One wonders whether Rocky III is an unintentional celebration of the pop cult of celebrity, a melange of character vignettes posing as scenes, or a testament to the sheer force of franchise momentum.
I propose that it is all of these things come together in a cynical ploy to remain in the public consciousness.
As much as you might think Rocky II was unnecessary, it at least gave the pretense of creating and completing an arc. Rocky III is an exploration of excess. It’s an expression of Stallone himself, able to bring a movie into creation simply with his force of will. In that sense, it’s a triumph.
It’s chock full of friendly training tips that explain why Stallone’s/Rocky’s physique transforms into the bodybuilding ideal. You can almost hear the collective nodding of heads among younger audience members as they absorb tips about running on beaches and swimming. As a training video, it’s impressive.
Rocky III‘s direction is a key progression in Stallone’s sensibilities. It’s the transitional moment from the more logical, cohesive Rocky IIto the more Dada-ist impulse collective of Rocky IV. It’s an open acknowledgement that the audience is simply there for the moments, not the connective tissue.
And yet, it’s nearly impossible to dislike it.
Rocky Balboa by this point was as real a person as Sylvester Stallone, as loved and respected as any national figure. His magnetism was inextricably Stallone’s, and Stallone’s was inextricably his. By this point, no matter what other character Stallone would play – John Rambo, Marion Cobretti, Lincoln Hawk, et al. – Rocky would be the defining of his career.
It is of course Mr. T’s moment, and he is the bright shining star that makes it impossible to discard this movie. He’s given endless moments to charge through, a bull of a character charging through the china shop of a franchise. After this movie, Mr. T became a cultural force that an entire generation could not escape. For that reason alone, we should always be grateful.
READ MORE: Stallone’s Top 5 most iconic roles
Burgess Meredith’s turn as Mickey is as thoughtful as ever. It’s easy to forget the impact that legendary character actors have on a franchise, and what we lose when they leave the profession. Rocky’s bedside farewell to Mickey is undeniably moving, and the celebration of Mickey’s Jewish faith is full of thoughtful respect. Meredith consistently brought the best out of his costars, and Stallone is no exception.
Despite the best efforts of the actors, the characters reveal one of the underlying flaws of the movie. They exist simply to exist. They slip the bonds of what made them special and endearing.
We know Adrian will stand by Rocky, we know Paulie will be a comic buffoon bordering on the criminally sociopathic. We know Rocky will overcome because after Rocky II, no one would be insane enough to have a Rocky sequel end with a loss.
It becomes ironic, then, that one of the themes explored is the fear of losing the edge that makes us unique. There’s some sort of unintentional meta-commentary there to make this something to ponder.
READ MORE: Looking back on the first Rocky movie
There are thoughtful threads throughout Rocky III that serve as a balm for its less-enjoyable qualities. Like Star Trek III: The Search For Spock, there are tender and worthwhile moments with beloved characters. The need to cheer for the underdog is so ingrained that it’s impossible not to be swept up in the heady moments of the climax.
We want to see our champions not just earn success, but continue to deserve it. It’s why we respond so instinctively to claims of “selling out.” We want our heroes to be authentic, and despite any other flaws, Rocky III makes sure to give us that.
Rocky struggles with this all-too-relatable fear of failure from a different perspective. Mickey’s pleas to fight real foes resound – don’t lose the sense of what got you to that point. It’s a shame that Stallone fumbles some of the more human moments where this fear explodes out of him. You can’t help but wonder if having someone else in the director’s chair would have helped guide his performance down a more subtle road.
Struggling with this fear is a perfect justification for Carl Weathers’ return as Apollo Creed. Creed went through these things himself in Rocky and Rocky II, so he’s the ideal guru to guide him through it. As a side note, healing the rift between former rivals pays off in Rocky IV, and finds an even larger expression in the highlighted conflict between the US and USSR.
Is it necessary to see Rocky III? No, you can even ignore it in the larger narrative.
This is a franchise series that prefigures the Marvel model: see them all if you want, but it won’t kill you to skip one. It’s worth catching for nostalgia if you’re old enough, and as an anthropological lens on the 1980s if you’re younger.
But yeah, mostly it’s for Mr. T.