Directed by: Sylvester Stallone
Premise: Picking up four years after the events of Rocky II, the Italian Stallion (Sylvester Stallone) is defeated by vicious contender Clubber Lang (Mr. T). Having lost his edge, Rocky is taken in by Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) who agrees to train Rocky for a rematch.
What Works: There is a streak of self-awareness that runs throughout the Rocky series. Even the first film had an element of this in the way it acknowledged the populist sentiment at the heart of the story. Rocky III is by far the most self-aware installment of the series and at times the movie hedges upon full blown satire. The picture opens with a montage of assorted Rocky Balboa merchandise, much of which was real and used to promote these films. It’s an acknowledgement of the way Rocky had become a commodity both in real life Hollywood and within the diegesis of this film. Rocky III picks up the story with the heavyweight champion far from the streets of Philadelphia and living in a mansion with his family and his manager. This film plays upon the intersection of show business and sportsmanship and the unreality of celebrity in a way that’s sharp and very funny. That’s best seen in a charity bout in which Rocky fights a professional wrestler played by Hulk Hogan. This sequence is bizarre and it sets up many of the themes of the rest of the picture. Rocky’s bubble of comfort is soon burst. He discovers that his title defenses were against has-been fighters, putting the legitimacy of his career into question. Against Mickey’s objections, Rocky agrees to fight hungry young contender Clubber Lang and loses the bout and his title. Meanwhile, Mickey dies of a heart attack and Rocky is left in an existential crisis, not knowing what to do and unsure if he has the heart to fight anymore. The transition from the lighthearted opening to the melancholic middle section of the picture is striking and allows Rocky III to have some of the introspection and depth of the original movie. The filmmakers also take risks even while they work within the Rocky template. That makes Rocky III a successful combination of commercial and artistic choices.
What Doesn’t: One of the weaknesses of the Rocky series is its continuity between installments. In the second film, Rocky tried his hand as a celebrity spokesperson but he was foiled by his illiteracy. In the montage that introduces Rocky III, the character has amassed a fortune through endorsements and commercial appearances. Since the movie does this at the beginning it mostly gets away with it but there is also a sense that Stallone’s approach to the character has changed. His performance is markedly different in Rocky III than in the previous installments. His speech is smoother and he carries himself in a different way. Some of that is simply character development; fame and fortune have made Rocky more civilized. But this version of Rocky is a more generic Stallone leading man than the vivid character of the previous films. The characterization of Clubber Lang is also a strange creative decision. Mr. T’s performance is fine; he does exactly what the script requires of him. But Clubber Lang is written as a one dimensional thug. For some reason he’s portrayed as a villain but he’s not actually doing anything wrong. Boxing is a violent sport in which men punch each other in the face and Lang does exactly that and does it well. But for some reason the filmmakers villainize Lang instead of portraying him as a fellow sportsman. This may be a strategic decision by the filmmakers; at the start of the film Lang is the underdog but making him a villain keeps the audience’s sympathies with Rocky. This is an issue that Stallone would revisit in later Rocky films with somewhat better results.
DVD extras: The edition of Rocky III released in “The Heavyweight Collection” has a number of special features but none that are particular to this installment.
Bottom Line: Rocky III is one of the most satisfying entries in the series. Its style is far departed from the first two Rocky pictures but that was a necessary change that allowed the filmmakers to craft a movie that kept the story relevant and reinvigorated the series.
Episode: #623 (November 27, 2016)