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Peter MacDonald
Sylvester Stallone, Richard Crenna, Marc de Jonge, Kurtwood Smith, Spiros Focas
Sylvester Stallone, Sheldon Lettich, David Morrell

The first was for himself. The second for his country. This time it's to save his friend.
Box Office:
Rated R.

Widescreen 2.35:1/16x9
English Dolby Digital 5.1
English DTS 5.1
English Dolby Surround

Runtime: 102 min.
Price: $19.98
Release Date: 5/28/2002

• Audio Commentary With Director Peter MacDonald
• “Afghanistan: Land In Crisis” Documentary
• Theatrical Trailers
• Cast and Crew
• Production Notes

Rambo Trilogy

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Rambo III (1988)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson

Most thought that 1988’s Rambo III would reign as one of the year’s box office champs. Of the three films in the series, it was the only one with much pre-release hype behind it. 1982’s First Blood and 1985’s Rambo: First Blood Part II became surprise hits.

After the $150 million gross of the 1985 flick, however, Rambo III couldn’t sneak up on anyone. Along with another sequel - Crocodile Dundee II - the newest iteration of the Rambo series was supposed to scarf up some big bucks.

It didn’t happen, at least not for Rambo. According to IMDB, Dundee II actually made a good piece of change; that source relates that it earned a positive $109 million. That doesn’t live up to the $174 million of the 1986 original, but it seems pretty good. In my memory, I retained the thought that Dundee II bombed, but if this data is correct, I guess I was wrong.

However, my memories of the fate accorded Rambo III don’t seem erroneous. IMDB state that it made a mere $53 million, which represented barely a third of what the prior film earned. It also didn’t even manage to surpass its own $63 million budget. Since the Rambo films play well overseas, Rambo III ended up in the black with a worldwide take of $189 million, but it nonetheless had to be a considerable disappointment for its producers, and it apparently killed the franchise. I wouldn’t put it past star Sylvester Stallone to create a Rambo IV given the occasional rumor that he wants to do Rocky VI, but 14 years after the fact, a fourth Rambo seems unlikely.

And that’s a good thing. First Blood offered a pretty good action drama that actually had a reason to exist. It presented the pain of the Vietnam vet in a superficial but still useful and compelling manner. First Blood Part II, however, degenerated into nothing more than a killfest and bore little resemblance to the original film.

Rambo III takes us even farther from the character as originally conceived. Any semblance of his emotional distress or trauma vanished as Rambo became a larger-than-life prototypical American hero. During those “morning in America” years of the Reagan presidency, however, people seemed to want that. I thought - and still feel - that the movie stunk, but it obviously connected with a substantial audience.

So what happened to Rambo III? Perhaps the character became too generic. At least First Blood Part II continued the Vietnam theme of the first film. Rambo III strayed from that path. While this seemed to be a wise decision - another Vietnam-based flick would risk serious overkill - it appeared to backfire, as audiences clearly didn’t care to see Rambo turn into a general action hero.

Ironically, I actually think Rambo III is a better film than First Blood Part II, despite the silly name. (As many noted at the time, it should either be Rambo II or First Blood Part III.) However, I consider that to be faint praise. While Rambo III offered a moderately more engaging experience than did its predecessor, it still seemed bland and inane.

As we start Rambo III, we quickly learn that our man’s (Sylvester Stallone) taken up residency in Thailand. There he helps out at a monastery and earns spare change as a stick fighter. His old boss Colonel Trautman (Richard Crenna) comes to recruit him for yet another mission. This time he wants Rambo to assist with the anti-Soviet forces in Afghanistan. Surprisingly, Rambo declines to participate; he seems content to live his simple life.

Trautman proceeds but gets captured by the Soviets. As one might expect, this spurs Rambo into action, especially when the local bureaucrats - led by Griggs (Kurtwood Smith) - decline to make any official response. They toss him a bone and set him free to do what he can do.

In Afghanistan, Rambo meets his contact Mousa (Sasson Gabai), who doesn’t think our hero can accomplish the mission. Nonetheless, he offers aid and Rambo starts his task. Inevitably, he runs up against Soviet warlord Colonel Zaysen (Marc de Jonge), a sadistic sort who tortures Trautman. Rambo soon comes to save the officer, but their escape won’t come easily, as they go up against superior Soviet numbers. Gee, I wonder who’ll win?

