Action Heroes – Stallone: Rocky III

Filmwerk’s Stallone season continues, and I now get the chance to do the Retro thing with one of my absolute childhood favourites. The great, the amazing, the one, the only: Rocky III.

This retrospective has been sitting on my horizon for quite some time, and I have been musing on the prospect of doing it with considerable gravitas of thought…’s gonna be a biggie in more ways than one!

This movie was literally a game changing, life shaping influence for me as a young teen, so I do hope I can make a good fist of it (pardon the pun), and do the movie justice as well as deliver a true and hopefully interesting reflection of my thoughts about it.

Part 1:

As I may have mentioned before….. (i have), I grew up a massive Stallone fan. I’m not exactly sure when this began, or in fact which of his movies was the first to grab me (probably the first TV showing of Rocky, but I can’t be sure). I do clearly remember watching the video for Survivor’s excellent ‘Eye Of The Tiger’ on Top Of The Pops while it was riding high in the charts during the movie’s theatrical run, and I also know that I did not see it at the cinema. I’m pretty good at remembering that sort of thing and can clearly recall seeing Tron and E.T. that year. All I know for damn sure is that by the time Rocky IV came out in 1985, it was the ‘must see’ movie event of the year (closely followed of course by Rambo: First Blood Part II), and I excitedly went to my local Odeon to see it. I remember being so jazzed after the movie that I did a ‘Dukes of Hazard’ type of manoeuvre getting into my sister’s boyfriend’s Cortina, while simultaneously singing James Brown’s ‘Living In America’ at the top of my lungs (man I was the coolest!)

Anyway, somewhere between the two events, a great affection and admiration for Stallone and his most celebrated works developed and has endured to this day. Rocky III became the standard bearer for this love, and when I say that it was a repeat rental, I really really mean it. In the days before it had been shown on British television, I was renting it (as well as Rocky, and Rocky II) from my local general store. This shop offered the option to rent a movie for extended periods, as well as the usual overnight arrangement that became the norm with franchised video dealers. This would mean that I could grab one or more of the Rocky movies (with III being the preferred choice if available), and keep them for like a week or more. I was terrible at returning them on time too, but the shop owners were really lovely folks and I don’t remember ever getting in too much trouble for that! I do remember ‘accidentally’ keeping the tape for pretty much a whole summer holiday, and on that occasion getting a bit of a talking to.

As a further example (if any were needed) of my dedication to all things Stallone and Rocky III related (and trust me, this is a slightly embarrassing admission), I once set a cassette recorder up with a blank audio tape, and positioned it near the TV while in possession of the rented video. The idea being to record the movie’s final fight as audio. Once I had the fight taped, I would listen to it (in mono remember), in bed at night. Yep, sounds truly crazy I know, but I used to lie there with a single earpiece in listening to the fight over and over and over again. I’ve watched the movie so many times, that I know every minute of it well enough to easily write this retro without having to re-watch it (although I’m gonna!), but I know every millisecond of the sound of that last fight even now. I’m really not sure exactly why I did this, but I guess I found the courage, drama and triumph of it to be inspiring in some way.

I don’t wish to let you in on more than you’d like to know about me, but well there it is. Rocky III was a hell of a movie.

So the scene is set, and the dye is cast. Yours truly is somewhere hitting puberty and beginning to flex his hormones. My interest in form and physique, muscular development and strength had evolved from the pages of Marvel comics and manifested in a desire to further build my already morphing pubescent body. I am therefore soon in possession of dumbbells and barbells, and furiously pumping plastic in my bedroom (no jokes please, my first weights set were those awful compound filled vinyl types). I also had a Bullworker XL which I was very proud (at age 15), to be able to fully close, and hold closed for a good thirty second count (something my uncle, who had given it to me, couldn’t do). By 1986 there was a small black & white picture on my bedroom wall that I had cut out of the newspaper. It was a picture of Sylvester Stallone holding his then new wife Brigitte Nielsen above his head in a military press style position. The shot was from the waist up, and showed Stallone’s extra buffed body in fine detail. That picture was one of my daily inspirations to lift weights and somehow try and emulate my hero.

Weirdly, I am enough of a Stallone and muscle nerd to know exactly what the differences in physique were between the Stallone of the original Rocky, Rocky II, First Blood, Rocky III etc etc ad infinitum throughout his career. His physique changed considerably over the years, but none more so than between Rocky II and Rocky III (if I don’t count the porking out he did for Copland years later). This was to do with his decision to massively drop his body-fat level and rip his physique out to a shredded sinewy look for the movie (Rocky III). This continued with his on-screen look as John Rambo in First Blood the same year. If you watch Stallone in First Blood, you’ll notice immediately that he appears quite slight, athletic and lean. Not at all the burly but slightly soft beefcake of Rocky, the 200lb heavier, fitter, harder beefcake of Rocky II, or even the completely ripped and shredded, 3% body-fat, muscled out Beefcake of Rambo III. It’s pretty amazing really, if you’re into that stuff.

