Sunday, November 14, 2010

Rambo marathon: Rambo III

Rambo III (1988, Peter MacDonald)

From the ashes a phoenix rises. After a hero’s downfall he or she must be redeemed, either by their own actions or the grace of some higher power. Perhaps this elusive force is called God, maybe fate, or studio executives, who knows?  When we last saw John Rambo, he had embarked on a redemptive mission in Vietnam in order to finally do some genuine good and prove that ‘the system’ sucks. With regards to plot, that all worked out by the time the end credits rolled. From a qualitative point of view, that movie blew up in its own face. Money is the most likely answer as to why a third film was put into production just a few years later, but the creation of a third instalment was nonetheless an opportunity to give Rambo a solid action movie. Replicating the story of First Blood was impossible because it was unique and contained, but Rambo could still, hopefully at least, be part of a rousing and worthwhile war film.

Rambo III opens in Thailand, with our hero (still played by Sylvester Stallone) now doing community service on his own time by helping to build monasteries. He also performs fights for crowds at the harbour for extra cash, which he happily gives away to the monks he is living with outside the city.  Colonel Trautman (Richard Crenna) somehow succeeds in locating his former protégé and asks him for some assistance in liberating Afghan civilians who are being mercilessly butchered by the Russians, in particular by one considerably power hungry general named Zaysen (Mark  de Jonge). John refuses, he is a changed man, a man of peace who no longer has any business being associated with the military. Some time later however he learns that the American mission has failed and that his old mentor and friend Trautman has been kidnapped by general Zayesen. Rambo is thus forced to make the trip to Afghanistan and serve the Russians a can of spicy whoop ass.

After the lackluster writing, acting and directing which brought the previous instalment down in the dumps, Rambo III provides the series with something of a lift. Peter MacDonald, who worked mostly on music videos at the time, was given the director's chair and does an admirable job overall. His style is very workmanlike, with not much in the way of special skill, but nor does the man butcher any scenes either. Actually, if I may correct myself for a moment, I’d argue that there are two sequences that do stand out for the reasons of directorial skill. One concerns Rambo’s infiltration of the Russian base at night with the help of an Afghan fighter and a young boy. The stealth, ‘hide and seek’ game played by Rambo in the shadows between shafts of light is fun and well executed, with the play of darkness and light adding some visual appeal to this vitally important scene. Another that caught my eye was when, after John and Trautman escape the Russian base, both are hunted down by Russian military in large caves underground. The sight of the Russians sliding down the ropes from the holes of light above, Rambo’s usage of the blue lights sticks, the quiet and painful deaths inflicted on the individual soldiers, all of this is really well handled and proved that director MacDonald did in fact have a bit of a craftsmen gene within him. 

I can hear the complaints already about the mundane plot and Rambo’s motivation to enter Afghanistan. ‘How original, get his old mentor kidnapped! Boring!’ Well, under other circumstances those complaints would be apt, but not so with Rambo III. The strength of this story elements resides not merely in the fact that I’ve always enjoyed Richard Crenna as Colonel Trautman, but harkens back to what transpired in the first film. Back then the viewer was shown just how far the Colonel will go to save an old pupil and friend when the latter was verging on the edge of psychosis. With Trautman now in the hands Zeysan, Rambo feels the need to return the favour. In that sense, Rambo III comes across as a bit of an extra payoff to what happened in First Blood, which is not something I would complain about because I enjoyed that first movie very much, so a small kudos to the writing is in order. On a level of personal taste, I liked the story because it allows Crenna to see more action and be more involved in the adventure than he had been in the past. If this is the man who formed Rambo into the soldier he is today, than let’s finally see what he can do. More screen time for Crenna also means that he and Stallone get to interact and play off one another more than before, yet another plus for the film. I would not say that pithy banter is an essential ingredient to a Rambo movie, but what ironic lines the two friends toss another in Rambo III are alright for the most part and finally put their bond under a different light, one that actually hints that they are, you know, friends and not merely teacher and student. There were moments, if only briefly, that I thought maybe the script was giving the two men a few too many witty replies to silly questions, but in the final moments there is an admission by both Rambo and Trautman that maybe, just maybe, they are growing soft. A nice touch admittedly, even though I have my suspicions as to whether or not mowing down hundreds of Russians denotes any signs of ‘growing soft.’

Speaking of Russians, the antagonists of the picture are the main reasons that prevent the film from reaching any higher status than it has now. While not as silly and uninspiring as the Vietnamese in the second chapter of the saga, the Russians don’t fare that much better here. General Zeyson may have an evil glare, he will not be remembered as a great villain once this marathon is over. It seemed as though the movie was going to enter some intriguing territory when the general rebuffs accusations that he and his men are slaughtering countless Afghans. Maybe someone else was behind the massacres, which shall prompt Rambo and Zeyson to join forces in repelling a common enemy, like it or not. Nay, the Russians are indeed part of the evil empire in this story and nothing more. I did think the action was a bit more visceral here than in First Blood Part II though. Some of that may have had to do with the fact that I’ve successfully erased much of that film from my memory, but the bullet and knife wounds looked as though they hurt a lot more this time around. 

Even the child soldier who helps Rambo eats some bullets, which brings me to the issue of that character’s inclusion into the plot. Unlike in far too many films, this kid is not excessively annoying. In fact, I did not find him to be annoying in the slightest, but I found his active participation in John’s mission by supplying additional fire power was a curious one. Here is a film that has no qualms about showcasing a young boy as a warrior, a little man whose life has been turned into a living hell with the slaughter of his parents and who feels compelled to advance the cause of his people with the end of a rifle. But do we want a Rambo film to offer commentary on such a topic? First Blood intelligently commented on the lives of some Vietnam War veterans, so I suppose there was an opportunity for a similar study here, but MacDonald and company seem content with merely having the boy as a supporting character. They don’t embellish the kid’s amoral life but rather display it in a decidedly ‘matter of fact’ tone, which was probably the smart choice. It isn't pretty, but these things happen and if the child is to fight on Rambo's side (which we are assuming is the side of 'good') then so be it. A bit off putting? Maybe, but I thought it worked well enough.

It may not be a perfect film (the villains are especially boring despite there being some interesting suggestions that the Russians are experiencing their own Vietnam War, establishing yet another connection with the character of Rambo and where he came from), but Rambo III manages to entertain with some solid action sequences and a long awaited adventure that involved both Rambo and his friend Trautman rather than have the latter safely stand around miles away from the danger. For my money, Rambo III was what First Blood Part II should have been: just a good action movie following the rich psychological drama of the original. It may have arrived one film late, but I was happy that it arrived at all.

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Where are the exploding arrows man!! Where are they?