Halloween, 1990. With a strip of red fabric from mom’s sewing kit, a smear of red paint across a tattered shirt, and a clunky ‘Star Wars’ action figure case shaped like a machine gun, I was John Rambo. At the time, the ‘Rambo’ sequels were the pinnacle of action films in my young eyes. ‘First Blood’ was too slow to keep my attention, but its sequels were the craziest R-rated cartoons I ever snuck into my parents’ basement to watch. This year marked the first time I had sat down to watch the ‘Rambo’ series in fifteen years. To my surprise, ‘First Blood’ hit me as an instant action classic, while ‘First Blood Part II’ undermined everything the first film had established and ‘Rambo III’ put the proverbial bullet in the trilogy's head.
Hopped up on a haphazard blend of adrenaline and absurdity, ‘Rambo III’ opens as Colonel Trautman (series regular Richard Crenna) finds our reclusive hero (Sylvester Stallone) hiding out in a Bangkok monastery, earning money by way of illegal fighting tournaments in the city. Trautman asks Rambo to join him on a mission to deliver weapons to Afghani rebels resisting hordes of invading Soviet forces, but the world-weary warrior refuses. However, when Rambo learns of the mission’s failure and Trautman’s subsequent capture, he makes his way to Afghanistan to rescue his friend, assist the rebellion, and administer his particular brand of justice to the Soviets responsible for a number of heinous atrocities.
Suffering from an anxious pace, unintentionally hilarious gore, and a ludicrous series of action beats, ‘Rambo III’ feels more like a parody of the series than a genuine entry. Stallone’s character hasn’t evolved in the slightest -- early glimpses of his new life in Bangkok are little more than a setup for the fighting skills utilized later in the film. He still relies on explosive arrows, reams of bullets, and pure, unadulterated brawn to save the day. Even the strategies he employs in his assault are paper thin -- the cavernous terrain of Afghanistan could have provided a wealth of new battle scenarios, but the filmmakers merely recycle familiar scenes we already caught in ‘First Blood’ and ‘First Blood Part II.’ Worst of all, the film’s underdeveloped script strives to generate empathy for the Afghani rebels, but never really develops their role in the story. They’re only used as a means to rekindle a bit of Rambo’s humanity, dying on cue and offering stories of their struggles that allow him to invest in their plight.
Ironically, I found myself enjoying the historical conflict at the core of ’Rambo III’ more than the film itself. I was terribly amused to watch Rambo participate in a slice of history I only recently learned about in ‘Charlie Wilson’s War.’ While I doubt Charlie had a one-man killing machine to thank for driving the Soviets out of Afghanistan, it does add an entertaining layer to an otherwise tedious, repetitive actioner. That being said, I can’t imagine my reaction to the film had I simply evaluated it on its own merit. Fans of the series and other ‘80s action extravaganzas may revel in the film’s gratuitous and consistent bloodbath, but I felt the experience was dated, preposterous, and unworthy of its association with ‘First Blood.’
I know there’s an audience out there that will scoop ‘Rambo III’ up as soon as it hits store shelves. Personally, it’s just not my flavor. With every passing scene, I longed for the gritty tone of ‘First Blood’ and its prioritization of character over action. This third entry in the series is a subpar shoot-em-up that reduces the brilliance of the first film to a dull, monotonous videogame. Ironically, the only warm and fuzzy memories of ‘Rambo III’ I plan to cling to come courtesy of the addictive Sega Genesis game that dominated a solid month of my eighth grade year.
Lionsgate continues to reinvigorate the ‘Rambo’ series with yet another impressive 1080p/VC-1 video transfer. Cleaner than ‘First Blood’ and sharper than ‘Rambo: First Blood Part II,’ ‘Rambo III’ shines with the best high-def visuals of the original trilogy. The palette is warmer this time around, but skintones are still natural and nicely saturated in spite of shots dominated by hotter whites. While shadow delineation takes an intentional hit as the cinematographer ramps up the tension of the caves, the transfer doesn’t fall prey to significant noise or troublesome crushing. In fact, black levels are deep, contrast is spot on, and the image showcases plenty of three-dimensional shots that don’t show the film’s age. Best of all, fine object detail is more apparent than it’s ever been on DVD -- the rocky terrain, the sweat on Stallone’s brow, and the slightest stubble is generally crisp and well rendered.
Typical of a twenty-year old film, there are some imperfections in the original print. A few scratches, a handful of soft background elements, and a bit of seemingly random damage toward the end of the film hold the transfer back, but rarely distract from its overall impact. Beyond that, the only slight problems I could find were fairly inconsequential -- contrast wavering rears its head on a half dozen occasions and a hint of edge enhancement pops up from time to time. Regardless, ‘Rambo III’ looks much better than I expected. Fans of the ‘Rambo’ films should really be pleased with the love and care Lionsgate invested into even the series’ most critically-reviled entry.
While not quite as engaging as the video transfer, ‘Rambo III’s lossless DTS HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track outperforms the audio tracks Lionsgate mastered for the first two films in the series. The biggest improvement lies in the rear speakers -- whereas the previous films were marred by a front-heavy soundfield, ‘Rambo III’ spreads its firepower around the room to create realistic attack helicopters, cavern echoes, and crowd chatter. Ambiance is still limited by the film’s uninvolving sound design, but it’s at least a more substantial element of the soundscape this time. Rounding out the sonic experience are stable treble tones, decent LFE support, and rather forgiving prioritization. Explosions still sound a tad weak in my opinion, but they certainly pack a greater punch than they did in ‘Rambo: First Blood Part II.’
If I have any serious charge to level against this DTS HD MA track, it’s that it isn’t as consistent as other catalog audio tracks I’ve reviewed. Pans are transparent one moment and stocky the next, directionality is accurate when it comes to battle scenes but uninvolving during conversations, and the rear channels occasionally take a break at inopportune moments. Thankfully, ‘Rambo III’ has plenty of action to keep the track pounding along from beginning to end. While I doubt it will turn any heads, it should satisfy fans and leave them with little to complain about.
’Rambo III’ may not have a lot to offer, but that’s because Lionsgate wisely excluded most of the mediocre content featured on the film’s standard DVDs (a dated EPK quickie, a bit of text based material, and the 2004 Ultimate Edition’s migraine-inducing “Survival Mode” enhancements). The only missing material of value is a collection of deleted scenes that should have been ported over.
I wish I could say ’Rambo III’ closes out the original ‘Rambo’ trilogy in style, but it merely sputters to the finish line with a weak script and a series of increasingly ludicrous action beats. Thankfully, this new Blu-ray release has more to offer than the film itself. It features a surprisingly good video transfer, an above-average lossless audio track, and a decent sampling of supplements. I can’t recommend ‘Rambo III’ to anyone who doesn’t already adore the original trilogy, but its impressive technical presentation will easily satisfy its fans.