Written By Zak Attack
The theory behind this entire franchise face-off has been the parallel action of the sequels. The jump from relatively understated genre pic to action-packed extravaganza was thrilling to experience and surprisingly natural. Unfortunately, in both movies’ attempts to replicate the success of its predecessor, the third film acts as the nadir for both quadrilogies.
The Tale of the Tape:
Down on his luck, a long-haired “Mad” Max Rockatansky (Mel Gibson) heads to Bartertown so he can trade his services (as a badass, I guess?) for a restock of supplies. It’s here he meets the reigning despot of the wild west settlement, Aunty Entity (Tina Turner). She explains that the thorn in her side has been the contentious owner of Bartertown’s energy-producing manure farm, a dwarf (Freaks’ Angelo Rossitto) riding on the back of a mindless giant (Paul Larsson), collectively named Master Blaster. And you thought the names couldn’t get crazier after “Toecutter” and “Lord Humungus”. Max agrees to use his wiles to challenge and kill Master Blaster during legal combat in “The Thunderdome”, thereby turning true control of Bartertown over to Aunty Entity.
However, when Max finds out “Blaster” is mentally challenged, he refuses to follow through with the murder. Aunty kills the hulking brute anyway and sends our hero to the desert. He’s rescued by a group of incredibly annoying children who worship him as their messiah. For unclear reasons, Max leads them all to Bartertown, rescues Master from the prison Aunty was keeping him, and leads all the good guys on a thrilling, yet recognizable, chase through the desert.
Rambo III begins with Colonel Trautman (Richard Crenna) and some guy played by Kurtwood Smith tracking down John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone, of course) in Thailand after the events of Rambo: First Blood Part II. They’re looking to recruit him for a mission to resupply Mujahideen rebels in Afghanistan to fight the Soviets. Rambo declines, even after it’s made clear that Trautman would be revisiting the mentor role by leading the platoon into Afghanistan. It seems that Rambo has finally found his center. It’s a center of non-violent inner acceptance and peace.
After the plot is set-up, Rambo III follows as you would expect. Trautman leads his Rambo-less force and is captured behind enemy lines, so his former protege agrees to embark on a one-man rescue mission. He befriends the Mujahideen freedom fighters and rescues his surrogate father figure, leaving a trail of bodies in his wake.
Category 1 – The People Who Get Paid to Talk:
After the disaster of Julia Nickson in the second one, Rambo III manages to be completely inoffensive in the acting category. Crenna has significantly improved over the past two films, which is fortunate since he’s repeatedly asked to pontificate on the fate of the Soviets in Afghanistan. Most of his lines are anything but subtle and the potential for preachy, trite delivery isn’t helped by the fact that Trautman is undergoing torture as he goes off on his tangents. “Every day, your war machines lose ground to a bunch of poorly-armed, poorly-equipped freedom fighters. The fact is that you underestimated your competition. If you’d studied your history, you’d know that these people have never given up to anyone. They’d rather die than be slaves to an invading army
The Mujahideen fighters (especially leaders played by Spiros Focas and Sasson Gabai) are all serviceable in their fairly rote and a bit too noble roles. They fall under the old cliche of the wizened underdogs who represent all that is good against a larger, malicious force. It’s poorly written, but well-acted enough. The most important facet is that Sylvester Stallone has managed to imbue Rambo with a little more thoughtfulness after the glib punchiness of the previous film.
Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome has some rough patches in this category. Angelo Rossitti is cringe-inducing as Master. In fact, both Tina Turner and he shout their lines to the back row without any sense of modulation or character. It’s camp without any feeling. And then we get to the faux-Lost Boys (in fact, it’s funny how many cues Steven Spielberg took from this when he made Hook) who are gratingly loud and continuously surround Max with a barrage of blabbering. Unlike most critics of this movie, I don’t prima facie begrudge their family friendly existence. But boy, are their scenes tiring.
Mel Gibson is probably the only actor to get through this one unscathed. His wide-eyed confusion and facial mugging are not particularly fitting for the character, but overall those choices mostly fit the tone of the film itself. The good news is that Gibson is able to play it a couple different levels (capable and serious, or slap-sticky and goofy) as the movie progresses.
SCORE: Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome: 0 – Rambo III: 1
Category 2 – What they Get Paid to Say:
Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome has an uncharacteristically convoluted storyline that betrays the whole “things just sort of happen to Max” conceit of the other films. It starts out wonderfully strong by expanding the world set up in The Road Warrior through the existence of Bartertown. The collapsed society has evolved to something of a municipality with laws and currency and a hierarchy. This opens up Miller’s concepts from the previous films to interesting questions about humanity and a more measured style of chaos possible in structured organizations.
