Monday, June 4, 2012

Eye of the Tiger: ‘Rocky III’ Turns 30

People love a good comeback story.  The public loves to see an underdog defy the odds and rise to the top, only to sadistically relish in his downfall.  Only then can he be cheered on as he gets off the mat and back onto the saddle.  After all, can anyone truly relate to a hero who never loses?  How boring is a champion who makes it to the top only to coast for the rest of his career and retire undefeated?  Surely, such a hero isn’t worthy of having his own film franchise.  Sylvester Stallone certainly didn’t think so, hence how he treated his most beloved cinematic creation.  In Rocky III, the title character faced a much more fearsome challenge than ever before.  That challenge made for one of the entertaining films of the 1980’s.

After defeating Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) in their rematch, Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) becomes the undisputed world heavyweight boxing champion.  Seemingly overnight, he goes from being a loveable underdog to an American Icon.  His face becomes omnipresent in the media, and His lifestyle changes accordingly. By all appearances, things couldn’t be going any better for him.  Figuring that there is nothing left for him to accomplish, Rocky publicly announces his retirement.  At that very moment, a fearsome young heavyweight named James "Clubber" Lang (Mr. T) suddenly emerges from the crowd and accuses Balboa of dodging him.  Incensed, Balboa agrees to fight the hungry upstart.  

Mickey (Burgess Meredith) initially refuses to train Rocky, fearing that the champ has lost his hunger.  He inevitably relents, only to have his fears confirmed.  Rocky treats his training as a one huge party, neglecting to do the proper conditioning.  Things get much worse on the night of the actual match.  During a pre-fight skirmish between Rocky and Clubber, Mickey is sent into cardiac arrest.  As Mickey lies dying, a woefully unprepared Rocky loses horribly to Lang.  Broken and dispirited, Rocky becomes lost.  Like a guardian angel, Apollo Creed appears from the shadows to help him get the title back.  Can Balboa get out of his self-pitying funk long enough to regain the “eye of the tiger?”

Rocky III represents the rebirth, or reinvention, of the Rocky franchise.  The original was a serious sports drama that earned its star academy award nominations for Best Actor and Best Original Screenplay.  It was an instant classic.  The follow-up, written directed by Stallone himself, was a boring rehash that allowed Rocky to finally obtain the goal that eluded him the first time around: The heavyweight title.  Rocky III refashions the Rocky mythos into something a bit less prestigious, yet far more entertaining.  

Rocky III is more derivative than many remember it being upon release.  It borrowed from two prior hits of a still young decade, both of them sequels.  The films in question are The Empire Strikes Back and Superman II.  The heroes of both have a lot in common with Rocky Balboa as portrayed in Rocky III.  Luke Skywalker, The hero of Empire, is overly sure of his untested and underdeveloped abilities.  He also rebukes the teachings of his master, only to suffer a hard lesson as a result.  In Superman II, Superman eschews his responsibilities for earthly pleasures, going from demigod to mere mortal and back again before the end credits role.  Rocky III takes all of the aforementioned elements and distills them into a formula that it would milk from then on.  The resulting film is neither as dark as Empire, nor as campy or comedic as Superman II.  

Rocky III is a film that, at its core, is about both iconography and reinvention.  From its very beginning, Balboa is on top of the world and relishing in his glory.  It’s clear that this will be a very different kind of Rocky movie than either of its predecessors.  Bill Conti’s score is gone, eschewed for Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger.”  The film opens with the closing moments of Rocky II, but the opening titles are immediately followed by a breathless montage that shows Rocky’s rise to glory.  He coasts through one successful title defense after another, and basks in his celebrity status.  He’s no longer a marble-mouthed goon, but a well-manicured spokesman for any number of products.