Yes, folks - that’s sarcasm, and the lowest form, too! It’s hard to resist cheap shots when I encounter such a generic film, however. As I noted, I do prefer Rambo III to First Blood Part II, simply because it executes its story with a bit more life and a little less cheese. The dialogue still stinks, but the script includes fewer laughers.

However, Rambo III tries much harder to offer comic relief. Those moments start slowly, but by the time Rambo and Trautman team up, they turn into a regular comedy duo. They trade lame witticisms that further marred the dramatic imagery originally accorded to Rambo. In prior films, neither Rambo nor Trautman seemed too light-hearted, so while their comments never appear particularly jovial, they come across as forced and artificial.

But so does the whole movie. As I noted, I prefer Rambo III to First Blood Part II just because it seems more competently executed and it lacks the same level of stupidity. However, at least the second film offered a certain level of iconic power that totally evaporates here. Rambo became an archetype in the first sequel, but here he turns into nothing more than another generic action hero, replete with silly one-liners and unbelievable action sequences. As a mindless shoot-em-up, Rambo III has some moments, but it never does anything to distinguish itself.

The DVD Grades: Picture B / Audio A- / Bonus B

Rambo III appears in both an aspect ratio of approximately 2.35:1 and in a fullscreen version on this double-sided DVD-14; the widescreen image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Only the letterboxed picture was reviewed for this article. Since both of the first two films looked very good, I didn’t feel surprised to encounter another good image for Rambo III, though it still fell short of greatness.

Sharpness looked positive. The movie consistently seemed accurate and well defined. I noticed virtually no problems related to softness. Jagged edges and moiré effects caused no concerns, though I did notice a smidgen on edge enhancement at times. Print flaws seemed more prevalent during Rambo III than in its predecessors. Some grit and marks appeared, and I saw quite a few examples of speckles. These never became excessive, and they declined as the movie progressed, but the nonetheless provided some distractions.

None of the Rambo films offered bright and vivid palettes, and Rambo III stayed with a pretty subdued color scheme. However, the DVD represented those tones well, as it showed clear and concise hues throughout the movie. Black levels came across as fairly deep and dense, while shadow detail seemed a little inconsistent. Most low-light scenes looked fine, but a few of them appeared a bit murky and hazy. Overall, Rambo III lost some points due to its speckles, but I still felt it provided a solid image.

Since the first two Rambo flicks offered both Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS 5.1 soundtracks, it should come as no surprise that those options appeared during Rambo III as well. To my ears, I noticed significant differences that favored the DTS track for First Blood, but Rambo: First Blood Part II demonstrated no such variations. I felt the same about Rambo III; to me, the two mixes sounded virtually identical.

Which was a good thing, for they both provided very strong audio. The soundfield featured solid use of all five channels and seemed surprising active given its age. Admittedly, 1988 wasn’t all that long ago, but most mixes that came out prior to the common use of digital surround in the early Nineties sound pretty dated. Rambo III managed to offer a rather lively and compelling affair. The various effects always emanated from logical places, and they blended together quite well. Panning and movement between channels was clean and well delineated. The mix also showed a lot of ambient sound as well as many elements that made this an active piece. The rear channels worked as active partners and even featured a fair amount of split-surround material.

Audio quality also appeared solid. Speech sounded reasonably natural and distinct, and I heard no issues related to edginess or intelligibility. Music seemed bright and vivid and showed good range. Some explosions occasionally demonstrated a little distortion, but the effects usually came across as clean and vibrant, and they packed a pretty good punch. Bass sounded slightly boomy at times, but those problems weren’t major. Ultimately, Rambo III provided audio that seemed excellent for its era.

One related issue may cause some concerns. Apparently the theatrical release - and prior DVD - of Rambo III featured subtitles for the lines spoken in Russian. Those don’t appear on the current disc. Since I hadn’t seen the movie in years, I didn’t notice this as I watched it. Yes, I did notice that the Russian lines weren’t subtitled, but I didn’t know that they were supposed to be that way; the scenes don’t last long, and movies don’t always subtitle foreign languages. Though I didn’t think it affected the progress of the film, I totally understand why fans feel upset by this alteration and I believe it mars an otherwise good presentation. Early reports indicate that Artisan doesn’t seem very eager to fix the change, but hopefully they’ll do the right thing and eventually restore the missing subtitles.

