SUMMER OF ’82: ROCKY III

Every now and then there comes a year when it seems that there are an inordinate number of really good films out in theaters. Is it the result of some sort of cultural zeitgeist or is it just mere coincidence? Who can say? But what can be known for sure is that the summer of 1982 was one of those magical movies times. On the 30th anniversary of that summer we will take a look back at some of the many movies that made that summer so memorable.

After Rocky II, Sylvester Stallone was faced with a quandary. It was an enviable quandary, one he also faced after Rocky, but a quandary nonetheless–how to keep the franchise going.

With Rocky II, he simply hit the reset button, plot-wise. Rocky was back being a down and out underdog fighter who through extraordinary luck and twist of fate got a chance at a championship bout. This was explained by having Rocky burn through all the money he made after the first film and Apollo Creed’s ego not being satisfied with the victory he got in that film and his wanting a more decisive victory over The Italian Stallion.

There were some changes. Rocky was now married to Adrian, and they were expecting their first child. And, most importantly, Rocky ended the film by becoming World Heavyweight Champion.

Simply hitting the reset button would not work this time. It would be seen as going to the well one to many times, and would shatter the audiences suspension of disbelief(Rocky’s broke!?!! Again!?!). So, how do you make an underdog who’s become the overdog into an underdog again without taking a step backwards?

You can say every Rocky sequel has been a case of diminishing returns. Drama is replaced with melodrama, characterization is replaced with thinly-drawn caricatures, complex intelligence replaced by simple stupidity. You could accuse Stallone of taking the cheap and easy way out, or you could praise him for knowing exactly what the audience wanted and boiling down the story so that was all that remained. Both are probably accurate.

What began in the second Rocky with Adrian lapsing into a post-delivery coma (a sick loved one is an easy way to evoke an emotional response from a audience) continued in this one, where Stallone’s emotional manipulation of the audience reached a fever pitch.

The story this time around shows a more successful Rocky, 10 title defenses and one year into his reign as champion.  Rocky’s perfect world is disturbed by Clubber Lang, the #1 contender for Rocky’s title. He accuses the champ of ducking him. Truth is, he has. His manager, Mickey has been throwing “Tomato Cans” at Rocky–skilled yet easily beatable fighters–to keep Rocky safe and healthy.

After a confrontation at a statue dedication, Rocky agrees to fight Clubber. In an altercation backstage at the fight, Clubber shoves Mickey, bringing on what would become a fatal heart attack. The fight continues, but not for long as Clubber easily overpowers and defeats the distracted Rocky.

Rocky is later confronted by Apollo Creed, who decides to train Rocky for the rematch. But Rocky is hesitant. He’s lost his “eye of the tiger,” and needs to get it back. Rocky experiences a mental breakthrough after a heart to heart with Adrian. One training montage later and Rocky is ready for the rematch which he–SPOILER ALERT!!!!–wins.

The film replaces the gritty realism of the first to films with a glossy sheen. Instead of an organic and natural look at these character’s lives, it’s a pre-fabricated collection of scenes calculated to blatantly manipulate the emotions of the audience.

The most obvious example of this in action is the death of Mickey. It’s established the Mickey wants no part of Rocky fighting Clubber, that Clubber would “kill him to death,” but Rocky convinces his mentor to manage him, only for Mickey to be the one “killed to death.” For the audience, this scene immediately quantifies Rocky’s guilt and grief for us. But it also makes us want Rocky to knock Clubber’s block off. Clubber killed Mickey! Not in a legally culpable way, but he killed him nonetheless! His death needs to be avenged! If not Rocky, then who?

The scene is a shortcut to get a visceral emotional reaction from his audience. As is Apollo Creed becoming Rocky’s mentor (They were enemies, but now are friends! Cool!) and Adrian being the one to help Rocky regain his confidence (I knew Adrian would be able to set him straight!). It’s calculated audience manipulation, but it worked. Heck, I’m getting fired up just writing about it!

This establishes the audience’s rooting interest in the story. Now all Stallone had to do was set up Rocky as an underdog. He did this two ways: by giving Rocky crippling self-doubt and giving him a seemingly unbeatable opponent.

Mickey’s giving Rocky powder puff opponents shakes his confidence to such a point that it becomes a struggle for him to even want to fight. This not only is a bit of backsliding to the first film, where Rocky expressed doubts in his abilities, but also and amplification of that. I can’t say this plot element really rings true. After all, we have just seen two films where Rocky has fought as hard as he could against the odds without ever quitting. To have him almost give up here because Mick took it easy on him in the fights he booked  just doesn’t seem genuine. It helps build drama by giving him another obstacle that might be impossible to overcome, but by this point the character should have been past this by now.