The problem is, we’re only in Bartertown a short time before he’s thrown in the desert and rescued by the children. In the other films it has been explicitly clear what all the characters want. Mad Max is still looking out for number one, but here his priorities shift constantly. First he wants to restock on supplies in Bartertown, but when unwilling to kill Blaster he ends up at an oasis with a bunch of annoying kids. So then he just wants to hang there with them since they have water. However, when a few leave to go find Bartertown he decides to go out of his way to start saving people left and right. Unlike The Road Warrior there is never a readily apparent impetus for his changes in priorities.
Rambo III has the opposite problem. The rescue mission is clear cut. In fact, the plot is stripped down so much it only leaves room for clunky politicking and ultimately empty action scenes. While the motivations for the protagonist are clear here, nothing is set up in an emotionally satisfying way. When Rambo first meets the Afghan rebels he is quickly introduced to them and then he plays a game kind of like polo, but with a dead goat instead of a ball. During this game, the Soviets attack and kill everybody. The stakes are set up that the bad guys are of an evil ideology that allows them to kill the women and children at the Afghan base, but the audience is never allowed time to care about the good guys before it happens. There is even a Russian defector who’s introduced to no avail because he dies minutes later. What’s the point?
The only thing Rambo III has on the other movies in the series is a light sense of humor. It’s not a funny movie, per se, but every other entry is so humorless that it’s a noticeable touch. Maybe it’s part of Rambo’s growth as a human that he can allow himself to make cracks during times of crisis, or maybe it’s the presence of different filmmakers handling the tone inconsistently. Regardless, it is a welcome addition to the formula… especially since this sequel is otherwise so formulaic. At one point, Trautman tries to see how Rambo is doing after taking a piece of shrapnel through the side…
Colonel Trautman: How’s the wound?
Rambo: You taught us to ignore pain, right?
Colonel Trautman: Is it working?
Rambo: Not really. Don’t take it personal.
Both of these scripts are kind of dire… especially when in comparison to the previous movies. Let’s call this a tie, but it should really be an abstention.
SCORE: Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome: ½ – Rambo III: 1 ½
Category 3 – A Place in the Franchise: Genre Classification
Rambo III is mostly concerned with mimicking Rambo: First Blood Part II. As a result, it’s a fairly inoffensive follow-up but otherwise doesn’t have much else to offer. It’s bigger by virtue of setting, sense of danger, and type of setpiece (it’s the first Rambo movie to have significant action scenes set indoors or with multiple color palettes).
While it at least tries to be interesting, nothing ups the ‘wow’-factor in a satisfying way. There are some big, ridiculous moments of testosterone which feel interested in upping the audacity of some of the second movie’s greatest moments. However, neither the tank versus helicopter game of chicken nor the guy who is hanged and exploded at the same time are executed in ways that are as great as they sound. The only real highlight is when John Rambo cauterizes the aforementioned wound in his side by matter-of-factly pouring gunpowder into it and setting it on fire. Without exaggerating, I can say a plume of flame legitimately shoots right out of a hole in his body like he accidentally ate a road flare for breakfast.
Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome has its issues with both story and approach, but at least it is unique without betraying the spirit of the other Mad Max movies too much. In fact, in conjunction with the other films, its oddball status as the “PG-13 monstrosity” that some Mad Max fanboys claim ends up at least a bit forgivable. The narrative structure of all three movies support its strange style.
Mad Max is an origin story, and its more grounded style assumes that the tale is a straightforward one. But both this movie and The Road Warrior are presented as stories told by another character. The feral kid who looks up to our hero is telling the story of The Road Warrior as an old man. This would explain why that movie is so simple and dark. He remembers the villain as a hulking brute in Lord Humungus and Max as a kind, but reluctant hero who ends up surrounded by death. Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome is told by Savannah Nix (Helen Buday) to a group of the children he helped rescue. These children are shown to get bogged down in mythology and religious fervor. As a result, they have trouble differentiating fiction from reality. This is why that movie has a lighter tone with less basis in the physical world.
Some more evidence for this is the Bruce Spence’s pilot who shows up as “different” characters. In both movies he serves the same purpose, and there is a passing implication made that Max and he know each other.
SCORE: Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome: 1 ½ – Rambo III: 1 ½
Category 4 – Action A Go Go
Although Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome ends up being so much larger than the first two, by virtue of feeling so familiar the ‘bigness’ doesn’t quite translate. Like Rambo III, its attempt to outdo its predecessor through more varied locations and a few more explosions feels a touch hollow. That being said, it wouldn’t even qualify as a Mad Max movie without some thrilling practical stuntwork. The final crash is especially awesome to look at. However, it still feels just off enough to be disappointing. When Max’s train plows through a car which explodes in a ball of fire, the henchman is left caked in soot on the cattle catcher… otherwise unharmed and ready to fight anew. And that’s not the only cool scene threatened to be derailed by cartoonishness.
