Midway through Rocky III, crusty old trainer Mickey Goldmill (Burgess Meredith, Batman) turns to Adrian Balboa (Talia Shire, Windows) and mutters something many of the film's viewers may be thinking: “Whatever happened to them quiet, tender moments?” Rocky II began to shed the first film's understated intimacy in favor of something a bit broader, and Rocky III is the film that completes that process. This is a big, brash, crowd-pleasing popcorn movie filled with outlandish moments, big laughs, exciting fight scenes, energetic editing and pounding rock anthems. This is the film that sees the Rocky series entering the realm of self-parody, but let's be fair: this is also the Rocky series at its most ridiculously entertaining.
After besting Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers, Action Jackson) and winning the world heavyweight championship, Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone, The Expendables) spends a few years defending his crown against a large handful of challengers. He's beaten each new opponent without too much trouble, but he knows he's getting a little too old for the sport. Maybe it's time to retire and relax. Alas, there's one fighter who refuses to let Rocky slip away quietly: Clubber Lang (Mr. T, The A-Team), a brash, confrontational up-and-comer who continually insists that he could destroy The Italian Stallion in the ring. Rocky accepts the challenge, and declares that his bout against Clubber will be the final fight of his career.
Mickey is worried about the fight, and for good reason: it's obvious that Clubber is stronger, hungrier and more talented than the other fighters Rocky has been facing, and it's also clear that fame and fortune have allowed Rocky to get a little too cocky. There's something very Apollo Creed-like about Rocky in this film; a genial arrogance that could end up proving costly. Stallone still doesn't seem like the same guy he played in Rocky, but unlike Rocky II, this film has a perfectly good explanation for that: he isn't the same guy. Success has changed the man - it's robbed him of his humility and his drive.
I've never thought much of Stallone as a director, but Rocky III easily represents the high point of his work behind the camera. He brings a tight, focused energy to the proceedings and keeps the film moving like a runaway train. While Rocky II suffered from too much padding and a general sense of slackness, Rocky III barely gives you a chance to catch your breath. There are no less than three big fight sequences here (that's three times as many as either of the earlier films), and all of them are tense and absorbing (even the ridiculous exhibition match against a pro wrestler named Thunderlips, played by a sneering Hulk Hogan). Clubber Lang's aggressive, ruthless fighting style prevents his big scenes from feeling like a mere reworking of the Apollo Creed matches – he hits so hard and fast that no one stands a chance of lasting fifteen rounds against him. Either you knock him out or you get knocked out.
Thankfully, there's still room for some lovely character beats amidst all of the punches and training montages. This is the film where we say goodbye to Burgess Meredith's Mickey, and his final scene is a surprisingly wrenching moment – for just a couple of minutes, you remember the humble origins of the relationship between a scrappy young fighter and a grouchy old trainer. Adrian lurks in the background for the majority of the film, but eventually gets one of her best scenes when she gives Rocky a personal, heartfelt motivational speech.
Surprisingly, the most compelling character in Rocky III is Apollo Creed. He still feels the sting of his loss against Rocky, but it's given him a valuable sense of perspective about what's important. He's learned things in defeat that Rocky has been incapable of learning in victory, and the friendship that develops between the two men over the course of the film's second half is affecting and sincere (if more than a little adorably cheesy – particularly the joyful sequence that ends with the two men happily splashing around in the ocean and hugging each other). Weathers is terrific, finally getting to deliver the sort of nuanced, three-dimensional performance that the nature of his role denied him in previous installments.
Bill Conti's contributions to the soundtrack remain invaluable, but the piece of music that makes the biggest impression is Survivor's “Eye of the Tiger” - aka “the most popular workout mix song of the '80s.” Its chugga-chugga rhythms and swaggering guitar riffs perfectly define the film's tone, and it's no surprise that Stallone decided to use it as a recurring theme (employing it over the opening credits, closing credits and a workout montage).
Rocky III is the sweet, juicy center of any Rocky marathon – between the soundtrack and Mr. T's memorably furious insults and the peculiar Hulk Hogan sequence and Apollo's newfound depth and Adrian's big speech and those crackerjack fight scenes, it's a pretty irresistible viewing experience. Rocky is one of the quintessential films of the '70s, exemplifying the thematically ambitious, naturalistic vibe of that decade. Rocky III is one of the quintessential films of the '80s, exemplifying the slick, commercial vibe of that decade. While I prefer the relatively realistic intimacy of Rocky to the flashy bombast of Rocky III, one must admit that the latter is exactly the sort of movie it wants to be.
Rating: ★★★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG
Running Time: 99 minutes
Release Year: 1982