that now the Soviet Union is going to have its Vietnam, when he should have been saying that the Soviet Union has had its Vietnam, since the war was ending by the time any movie-goer saw the scene.

Bullets and rockets don't start flying in Rambo's direction until 42 minutes into the movie. It's been a wait, but don't worry, the action rarely stops for the remaining hour. Rambo has to infiltrate the fort on two separate occasions in order to successfully rescue Trautman; the first time he's accompanied by Mousa and Hamid (he didn't want the kid there, but Hamid insists on joining the fight), and the second time he goes alone. Of course, busting into this fort and taking Trautman from Soviet custody doesn't go over well with Zaysen and the heavily armed men under his command. To get out of Afghanistan, Rambo and Trautman have to fight their way through a literal army, and the Soviets don't only have boots on the ground - they also have tanks rolling around and gunship helicopters in the air.

But anything the Soviets have at their disposal, there's a chance Rambo is going to take and use against them, and in the end there's a classic "cavalry rides in" battle sequence when the mujahideen show up just in time to save Rambo and Trautman when they're facing overwhelming odds.

Rambo doesn't make it through all of this unscathed. He receives a nasty wound where a piece of wood is impaled through his side, requiring some self-surgery that I remember my father cringing over back in the day. That first viewing of Rambo III was very memorable to me for some reason. Of course, it's not every day that you see a man pull a piece of wood out of their side and cauterize the wound by pouring gunpowder into it and lighting it. Unless you watch Rambo III every day. Rambo is hurting from this wound for the rest of the movie, leading to a humorous exchange between him and Trautman. Trautman asks him how the wound is and Rambo says, "You taught us to ignore pain, didn't you?" Apparently Trautman has never had to try to do what he told the soldiers serving under him to do, because he asks, "Does it work?" "Not really. Don't take it personally."

After Rambo used a bow and explosive arrows in such crowd-pleasing scenes in Part II, there's no way those those could be left out of III. The bow and explosive arrows make their triumphant return here when Rambo needs to take down a gunship helicopter.

Soon after, there's another Part II callback when Rambo gets his hands on a walkie talkie that puts him in contact with Zaysen. Zaysen asks, "Who are you?" Rambo responds, "Your worst nightmare." It's no "Murdock, I'm coming to get you" with accompanying thunder and lightning, but it's a badass moment in its own right.

The opposite of badass in the Bill Medley cover of "He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother" that plays over the end credits, but the first three Rambo movies all get sentimental when it's time for the credits. Part II had the Frank Stallone song "Peace in Our Life", and First Blood had "It's a Long Road", which is the only one of the bunch I really like.

Rambo III was directed by Part II's second unit director Peter MacDonald, making his main unit debut on what was at the time the most expensive movie ever made. MacDonald wasn't the first choice; in fact, when filming began Highlander / Resident Evil: Extinction / The Scorpion King: Rise of a Warrior director Russell Mulcahy was at the helm. Mulcahy departed the project two weeks into production over creative differences with Stallone, with Cobra cinematographer Ric Waite following him out the door. So Stallone promoted MacDonald and replaced Waite with Over the Top cinematographer David Gurfinkel... and then replaced Gurfinkel with Death Wish 3 cinematographer John Stanier. Yes, Rambo III was a bit of a troubled project.

While the finished product is entertaining, I can understand why it didn't go over as well as the previous two films had. Despite the massive popularity of Part II just a few years earlier, III underperformed at the box office, making barely a third of what Part II did in the United States and a bit over half worldwide. It's a fine movie with some great action and fun lines, but it's just not quite as interesting or engaging as its predecessors. It feels a bit long, a bit slow, and even though the final battle is bigger than anything in Part II it somehow still feels less satisfying.

I'm a fan of this movie, though, and apparently the memory of watching the movie on VHS in late 1988 is going to stick with me forever.

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