The fight in the Thunderdome itself may present us with the closest this series gets to real fight choreography. In other films, Max prefers to do his fighting behind the wheel of a car. However, that doesn’t stop it from being largely disappointing. Both Max and Blaster have bungee cords tied on and fly through the air like some sort of grimy Cirque du Soleil.
That being said, it’s often a beautiful movie to look at. Progressively each movie has provided much more vibrant and exciting backdrops for all the barbaric action scenes.
Rambo III may feel like it’s treading on well-worn territory, but that doesn’t change how colossal the action scenes actually end up. John Rambo gets his obligatory sequence where he stalks around, killing enemies one-by-one. And while it includes the epic explosions, helicopter stunts, and on-the-nose political monologues we’ve come to expect from the series… it adds a few wrinkles, like, uh, lots of horses.
There’s also a scene reminiscent of modern CGI 3D effects where a piece of shrapnel comes hurtling at the camera… except it’s an actual piece of shrapnel from an actual explosion, so it seems even cooler. For a franchise especially notable for its practical effects, however, a couple composite shots of a photographed fireball raging behind a character hanging from a rope stick out like sore thumbs.
While Rambo III seriously seems to take place in a country whose chief export is explosions, little of the action feels cared for the way it does in virtually every other movie we’ve encountered thus far. But it’s still made-up of the machismoriffic wackiness we expect from a Rambo sequel… and unlike Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome the action never feels undercut by a bunch of children (in fact, the effects of war on the young is something discussed head-on). True danger is still a possibility in this third outing.
SCORE: Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome: 1 ½ – Rambo III: 2 ½
Category 5 – A Character’s Journey
Rambo III seems to have the character of John Rambo in a more secure place than the last movie did. For all its strengths, Rambo: First Blood Part II intentionally seems to undo the good will from the original First Blood by having him so willing to embark on violence. At least at the onset of this movie, he is fighting in underground martial arts tournaments while helping some Buddhist monks build a temple in Thailand in his free time.
However, by starting him in this zen place and picking up the ol’ bow and explosive arrows for old times’ sake, there’s nowhere for him to grow as a character. He wants to rescue Trautman because that’s what he does. The motivation to kill the Soviets because they’re killing the “innocent” freedom fighters of Afghanistan is a plot point, but it doesn’t play as important to Rambo as a character.
Although, having him be an otherworldly, emotionless violence machine does lead to a great punchline when Trautman’s captors ridicule him for having faith in John Rambo to dismantle the entire Soviet army. The colonel’s torturer snaps, “Who do you think this man is? God?” Without missing a beat, Trautman remarks, “No. God would have mercy… he won’t”
In The Road Warrior, Mad Max never makes a truly altruistic gesture. When he shows back up to help the settlers escape the threat of death, it’s only an act of revenge after Lord Humungus’ minions had blown up his car and killed his dog. In Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome he’s a more compassionate guy from the get-go.
On one hand, the cruel nature of the world he lives in has been an undercurrent of his character since the death of his wife and son, so he’s acting much less believably than he has in the past. But in a larger context it’s clear that over the progression of mankind’s demise, the formerly “Mad” Max has become the slightly hesitant guardian angel for the downtrodden. This slight bit of thematic throughline helps Mad Max inch ahead of Rambo in the category, but just barely.
The Final Verdict:
SCORE: Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome: 2 ½ – Rambo III: 2 ½
WHAT!?! A tie? Well this is disappointing.
When this feature was first conceived I had a general idea of how these would play out (with the then unreleased Mad Max: Fury Road being the only wild card). So while I thought Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome was a shoe-in, on rewatch it was less of a success than I had previously thought. Meanwhile, Rambo III wasn’t nearly the maddening trainwreck that I remembered.
That being said, I still had an overall better time with our good pal Max Rockatansky. Two movies enter, one movie leaves. Forget it, Jake… it’s Thunderdome. Not only does the admittedly silly movie fit pretty well within the overall framework in its own way, but it also gave us the inspiration for a pretty great 2pac video.
Part 1: Mad Max vs. First Blood
Part 4: Mad Max: Fury Road vs. Rambo
Zak has been an avid movie fan since his mom made him cover his eyes before the “icicle stabbing” when they rented Die Hard 2 in 2nd Grade. As a consolation, in 6th grade he got straight A’s so she gave him the entire Die Hard trilogy on VHS. The rest is history.
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All Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome images courtesy of Kennedy Miller Productions
All Rambo III images courtesy of Carolco Pictures