In the opening scene of Rocky III, Paulie throws a bottle of booze through a pinball machine featuring Rocky’s picture. The glass shatters, representing all of the different aspects of the Rocky franchise thus far, and falls to the ground. In creating the threequel to the series, Sylvester Stallone takes these fragments of the previous films and tries to put the pieces back together. The result is a funhouse mirror reflection of Rocky and Rocky II that understands the general beats they went through but fills in the gaps with bizarre, absurd components. It’s almost like he decided to include the elements of a parody of Rocky but forgot to create a tone to match. Instead, we end up with an earnest regurgitation of the Rocky formula, riddled with gimmicks and devoid of affect. Despite its shortcomings, Rocky III still isn’t as awful as I think it is. Like I touched on when we talked about the original Rocky, movies are intended for consumption during their time of release. Most movies from the early 80’s are likely to have elements that don’t age graciously but Rocky III unserendipitiously suffers from dated components that only affect future audiences but nonetheless cast an unfair shadow over its already compromised legacy.
Take, for example, one of the more memorable scenes, when Rocky decides to participate in a cross-promotional fight against a professional wrestler for charity. It’s a nice moment, when Rocky shows he’s willing to put his body on the line for the sake of helping out some sick children, or puppies, or whatever the charity is for. When Rocky’s opponent finally comes out, it’s none other than Hulk goddamn Hogan. As he enters the ring, it feels like a gross moment of stunt casting, piecing together a fan fantasy match between the world’s most famous fictional boxer against the world’s most famous practitioner of fictional martial arts. Hogan pulls the viewer out from the experience of the movie we’re supposed to be taking so seriously and forces them to reassess at which meta-level they are watching this movie. The problem with this line of thinking is that, at the time of filming, Hulk Hogan wasn’t yet Hulk Hogan. The concept of Hulk Hogan as an international superstar didn’t really get started until Hogan’s return to the WWF in December 1983, a year and a half after the release of Rocky III. Instead of a stunt casting that breaks the fourth wall, whoever cast the movie simply found a huge, photogenic wrestler with enough charisma to seem like a credible, entertaining challenge to Rocky. Those same features are what would eventually lead to Hogan’s enormous success in professional wrestling, and, in turn, make his appearance in this movie so bizarre.
A similar, although not all that similar, thing happens with Mr. T. The movie tries to build him up as the most legitimate threat that Rocky has ever faced. But it’s Mr. goddamn T. Decades later, we remember Mr. T as a live action cartoon character from the 80’s, notable for his catchphrases and outrageous attire. It would be like a boxing movie today pitting Channing Tatum against Pauly D. Physically, I have no problem with Mr. T as an adversary. He is in phenomenal shape and trains like a maniac. The problem with the character, Clubber Lang, is his incessant jibber jabber. Clubber Lang is like the Robin Williams of trash-talking. The second he sees that one verbal jab has failed to incite a furious reaction, he moves onto the next and the next and the next. After just moments, we are begging for Rocky to step in and punch him, just to shut him up. Unfortunately, it happens again and again and again, extending the movie beyond anything you want it to. