Sixty-five seconds of the film were cut in the UK version for theatrical release. Some later video releases almost tripled the cuts. Rambo III was released worldwide on May 25, 1988, and grossed $189 million against production budget of between $58 and $63 million.
Colonel Sam Trautman visits his old friend and ally John Rambo in Thailand. He explains that he is putting together a mercenary team for a CIA-sponsored mission to supply anti-Soviet fighters in Afghanistan. Despite being shown photos of civilians suffering at the hands of the Soviet military, Rambo refuses to join, as he is tired of fighting. Trautman proceeds anyway and is ambushed by enemy forces near the border, resulting in all of his men being killed. Trautman is captured and sent to a large mountain base to be interrogated by Soviet Colonel Zaysen and his henchman Sergeant Kourov.
Embassy official Robert Griggs informs Rambo of Trautman's capture but refuses to approve a rescue mission for fear of drawing the United States into the war. Aware that Trautman will die otherwise, Rambo gets permission to undertake a solo rescue on the condition that he will be disavowed in the event of capture or death. Rambo immediately flies to Peshawar, Pakistan, where he intends to convince arms dealer Mousa Ghani to bring him to Khost, the town closest to the Soviet base where Trautman is held captive.
The Mujahideen in the village, led by chieftain Masoud, hesitate to help Rambo free Trautman. Meanwhile, a Soviet informant in Ghani's employ informs the Russians, who send two attack helicopters to destroy the village. Though Rambo manages to destroy one of them with a turret, the rebels refuse to aid him any further. Aided only by Mousa and a young boy named Hamid, Rambo attacks the base and inflicts significant damage before being forced to retreat. Hamid, as well as Rambo, are wounded during the battle and Rambo sends him and Mousa away before resuming his infiltration.
Skillfully evading base security, Rambo reaches Trautman just as he is about to be tortured with a flamethrower. He and Trautman rescue several other prisoners and hijack a Hind helicopter to escape the base. The helicopter is damaged during takeoff and quickly crashes, forcing the escapees to flee across the sand on foot. An attack chopper pursues Rambo and Trautman to a nearby cave, where Rambo destroys it with an explosive arrow. A furious Zaysen sends commandos under Kourov to kill them, but they are quickly routed and killed. An injured Kourov attacks Rambo with his bare hands, but is overcome and killed.
As Rambo and Trautman make their way to the Pakistani border, Zaysen and his forces surround them. But before the duo are overwhelmed, Masoud's Mujahideen forces attack the Soviets in a surprise cavalry charge. Despite being wounded, Rambo takes control of a tank and uses it to attack Zaysen's chopper head-on; the two vehicles collide, but Rambo survives. At the end of the battle, Rambo and Trautman say goodbye to the Mujahideen and leave Afghanistan.Sylvester Stallone as John J. Rambo
Richard Crenna as Colonel Sam Trautman
Kurtwood Smith as Robert Griggs
Marc de Jonge as Colonel Alexei Zaysen
Sasson Gabai as Mousa Ghani
Doudi Shoua as Hamid
Spiros Focas as Masoud
Randy Raney as Sergeant Kourov
Marcus Gilbert as Tomask
Alon Abutbul as Nissem
Mahmoud Assadollahi as Rahim
Yosef Shiloah as Khalid
Sylvester Stallone later said his original premise of the film "was more in keeping with the theme of Tears of the Sun, but set in Afghanistan."
Bullitt and Red Heat scribe Harry Kleiner was hired to write a draft, but his script was rejected by Stallone.
Several weeks into filming, many of the film's crew were fired including the director of photography and director Russel Mulcahy. Stallone:
The canvas of this movie is so large you have to constantly think 10 scenes ahead. You can't wing it. They didn't go into the Battle of Waterloo not knowing what their strategy would be. Well, this movie is kind of like a cinematic warfare. We have a huge cast and crew (more than 250 people) and tough locations to deal with. Everyone and everything has to coordinate.
Some critics noted that the timing of the movie, with its unabashedly anti-Soviet tone, ran afoul of the opening of Communism to the West under Mikhail Gorbachev, which had already changed the image of the Soviet Union to a substantial degree by the time the movie was finished.
Sylvester Stallone had hired Mulcahy in the basis of his music videos and Highlander.
He went to Israel two weeks before me with the task of casting two dozen vicious looking Russian troops. These men were suppose to make your blood run cold. When I arrived on the set, what I saw was two dozen blond, blue-eyed pretty boys that resembled rejects from a surfing contest. Needless to say Rambo is not afraid of a little competition but being attacked by third rate male models could be an enemy that could overwhelm him. I explained my disappointment to Russell and he totally disagreed, so I asked him and his chiffon army to move on.
Mulcahy was replaced by Peter MacDonald, a veteran second unit director. It was MacDonald's first film as director but he was very experienced and had directed the second unit action sequences in Rambo: First Blood Part II.
MacDonald later said, "I tried very hard to change the Rambo character a bit and make him a vulnerable and humorous person, I failed totally."
