Rocky retrospective Part 3: ROCKY III (1982)
Luke G. Williams
With CREED now playing across the UK, Luke G. Williams re-examines cinema’s greatest boxing hero - the one and only Rocky Balboa - for Boxing Monthly Online. Today, he assesses the third entry in the series …
ROCKY III is as near-perfect a piece of commercial cinema as you will ever find. Flashy and fast-paced, it abandons all the pretences towards realism of its direct predecessor, as well as the more authentic downbeat grittiness of the original ROCKY.
Instead, this 1982 box-office smash is characterised by Sylvester Stallone’s development of a new, hyperkinetic directorial style, which is both hypnotic and thrilling, enabling him to craft a superlative slice of pop culture that might be best labelled as ‘pugilistic kitsch’. Full of fast cuts, slow-mo histrionics, brilliantly bright visuals and mesmerising montages cut to soft rock and Bill Conti, ROCKY III is a visual feast which – like the sport it dramatises - unleashes an audience’s primitive desires for a hero to cheer and a villain to boo, while also sating our appetite for a series of mighty fine punch-ups.
On paper, the film’s narrative and dialogue veer towards the excesses of melodrama, yet the film’s technical brilliance, and the seriousness and conviction with which the cast collectively approach the material, ensure that ROCKY III is a triumph. Crucially, there is no sense of post-modern irony or self-parody on display at any point, and the film is all the better for being written, played and delivered dead straight.
I’d even go as far as to call ROCKY III, and its direct successor ROCKY IV, works of art. After all, if opera – a cultural form which shares with ROCKY III and IV a reliance on heightened emotions, lavish musical cues and formulaic and endearingly predictable plot twists - can be considered art, then why can’t a Rocky film?
In comparison with the second chapter in the saga, ROCKY III also benefits from a healthy dose of originality. Rather than loveable, humble, ‘street’ Rocky, here our hero is transmogrified into a slick, perma-tanned multimedia superstar, complete with bad taste mansion, a body-builder’s physique and a coiffeur that is pure 1980s in its immoveable, hair-sprayed glory.
This radical transformation in both Rocky’s physical look and ethical values is brilliantly dramatised by the film’s opening montage, a superlative sequence of three and a half minutes, which is – TEAM AMERICA-style cynicism be damned! – a perfect demonstration of the economy of narrative that only the montage can provide.
Such is the regularity with which Stallone turns to the montage in ROCKY III and IV that the films themselves can almost be defined as musicals.* However, it is in ROCKY III that we find arguably Stallone’s greatest montage of all. Perfectly edited to the pace, rhythm and lyrics of Survivor’s iconic song ‘Eye of the Tiger’, the sequence presents three years in the life of Rocky Balboa since the events of ROCKY II. We see Rocky rack up a series of easy title defences in glamorous and iconic venues – from Caesar’s Palace to Radio City Music Hall, while all the while Rocky-mania erupts and rages around him, with the Italian Stallion popping up on magazine covers, in advertisements, on merchandising, and even as a guest star on The Muppet Show.
The song’s lyrics also establish the dilemmas, themes and motifs at the heart of the movie. This is a film about a Rocky whose increasingly materialistic focus removes him from his roots; a Rocky who has “trade[d] his passion for glory”, as he becomes accustomed to the luxurious life of a superstar, closeted in a gated community far from the mean streets of Philadelphia on which he grew up. As his trainer Mickey later tells him: “the worst thing happened to you that could happen to any fighter - you got civilized.”
Rocky’s narrative of escalating complacency is juxtaposed with the brutal rise to number one heavyweight contender status of the fearsome and motivated Clubber Lang (Mr. T). In sharp contrast to Rocky, Lang is shown “out in the heat, hangin’ tough, stayin’ hungry”, running the streets alone and brutally dismissing any and every challenger who gets in his way. While Lang is surrounded by an aura of savage fury and desperate ambition Rocky is, contrastingly, enveloped by fame, and fawning fans. Meanwhile, in soft focus (aptly symbolising his decadence and removal from harsh urban realities) we see him romancing his wife in an idyllic countryside setting.
By the end of the montage, a rampant Lang, lording it over another felled foe, is calling Rocky out, to the visible discomfort of a fearful Mickey, who lingers in the crowd at ringside. “I want Balboa,” Lang shrieks. “You tell Balboa I’m comin’ for him! Nobody can beat me!”
