I'm continuing to scratch the Rocky franchise off my cinematic bucket list, and my quest to do so brings me up to Rocky III.
Now here's where the Rocky franchise really begins earning a spot of noteriety. I once heard a literary critic say it of book series, and I saw it was the same with film franchises over the James Bond films. By the third entry, the formula is now set in stone. I think we all know the Rocky formula by now. Rocky loses it all, hits rock bottom, and through training for his next fight, learns to earn it back. That`s pretty much it. The first film established it. The second film stuck so close to the first film that really nothing new was added. And for the third one...Stallone starts tweaking it a little bit.
Don't get me wrong. I'm not slamming the formula. There's nothing wrong with a formula. It's what you do with it that matters. Fall back on it too much, and it's lazy. But massage it a little bit, interpret it in a new way, and you're on to something.
Watching it today, you can tell we've switched decades. Gone is the grit and grime of 1970s character dramas. Now this one is looking slick and polished like a 1980s blockbuster. And the change in style does help with the evolution of the character of Rocky. It's been three years since he claimed the heavyweight title from Apollo Creed in Rocky II, and since then, Rocky's been living the high life. He's had 10 successful title defenses. He's moved into a big fancy mansion with a fleet of cars, and he's still a loving husband to Adrian and a devoted father to Rocky Jr. And with his easy going nature and natural charm, he's become one of the most beloved celebrities in sports today. Well, "today" being 1982, when the film took place.
But, the problem with being #1 is there's always someone out to take you down and prove that THEY are the best. And gunning for the heavyweight belt is the #1 ranked contender Clubber Lang, played by Mr. T in his star-making performance. Let's be honest, here. Mr. T is Mr. T. And with Clubber Lang we see a lot of his T-isms start to take form. But Clubber Lang is a tad angrier than Mr. T. He's got a killer instinct and he's hungry for a shot at the title. But, he's growing angrier and angrier as he feels he's being denied his title shot. It's almost unsettling to see Mr. T be, well, mean.
After his 10 successful defenses, Rocky's starting to think it's time to call it a day, but at a ceremony honouring Rocky, Clubber Lang shows up to publicly goad Rocky into a fight. When Clubber turns his attention away from Rocky and starts hurling insults at Adrian, Rocky's had enough and accepts Clubber's challenge. But Rocky's manager, trainer and surrogate father Mickey refuses to train Rocky for the fight.
Mickey makes a confession to Rocky. To avoid Rocky getting another grievous beating like he did at the hands of Apollo Creed, Mickey's been purposely choosing weak opponents for Rocky. But Clubber Lang is on a whole other level, and could beat Rocky senseless. However, Rocky talks Mick into training him for t his one last fight.
So we get our first training montage of the film, and again, it's a nice little reminder of how far Rocky has come. Rocky's training is almost a carnival attraction, with reporters and well-wishers and merchandise tables and Rocky frequently breaking to pose for pictures and sign autographs. Meanwhile, Clubber's training is a rundown gym, looking very similar to Rocky trained in the first two pictures.
It's been written elsewhere, so I may as well say it, too. While the montage had been around for ages in cinema, Stallone really did...not sure what the right word is. Popularize it? Maximize it? Elevate it? He used it really, really well.
The big fight comes, but there's tragedy on fight day. Rocky and Clubber get into a scuffle outside the locker room. Mickey gets injured, and suffers a heart attack. Despite his injuries, Mickey insists that the fight goes on. Rocky goes ahead with the fight, but with Mickey sick in the locker room, Rocky's head isn't in the game, and Clubber handily defeats Rocky to win the title. With the fight done, Rocky races back to the locker room to check on Mickey, only to have Mickey die in his arms.
Things don't look good for Rocky. He's lost the title. He's lost his surrogate father. This is where I'm already liking it more than the second film. This time around, it doesn't seem as contrived to get Rocky back down to the bottom. It's a little more believable. And this is where we start playing with that formula a little bit. We start shuffling people around in their roles. Apollo Creed gets shifted from rival to trainer, as he offers to train Rocky for the rematch. Apollo said watching Rocky, Rocky's gone soft. He no longer has that desire to win...the "Eye of the Tiger," as Apollo puts it.
Should we take a moment to acknowledge the song? This is the film that spawned the song. It's used for the opening titles montage as we see Rocky's fame and Clubber's rise through the ranks. It's used for a training montage as Apollo begins to train Rocky. And we hear it again over the end credits. It works so well, and the song is still a good song after all these years. And it all started here.
But despite Apollo's efforts, Rocky's not focusing on his training. Adrian finally sits down Rocky to find out what's going on. And Rocky confesses, with Mickey's death, and the revelation that Mickey chose easy opponents for Rocky, and his defeat at the hands of Clubber, Rocky is just a big ol' bundle of self-doubt. So, Adrian tells him to get over it. Adrian's words ring true, and Rocky heads back into training with gusto.
And you know how it works by now. At the rematch, Rocky defeats Clubber, reclaims the title, and his once rival Apollo is now his friend.
I should also talk about Thunderlips. At the start of the film, Rocky agrees to a charity match against the current reigning wrestling champ Thunderlips, played by Hulk Hogan. I find this notable because, if I understand pop culture history correctly, back when this film was released, the WWE was just starting to become the dominant entity in the pro-wrestling world. It makes perfect sense then that, after Hulk Hogan's appearance in this film, the WWE decided to start grooming him into their first superstar.
So, yes. I enjoyed Rocky III. It was a tad more plausible than #2. They had fun with the formula by putting the familiar characters in different roles. They changed the setting by having Apollo bring Rocky out to Los Angeles to train. They mixed things up just enough.