Alpha To Omega: Rocky 3

The film franchise is an inescapable part of the modern movie landscape. In this series I will address a series of films from the first to the last, looking at each film as a standalone and how it fits into the series.

Rocky 3

Part 3’s have become a pretty horrible thing lately. I have personally lost count of how many recent series have begun strong, gotten stronger… and then fallen to crap.

Granted there are exceptions. Toy Story 3, among others, was fantastic, but more often than not the third film is about where the production company takes over and decides that toys are more important than the film. What you end up with, most of the time, is an overwritten, pandering, poorly thought out unnecessary film that has little to do with the original.

Quick aside…

A third film does not make a trilogy. A trilogy is a three-part story. Star Wars (the original), Lord of the Rings, Back to the Future, are complete stories told over the course of three films.

Indiana Jones, Alien, Toy Story, Pirates of the Caribbean, and other series films, are not and never will be trilogies. Even if you stop at 3… if you aren’t beginning, continuing, and concluding a story over three films, you are not making a trilogy.

There are also, on occasion, films that fit the first criteria, but then move on and extend the trilogy and become a series. This is very rare.

In 1982 Sylvester Stallone made just such a film. Oh, it’s also, quite possibly, the greatest film of the 80’s (that isn’t “Big Trouble in Little China”) and possibly… the greatest movie of all time.

“Rocky III,” is, for lack of a better term, FUCKING MAGIC!

If you look at the first three Rocky films as a thematic trilogy it goes as follows:

Rocky- Heart and hunger vs Pride

Rocky II- Pride and destiny vs Hubris

Rocky III- Hubris and Fame vs heart and pride

Rocky a man with nothing, who was hungry to prove himself going against a man who had everything and had nothing to prove.

Rocky II was a man fighting his destiny going against a man who could not live in a world that doubted him in any way.

Rocky III is a man who won the world, but lost his soul going against a man who had nothing and was hungry to prove himself.

This is classical narrative structure. A man has nothing, goes on a journey and achieves his goals only to lose them and have to go on another journey to get back what he lost.

When last we say Rocky he had just won the heavyweight championship in a stunning upset defeat of Apollo Creed. This film picks up three years later, and what a three years it has been. Rocky has defended his title 10 times and become a national media celebrity. He is incredibly wealthy and comfortable in his new life. Everything is perfect…

Until a young, hungry upstart named James “Clubber” Lang starts rising through the ranks. A violent thug turned boxer (while in prison) he is looking to become king of the mountain, and like Apollo Creed, feels the only way he can truly do that is by beating Rocky.

He challenges Rocky publicly and gets him to agree to the fight.

Rocky sees it as a publicity stunt. He turns his training into a media circus. This isn’t a fight to him, this is a farewell tour.

Lang, on the other hand, is hungry and determined. He trains obsessively, with one goal in mind: Destroy Rocky.

Fight night arrives and all hell breaks loose. On the way to the ring Balboa and Lang have an altercation and Mickey is injured. Rocky wants to cancel the fight, but Mick urges him to fight and win.

Rocky enters the ring distracted and… gets beaten soundly in two rounds.

Defeated, Rock returns to the locker room in time to see Mickey die. Defeated and heartbroken Rocky is, for the first time lost.

Mickey and Adrian have always been Rocky’s heart and soul. What does he have without his mentor?

In steps Apollo Creed. You see, Lang is a large type asshole and Creed wants to see the arrogant man defeated. So, he steps in and offers to train Rock and help him get back the “eye of the tiger” that he has lost through years of comfortable living.

From here we get some masterful training montages. Honestly, these things set the bar. They are also a tad… homoerotic, I guess is the term. There are a lot of close ups of men’s thighs as they run down the beach and through the surf.

Rocky comes to the rematch honed, toned, and ready. He unloads on Lang, who comes back, and after taking a bit of the old busta fazool, Rock finally knocks the other man out and reclaims his title.

I cannot possibly speak objectively about this movie. It came out when I was 7 and by the time I saw it I was a full-fledged A-Team addict. I LOVED Mr.T, and even though he was THE bad guy, and be clear, he was not A bad guy, this cat was THE bad guy, I was absolutely fanatical about T.

This movie… it’s just so damned amazing. I am not kidding when I call it the only movie from the 80’s to give “Big Trouble in Little China” a run for “Best Film of the Decade.” It doesn’t beat it, but it’s in the conversation. Sure, that statement might be awash in youthful nostalgia, but it might also be completely true.

Let’s look at it from two points of view.

First, from a structural/narrative vantage.

This movie not only continues the story of Rocky Balboa, it takes it in the most interesting direction possible. This is a man who went from nobody to champ in a very short period of time. He has everything. What do you do to the man who has everything? You take it away.

Not money, mind you. At this point Rocky is just a step above the tough, working class guy he was in the first movie. No, you have to take away everything that matters.

