The Prediction is Pain: Rocky III (1982)
Rocky and Rocky II told a complete, satisfying underdog story. Now that this hometown nobody has not only become somebody, but the World Champion, where is there left for him to go? While it is a source of more great spectacle and introduces a new iconic villain, Rocky III mostly staggers when trying to answer that question. It is not a bad movie by any stretch of the imagination, but it perhaps feels the most inconsequential of all of the Rocky movies, and the start of a bad trend that hampers the movies that immediately follow it.
Just as Rocky II began by replaying the action that ended the first film, we begin right in the middle of the climactic fight where Rocky (Sylvester Stallone) finally defeated Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers). Flash forward a few months and Rocky has successfully defended his title ten times. Although he has everything he’s ever dreamed of, his trainer, Mick (Burgess Meredith), feels that Rocky has yet to really prove himself, instead opting for easier opponents to maintain his status. When at the unveiling of a giant bronze statue in Rocky’s likeness in front of the art museum (a tourist trap that still stands some thirty-six years later), Rocky finally meets a worthy challenger, Clubber Lang (Mr. T), who demands a title opportunity.
Not much is known about Clubber, but one thing you know for sure is that he’s a serious contender, based mostly on the fact that he’s played by Mr. T. It’s reported that writer-director Stallone personally picked him for the role after watching him compete in a bodybuilding competition, and it’s not tough to see why. Even before he was a household name, Mr. T cut an imposing figure. He looks like a real star and a serious threat. It’s not a tough sell when he eventually beats Rocky and takes the title.
The fight to get the championship back should feel daunting, but it just doesn’t. No matter how imposing and tough that Mr. T was in that role, you know that Rocky is going to win. Even with the death of fan favorite character and Rocky’s mentor, Mick (Burgess Meredith), there are no stakes, and frankly I didn’t care whether or not the good guy comes out on top. The upside of Mick’s death is that Apollo Creed becomes a much larger part of the film, becoming Rocky’s new trainer. The scenes between Stallone and Weathers in Creed’s old training grounds are the closest that the film comes to feeling emotionally resonant.
While the overall story is a major step down from the previous Rocky films, the spectacle is undeniably entertaining. Early on there’s a special boxer vs wrestler exhibition match between Rocky and the champion Thunderlips, played by Hulk Hogan. The fight is as ridiculous as it is entertaining, with Stallone getting thrown around like a ragdoll and Hogan giving a preview of his future superstardom just before Hulkamania really ran wild.
Rocky III’s biggest problem is that it feels like Sylvester Stallone has almost entirely forgotten who the character of Rocky really is. He’s portrayed here as being somewhat robotically stoic and written to be more intelligent than before. He’s almost cartoonish. The change is even evident in the way that Rocky fights. The man that fought Spider Rico and Apollo Creed does not feel like the same man that takes on Clubber Lang and Thunderlips. Thankfully, Stallone would rediscover the character a few years later with Rocky V and bring him back fully with Rocky Balboa, but old Rocky is sorely missed here.
This is the start of this series’ recurring trope that becomes almost comical later on, the idea that Rocky desperately wants to retire but keeps getting pulled back in for one more fight. Rocky III through Balboa all follow this storyline, and it wasn’t done right once until Balboa. This movie certainly tries hard and does nail quite a few things, namely the villains, Weathers’ increased role, and the entertainment value. But in the transition from realism to cartoon spectacle, a vital part of what makes Rocky Rocky is just missing, which may have been for the better of the series’ longevity, but it all but kills this movie’s emotional impact.