Reviewed by David Curcio
From the opening credit sequence, it is difficult not to get at least a little pumped for Rocky III, the first of a series of codas to Rocky’s fairy tale. In a recap of the climactic fight from Rocky II, the ravaged Balboa and Heavyweight Champion Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) tumble to the canvas at the same moment, effectively knocking each other out (in slow motion, naturally). The fight has been long and bloody, the count’s begun… but wait! Rocky is stirring, he’s getting up! As the count reaches roughly nine and three quarters, he rises to his feet, wobbling, teetering, and the new Champ.
It is perhaps the oddest, most unlikely outcome to a fight ever conceived- especially a fight that would have been stopped by any sensible referee several rounds prior. But with the 80s in high gear, this extended fairy tale had become a cartoon, and not meant to reflect anything resembling boxing or, for that matter, reality. Then a whistle of fireworks explodes into an unholy amalgamation of neon, halogen, and pyrotechnics to blast Rocky’s name across the screen, and with the first stabbing guitar strains of Survivor’s Eye of the Tiger belting out the opening montage, who cares about reality? We’re in it for the long haul, already sucked into this fantasy world. Clips flash by as Rocky defends his title, knocking out challenger after challenger with wild, spastic roundhouses before taking dainty bows (or are they curtseys?) like a lumpy Lord Fauntleroy, his hair as quaffed as his bespectacled cop in Tango and Cash. But he is also seen advertising credit cards and automobiles, appearing on The Muppets, and generally screwing off to further endear himself to the public. Rocky is a brand name now. As his opponents fall, an ominously pissed-off figure in the personage of no less than Mr. T is seen storming out of the arena. Meet Clubber Lang, an up-and-comer training alone in his small apartment, running through the slums, and knocking out opponents only to push the ref aside and continue his beatings. (This perversion of the most basic rule of boxing could actually give a ten year old boy – take me for example – the notion that there is a semblance of realism here.) Nevertheless, while Rocky may still be on top, he’s slacking. He’s getting cocky, and by the fadeout of Survivor’s power-rock classic, the good guy and the bad guy are pretty well established. (Though even a ten year-old knows Rocky’s the good guy – his name is in the film’s title.)
Living in a mansion with Adrienne (played by Talia Shire and her perpetually worried brow) and her slovenly, hanger-on brother Paulie (Burt Young and his perpetual stubble), Rocky Balboa drives around his grounds in a fancy golf cart with his son as he blows through his money and brain cells (see Rocky V and Creed). This is less worrying in the moment as his speech and vocabulary have grown admirably since the last installment, possibly due to his newfound affluenza (or the haircut). While Burgess Meredith’s grizzled, snarling Micky still manages and (presumably) trains him, Rocky’s growing soft, mentally complacent, ready to gather his chips and leave the game. If only it were that easy.
But before the drama kicks in, some action please. A fundraising exhibition match that amounts to an ominous pitch for the then-emerging World Wrestling Federation (This is where the fight game is headed?, a little voice seems to whisper) introduces the public to the young Hulk Hogan. He is Thunderlips, a name that serves only to confirm the deliberate pansexual personae of WWE wrestlers, likely and perhaps unconsciously adapted from the original Liberace of wrestling, Gorgeous George (also a major influence on Muhammed Ali, who’s braggadocio and feminized descriptions of himself as “pretty” and “beautiful” made its way into modern wrestling and 80s glam rock). Presumably more entertaining than Hogan’s 2012 sex tape with Bubba the Love Sponge’s estranged wife Heather Clem (who must pick her men based on the absurdity of their names), the two toss each other around the ring as the Hulk’s media image is cemented. And we didn’t even know what Gawker was yet. Who would have guessed he would have his own eponymous children’s cereal within the year?
Balboa’s Cinderella-like (sorry Braddock) rise to fame leads to the unveiling of a life-size bronze sculpture in his own likeness at the base of the Philadelphia Art Museum steps. While it has become a Philadelphia landmark, at the time it was a royal snub to the city’s own Joe Frazier, central to what many would consider boxing’s last great age and one year retired at the time of the film. Conceived of, written into the script, and paid for out-of-pocket by Sly “Mr. Modesty” Stallone himself, this makes it all less surprising. Moved and teary, he feigns unworthiness: “It’s beautiful,” he remarks (see previous sentence). In front of the adoring crowd, Rocky announces his plans to retire (the actor was already 36 at the time). Then a gravelly flow of angry heckling rises above the mob.
