The Rocky Saga – 3

So now we enter the silly stage of the Rocky franchise.

Part I was a pretty gritty, low key character study and Part II was a more upbeat/less well-directed remake of Part I.

Part III is miles away from either. In my last review I mentioned that Rocky II served as the midway point between grit and pantomime and I think pantomime is definitely the word for this film.

In the first two films Apollo Creed is the villain of sorts. In my mind though he’s the villain by default of the fact that he isn’t Rocky. He isn’t a bad guy. He’s arrogant and has a temper but then he is a boxer and these strike me as common traits of such athletes. There’s nothing that Apollo does that earns him any boos or hisses from the crowd and as we will see it is very easy for him to turn from villain to hero.

Clubber Lang is a villain. A straight up bad guy. He is nasty, angry, sleazy and a violent fighter (though I don’t think there’s another kind) with a bad attitude. He’s also played by Mr. T who is frigging phenomenal in this film. Stallone gives him some killer dialogue and he chews it masterfully, seeming to relish being such a dick.

The movie begins with the last five minutes of Rocky II and then a montage of Rocky’s title defenses and commercials. Rocky is shown easily defeating all comers while Clubber looks on with a pissed off face and Paulie looks on…with a pissed off face as well.

This montage, which is set to Survivor’s Eye of the Tiger (tune!), quickly establishes that Rocky is very rich now, a comfortable champion, a bit of sell out and seemingly drawing the ire of a black dude with a mohawk and his brother in law.

When the montage finishes we follow Paulie as he stumbles drunkenly through the streets and to an arcade where he sees a Rocky pinball machine. For whatever reason he throws his whiskey bottle at it and this is filmed in slow motion with really dramatic music playing as the bottle smashes the screen on the pinball machine revealing bulbs and wires.

This was the moment when my heart sank and I began to think that this watching all the Rocky films idea was going to suck. It’s hard to explain but I think it’s melodrama that turns me off something. Or super-drama. Or drama for no point. It’s like Peter Jackson’s King Kong. Now that’s a terrible film that I hate and its filled with super-drama. The scene where it really cemented for me though and I realized the film was sucking and would continue to suck was when Jack Black and Adrian Brody are writing the script together and Brody asks him where the movie is set and Black tells him and it’s this choppy, slow motion scene of the typewriter keys spelling out SKULL ISLAND in the slowest, hammiest way possible. The music and the length of the scene and method of trying to dramatize the writing of a word just all comes across as a directors attempt to turn something un-dramatic into something hugely dramatic and failing. Now Peter Jackson can do cheesy – Lord of the Rings is cheesy as shit and I love it – but this scene was hammy and falls under the category of super-drama.

Back to Rocky III and a drunk throwing a whiskey bottle at a pinball machine in slow motion with blaring dramatic music also falls into this category. I guess another problem with the scene is it happens about ten minutes into the movie and the previous scenes have been the last five minutes of Rocky II and a montage. There was no indication in the last film that Paulie was unhappy with Rocky and so the scene feels like manufactured drama. Maybe Burt Young wanted more scenes as Paulie and something a bit dramatic to do rather than walking around being grouchy. Maybe this film will be a redemption story as Paulie packs in the booze and the grouch and becomes a better person. Or maybe he goes into the drunk tank, gets bailed out by Rocky, gives Rocky some shit and then asks for a job and this whole thing is never mentioned again.

It’s the third one.

So after an opening that serves no purpose we move onto the charity fight with Thunderlips, played here by Hulk Hogan.

When a film’s opening credits lists both Mr. T and Hulk Hogan in the cast then you can guess the kind of madness you’re entering into and the first fight of the film does not dissappoint.

Rocky agrees to do a charity fight against Thunderlips, a wrestling champ whose gimmick seems to be that women love him and that he’s a dick. The fight is supposed to be an exhibition but Thunderlips takes it too far and causes a near riot as he kicks Rocky’s ass as well as the asses of some of the referees. Eventually Rocky gets his gloves off and dishes out a bit of a beating before somehow body slamming the wrestler and winning. The scene plays out like something from the Three Stooges and again feels pointless. If I had to help the movie along and find a point then there is a quick cut to Mickey in the melee clutching his chest like he’s having heart pains (foreshadowing!) and at a stretch it shows that Rocky’s become more docile by the fact he’s doing these stupid charity fights but also shows that he’s still dangerous by the fact that he can beat Thunderlips when the time comes. I’m not sure how much of this was intended or needed. There are a million ways to show Mickey’s heart troubles and I’m not sure placing him at the center of a semi-riot caused by a charity fight between a huge wrestler and a diminutive boxer was the most effective way to do it.

