It can be interesting, when watching a movie in a series, to see how the series slowly evolves over time. With Rocky III, I’ve now seen the first half of the Rocky series, and I think I could safely be called a fan at this point; I have yet to encounter one I didn’t like, and like quite a bit. But Rocky III is definitely a different film than its predecessors, and if I had to make a guess, probably a bit of a turning point in the nature of the series. I gather Rocky IV involves Rocky taking on a villainous Russian boxer, and I can’t really picture that happening without this film altering the tone just a bit from the earlier ones.
Part of the change has to do with it being made in 1982. It’s early in the decade, but the 1980s influence is obvious from the beginning. Fireworks are going off, celebrating Rocky’s win against Apollo Creed in Rocky II. “Eye of the Tiger”, by Survivor — a song written for the movie which is probably as well known as the franchise itself by this point — plays over a montage of Rocky’s rising fame. Where the original Rocky was a bit grubby and gritty, Rocky III starts off slick and polished. Even when it shows a rough neighborhood later on, it’s still a 1980s rough neighborhood, with the sense that the characters are more at risk of an outbreak of boomboxes than violence.
There’s not much chance of this scene happening in any other decade.
None of this should be taken as a negative criticism, though. Hey, I’m a child of the 80s, I enjoy it when a movie has that telltale feel to it. But more importantly, it actually makes a certain amount of sense for where Rocky is at this stage in his life. Stallone’s screenplay (the star also directed the film again) has Rocky starting off the movie at the top this time, instead of the bottom. He’s full of confidence. He’s steamrolling his challengers to the world heavyweight title; the only person to give him a hard fight is wrestler “Thunderlips” (Hulk Hogan, playing an even more exaggerated persona than his usual one), and that’s in a novelty charity match. He’s even overcome the difficulties he had making commercials, so money is flowing in rapidly. He and Adrian (Talia Shire) now have a mansion in which to raise their son. Mickey (Burgess Meredith) has moved into their home, and still trains Rocky for his fights. Everybody in Philadelphia seems to love Rocky; the only trouble he seems to have is dealing with his brother-in-law Paulie (Burt Young), who is still an asshole. (In fact, he seems to have backslid some from the previous movie.) Life is good for the Balboas.
As well as a little meta-textual.
But there’s no drama without conflict, and that comes in the form of a new challenger to the title. A challenger even fiercer than Apollo Creed, even more prone to grandstanding than Thunderlips: Clubber Lang, played by Mr. T. This was Mr. T’s first speaking role in a film (he had a part as an extra in The Blues Brothers), and it established many of his trademarks in the minds of the public, from his mohawk to his feathers to his famous line, “I pity the fool.” Clubber Lang is rude, not just to Rocky, but to everybody. He’s not interested in showmanship the way Apollo Creed was. He just wants to fight, and to win. And he thinks Rocky has been taking it easy, going up against chumps and avoiding him. And the hard truth that Rocky has to accept is that Clubber may be right. He’s become civilized, as Mickey says. In order to get back “the eye of the tiger” and win against Clubber, Rocky needs help from an unexpected corner: another former heavyweight champion, his rival from the first two films, Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers).
This doesn’t save him from pity, though.
While the first two films in the series were dramas where the sports story formed the background for the drama playing out, Rocky III is a sports film first and foremost. The big match isn’t just the background for the movie, it is the movie. While it deals with Rocky’s confidence issues, and there is some emotional disruption for him, the film never really takes a break from focusing on the fight the way the first two movies do. This doesn’t really hamper the film significantly, but it does mean it doesn’t have quite as much depth to it. That’s all right, though; it’s still a lot of fun. And it does have some character development for Rocky, as well as showing how the events of the prior films have developed Apollo — who respects Rocky greatly — and Adrian, who has come a long way from the shy pet shop clerk. Clubber Lang is an interesting character as well; not for any character development — he doesn’t really get any, being more of a typical sports film “villain” than Apollo was — but simply because his style and mannerisms are so much fun to watch. It’s easy to see why this film made Mr. T a household name, even if the brutish Clubber is a divergence from the soft-hearted bruisers that would become Mr. T’s usual character type.
The plot is reasonably simple, and easy to predict. This doesn’t really matter much. It’s just plain fun to watch. We’ve seen Rocky train before, and fight before, but it’s always enough fun to keep coming back for. There may not be as much room for Rocky to grow as a person in this film, beyond regaining the fire he once had, but the change to a flashier style, and an opponent who is as much villain as rival provides a change to the formula that makes it possible to keep cheering Rocky the series.