First, I need to get the theater-going experience out of the way. I do not remember the last time I’ve been in a theater filled with stupider people. They did not shower for the most part. Their girlfriends had to explain the complicated parts to them. I can only imagine what seeing Rambo III would have been like for people with IQs above eighty-five back when the series was popular.
On to the film.
Stallone tries hard to give Rambo the Rocky Balboa treatment and he succeeds on a few levels. He really gets across how awful things in Burma are going–the genocide. He manages to make it the setting, not turning the film into an infomercial. It’s impressive. The more important level is the character himself. In a very poorly constructed voiceover, Stallone eradicates the “Rambo the tortured Vietnam vet” thing he’s had going for twenty-five years. Rambo, Stallone decides, kills people because he likes it (which might not sound like much, but just imagine a Lethal Weapon or Die Hard featuring that thesis about its protagonist). Stallone’s observation, of course, would be a heck of a lot more profound if the movie worked out in the end….
Stallone doesn’t find the balance between action movie and thoughtful observation in Rambo, because he plays toward a general realism. It’s not Rambo running around the jungle trying to save the missionaries by himself, there’s a team of mercenaries with him. Of these mercenaries, Matthew Marsden and Graham McTavish give the best performances. As for the missionaries, Paul Schulze is surprisingly bad and Julie Benz is fine. Benz kind of plays Fay Wray to Stallone’s Kong. It’s a wonderful relationship to watch, because Stallone really gets how to make it work.
So, oddly, the problem becomes Stallone’s unwillingness to go the distance, to have a crazy action movie with Rambo running around killing bad guys (and these bad guys are bad… the worst bad guys I can remember seeing in such numbers in a movie). He goes for something resembling realism and the movie loses out. It’s not dumb fun. It’s dumb pseudo-realistic action violence. Stallone’s very big on showing how awful violence is in the film, it’s graphic and it’s intense.
Rambo, the character, doesn’t deserve the Rocky Balboa treatment–the redefined sequel treatment–because there’s just not enough of a character there. The proof is easily identifiable–Rambo‘s lame closing scene. But it seems like there’s a good mix–and Stallone finds it quite a few times in the movie… he just can’t sustain it.