This crazy change in Sly’s appearance is not really explained within the context of the Rocky universe either, he just appears in part 3, all of a sudden a very lean machine. It was however a stroke of genius on Sly’s part. The film would not have worked at all if the same Rocky we had seen in films 1 or 2 had turned up to square off against Mr. T’s solid, ripped 230lb lean muscle frame (Mr. T is in unbelievable shape in Rocky III, all you A-Team fanboys out there, watch T in this, and see what he looked like with maybe 4% body-fat!!). The stakes were so much higher, and the times had changed massively between the end of the seventies and the beginning of the eighties (thanks in no small part to the fitness revolution, and in Hollywood a certain Mr. Schwarzenegger who had already begun raising the bar). The 1980’s had quickly adopted this new mantra of ‘working out to look good’ – which meant low body-fat, and definition in all the muscle groups, particularly abs. In fact Stallone’s physique was so lean and ripped in Rocky III, they had to make a point of working it into the story, because he really wasn’t that convincing looking any more as a ‘heavyweight’ boxer (hence the commentator’s line “He’s so slimmed down, he looks like a middleweight” – very true, he really did).

As a side note, it’s also interesting (to me at least) to see how Carl Weathers’ body, and how it was presented; changed between movies 1 to 4 too….ahem! ok then, moving on.

As an avid weight training fan, I idolised Stallone, much more so than say Arnold…or at least in a different way. This may sound weird, but it’s actually quite logical. Arnold’s physique was so off the chart in its extremes (6’2″ tall, 23inch arms, 57inch chest, 240lbs lean weight), that I never really aspired to look like him. I also recognised even as a teenager that Arnold’s basic body architecture was totally different to mine. However, Stallone’s build was very close. We were about the same height and general proportions, and I always felt that his look was more achievable and something I could strive for if I took things seriously.

Naturally, I only ever got part the way there, as girls and guitars (and junk food) came along to distract me somewhat from the pursuit of the body perfect, but Rocky III owned a very large part of that desire. I think Stallone knew that the movie would have this power too.

Intermission and note from the writer:

Ladies and gentlemen, please accept my sincerest apologies if I have rather over stated the personal foundations for which I am approaching this movie and its retrospective. As I said at the beginning, Rocky III was a game changing event in my young life, and I guess I can’t help but over-contextualise it when feeling free and uninhibited to extol it’s many virtues!

Ok good I feel better.

Part 2:

The movie itself was of course as much of a game changer for the Rocky series as it was a game changer for me personally, and as such; it feels completely different. Whereas 1 and 2 can very much be viewed as companion pieces; 3 would be very much out on its own until 4 arrived. Funny how only 3 years between 2 and 3 can make such a remarkable difference in the world.

Rocky III does bring back the key cast members from the earlier movies of course: Talia Shire, Burt Young, Carl Weathers and Burgess Meredith all reprising their roles. But many of the secondary, and tertiary characters from the old Philly streets days are absent, as well as much of the cold and grimy look and feel, as they are not really relevant to this part of Balboa’s story.

Rocky and Adrian have completely left the old Philly life behind and embraced their new found wealth and stardom. A montage of title defences and celebrity guest appearances (most of which being actual Sylvester Stallone TV guest appearances) setting up the idea that Rocky is now a massive commercialised, money making ‘commodity’ and his life is no longer private or in any way ordinary. Interestingly, this aspect of the movie is very autobiographical and it seems to me that more than a little of Rocky III’s DNA is channelled directly from Stallone’s own experiences with the insanity of megastardom.

As we all know by now, along with Rocky’s stardom and wealth has come comfort and complacency. After a public altercation with Mr. T’s character (Clubber Lang); manager Mickey admits to handpicking all of Rocky’s ten title defences, and deliberately avoiding allowing Lang a title shot, as he realises that the younger, hungrier, wrecking machine will (in Mickey’s own words) “..knock you to tomorrow, Rock”. It’s a crucial moment, and sets up the films primary drive i.e. the notion that pride comes before a fall and Rocky must lose his safety net (Mickey – who dies), and his title (to Lang in an embarrassingly one sided fight), only to strive to win it back again with a return to basics, a recapturing of his original hunger, and with help from a most unlikely source.

Rocky III is often criticised for somehow cheapening or commercialising the franchise. In fact I think in some quarters it’s actually blamed for turning Rocky into a franchise in the first place (how a ‘third’ movie in a series can be made to shoulder that is beyond me). Well whatever, I think this is grossly unfair, as there was no way we could have had a third instalment with Rocky still pounding the frozen meat, jogging along the cold Philly streets in his dirty sweat suit, and living in squalor with Adrian. Balboa had to move on, and Stallone must be applauded for being able to successfully read the trends and tailor the film’s attitude to its time so very well.

