In anticipation of the November 25th release of CREED, we’ll be taking a look back at the ROCKY franchise and discussing why these characters and this world are still relevant and necessary forty years later.
Rocky III is the most interestingly confusing and inadvertently entertaining entry in this series. It scrapes right along side what many might call a “guilty pleasure” as elements here firmly plant Rocky III into goofy movie territory. The sillier aspects Stallone cements into the Rocky canon would be much easier to accept if the character of Rocky felt like the same person we fell in love with during the first two installments. Here, we just have a Rocky Balboa who stands around, numbly watching events unfold around him and being far more reactionary than instinctual.
In Rocky III, Rocky Balboa is an international star and American hero. Having beaten Apollo Creed for the Heavyweight Championship of the World, Rocky has successfully defended his belt numerous times and has earned quite a lifestyle in doing so. Paulie has come to resent Rocky for not giving him enough to do and enough money in doing so because of Rocky’s newfound fortune (this series switches back and forth on Paulie so often, it’s a testament to Burt Young‘s performances that we believe him each time out). We also see Rocky taking on exhibition matches, fighting the “Ultimate Male”, Thunderlips (Hulk Hogan), in a ridiculous set piece that exemplifies the circus that Balboa now represents. All the while, lurking in the background and climbing up the boxing ranks is Clubber Lang (Mr. T).
Clubber Lang is the embodiment of what Rocky used to be. The movie makes apparent that Rocky has now shifted into the Apollo role, training in lavish environments, mugging for the press, while Clubber is industrious, using his natural, stripped-to-the-bone environment to perfect his techniques. This dichotomy is supremely interesting and it is unfortunate that the movie doesn’t explore it more thoroughly. When confronting and challenging Rocky on the Philadelphia Art Museum steps, he’s not wrong when saying that America doesn’t want to give a man like him the chance. No one wants to see an angry black man like Clubber Lang holding up boxing’s most treasured title. Instead of sticking to these interesting socio-political guns, Stallone’s script makes Clubber Lang the supreme villain. He is crass, rude and gross (just listen to those grunts and look at those faces he makes). Rocky then only accepts his challenge once Clubber insists that Adrian come visit him tonight so she can be with a “real man”.
Rocky’s softened demeanor is exposed and he is beaten quickly by Clubber. As Rocky is defeated in the ring, Mickey’s (Burgess Meredith) heart gives out and he dies in the locker room. This is the first loss in the series that shakes Rocky to his core. In steps Apollo Creed to take over training duties and show to Rocky the edge he’s missing in order to beat Clubber. Apollo takes Rocky to his training facility in LA where he is introduced to an entirely black community of pugilists, training in a dank, dark hole of a gym. The suggestion here is that Rocky must gain back the “Eye of the Tiger” (the song debuting here for the first time and earning itself an Oscar nomination) he once had when he fought Creed. Paulie also doesn’t spare any words when it comes to his racial views and belief that Rocky can’t train like “them”.
Here begins one of the most memorable montages of the series. Rocky is training with Creed, dealing with the ups and downs of changing his entire approach to the ring. Stallone and Carl Weathers are absolutely drenched in sweat, juking and moving to the beat of the music. They race each other on the beach, Creed coming out on top each and every time. It isn’t until a motivational speech from Adrian (Talia Shire) that Rocky is able to master his new moves and beat Apollo in the beach race, igniting a furious splashing celebration between the two friends.
This training sequence is important because of how utterly tone deaf it is. It is entertaining, for sure, but not for the reasons that makes a sequence like this actually good in context. Each Rocky movie prior to this has had similar training montages that work within the characters and symbolize the experience they must go through to achieve their goals. Here, Stallone believes he knows what the sequence should look like but just can’t execute it without it being laughable. The sexual tension between Rocky and Apollo isn’t a misreading if you were to view this sequence out of context. It very much reads like a love story between the two and in some ways it is! These two characters were once mortal enemies who have now come to understand each other’s points of view. It’s a perfect melding of two different American classes, perfectly symbolizing the melting pot of this country’s culture. It should be a beautiful thing. The fact that the sequence reads as more laughable is entirely on Stallone.
In the end, Rocky gets his revenge on Clubber Lang with the audience watching the fight in real time instead of skipping any rounds. The fight itself is merely ok, never landing a big moment like the culminating bouts in the previous two films. Rocky and Creed settle their differences one last time as the two fight completely alone in a dark, empty gym. The image freezes just as the two come to blows for the first time, allowing us to imagine who comes out on top of that one (my vote: love).
The cultural impact made by Rocky III is indelible and not for the greatest of reasons. This is the first Rocky film to feel like more of a joke than a serious film. To be sure, the previous two movies aren’t without great moments of levity, but most of those stem from the flaws of the characters. The comedy here is derived largely through plot contrivance and mishandling of tone. Rocky III could have easily marked another masterful entry in the series if the film had just paid more attention to who Rocky was as a person, allowing him to handle these situations like the lovable oaf he is, instead of the audience surrogate he has become. Clubber Lang is a deservingly wonderful villain, posing a real threat to Balboa, even though his impact would have been greater if he was made to do less mustache twirling.
Yet, here we are. Rocky and Creed are best friends. Paulie is back to being a drunk fool. Adrian still has nothing to do. Mickey has gone to the boxing ring in the sky. Now we go into the true nadir of the series as Rocky takes on the USSR in Rocky IV.