After these pointless scenes we finally get to the meat of this picture. Rocky and family are at the unveiling of the famous bronze statue depicting the likeness of the Italian Stallion. It’s at this unveiling that Rocky intends to retire from boxing with the support of Adrian and Mickey. As he’s announcing it to the press though, Clubber appears and starts calling him a paper champion and informs him in the inimitable Mr. T style that Clubber wants to fight him and that he will be destroyed. Rocky is rattled but denies the challenge until Clubber starts making some lewd comments about Adrian and the fight is on.

Mr. T sleazily coming onto to Rocky’s wife is a highlight of this film. You can take that as an indicator of how good this film is I guess.

Mickey wants no part in the fight and starts packing to move out of Rocky’s house. Why does Rocky’s grizzled, foul-mouthed old trainer live in his house? No idea. It strikes me as one of those things that Rocky’s son should have brought up as a gripe in later films when he’s pissed at Rocky. Burgess Meredith is awesome in these films and a great Penguin in Batman but he has a face like a dry-aged steak and a voice that sounds like he spent the fifties swallowing coins and glass with a blended up nail and vinegar chaser. He’s essentially the villain in every child’s nightmares and Rocky moves him into the family home. So in Rocky V when Rocky Jnr is complaining about not being loved enough he should be complaining about the fact he wet the bed every day of his life because he shared a house with a man who looks like a Halloween costume that got microwaved.

So Mickey and Rocky have a heart to heart and its revealed that Clubber was right and Rocky is a paper champion. Mickey hand-picked the fighters to protect Rocky. Rocky’s devastated but believes that because his belt is fake he needs to fight clubber to prove them wrong and Mickey says, nah kid, you can’t beat him because you’re domesticated now and Clubbers still a hungry young bruiser who will hand your ass to you.

I liked this bit as it started to tie the films together into a trilogy. As I said in my last Rocky post there is a trilogy with these first three films of Rocky’s rise, fall, rise again, fall again and final rise (Sidenote: It probably didn’t need to be a trilogy). But it also shows Rocky becoming more like Apollo in Rocky I. He’s well dressed, rich and a bit arrogant. Clubber is like an evil version of Rocky in Rocky I. He’s hungry and determined but he’s got no class and, to use the series’ favorite word, he lacks Heart.

The training montage here pre-fight was weird as they train in some big indoor space with an orchestra, hangers on and people hawking merchandise. Intercut with that is Clubber training in some dingy piece of shit gym which seemingly only has moody lighting. It’s a very heavy handed way of showing us what I wrote in the last paragraph but again I like the idea of the shifting roles.

And yet after building this all up they chicken out at the crucial moment. On the way to the fight both fighters and there trainers get into a scuffle in the…area before the ring and Mickey is pushed and has a heart attack. Rocky still goes out to fight but is spooked and you can see his head is wrecked. This is all well and good and the fact that a shock like that would unnerve him enough for Clubber to beat him is fine. However if that’s your route, don’t set up the earlier bits of his arrogance versus Clubber’s hunger being the determining factor for the victory. It’s a shame Stallone’s not brave enough to make Rocky’s getting knocked out (second round!) into something that is purely his own fault. Instead Mickey has to die so that Rocky’s unnerved and therefore easy to knock out. I would have preferred them to spare Mickey (if Burgess Meredith wants out, kill him between films Clemenza style) and have Rocky do the shoddy training and then ride into the ring on the back of a Harley or do the George Washington thing same as Apollo in the first film. Show him being arrogant as shit and paying the price and then when he builds himself back up its more satisfying.

After his knock out Rocky goes to see Mickey, who dies and Stallone struggles to be understood in his mumbly grief.