Having established the central Lang-Balboa conflict, as well as the motif of the ‘Eye of the Tiger’, the remainder of ROCKY III’s narrative is as tightly wound as a coiled spring. Arguably the only superfluous scene or sequence in the entire film is Rocky’s ‘wrestling / boxing’ match against Hulk Hogan’s Thunderlips, a nod to Muhammad Ali’s similarly bizarre 1976 match-up against Japanese wrestling icon Antonio Inoki. Although entertaining, the Thunderlips sequence tells us nothing that the opening montage hasn’t already made clear – namely, that Rocky is no longer a hungry prize fighter, but an entertainment icon.
Thereafter, though, the film hits the high gears and never gives the audience pause for breath. Goaded into accepting Lang’s challenge after a shouting match at the unveiling of the ‘Rocky statue’ outside the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Rocky barely trains and is beaten with ease. To add insult to injury, he loses Mickey to the grim reaper after his aged trainer suffers a heart attack, provoked by a pre-fight melee with Lang and his entourage.
At which point, re-enter Carl Weathers’ Apollo. In a beautiful – and unexpected - twist, Rocky’s former adversary offers to train Balboa in a Lang rematch. It’s hinted that Creed’s initial motivation is the disrespect shown to him by Lang when working as a ringside analyst, although we later discover - in the film’s final coda - that Apollo is also driven by a desire to once again face Rocky in the ring, albeit behind closed doors.
The newly humanised Apollo is beautifully played by Weathers and is the character responsible for introducing the concept of the ‘eye of the tiger’, defining it somewhat nebulously as “that look” in hungry boxers’ eyes which Rocky needs to recapture if he is to regain the World Championship. Just as infectious and memorable is Apollo’s pleading riposte when a listless Rocky promises that he will train harder “tomorrow” – “There is NO TOMORROW!” he yells repeatedly, a mantra that sums up the aspirational and motivational qualities of the Rocky saga to a tee.
After the obligatory training sequences, an emotional California beach chat between Rocky and Adrian and a vaguely homoerotic Apollo-Rocky hug in the ocean after the latter wins a symbolic foot race along the sand, the film climaxes, of course, with Lang-Balboa 2.
In his own warped version of Ali’s rope-a-dope, Rocky allows Clubber to tire himself out by letting him pound his face and body throughout round 2. “You ain’t so bad!” Rocky taunts him at the end of this remarkable stanza, although why the punches that felled him earlier in the film no longer have the same effect now is a little unclear. That’s the power of the ‘eye of the tiger’, I guess.
After letting a fast tiring and hysterical Lang beat him up some more in round 3, Rocky counter-attacks with a fusillade of blows, before applying the coup de grace in the form of four huge left-hands followed by a right hook which sends Lang tumbling and ensures the World Heavyweight Championship is once again his.
Of course, everything that unfolds in the film’s climax is as predictable as a daytime soap, but the visual brio with which it is all delivered is glorious. Similarly it is worth stressing that the boxing scenes throughout the film have no connection whatsoever with pugilistic reality, but that no longer matters. Instead, they represent a sort of hyper-exaggerated reality of what boxing would be like if human punch power and the ability to absorb blows were multiplied a thousand-fold.
A further component in ROCKY III’s brilliance is Stallone’s script, which is liberally sprinkled with gems of dialogue, many of them uttered by the snarling and surly Mr. T in his memorable screen debut as Lang. A former bodyguard to Leon Spinks, ‘T’’s performance here is pure pantomime, but wonderfully entertaining nonetheless.
Eighties aficionados should also be aware that his iconic phrase “I pity the fool,” makes its first appearance in ROCKY III – a year in advance of THE A TEAM’s first appearance on US television, although – interestingly enough – the phrase never actually appeared on this TV show. Best of all, though, is Lang’s response when asked for a prediction for his fight against Balboa. His simple answer, as he turns directly to the camera? “Pain.”
If ROCKY III has one flaw it’s that the Lang character is somewhat under-written and, as such, comes across as overly one-dimensional. That’s no fault of Mr. T’s, merely a reflection of the fact that Stallone’s screenplay never reveals much about him. ROCKY III-related merchandise and literature has since revealed that Clubber Lang was actually an orphan who spent his childhood in and out of juvenile crime institutions before being sent to prison for five years, where he learned to box. A somewhat depressing back-story that may, I suppose, have elicited rather too much sympathy for Lang had it been referenced in the film.
In a different universe, perhaps, ROCKY III might have explored Clubber Lang’s social-cultural motivations, but as it is, in terms of the film’s primary ambition, namely to royally entertain and lift an audience to its feet, few movies succeed as handsomely as the third chapter in the saga of Rocky Balboa.
ROCKY III retrospective rating: 9 out of 10
*Staggeringly, my analysis of ROCKY IV, which I have conducted for my next article in this series, reveals that the film contains a barely believable eight montages, comprising around a third of the film’s running time.