It is three years after John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) left Vietnam for the second time, and now he lives in Thailand where he divides his time between stick fighting for money and helping build a new monastery for the Buddhist monks there. However, his old life of war will not leave him alone, and his former boss, Colonel Trautman (Richard Crenna), has tracked him down to make a request: come to Afghanistan with him and join his operations with the American-backed freedom fighters there. Rambo wants no part of it until news reaches him that Trautman has been captured by the Soviets...
Nobody wanted to hear about Rambo bashing the Russians in 1988, as Stallone, here co-writing with second-tier action movie director Sheldon Lettich, found out to his cost. It may have been the most expensive film ever made up to that point, so the studio had faith in their star, but Glasnost was making itself plain and the war in Afghanistan was playing itself out and winding down - maybe not enough people in the audience had enough emotional investment in the conflict, as it was, as Trautman says, the Soviets' equivalent of the Vietnam War.
But not really the Americans', as all they were doing was supplying the resistance with weaponry. Of course, now all the talk here of any war in this country being unwinnable rings somewhat hollow because just over a decade later and America was fighting those self same rebels to great cost to its national morale, international standing and too many troops cut down in their prime by enemy forces. This has made Rambo III notorious for having its pioneer of bringing justice through extravagant violence essentially on the side of the Mujahideen, not something his potential fans in the West find palatable.
But can you ignore all the political stuff and simply appreciate the film as a straightforward action flick? It's certainly possible, but Rambo's good versus evil plotting seem far too simplistic for a case where the reality is a lot more complicated and depressing. Yet you could have said the same about its immediate predecessor, and the belated 2008 Rambo sequel ostensibly took on an Asian conflict with similar black and white morality and that was a sizeable hit, probably because few in the the rest of the world knew enough about it and could take Stallone's politics at face value. But not with Rambo III; it's odd.
As far as the plot goes, it's thuddingly pompous and self-important, with what quips there are mumbled away with little impact, yet if it's things blowing up real good you want, then it delivered on that promise. The main villain this time is another Russian military officer, Zayser (Marc de Jonge), but even compared with Steven Berkoff in Part II he's a cardboard character. Rambo proves himself a man of the people by engaging in that grand old sport of flinging a dead goat around while on horseback, but as if to say, here comes the Red Army to spoil everyone's fun, it is reduced to carnage when some helicopter gunships crash the party - Rambo takes one of them out with a great big machine gun, naturally. But subtlety isn't what you want here, and it sure isn't what you get, so it's a pity that the film buries its head in the sand whenever anything like the real world arises. Music by Jerry Goldsmith.