Tuesday, 9 August 2016

Rocky III (1982)

"How did everything that was so good get so bad?" ponders Rocky to Adrian during a crisis of confidence on a Californian beach. It's a question I find myself asking in relation to the film series itself.

If Rocky and Rocky II were deliciously tasty prime, greasy burgers, than Rocky III is a burger that comes absolutely smothered in cheese. This marks the critical point when Stallone - now both writer and director as well as star - became less interested in acting and telling stories, and more interested in Stallone The Movie Star and The Pop Cultural Symbol. Rocky becomes less the loveable punchy lug and more a stylish, confident, capable, urbane and '80s aspirational figure. Stallone's direction and script blurs the lines between his creation and Stallone himself. Stallone's appearances on The Muppet Show and alongside President Jimmy Carter become Rocky's appearances and a measure of his overwhelming success. Rocky, who couldn't even get to grips with the internal combustion engine in Rocky II, now drives around his former Philly haunts on a motorbike...because Stallone figures it makes him look good. Rocky, as a character, is completely lost in the star's own reverie of his unique screen persona. 

And unlike the first sequel, Rocky III isn't a natural and authentic continuation of the first film either; it's a shark-jumping spectacle that bears no relation whatsoever to the world and characters created in John G Avildsen's Rocky. It's a betrayal that runs parallel with Stallone's other iconic cinematic character, Rambo whose savage indictment of Vietnam was swiftly turned into a jingoistic avatar for Reaganite foreign policy. 

Stallone had a perfect opportunity here to tell a very interesting story, essentially the same story as the original film, but turned completely on its head. Rocky III should present its hero in a similar distant, unattainable light as Creed was back in '76, with Clubber Lang literally languishing in the gutter gazing up at his star; a lean, hungry fighter who is insanely jealous of the success of champions and whose spiteful desire to reach those same heights that Rocky -  a similar one-shot who stumbled upon his chance - achieved burns him up inside that he obnoxiously demands his moment in the spotlight. It's a compelling launchpad for an interesting sequel, but Stallone muffs it completely with an over-reliance on MTV style montage, replacing any real  attempt at depth of storytelling or character development, and an infuriating, daft campy tone which reaches its nadir with the charity bout between Rocky and Hulk Hogan's wrestler, Thunderlips. 

It's a godawful stinker of a scene and a real shame that, after some wonderfully earthy funny moments in the first two films that stem naturally from the authentic dialogue and situations, this is the series' humour now. Stallone chooses to incorporate what is essentially a comedy sketch - and a deeply unfunny one at that - to give the film its comedy quota. Again, an example of realism going out of the window in favour of sheer spectacle. It doesn't help the film either that he chooses to cast Mr T, a personality rather than an actor, to portray his opponent; there's simply nothing in the character or performance other than an obvious obnoxious streak, meaning anything potentially interesting in terms of drawing parallels between him and Rocky is immediately thrown away and squandered.

Rocky III is also the first film in the series that decides to ignore its own continuity. Mickey clearly states in the fist film that he is 76 years old. Yet he dies here at the age of 77, meaning he aged just one year in the 7 years that have passed since Rocky. Even worse, and totally in keeping with Stallone's preoccupation with his unbeatable, infallible screen persona, Rocky is no longer depicted as a stupid chancer who scored a lucky break and beat the overwhelming odds.  Rocky Balboa is now a mature, capable superman and the concerns regarding his sight, very much addressed in Rocky II as a reason as to why he should retire immediately, are completely ignored here. It's ridiculous to hear Mickey express reservations that Rocky is over the hill, and no longer has the fight in him, when we can clearly see that Stallone was in the best shape of his life here. It makes a mockery of the whole thing and again is evidence of Stallone's lack of interest in the character and the continuity and his clear focus on his own stardom and screen persona.

The only reference to Rocky III in the recent Creed lies in the fact that Rocky did indeed become 'family' to Apollo Creed and that they did indeed have a secret rematch behind closed doors. The way that line is delivered in Creed, it conjures up images of the two men, determined to slug it out and find the answer to the question of just who is the greatest once and for all for their own peace of mind. Watching it here, it's nothing but a cringeworthy cheesy finale to a cringeworthy cheesy film.

I always knew Rocky III was the start of the downward spiral in the franchise and this rewatch did nothing to change that view. Rocky IV may have taken an even greater leap into non-realism, but at least it was a cheesily enjoyable popcorn blockbuster boosted now by an infectious '80s nostalgia...right?

I'll find out soon enough....

Knockout Rating: 2.5 Punches out of 5.

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