This new release of Rambo III provides a modest mix of extras. We get an audio commentary from director Peter MacDonald, who delivers a running, screen-specific piece. Though not as bad as the clunker from First Blood Part II director George P. Cosmatos, MacDonald’s chat still stands as a fairly weak commentary. The biggest negative relates to the amount of information he provides. On occasion, extremely long spans of time pass between his statements, and when MacDonald does speak, he often just tells us what we see.

However, he does periodically manage to provide some good facts about the shoot. MacDonald presents a reasonably candid personality and he offers information about various problems encountered on location. He offers enough information to make the track worthwhile for big fans of the film, but others may find it to seem excessively frustrating.

Next we find Afghanistan: Land In Crisis, a 29-minute and 45-second documentary. Unlike similar pieces that come with First Blood and Rambo: First Blood Part II, “Crisis” spends relatively little time on the film itself. Instead, it offers a quick history lesson about that region. We see some movie clips amidst historical footage and a series of new interviews. In the latter category, we get remarks from actors Sylvester Stallone and Richard Crenna, executive producers Andrew Vajna and Mario Kassar, producer Buzz Feitshans, author Larry Goodson, USC professor Richard Dekmejian, found and president of the Media Research Center Brent Bozell, vice president of the Afghanistan Relief Organization Abdul Satar, NYU professor Ella Shohat, UCLA professor Douglas Kellner, former senator Robert K. Dornan, and “LA Weekly” executive editor John Powers.

At times, this program delves into a few issues related to Rambo III, and we learn a little about the locations and some production problems. However, the majority of the documentary provides a quick but concise examination of the recent history of Afghanistan. It looks at the Soviet military involvement that began in 1979 and mainly sticks with that conflict, though it briefly goes over the roots of the current US problems there. I consciously decided not to discuss those issues in my review of the movie itself, for I didn’t think they seemed relevant. Nonetheless, I’m glad the DVD features this solid little documentary, for it helps put the circumstances into better perspective. If you want to learn about the making of Rambo III, you’re out of luck, but if you’d like a clear and compelling piece of useful background information, “Crisis” should work for you.

A few minor extras round out the disc. We get both a theatrical trailer and what appears to be a TV spot. The Production Notes mostly discuss the trials and travails of the shoot, and they offer an interesting look at that side of things. Cast and Crew includes listings for director Peter MacDonald, executive producers Andrew G. Vajna and Mario Kassar, producer Buzz Feitshans, and actors Stallone, Richard Crenna, and Kurtwood Smith. The quality of the entries varies - Stallone’s is easily the most detailed - but all offer decent details about the participants’ careers.

This special edition DVD of Rambo offers its second release in the format. The first one came out in October 1998 and shared some supplements. Actually, everything here also appeared on the old disc except for “Afghanistan: Land In Crisis”. From the original, we lose a featurette and a trivia game. However, if you buy the Rambo Trilogy boxed set I discuss at the end of this review, you’ll get those features. Neither is missed here, though, especially since “Crisis” is quite good. By the way, I never saw the original disc, so I can’t compare audio and video. Apparently that DVD included anamorphic widescreen; I don’t know if this new one uses the same transfer or not. The sound definitely differs, as the original provided only Dolby Surround 2.0 sound instead of this one’s 5.1 tracks.

Though it was supposed to make a mint, 1988’s Rambo III tanked and apparently killed the franchise. In its own right, the movie wasn’t that bad, but it certainly didn’t offer much that seemed original or compelling. The DVD featured good picture along with excellent sound. The extras include a sporadically interesting audio commentary with a very worthwhile documentary and a few smaller bits. Except for some omitted subtitles, Rambo fans should really like the special edition DVD of Rambo III, but others probably will not much care for it.

Note that this special edition DVD of Rambo III can be purchased on its own or as part of a four-disc set called the Rambo Trilogy. The latter also includes sequels First Blood and Rambo: First Blood Part II as well as a fourth DVD that provides a mix of supplements. Each of the three films can be found individually, but the “bonus disc” appears only as part of the Rambo Trilogy. If you like all three flicks and enjoy supplements, that package offers a good bargain, as it retails for $59.98, or the price of the three movies on their own.

Viewer Film Ratings: 4.35 Stars Number of Votes: 40
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