On paper, Clubber Lang was simply an “angry black man” stereotype, angry at being kept down by the white man (justifiably in this case as Mickey was keeping him from a title shot). However, in the hands of Mr. T, Clubber became rage incarnate. No one will ever accuse Mr. T of being one of the finest thespians to come out of the 1980s, but he is pretty much perfect in this role.

Mr. T, real name Laurence Tureaud, was discovered by Stallone after appearing  a televised “America’s Toughest Bouncer” contest. Stallone was taken by Mr. T’s appearance, a look he modeled after Mandinka warriors. While he definitely looked intimidating, it was his acting–100% pure anger–that made his performance so great. It felt authentic and Mr. T kept his characterization consistent, which sold Clubber Lang as an almost insurmountable threat.

Mr. T became a cultural icon after his role in the film, earning a role on television’s The A-Team, which amped up his stardom even more to the point where he was everywhere–from Saturday morning cartoons, the cereal aisle at the supermarket to the comic book racks at the local newsstand. But Mr. T wasn’t the only person the film raised to cultural icon status.

The film’s script called for an early bit of comic relief where Rocky, the World’s Heavyweight Boxing Champion, would face off against the World’s Heavyweight Wrestling Champion in an exhibition for charity. The wrestler, named “Thunderlips” had to be physically imposing yet charming. He had to be able to toss Rocky around the ring as the match brokedown into chaos, but be genuine in showing no animosity as they are posing for pictures after the match.

Hulk Hogan, working for the AWA, a mid-level regional federation based out of Minnesota, fit the bill. Hulk, real name Terry Bollea, with is blonde hair and Fu Manchu mustache, looked like the Greek God of Surfing. He was big enough to be believable throwing Stallone out of the ring, fierce enough that you’d actually believe he was going to kill Rocky, yet had a twinkle in his eye that you’d accept him coming over after the match to shake Rocky’s hand.

After his appearance in the film, the AWA was either unwilling or unable to capitalize on Hogan’s popularity, so he signed with the Connecticut-based WWF. He arrived shortly after Vince McMahon took over the company and together both men to the company from a regional organization that played local CYC’s to a global leader in sports entertainment that sold out sporting arenas and stadiums. Hogan, like Mr. T, became a 80s cultural icon, his likeness appearing on toys, in cartoons and movies and in comic books as well.

The success of Rocky III and the popularity of Mr. T and Hulk Hogan in the years after the film marked the apex of Stallone’s ability to tap into the cultural zeitgeist at just the right time. The film also marked a turning point both in the franchise and in Stallone’s career.

The sequel, 1985’s jingoistic Rocky IV, took Rocky III‘s formula to absurd heights. Rocky has to avenge yet another friend (this time it’s Carl Weathers’ Apollo Creed) against another terrifying and unbeatable behemoth in the form of the Russian Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren). This time, the franchise became a cartoon. If Rocky’s lack of faith in himself in Rocky III stretched the limits of believability for you, having the Moscow audience switch their allegiance from Drago to Rocky in the climax to that film would rip it to shreds.

Stallone felt that two films was enough time passed between reusing plot contrivances and returned Rocky to poverty in his old-neighborhood in Rocky V. It would take 16 years for another sequel, but that one would be the a return to form in 2006’s Rocky Balboa, where Rocky’s age made him a natural underdog in the film.

Stallone’s career also changed with this film. Prior to Rocky III, Stallone  would occasionally act in out and out dramas like F.I.S.T. and Victory or smart action films like Nighthawks.  But from Rocky III on, Stallone move towards more high-concept blockbuster bait for his starring roles. When First Blood became a hit later in 1982, eventually spawning another franchise for Stallone, it seemed like this new career approach would work out. However, while there were many successes (Cliffhanger, Cobra, The Specialist), there were more misses (Oscar, Lock Up, Stop or My Mom Will Shoot, Judge Dredd, Assassins), so much so that when Stallone returned to drama with 1997’s Cop Land, people doubted his ability to pull off the role.

Rocky III was an important film in the history of the franchise and in Sylvester Stallone’s career, as well as being one of the defining films of the 1980s. Hence it’s inclusion here.

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About William Gatevackes 1938 Articles
William is cursed with the shared love of comic books and of films. Luckily, this is a great time for him to be alive. His writing has been featured on Broken Frontier.com, PopMatters.com and in Comics Foundry magazine.
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