Saturday, November 21, 2015

The Rocky Road: Rocky III (1982)

Click here to read my retro review of Rocky II

When Rocky II provided just as potent a punch at the box office as the Oscar-winning original, it became a question of "when," not "if," we'd be treated to another visit with the famous Philadelphia southpaw, especially if home studio MGM/United Artists had anything to say about it. After taking some time to star in Nighthawks and Victory, both released in 1981 and both critically admired but little-seen by audiences, the mood seemed right for Sylvester Stallone to once again lace up the gloves and get his company of "Rocky Repertory Players" back together for the next chapter in the saga of the Italian Stallion.

As with the previous sequel, Stallone would once again write and direct Rocky III. But unlike the previous sequel, wherein he strove to emulate the gritty style and feel of the John Avildsen original, for Rocky III he broke the mould by attempting to give the proceedings more of a heightened, documentary feel, exemplified by extensive use of steadicam. Of course, by now the actor had become a global superstar, and as before, he used his big screen alter ego to reflect the status quo in his own life. After winning the heavyweight title at the end of the last film, Rocky Balboa has become an empire-of-one.

His face adorns magazine covers. He's mingling with presidents and Muppets. He's the idol of millions. He even dabbles in charity events like squaring off with wrestler Thunderlips (Hulk Hogan). Of course, with success comes the resentment of others, and that resentment is given form in Clubber Lang (Mr. T, making his screen debut), a vicious brawler from the streets of Chicago who sees in Balboa all the opportunities he himself doesn't have. And while Rocky has successfully defended his title ten times, defeating Lang will will require him to team up with the man who was once his hard-fought opponent.

In Rocky III we begin to see a transformation from the grounded, relatable realm of the first two films into something a little more suited to the Reagan-era milieu in which it was presented. Not to say that it's necessarily worse, as many fans' strongest memories are of this and the subsequent installment, but certainly it's different. While certain touchstones like Rocky's romance with Adrian (Talia Shire), and his tempestuous relationship with best friend/brother-in-law Paulie (Burt Young) are still there, the focus has clearly shifted more to the ringside travails.

Nowhere is this clearer than the depiction of Rocky's opponent. The prior entries went out of their way to present Apollo Creed as a fully-rounded person, an antagonist but not a villain. Rocky III, on the other hand, dispenses with such niceties. There's nothing redeeming about Clubber Lang. As Mickey (the returning Burgess Meredith) exclaims, "This guy is a wrecking machine!" Given that the end of movie two had left Rocky with the world essentially as his oyster, Clubber's function here is very specific: He has to break our hero down so badly that we buy him once again being the underdog.

In that sense, Stallone couldn't have asked for a better performer to embody this force of nature than Mr. T. With his distinctive haircut and all-shouted performance, he does everything short of punching a kitten to make the audience root for his downfall. Helping things along here is the traumatic aftermath of Rocky's punishing first fight with Clubber, which sees him lose not only the title, but also his beloved trainer Mickey, who succumbs to a heart attack, leading to one of the most emotionally wrenching scenes in the entire run.

With Mickey gone, Balboa is wracked with guilt and loses his sense of self-confidence. But in yet another brilliant maneuver by Stallone, this is where he has Carl Weathers' Apollo Creed re-enter the story, shifting the entire trajectory of the franchise in the process. Creed, who's driven just as much by his own resentment of the upstart Lang as anything else, believes Rocky lost the edge -- the "Eye of the Tiger" (cue the Survivor song) -- that helped win him the title in the first place, but with his help he's confident Rocky can get it back.

While it's not exactly a shock how things turn out in the end, there's also no denying that the concerted effort Stallone put into refocusing the series was exactly what was needed to keep it alive and healthy through the '80s. The Rocky movies had become part of the landscape by now, taking on a "comfort food" vibe. Every couple of years, we'd catch up with our favorite big screen boxer, watch him take a couple of punches to the kisser, but by the time the training sequence and Bill Conti's "Gonna Fly Now" kicked in, we knew he'd probably come out on top by the end.

As such, things couldn't help but start to feel a little formulaic. To that end, other than some fun stuff with Paulie in the beginning, and Rocky's heart-to-heart with Mickey, a lot of the little character moments that helped to make the earlier entries work on a deeper level than just filler between fisticuffs got left by the wayside (which is in turn reflected in the relatively scant 100 minute runtime). Even Adrian's role in getting Rocky to overcome his self-doubt feels forced, more of a narrative necessity so we can get him back in his boxer shorts in time for the third act throwdown.

Still, one of the advantages of being three entries deep into a series like this is that you can lean on the audience's preexisting knowledge to do some of the lifting for you. And in this case, that audience was a sizable one by now. Critics weren't as exuberant over Rocky III, but that didn't keep ticket sales from hitting a franchise-high $270 million worldwide upon its release in summer of '82. The Italian Stallion was clearly here to stay, but what next? By the end of Rocky III, our hero had regained the title, and made peace with his one-time rival Apollo. After that, clearly the only thing left for him to tackle was the fraught terrain of 1980s geopolitics.

To Be Continued...

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