One cannot underestimate Mr. T’s popularity in the mid-80’s.Having cemented his tough-guy cred as bodyguard to Ali, Frazier, Leon Spinks, and others, Stallone offered him the role of Clubber Lang after seeing him on television’s “America’s Toughest Bouncer” ( a short-lived reality show that doesn’t even have its own wiki page). An early proponent of bling, mohawks, and feather earrings, he began his showbiz career as a villain, incorporating his catchphrase about pitying fools that was to become his staple as he remodeled himself as a friend to children through television appearances on kid’s prime time and anti-bullying PSAs on Saturday morning cartoons.
Presumably modeled after a loose amalgamation of Sonny Liston and Muhammed Ali (a terror-inducing presence and the inability to just shut up for just one minute, respectively), he begins to heckle and harangue Rocky, demanding a shot at the title. It takes but one, relatively tame suggestive comment directed at Adrienne during this most auspicious of occasions to throw Rocky into a frenzy: “You want it, you got it!” he yells, wriggling as Micky and Pauly, neither of whom could so much as lift a croissant, manage hold him back. Generally, there is a bit more to scheduling a Heavyweight Title fight, wherein negotiations between promoters and managers can take months or even years, state sanctioning rules can hold up bouts indefinitely… but screw it. Such details would make for some seriously boring cinema, so without further ado, the fight is on. With minimal training and Micky on his death bed (actually a bench), Rocky is swatted about like a mouse and kayoed in the second round. To top off a really crap day, Micky dies moments after the fight.
Poor Rocky is feeling despondent. He goes for a motorcycle ride, throws his helmet at his bronze likeness (careful Sly, you spent a lot of your own money on that thing!), and ends up in his training gym where, like all angry people do in movies when there is a speed bag around and they’re upset, punches it with all the menace of Don Knotts. Then out of the shadows emerges his old nemesis Apollo Creed. Just what was he was doing in a darkened gym besides waiting around on the off-chance that Rocky may show up remains a great cinematic mystery. But with Mickey dead, Apollo offers to train Rocky for a rematch, both out of the goodness of his heart and his desire to see Clubber Lang take a good clubbering himself (Clubber was rather rude to Apollo at the first fight). Within a couple of minutes old rivals become good friends.
The Stallion is treated to an impassioned speech by Apollo wherein he is told that, back when the two of them were fighting, Rocky had “the eye of the tiger.” While I have never gazed deep into the eye of an actual tiger, audiences will recall that, during the first two films, Rocky wore the worried expression of a guy who doesn’t know how he ended up where he did and is fairly certain he doesn’t belong there. The line comes off as a shill for the film’s soundtrack (or perhaps it was the other way around – it’s a chicken-and-egg question not worth pursuing).
The obligatory training montage for the rematch (and be grateful there is only one as I counted no less than three in Rocky IV) eschews raw eggs and running up the art museum steps for the gym and long runs on the beach as Gonna Fly Now once again assaults our auditory dignity. While every movie montage portends the obvious victory to come, the fighters’ Iron John training relationship carries more undertones of homoeroticism than a Jean Genet novel, with roadwork culminating in the two splashing about the waves and jumping up and down in an embrace like two giggling girls whose just found out they can have a sleepover. Then the screen freezes with the ding of a bell and it’s Welcome to Madison Square Garden. While the seventy five year-old Sinatra’s rendition of Bad Bad Leroy Brown at the same venue carried of more ludicrous action and threats of permanent brain damage than this fight, spoiler-alert etiquette forbids me to reveal the victor and once-again Heavyweight Champ.
Back in the darkened gym, Rocky and Apollo decide to have one last rematch of their own: right here, right now. No crowds, no ref, no doctor, no time keeping, and no bell. But again, what kind of geek really notices these picayune details? As the two simultaneously throw their first punch, the picture morphs into a paint-spattered, palette knife-slashed nightmare of a Leroy Neiman image of the mid-action freeze frame. That’s immortality, and in case there’s any doubt that we’ve reached the end of some kind of trilogy, it is abolished by the absolute certainty that another installment is not far off. So watch out, you Pinkos.