"I knew instinctively what was a good and bad shot," he added. "Stallone knew his character because it was his third outing as Rambo. I wasn’t shooting Shakespeare and at times it was hard to take it seriously."
MacDonald shot the stick fighting sequence in Bangkok himself using a handheld camera.
The film was shot in Israel, Thailand, and Arizona. MacDonald:
There were so many restrictions in Israel, where you could and couldn’t shoot. The producers and Stallone decided they would go back to Arizona where they had looked long before I was on the film. There was a group there called the re-enactors. We had around two hundred and fifty of these guys who re-enact the [American] civil war. They were called on to do fight sequences, which they loved.
The 1990 Guinness World Records deemed Rambo III the most violent film ever made, with 221 acts of violence, at least 70 explosions, and over 108 characters killed on-screen. However, the body count of the fourth film in the series, Rambo, surpassed that record, with 236 kills. The Mi-24 Hind-D helicopters seen in the film are in fact modified Aérospatiale SA 330 Puma transport helicopters with fabricated bolt-on wings similar to the real Hind-Ds which were mainly used in the former Soviet bloc nations. The other helicopter depicted is a slightly reshaped Aerospatiale Gazelle.
Some have claimed that the dedication at the end of the film has been altered at various points in response to the events of 9/11. Specifically it is claimed that the dedication was (at one point) “to the brave Mujahideen fighters” and then later changed to “to the gallant people of Afghanistan”. However, reviews of the film upon its release and later publications (prior to 9/11) show that the film was dedicated “to the gallant people of Afghanistan”.
An extensive film score was written by Oscar-winning American composer Jerry Goldsmith, conducting the Hungarian State Opera Orchestra; however, much of it was not used. Instead, much of the music Goldsmith penned for the previous installment was recycled. The original album, released by Scotti Bros., contained only a portion of the new music as well as three songs, only one of which was used in the film (Bill Medley's version of "He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother", played over the end credits).
- It Is Our Destiny – Bill Medley (4:30)
- Preparations (4:58)
- Afghanistan (2:35)
- The Game (2:23)
- Another Time (3:54)
- He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother – Bill Medley (4:30)
- Aftermath (2:42)
- Questions (3:34)
- The Bridge - Giorgio Moroder featuring Joe Pizullo (3:59)
- Final Battle (4:47)
A more complete 75-minute version of the score was later released by Intrada.
- Another Time (3:58)
- Preparations (06:21)
- The Money (0:52)
- I'm Used To It (1:00)
- Peshawar (1:12)
- Afghanistan (2:38)
- Questions (3:37)
- Then I'll Die (3:34)
- The Game (2:25)
- Flaming Village (4:07)
- The Aftermath (2:44)
- Night Entry (3:58)
- Under And Over (2:55)
- Night Fight (6:50)
- First Aid (2:46)
- The Long Climb (3:25)
- Going Down (1:52)
- The Cave (3:31)
- The Boot (1:53)
- You Did It, John (1:08)
- The Showdown (1:26)
- Final Battle (4:50)
- I'll Stay (9:00)
Rambo III opened in the United States on May 25, 1988 at 2,562 theatres in its opening weekend (the four-day Memorial Day weekend), ranking #2 behind Crocodile Dundee II. Overall, the film grossed $53,715,611 domestically and then took $135,300,000 overseas, giving Rambo III a box office total of $189,015,611. The film is the second most successful of the Rambo series, behind Rambo: First Blood Part II.
Rambo III received mixed to negative reviews from critics. It scored a 36% on Rotten Tomatoes, based on 28 reviews.
Prominent critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert (of At the Movies fame) were split on Rambo III, with Siskel awarding the film "thumbs up", and Ebert declaring "thumbs down" for those expecting more out of Rambo III. Ebert did, however, give "thumbs up" to fans, saying the film was entertaining and that it "delivers the goods".
The New York Times took a dim view of the film.David Morrell, author of First Blood, the novel the first Rambo film is based on, wrote a novelization.
In the movie Twins, Arnold Schwarzenegger's character is seen looking at the poster of Rambo III featuring Stallone, where he compares his biceps to Stallone's, but waves it off with a smile while shaking his head and walks away.
Various companies released video games based on the film, including Ocean Software and Taito. In 1990, Sega released its own game based on the film for the Master System and Genesis/Mega Drive. The company would later reuse the film's rescue sequence and climactic final battle as stages in the 2008 arcade light gun game Rambo.
A comic book adaptation of the film was published by Blackthorne Publishing. Blackthorne also published a 3D version of its Rambo III comic.
The character of Chop Top in the 1986 film The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 notes that the recording of one chainsaw murder sounds like "the Rambo III soundtrack", although at that time, there had only been two Rambo films.
In Hot Shots! Part Deux, the protagonist Topper Harley (Charlie Sheen) is a parody of John Rambo and the plot of the film is the same as Rambo III, which involves Harley rescuing his mentor, Col. Denton Walters (Richard Crenna, parodying his character from the Rambo series).