Friday, August 21, 2009

Rambo III (1988)

Price: $1.50
Year: 1988
Length: 103 minutes
Director: Peter MacDonald (replacing Russell Mulcahy)
Cast: Sylvester Stallone, Richard Crenna, Kurtwood Smith, Mark De Jonge

"It's a blue light"
"What does it do?"
"Turn blue"

Whenever I have blanked on something to blog about in this very space I turn to the films of Sylvester Stallone for inspiration. My very first post here was on his glorious buddy work with Kurt Russell in TANGO AND CASH, which I quickly followed up with a rambling discourse on the quite underrated JUDGE DREDD. Then, when I felt the need to revive this thing after 6 months of inactivity, I went with his semi serious duet of death with Rutger Hauer in NIGHTHAWKS. So it is not without some precedent that today when I was thinking "oh gee, I should write another entry in that damn thing already," I came to the conclusion that once again I'd need to turn to Mr. Stallone to force me to type entirely too many words into one space about one of his movies.

Hyperlinking and plodding essay exposition aside, RAMBO III will also, strangely, be the first Sylvester film I will have discussed here that features the dueling strengths of Stallone's acting and his screenwriting (but sadly not his directing). Stallone's career as a screenwriter is frequently overlooked or unfairly dismissed in most assessments of his career, yet it's a key factor in the success of many of his best films. His demented, excessively violent take on a book that would later be turned into a fucking Cindy Crawford + Baldwin Bro vehicle singularly made COBRA one of the greatest action films of the 1980's. Most prominently, he has been the only credited screenwriter on every single ROCKY film (6 total), for which he received an Academy Award nomination for writing his breakthrough role in the first ROCKY, for which he also received an acting nod, for which he did not win either, for which I am sad. 4 Witch(es) want to buy me flowers so I will now go ahead with this post now.

Anyway, I think most of Stallone's best movies have been those that he has had a hand in writing, then again he has screenwriting credits on a full half (18 of 36 by my count) of his post ROCKY films so the odds are somewhat stacked in his favor here to begin with. Still, I don't think it is coincidental that his prolonged 1990's flameout at the American box office came on just after he stopped taking a hand in his own scripts post-CLIFFHANGER (his last American box office hit until SPY KIDS 3-D in 2003 and his last script until 2001's uber-dud DRIVEN, which I'm just gonna blame on Renny Harlin sight unseen and I'm a Renny Harlin apologist, but that's another entry and this parentheses needs to end sometime how about no).

While Stallone took over the directorial reigns to the ROCKY franchise as soon as he could get the studio approval and wrote every one of those movies alone, he never seemed to take the same pride in his other signature series: the RAMBO films. Sure, he's a credited screenwriter on every single one of 'em, but up until 2008's reboot RAMBO, he was always a co-credited writer. For FIRST BLOOD, it was Stallone rewriting the script of a TV writer and an old B-movie hack, both of whom would never get another screenplay produced. On the contradictorily titled RAMBO:FIRST BLOOD PART II, Stallone re-wrote a script by James Cameron to fit his own political views with mixed success. Finally with RAMBO III, he worked alongside a good old reliable hack JCVD writer-director named Sheldon Lettich. Clearly, Stallone makes his vision shine through these other writer's words and ideas, but I don't think he really truly achieved greatness with this series until he took over the screenwriting and directorial reigns himself for RAMBO in 2008, a film that stands diarrhea and Drano above all the other RAMBO movies. Much like a French cigarette, Stallone is always at his best when he is unfiltered and the early RAMBO movies suffer for it.