Anyway, the fact that the movie features all this rampant wealth, fame and commerciality is surely the logical starting point considering that Rocky II ended with the Stallion taking Creed’s world title. For me, until Rocky V came along and brought everybody crashing down in fits of depression and disbelief, it was Rocky II that I felt to be the weakest of the movies. Don’t get me wrong, I love Rocky II, and it offers some great insights into the whole ‘what do you do now?’ aspect of the aftermath of Rocky’s original title shot. But other than these and other wonderful moments, it plays very much as a retread of the first film, with the added perk of having Rocky win at the end. Nothing wrong with that, but it didn’t radically move the game on. Rocky III on the other hand, moved the game on. Providing a smorgasbord of feel-good moments, great lines, colourful characters, chiselled abs, 80’s fashions and oiled up muscles. Oh and maybe for some of the ladies out there; Carl Weathers filmed from the front, running in slow-mo wearing itty bitty short shorts….

Standout aspects for me include:

  • Just about every scene Mr. T is in (he is a true force of nature).
  • The forging of the friendship between the always fantastic Apollo Creed and our Stallion – This is actually one of my personal favourite aspects of the movie. Carl Weathers just comes alive as Apollo in III, and humanises the character in a way probably undreamed of in I and II. This is essential if we are to care at all about his fate in Rocky IV.
  • The aforementioned Survivor song ‘Eye Of The Tiger’ (a bonafide rock classic).
  • The old ‘Adrian puts Rocky back on the path to a training montage’ scene on the beach – I love the way Stallone painted Rocky and Adrian’s relationship as being so complimentary. What he lacks, she makes up for in abundance and visa-versa whenever required. Adrian is strong, stoic and supportive, but also doesn’t bullshit her husband – she tells Rocky the truth, even when the truth hurts. I love that.
  • The wonderfully larger than life Hulk Hogan as Thunderlips, and that whole set piece (where Rocky and Thunderlips have a charity bout that gets a bit out of hand), it’s a masterstroke.Hogan’s casting is laser perfect, and he is a joy to watch every second he’s on screen. That scene is balanced perfectly and could not be any better in concept or execution. Worth the ticket price alone methinks.

Like Mr. T, almost everything Hogan says is quotable, but here is possibly my favourite two Thunderlips utterances:

“To all my love slaves out there, Thunderlips is here, in the flesh baby. The ultimate male verses the ultimate meatball Ha Ha”


“Lights out meatball!!!”

Speaking of quote machines, I think Mr. T’s entire performance is quotable, but the best has got to be the one where the TV interviewer, talking to Clubber Lang about the upcoming rematch with the newly Creed trained and re-tiger eyed Rocky; asks:

Interviewer: “Do you have any predictions for the fight?”

Lang: “Predictions?”

Interviewer: “Yes, predictions”

And Lang turns to the camera, looks right down the pipe and just says “Pain”

Absolutely bloody priceless, and just another reason why Rocky III delivers an entertainment package unrivalled in sporting movies at least until IV came out and completely nailed the formula in a ‘capturing the Zeitgeist’ kinda way. Rocky III made Rocky IV able to happen, no doubt about it.

Now, I won’t be doing the retro on Rocky IV, but I would say that even though it eclipses III in many ways; I believe that the political elements, tragedy (Apollo’s dramatic and senseless death), the impressive but not much fun Dolph Lundgren, and the movie’s generally less ‘joi de vivre’ nature make it less of a snappy feel-good movie experience than III – However, this is just an opinion, and I’m still a massive fan of IV.

Rocky III – It’s a great great film, Hell, even Stallone’s writing and direction is on top form, and although I freely admit to possibly being slightly biased, I stand by every hyperbolic syllable.

It captured the mood of the times (and the mood was good), but isn’t dated by it in a detrimental way (like I feel IV is). It helped ‘up’ the ante for sporting type movies, it further cemented Stallone as a megawatt superstar, made a ton of money on a modest budget and ensured the continued rude health of Rocky Balboa and his chums through to the end of the 1980’s and into the dark times…….

…….no no no Ben, don’t even think about Rocky V right now…too late.

Even though I am indeed now thinking about the prospect of writing the retro on Rocky V, I’m gonna stay happy here in 1982 with the magic that is Rocky III a while longer, it’s just such a great place to spend a couple of hours.

So here we go; one more quote before I sign my name, and leave the ring.

It’s an exchange between Paulie and Apollo:

Apollo: “Can he swim?”

Paulie: “With a name like Rock?”

Get in! and thanks for making it all the way to the end.

Ben Pegley

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