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‘Rambo III’ (R)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
May 25, 1988

Now that they have had two opportunities to get it down, the formula for "Rambo III," the latest installment in the adventures of John Rambo, is as precise as E=mc˛. But as you might expect, the calculations here are on a much less sophisticated level. And by less sophisticated, I mean like counting on fingers.

But working out the formula is all Sylvester Stallone and his associates are doing here. There is absolutely nothing in this third chapter of the Rambo story that we haven't seen in the previous two. Yes, the movie is full of empty action, minimalistic dialogue and more explosive material than the mind can fathom, but how could it not be? And yes, Stallone has developed his musculature to the point that he hardly seems human. (Oiled up, his arms look like varnished mahogany.) Also, he's grown his hair longer this time out, and this, together with the sleepy, suffering eyes, makes him resemble a Caravaggio Christ -- but with pecs.

One could say this installment is less good than the others, but then again, how do you measure that sort of thing? Ludicrous beyond your wildest imaginings would best describe what's been committed to film here, starting with the opening scenes in which we learn that Rambo has traveled to Thailand to become a Buddhist. Rambo's not your ordinary Eastern holy person, though. Every once in a while he journeys into Bangkok to whup the locals at stick fighting to raise money to help the monks build a monastery. Indeed, there are many paths to God.

What you're thinking is how could anyone even suggest such a notion without snickering? And it's an excellent question. But a good deal of what happens here is so outrageously lamebrained that it verges on camp. And at least then we have something to giggle at.

To say that "Rambo III," which was directed by Peter MacDonald (who served as second unit director on "First Blood II"), is back-to-basics filmmaking would be a misstatement of the facts; not even the basics have been grasped. The motions gone through here involve a mission, initiated by Rambo's Green Beret friend Colonel Trautman (Richard Crenna), to assist the rebels fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan. Trautman attempts to draw the stick-fighting Buddhist into the operation, but he will have no part of it. "My war's over," he says.

But the operation fails and Trautman is captured, so Rambo has to fight. (No, you don't understand, he has to!) After that, Rambo opens fire and many Soviets die. And not in their sleep either.

Actually getting Rambo in the mood to fight is one of the staples of the series; he's skittish, this grenade launcher, and has to be properly motivated. The vet's reticence, at least as Trautman explains it, is the result of Rambo's not coming to terms with himself as a warrior. To help him "come full circle," Trautman tells him a little story -- something about a sculptor clearing away the small pieces to reveal the beautiful sculpture that has always lived inside the stone. Rambo is like that sculpture, he says. "We didn't make you an incredible fighting machine. We just cleared away the small pieces."

In subsequent scenes, Rambo ponders this deeply, and perhaps there's nothing more wonderful -- or funnier -- in modern movies than watching Rambo think. Or try to think. Watching him turn this nugget over and over in his mind, you'd think you were witnessing the very birth of human thought.

It's in scenes like this one that we see how completely the star has given up even the pretense of being an actor. All of Stallone's preparation for the role seems to have been done in the weight room; he's become the chief exponent of the Mr. Universe school of acting. The camera pays such loving attention to the definition in his lats that the movie becomes merely an exercise in self-worship. It's Stallone's $63 million valentine to his own lusciousness.

There have been some minor refinements, though that hardly seems like quite the right word. It is marginally less offensive, I suppose, to have Rambo killing Reds in Afghanistan than killing Reds in Vietnam. (This way, racism isn't so prominent an aspect of the movie's rabid patriotism.) Then again, having an Afghan rebel speechify about the barbarism of the Soviets just as the their troops are pulling out has its down side, as does the film's idealization of the mujaheddin (who are characterized here as "freedom fighters").

To claim that the Rambo films have a political attitude is to dignify what is essentially a kind of reactionary paranoia. Its philosophy is basically a collection of the kind of sludgy, borderline-fascist sentiments you hear expressed at 3 in the morning on call-in radio shows. And perhaps the most malignant aspect of the Rambo phenomenon is the effectiveness with which Stallone has exploited these notions.

But Rambo may, in fact, have outlived his usefulness. His moment may have passed. To some extent in the first film, but especially in the second, Rambo was the articulation of unexpressed sentiments in the culture, a projection of some of our baser national needs. And in that sense the character may have served a useful mythic function. In the earlier films, there was a sense of mission, of passion even, mixed in with the filmmakers' calculations; here only their moneymaking impulses are engaged. This time it was for his friend, the ad line says. But who are they trying to kid? This time it was for the dough.

"Rambo III" contains a great deal of graphic violence and strong language.

Copyright The Washington Post

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