Before I get into what doesn't quite work about RAMBO III, a film I have tried desperately to love but leaves me cold every time like 15 year old me with a Frank Zappa album, I'm going to list a few of the things that RAMBO III gets wonderfully funderfully co-rrect(ida). First off, unlike RAMBO FIRST BLOOD PART II, there is no attempt to shoehorn in any half-assed love interests for Mr. John Rambo this time. It is here that Stallone recognizes for the first time the true homoerotic potential of this franchise by removing almost all females from the picture (the only women in the whole film are a few young Afghani girls who Rambo saves in one scene) and by ramping up his own roided up shirtlessness to its absolute zenith. Never before had Stallone been so shirtless so often, not even in any of the ROCKY films where it even makes sense for him to be shirtless half the time since it's about fucking boxing, and he would never reveal himself so often again either. So if you want to see a lot of Stallone's cocaine and HGH filled chest covered in blood, sweat, and tears look no further than RAMBO III. Stallone also employs his famous exploding Rambo arrows to great effect in this movie. Whenever I was just about ready to nod off like Layne Staley in a public restroom, Stallone would explode someone with an arrow and my interest level would rise just enough to keep me a goin'. Finally, some special mention must be made of the fantastical kill towards the middle end of the movie where Stallone throws a guy with a rope around his neck down a hole with a bomb attached to him that explodes just after his neck is broken by the freshly taut rope. Sadly, this type of imaginative and entertaining death is sadly in short supply in this film. A remarkable decade of killing pulls to a limp end in this film.

At the end of the day though, there's a great YouTube video hidden somewhere in this movie, but it is just surrounded by too much dull exposition and hilariously misguided political intentions that somehow never wind up being hilarious themselves. This film is about how John Rambo puts everything on the line to help the Taliban in Afghanistan fight against those dastardly Russians who have invaded their land and killed their women and so on and so forth. We got A LOT of exposition involving Stallone spending time with the Taliban, learning from and adapting to their sometimes strange but always proud customs, such as playing a version of polo with a dead animal for a ball. Rambo beats them at their dead animal game the first time he plays it cause he's cooler than Clarence Rosario on a napkin and because Americans are naturally more gifted at all sports than foreigners, especially when they are Sylvester Stallone. We also get to spend some good mellow times with the kind hearted Taliban leader who is almost Omar Sharif just as the heroin dealer guy in MITCHELL is almost Anthony Quinn. As Jerry Goldsmith's self cannibalizing string and horn sections ebb and flow all around us, Stallone gives us a well-meaning master class in sympathizing with these Taliban guys and their pretty lousy seeming plight. History has been unkind to this film as the real tragedy these days is that Rambo puts his ass on the line to save a bunch of fuckers who then return the favor 13 years later by blowing up the beloved and historically significant set pieces from KING KONG 1976. But it was a different time then and wacko conservatives like Sylvester Stallone and the Golan-Globus axis were too busy demonizing those evil Russians at all costs so that if they made some other guys look a little too beatific in the process it was worth it to make a point about how evil those damn Russians were.

This extended and drawn out exposition is clearly some kind of convoluted way for Stallone to try to justify all the excessive violence in this film to those who criticized his reliance on blood, sinew, and powder kegs in the past. You see it's okay to kill people if they are really, really bad and if they are hurting people who are just tryin' ta live like Devin the Dude and not bug anyone else. Of fucking course, he befriends a child during this extended sequence. I assumed that the child would die in some horrific way in the movie, but I wasn't really paying too close attention at that point. I certainly hope the child dies, why else would you need to include one in a film like this? Essentially, Stallone in a war environment just makes too much sense. His overwrought, hyper-violent tendencies work best when placed in environments where it makes no sense like the wide world of arm wrestling truck drivers in OVER THE TOP, a city of serial killing satanic bikers in COBRA, or a boxing match against a 7 foot tall Russian that ends the Cold War in ROCKY IV. Logic is never Stallone's best friend, and he spends entirely too much time in RAMBO III trying to make sense, which is something he should never try to do.

At the time of this film's production, it was the most expensive movie ever, unadjusted for inflation, at a total budget of $63 million. Nowadays, a Sandra Bullock rom-com costs that much, but that a film of this extreme political content and violence once reached that hallowed threshold (now occupied by DELGO 2: Avatarded and Loving It) says more about the weird and woolly 1980's than anything I could ever say in this here spot. So I'm just gonna wrap up with the phrase "WHO ARE YOU? YOUR WORST NIGHTMARE" that Stallone tried to make his own "I'll be back" or "Yippie Kay Ay," I bet those Planet Hollywood meetings always got awkward when Sly would try to shoehorn it into some corner of conversation where it didn't quite fit and Bruce and Arnie would smirk to themselves and indulge him amicably, content in the knowledge that they truly achieved catchphrase ubiquity, the sole honor that this world has yet to grant upon Mr. Stallone. Whatever, sometimes a blue light is just a fucking blue light.



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