A fear overcomes you as you watch “Rocky III” for the first time in, well, ages.
The super sequel out-earned its predecessor and cemented the franchise in the process. Oh, and Mr. T is front and center as Clubber Lang.
Does it still make our pulses pound, our hands clap uncontrollably?
Yes, without reservation.
“Rocky III” finds Stallone firmly in charge of the franchise, taking over for underrated auteur John G. Avildsen. following the 1976 film classic.
The movie opens with Rocky standing tall as heavyweight champ, the narrative rewinding to the final moments of the last film. Too bad that tactic never caught fire in our current franchise frenzy.
We watch Rocky defend his new title, dispatching some easy foes in the process.
A new threat emerges to Rocky’s crown. Mr. T’s Clubber Lang is big, mean and oh, so hungry. And he won’t stop until the champ faces him in the ring.
First, Rocky must defeat the oversized Thunderlips (Hulk Hogan) in a charity bout. The sequence is both highly entertaining and silly, a sop to wrestling’s growing clout, perhaps? Stallone and Hogan make the most of it, but the whole, “Hey, isn’t this supposed to be pretend” shtick strains credibility.
Clubber Lang fixes the film … and Rocky’s retirement plans. Now, the Pride of Philadelphia must team with an unlikely ally for the rematch.
Stallone’s writing career is spotty, at best. Sure, he penned the career defining “Rocky.” He also wrote “Driven,” “Rhinestone” and the “Expendables” franchise.
No Best Original Screenplay nominations there.
His “Rocky III” writing is just fine, thank you. We get a few well-earned laughs, plus a richer bond between Rocky and Adrian (Talia Shire). The movie’s pivotal scene finds the two squabbling over why the fighter lost that proverbial, “Eye of the Tiger.”
“For the first time …I’m afraid,” he tells her, reminding us she’s integral to his success in and out of the ring. It also shreds the absurd “toxic masculinity” slur.
Stallone’s screenplay plays up the franchise’s unsung hero: Burt Young’s Paulie. He’s always reliable for comic effect. Here, he’s both pathetic and more than a shade racist.
Today’s filmmakers would either shy away from Paulie’s ignorance or make him a straight-up villain. “Rocky III” does neither, and the story is richer for it. He’s family, but the kind you hug and cringe over at the same time.
Paulie also plays up the socio-economic divide between the Old and New “Rock.” The fighter looks dashing in all those well-tailored suits. He now lives in an impeccable home paid for by his sudden fame. He still talks like a truck driver after one too many Boilermakers.
You can take the palooka out of the city…
Another insight into Stallone the superstar comes early, as Paulie rages against his brother-in-law’s good fortune. Is this Stallone showing his personal reflections on stardom? It’s hard not to consider that, even if the scene offers a gracious resolution.
Burgess Meredith’s Mickey is back, of course, and his somber arc verges on melodrama. We’re too invested in his character, and his connection to Rocky, to mind.
The inevitable training sequences prove suprisingly rich. Rocky throws away the celebrity trappings, reinventing himself in the process. That message, along with how Mickey hurt him by delivering a series of weak opponents, offers a portrait into masculinity missing today.
Giving Carl Weathers ample screen time as Apollo Creed. Rocky and Apollo share a bond illustrating why some sequels aren’t just cash grabs.
Mr. T’s acting here is limited but good enough. The same goes for his footwork in the ring, a series of stagger steps that lack the grace of a bona fide fighter.
The final fight is shorter than you remember. It’s as unrealistic as most “Rocky” fights, and the final round bears a whiff of WWE theatrics.
You’ll still want to rewind and watch it again, if only for the Rocky score.
It’s hard to be the underdog when you’re wearing that heavyweight belt. That’s where Rocky Balboa stood after “Rocky II,” a franchise teetering on irrelevance. One lousy sequel, and Stallone might double down on “Rambo” adventures.
Instead, “Rocky III” soared, a fact that hasn’t changed with time. Phew.
Correction: Stallone directed both “Rocky II” and “Rocky III.” An earlier version of the story said otherwise.