At some point in the life of a franchise that started off gritty and achieved the devoted love of an audience, there’s an inevitable change – a metamorphosis, if you will. It’s that moment where budgets are increased, stakes are raised and the scale of the world the franchise inhibits expands exponentially and a tenuous balance is struck up between retaining the spirit of where the series began and it’s broader, more fanciful future. Get it wrong and your franchise becomes utter clown shoes and loses all it’s credibility – get it right and you’ve secured yourself a franchise with legs.
Now, I could have been just as easily been describing any number of movies there, from anywhere from Fast & Furious 5 to the third outing for Freddy Krueger (both fantastic game changers in their own right) but for today’s lesson, I happen to be talking about Rocky III.
At this point, the franchise that never met a roman numeral it didn’t like was standing on a precipice; after all, Rocky II had finished with the loveable underdog weathering everything from illiteracy to his pregnant wife catching some serious coma time only to go on and finally defeat Apollo Creed for the heavyweight championship of the world. It was fairly certain that this rags to riches tale had finally left the rags part of it’s story behind so the question that begged answering was: how far into riches should the movie go? The answer? Pretty fucking far as it happens.
It’s been III – sorry, 3 – years and Balboa has successfully retained his title after a number of challengers have hit the canvas but all the fame and respect has begun to make the big lug complacent much to the worry of his crusty old trainer Mickey. Adding to the pressure is the appearance of one Clubber Lang, a mohawked, feather earring-ed bruiser who is completely devoid of an “indoor voice” and matches Rocky’s bludgeoning style of boxing while being far more powerful and still retains the hunger that our hero has since lost. Matters aren’t exactly helped either by the revelation that Mickey has been protecting Balboa by hand picking “soft” opponents thanks to Rocky’s old injuries. Trying to avoid his dented pride by running into a massive bloody fist, Rocky finally accepts Lang’s bellowed challenges and meets him in the ring after the world’s most lethargic training session and proceeds to get hammered harder than an alcoholic nail.
Emotionally done after, not only a punishing defeat, but by a massive personal loss, Rocky seems all washed up if not for a helping hand from a suprising source – former champion and recipient of a Balboa assisted ten count, Apollo Creed; who offers to retrain Rocky into a completely new type of fighter in order to reclaim the title.
The stage is set for glorious montages and glistening training sessions as our hero struggles to obtain The Eye Of The Tiger, a state of mind that Apollo won’t stop going on about, but will fancy new moves and a new outlook on life hope to withstand the a rematch with Lang, a man who has already pounded him into the canvas once before?
Whether you could ever truly describe the first two Rocky movies as realistic is debatable, but there’s definitely grit to spare as Balboa claws his way out of abject poverty in Philadelphia to achieve his dream; however, it’s no secret that the ups and downs of Rocky’s career mirror Sylvester Stallone’s own, and in 1982 Stallone was fucking huge. Thus we go from a penniless Balboa wandering an apocalyptic looking Philadelphia, to a film that opens with him fighting a wrestler (a pimped out Hulk Hogan going by the name Thunderlips) for charity. While we recoil from the notion that Stallone, an Oscar nominated screenwriter, is trying to convince us that wrestling is real, we quickly realise that this is a much more “80’s” section of Rocky’s story and some rough edges are quickly sanded down. How else could you explain the amazingly rapid curing of Rocky’s scumbag brother-in-law, Paulie, of his inherent racism which staggeringly only takes a trip to LA and three lines of dialogue to achieve.
Tonal shifts and plot conveniences aside, caught between the darker first two movies and the cartoonish plotting of IV and V, Rocky III proves to be the “all rounder” of the franchise, heaping on the harrowing melodrama while making you punch the air like a patriotic maniac every time Eye Of The Tiger by Survivor blares over the soundtrack therefore creating the quintessential backbone for drunken karaoke sessions for generations to come.
The other magnificent aspect of Rocky III is that it’s quite possibly one of the greatest homoerotic “straight” films ever made (and that includes the abs and sandals epic 300) with Apollo and Rocky’s friendship being portrayed as so intense it famously leads to them on a bromance so powerful it makes the volleyball scene in Top Gun seem positively subtle in comparison. Sure, Tom Cruise diving around with his shirt off while Kenny Loggins’ “Playing With The Boys” rocks over your speakers is one thing, but it’s nothing compared to Sylvester Stallone and Carl Weathers literally and gloriously frolicking in the surf after the latter teaches his student the ability to run a bit faster.
In comparison, the final clash between Balboa and Lang seems a little small fry compared to the epic beatings of Rocky IV with Clubber being outmatched relatively earlier than the franchise’s usual opponents but it’s still exhilarating stuff with every punch now sounding like a bus dropped off a cliff.
As relatively basic as Stallone’s story telling is (he’s once again on writing and directing duties here) it seems virtually impossible to NOT make these movies iconic with a final shot freeze frame marking possibly not only greatest ending of a Rocky film ever, but maybe even a SPORTS film ever, and he’s still on top, mumbling form here while physically he casually resembles a Greek God.
However, Rocky III’s greatest asset is undoubtedly much more screen time for that chiseled ball of unstoppable charisma that is Carl Weathers and the friendship sparked up in this movie still echoes on to this day in the Creed series despite him cruelly getting right-handed to Valhalla in the next movie.
As subtlety drains away as quick as Stallone’s BMI, some sacrifices are admittedly made (Talia Shire’s Adrian is now basically a hand wringing cheerleader and Mr T’s villain has all the blunt nuance of a baseball bat) but as a form of entertainment that plays on the heart strings mercilessly, it definitely goes the distance.