I did skip a bit actually which I liked. When the fight is starting we go ringside and the commentators are joined by the retired Apollo Creed whose presence in this film adds instant class. He goes into the ring to speak to the fighters ala Joe Frasier in Rocky I. Just from his body language you can see Apollo is still pissed at Rocky but when he speaks to Clubber and Clubber dismisses him for a has been he goes to Rocky and, without making eye contact, tells him to knock Clubber the fuck out.

So Mickey dies and Rocky mopes and eventually finds himself at the old gym. He continues to mope about until a shadowy figure appears in the doorway. Long story short its Apollo and he’s there to bury the hatchet so he can train Rocky back to greatness.

The first step apparently is to regain the ‘eye of the tiger’ and to do this they have to go back to their roots or more specifically Apollo’s roots. Apollo takes Adrian, Paulie and Rocky to California (notably absent is Rocky Jnr) and to his old gym which is full of young black guys who Apollo notes have the eye of the tiger.

One thing I like a lot in the Rocky films is when the trainer points out a fault in Rocky’s fighting or they have to work out a way to defeat a stronger opponent so they develop some sort of strategy. It reminds me of a heist movie like Sneakers where before the big job they have to map out how to defeat the security or whatever. I’m reminded of something William Goldman says in Which Lie Did I Tell? when he’s describing writing a heist movie and includes a montage of the criminals methods and as an explanation for its inclusion he says ‘people like to see how shit is done’ (that’s probably a terrible paraphrase) and it rings true.

In Rocky II there’s a lot of talk about how Rocky needs to learn how to fight right-handed as oppose to his usual south paw style with the idea being that he would start right-handed then halfway through switch back to south paw. The annoying thing about this is that after all the training to change his hands there is no pay off as during the fight Mickey says, ‘time to switch’ and Rocky replies, ‘No, I don’t wanna win with tricks’. It’s becoming more apparent how much of these films are just montages and filler.

In this film what Rocky lacks is speed. Apollo tries to train him to be faster with swimming, rhythm training and sprint races on the beach. The best/worst part of this training montage is probably the fashions as there’s an awful lot of muscly men wearing belly shirts and short shorts. Maybe it’s an eighties thing.

But Rocky’s got the Fear and only a good old fashioned Adrian pep talk will snap him out of it. Can’t say enough about Talia Shire in these films. She, and her co-stars, seem to be there simply to distract from Stallone’s performance. They all also have the thankless task of having to say Stallone’s words that constantly praise and adore the character he’s playing. However she handles herself well and in the five films she is in she brings the heat even if after the first two films she’s usually reduced to a handful of scenes where she gives a big speech telling Rocky he can do it/he can win/she believes in him.

Rocky gets serious about training and beats Apollo in the foot race, which involves a lot of close up of running thighs and ends with the two muscular, shirtless men frolicking with each other in the sea. This probably explains why I was getting funny looks when I was watching this on the bus.

The final fight wasn’t very good. It starts promising, Rocky’s getting knocked around and then out of nowhere can suddenly absorb tons of punishment and inhuman amounts of abuse. It seems he’s tiring Clubber out in order to knock him out, a tactic that has up to this point not been discussed and the point of the training seemed to be avoidance as oppose to walking into attacks. Again no pay off to the two training montages seemingly designed to increase speed. So once Clubber is exhausted Rocky knocks him out and the fight is over. But where the other films have ended when the fight ended this one lingers on for a fınal scene.

Throughout the film Apollo has stated he will help Rocky but Rocky will owe him a big favor. The favor seems to be a private rematch. This ending makes sense for the trilogy idea as it ends with the enemies becoming friends and friendly enough to engage in some light (quite camp) banter before each throwing a punch at the same moment which we freeze on so we never know who wins.

Its cheesy, campy and silly but in terms of this film about as good an ending as I could expect.

Interestingly when I first watched Rocky III I rated it quite highly but it seems to collapse under scrutiny. There’s an awful lot of filler in this film and ideas that never pay off and too many montages (four). It also kills off a character quite callously simply to provide the hero with momentum (a recurring trait from this movie forward) and then tries to make us cheer for the rich yuppie over the underdog in an inversion of why we like these films in the first place.

However as silly as this film is at least Rocky didn’t end the Cold War (foreshadowing!).

To be continued…


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