Rocky has a new adversary this time out and he’s shown very early on, during that very same opening montage.  James “Clubber” Lang, the number one contender, seethes with anger while in attending one of Balboa’s fights.  The rest of the world sees a hero, but Clubber sees a poser.  His scowl, physique (and to some audience members, his very Blackness) automatically identify him as the villain of the piece.  His fashion choices also suggest this.  Mr. T brought all of his trademark fashion accessories to bear.  He sports his famous Mohawk, as well as feathered earrings and a suede jacket.  Perhaps unintentionally, he looks like a racial caricature of an Indian Brave.  He is the “other,” an invader into Rocky’s civilized world.  He threatens to bring anarchy.  His sexual overture to Adrian during the statue dedication brings Rocky III’s racial subtext bubbling to the surface.

James "Clubber" Lang, the "Other," denoted by his Black skin and Native American style dress and accessories.

Mr. T was basically playing himself in this film.  It was, perhaps, the world’s introduction to his unforgettable persona.  He’s scary, yet not truly a monster.  His hostile demeanor is mostly a tactic to demoralize his opponents.  If he’s guilty of anything, it’s insatiable hunger and youthful arrogance.  He is both stronger and more fearsome than Apollo Creed.  There is no fancy showmanship to his boxing style.  He’s essentially, as Mickey says, “A wrecking machine.”  Though he’s a fictional character, he foreshadows the coming of “Iron” Mike Tyson.  He also has no respect for those who preceded him, as evidenced by his rebuke of Apollo Creed’s handshake before his first match with Balboa.

The resulting rivalry between Creed and Lang brings yet another racially charged element to the film: The conflict between the field Negro and the House Negro.  Lang is clearly the angry and resentful field Negro.  He has no respect for the old ways, and in fact means to tear that paradigm down.  By contrast, Creed is very much the assimilated Black Man in terms of his public image.  He sells himself as the living embodiment of the American dream, employing Muhammad Ali’s penchant showmanship to this purpose.  Like Rocky, he sees Lang as an affront to all he has worked for an achieved, to the point that he eventually teams with Balboa to take down Lang.  

Apollo even agrees to share with Rocky that most coveted of boxing secrets: The Black Boxer’s inherent sense of rhythm.  Paulie hilariously points this out in a single line of dialogue: “You can't train him like a colored fighter. He ain't got no rhythm.” It might seem comical to look at the film in such serious and racial terms, but such themes are definitely there.  They are prominently featured during the customary training montage, which shows Rocky training alongside Apollo in a Black boxing gym.  Balboa isn’t simply getting in shape.  He’s being reforged.  Stallone’s musculature takes on a machine like quality.  There are many close-ups of rippling quadriceps.  Simple-minded viewers will see this as homoerotic.  Perceptive ones will see it for what it is: Stallone’s fetishizes his own physique, offering it as the very picture of human perfection.  It represents the ultimate goal that both Stallone and Balboa are shooting for.

It’s interesting that the amazing new tools Rocky is given to work have very little to do with why he wins the rematch.  Rocky’s strategy does not employ a Black boxer’s sense of rhythm and timing.  It consists of toughness, resilience, and outright stupidity.  He lets the physically stronger Lang punch himself out early in the fight.  Pretty much all of Clubber’s devastating blows land.  Every punch is an earth-shattering haymaker.  It’s essentially a much more dangerous and obvious version of Ali’s “Rope-a-Dope strategy.”  Stallone obscures the silliness of the fight with an exciting filmmaking style.

Released on May 28th, 1982, Rocky III became the highest grossing film in the franchise up until that point.  Much to the chagrin of film critics everywhere, it proved Stallone’s storytelling instincts correct.  Mr. T gave the franchise its greatest villain to date.  The character was much more interesting than his cartoonish appearance initially suggested.  The first Rocky remains a classic sports drama.  It’s undoubtedly the best film of the series.  However, Rocky III is undoubtedly the most entertaining.  30 years later, it’s hilariously dated, but no less effective.  As an adult, I am able to go along for the ride while still being conscious of the blatant manipulation at work.  Only a truly special film could do that.

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