How do you keep a franchise going when your main character, the title one in the Rocky franchise, is supposed to always be the underdog? The answer lies with sports. The problem is that not everyone enjoys these pastimes. A good movie will bring most anyone to the theater, but the material will only keep a large audience’s attention for so long. A broad swath of the viewing public could rally behind Robert “Rocky” Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) because who among us has never had to face doubt? He is particularly popular in this country because he comes from the kind of humble beginnings that describe so many people. Rocky is one of us. Yet, after winning the world heavyweight championship in Rocky II (1979), he becomes literally a man on a pedestal. No, I mean literally because in today’s film, Rocky III (1982), they erect a statue of him on the famous steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. I brought up sports a moment ago because coaches have to invent new ways of getting athletes primed for whatever it is in which they will be competing, particularly if they are at the top. Does this work to continue a franchise? Read on and decide for yourself.
Like with the previous movie, Rocky III begins with the last couple minutes of the one that precedes it. Confused yet? Good. I suppose this is necessary this time because Rocky’s triumph over Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) sets him on a path of success that sustains him for a while. In addition to defending his title a number of times, he becomes a much sought after figure for advertisers. In short, he is enjoying the trappings of fame and fortune. The person who is (inexplicably) not happy with seeing Rocky’s face everywhere is an up-and-coming boxer named James “Clubber” Lang (Mr. T). He sees the commercials, he reads the articles, and he attends various events, all with a scowl on his face. He takes this rage into the ring, destroying opponent after opponent, proclaiming himself to be the best and demanding that he get a shot at facing Rocky for the title. As Clubber continues his rise, Rocky agrees to do a charity match against a massive professional wrestler known as “Thunderlips,” (Hulk Hogan). Yes, this is as ridiculous as it sounds. Thunderlips also enters the ring like a maniac. Instead of boxing, he tosses Rocky around with ease, even throwing the smaller fighter into the crowd at one point. Watching this with growing concern is Rocky’s longtime trainer Michael “Mickey” Goldmill (Burgess Meredith). The other thing growing in him is a heart condition. As the chaos unfolds, there are shots of him doubled over, which goes unnoticed in the hullabaloo. Rocky is not thrilled with the performance either, despite the money raised for good causes. Shortly thereafter, as his statue is being unveiled, he announces that he is going to retire. This infuriates Clubber, who is in the crowd, and he charges forward calling Rocky a coward and suggesting that the champ’s beloved wife, Adrianna “Adrian” (Talia Shire) sleep with him. Understandably, Rocky is not pleased. Yet, when he approaches Mickey about training for one more fight, the old-timer tries to convince his prized pupil that it is over. Rocky prevails, though, promising to live in the gym to prepare. It does not go as he says. Instead, his training camp is a circus, and every time Mickey pleads with Rocky for some sanity, it is ignored. Clubber, meanwhile, gets ready in the kind of setting that once nurtured a young Rocky. The result is that Clubber knocks Rocky out in the second round. This is not the only tragedy of the night. Mickey, whose condition acted up as they headed into the arena, has a relapse and dies before the fight is over. Rocky is devastated. Another person who had been on hand to see Rocky go down is Apollo. As is his wont, Clubber insults Apollo, too. As such, Apollo takes it upon himself to train Rocky. Rocky’s former adversary tells him that he needs to get the hunger back that gave him the motivation to win the championship. To do so, Apollo takes Rocky to the former’s humble Los Angeles roots. He also teaches Rocky to move differently, with a bit more quickness in the feet. Rocky tries to go along with the program, but he is haunted by the image of a determined Clubber facing him down with those blazing eyes filled with anger. It takes Adrian to finally confront her husband and figure out what is wrong. He finally admits that he is afraid. Having lost, he believes that he could lose everything that they have built together. It takes her reminding him that he has never quit anything in his life, and that he cannot allow fear to rule him, for him to recommit to his training. If you have seen the previous two movies, or read their reviews, you can guess what happens next. Cue exercise montage 3,745, though this time with a bond forming between Apollo and Rocky. The climactic fight does go down a little differently than previous iterations. Instead of the marathon match going the full fifteen rounds, each opponent with a face mashed into an unrecognizable mess, Rocky is relatively unscathed. Granted, he takes a few vicious blows, but it is part of his strategy to wear out Clubber. He does, and soon Rocky sends an exhausted Clubber to the mat, not to rise again. Apollo’s assistance had come with a favor. As our film closes, they get back into the ring once more, alone.
We do not get to see what happens in this friendly rematch at the end of Rocky III because the credits start rolling as they are landing their first punches. Fine. I must admit, though, that Rocky is becoming one of my favorite Catholic characters in cinematic history. I have spoken in previous reviews in the series about the various ephemera that signal his Faith. This is less evident here, though I am gratified to see that he still prays before each bout. Hence, we have to dive a little deeper. What I appreciate in this one is the exchange between Adrian and Rocky. With Mr. T’s face never far from Rocky’s thoughts, his legs falter. When Adrian comes over to her husband, he says that he is going to quit. In addition to saying that he is not a quitter, she reminds him of an important lesson. It is okay to be afraid as he admits, but one should not act on that fear. This is a rich theme for this Catholic. For one thing, there is no fear in God. It is true that we are taught to fear God, but that is the kind of fear one should have of a loving parent instead of one that causes any kind of dread. Another aspect is the not acting out of fear. Since that emotion is not of God, giving into it logically leads one away from God. In Spiritual direction, we try to tell our directees that when one is feeling this emotion, it is best to pray through it instead of making any decision based on it. That is exactly what Rocky is doing. The final part comes with a reminder of the unconditional love she has for him. Rocky does not want to lose his family, and she responds by saying that is not going to happen. God’s love can never be taken away, too, and there is incredible strength in that.
So, Rocky III is okay. As I have touched on, there does seem to be an air of them running out of ideas, but it does not get too goofy. While watching these films, I find myself trying to remember all the parts of them that I had been taught just by being a movie buff. For example, I thought Mickey dies later, and that Clubber kills Apollo. Oh well.
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