So, you kill his mentor and father figure, and take the one thing that he worked the hardest for, his title. But you don’t just do those two things, you do them in the same night, and you have him lose his title badly. You have him lose it so badly that it looks as if he never deserved it in the first place.

In short, you break him. It’s an extension of what happened in Rocky 2. People start disrespecting him and he almost loses Adrian, his heart.

Then, when he’s broken down and has nobody to really help pull him back up (yeah, Adrian keeps him afloat, but Mickey made him reach higher) you bring in a new mentor.

But who?

Well, if you’re lazy and unimaginative, you create another Mickey, some gruff old guy who kicks him in the ass and gets him moving.

Or, if you’re not a lazy hack you take his biggest rival and transform him into his mentor.

Why is Apollo Creed the only real choice here? Two reasons. First, he knows what Rocky is capable of. He has stood toe to toe with the man for 30 rounds of brutal combat, so he knows what is in Rock’s heart.

Second, he has been where Rocky is. He had the title and lost it because he underestimated his opponent and overestimated himself. He knows the sting of losing a fight because he lost focus. So he knows what needs to happen to get Rocky back where he needs to be.

When we get to the final fight, and Creed gives Rocky his red, white, and blue trunks… it means something. It’s not just a vote of confidence or a show of friendship; it’s a subtle reminder. Remember who you were that night, and go out and be that guy again.

It’s an amazing transformation for Creed. He goes from dismissive businessman to obsessed villain, to human.

The final fight is absolutely everything you want it to be. Rocky has become a better, faster boxer and comes at Lang with everything. Lang rages back, but Rocky won’t back down. Rocky has found what he lost and then some. He has grown and earned the right to win, which he does.

This movie follows classical narrative structure not only as a self-contained film, but also as a part of the larger world of the film series.

Now, let’s look at this from a nostalgic “how awesome is this” point of view.

What the hell is there not to love about this thing?

It has Hulk Hogan in one of the most incredible cameo appearances ever as Thunderlips. Hell, one of my earliest film memories is his fight with the wrestler.

Then you have Lawrence Trudeau absolutely killing it as the most detestable bad guy imaginable. He embarrasses Rocky in public, disrespects Adrian in a very lurid way (T’s mother slapped him at the premier stating, “I didn’t raise you to talk to a lady like that,” before storming out), almost fights the MEDIA in his locker room, he basically tells Apollo Creed to fuck off in the ring before the fight, and causes Mickey’s death by trying to fight Rocky BEFORE they get in the ring. He is a bad guy. But damn! You cannot take your eyes off him.

I do not think there ever has been or ever will be a better trash talking baddie in film. Don’t believe me?

“No, I don't hate Balboa. I pity the fool, and I will destroy any man who tries to take what I got!”

“Interviewer: What's your prediction for the fight?

Clubber Lang: My prediction?

Interviewer: Yes, your prediction.

Clubber Lang: Pain!”

“Clubber Lang: I'm the baddest man in the world.

Rocky Balboa: You don't look so bad to me.

Clubber Lang: What did you say, Paper Champion? I'll beat you like a dog, a dog, you fool!”

“I'm gonna torture him. I'm gonna crucify him. Real bad.”

“I want Balboa! I want Balboa! You hear that, Old Man? You tell Balboa to come here! Nobody can beat me! You tell him what I said! And he's NEXT! I'm gonna kill him! Nobody can stop me! You tell Balboa that! I'M COMING AFTER HIM! YOU TELL HIM!”

And there is so much more.

He was such a dominant and amazing character.

Then you have the training montage. Yeah, all the Rocky movies had them up to this point, but this one was something more. He wasn’t training, he was rebuilding, relearning, becoming something better. Granted, this one got a bit… affectionate with it’s close up of Rocky and Creed’s thighs as they run and frolic in the surf, but it’s still amazing. But nowhere near as amazing as…

The song. Yeah, the music to Rocky is iconic from the very beginning, but this one had that song. Hell, is it possible to listen to any part of “Eye of the Tiger” and not want to go beat someone’s ass? I sure as hell can’t. The thing was epic and inescapable. The first cassette tape I ever owned was a “The Chipmunk’s Go Hollywood,” and even that had “Eye of the Tiger,” on it. Don’t judge me… I was 6 at the time so my tastes were not as refined… Actually, hold that. It’s awesome and I am pissed that I don’t have it any more.

The final fight is epic. Yeah, it’s not as long as the first two, but it’s exactly what it needs to be. Rocky dishing it, Rocky taking it, and Rocky winning.

Everything just came together in this movie. I honestly don’t think I am clouded in nostalgia. Anyone who enjoyed the first two films on any level can find something to love here. If you are one of those people who are “too cool” for Rocky, then please take a minute to learn how to enjoy life. There is no better representation of the 80’s film aesthetic than this.


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