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1982, Best Summer Ever: “Rocky III”

August 13, 2012

Rocky III made a ridonkulous amount of money when it came out, which seems a bit perplexing. After all, how much narrative steam could the series have? I mean, it’s basically a self-contained formula—little guy from the streets gets his shot at the big time and makes the most of it—that was spread into two movies. What was left to say? But that question misses the point, which is that Rocky Balboa is the essential ‘80s hero (yeah, I know only two of the six movies in the series came out in the ‘80s, but this post is going to be full of slipshod logic, so don’t get too hung up on that).  How do you not let the guy loose on the decade he invented?

So, to understand the appeal of Rocky Balboa, and the enormous success of the original Rocky, you have to understand the way life was in 1976. Yeah, I know you younger readers think the ‘70s were all awesome, with cool clothes, and monstrous cars, and indiscriminate sex and drugs. But the truth is the ‘70s really sucked. There was no Internet or DVDs or even VCRs. You had three channels, and one of them was bound to be showing The Honeymooners at any given time. And if you think that all that promiscuity was a good thing, get your hands on some ‘70s porn and tell me how you like it. If you can watch for more than five minutes without running screaming from the room, you’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din.

Never saw these in Quentin Tarantino’s movies, did you? Look at it! LOOK AT IT!

But other stuff sucked, too. We were in the middle of this bad recession. The automotive industry was getting its ass handed to it by the Japanese. We elected a president who was punked by a rabbit and would totally fumble the ball during the Iranian hostage crisis (that hadn’t happened yet, but somehow we knew it was coming). And the country was still depressed from the humiliating defeat in Vietnam (losing wars was a new thing for us back then, we didn’t have the practice we do now).

But with Rocky, we felt the ol’ underdog spirit that America embraces as only a first-world, global superpower can. It gave us hope that we could, indeed, work, struggle, condition ourselves, and win respect, glory, and marry a mousy Coppola relative if we just fought a big, black guy. The movie was like a feature-length version of that commercial where Clint Eastwood tells the American public to stop whining and cowboy the fuck up. Four years later, that’s exactly what we did.

Not this Coppola relative.

Rocky III is about the perils of success. It’s about being complacent, about resting on your laurels. “Don’t get too cocky just you beat up one black dude,” it warns, “because there’s another, more savage black dude out there who wants to kick your ass.” In this case, it’s Mr. T (in his first film role), who plays a hungry, young fighter named Clubber Lang. Clubber wants his shot at Rocky, and decimates a series of opponents to do just that.

Success, however, has spoiled Rocky, who can’t even train without a massive entourage, complete with brass band (it was the ‘80s, remember, more was for wimps—winners embraced grotesque excess). Naturally, when he faces the nearly-atavistic Clubber, he gets clobbered. Also, his trainer dies, and that really bums him out.

But all is not lost, for the movie imparts another important lesson: “If you’re fighting an animalistic black man, get another black man to train you—preferably surrounded by other black men, because those dudes are really good at fighting.” Rocky’s old nemesis from the first two films, Apollo Creed, trains Rocky to fight a rematch with Clubber. To give Rocky the appropriate grit he needs to take down Clubber, Apollo moves Rocky into the slums of South Central LA, and they train in a dilapidated old gym.

I don’t…I don’t know what’s going on with Apollo’s workout clothes.

The training works, as Rocky enters the ring, a good 20 pounds lighter, and uses his newfound nimbleness (the black people taught him to dance…fucking literally) to tire out Clubber, whom he later defeats in a knock out. All is well in the world, and Rocky would go on to confront other threats to America like Russian super-athletes, dudes with mullets, and…er…I didn’t see the last one. I guess credit-default swaps, if my uniform theory of Rocky is correct.

Rocky III has some other noteworthy elements though, such as:

* Why hasn’t Rocky beaten Paulie to death? He’s the most unsympathetic character in the films (downright evil, if you ask the crew at We Hate Movies), yet writer/director Stallone seems to love him.

* Rocky’s success is signaled by the fact he wears double-breasted suits everyplace he goes.

* There’s a good fight with Hulk Hogan in the beginning of the movie. Hulk actually seems to be the better of the two actors.

I so don’t want to meet the dude who collects his action figure.

* Working out in South Central gives Paulie plenty of opportunities to be casually racist. Seriously what’s the appeal of this guy, again?

* In one scene, when Stallone is working out to “Eye of the Tiger,” Paulie makes some crack about “jungle music.” Uh…does rock get any whiter than Survivor?

* Speaking of, how awesome is that song?

* Clubber Lang is not so much a character in this film as he is a sheer force of brutality. He’s like the Joker in The Dark Knight—he has no backstory, no trainer, nothing to humanize him. It’s unsettling at first, and then just gets ridiculous.

So, that’s Rocky III. If you want to understand the ‘80s, look no further.

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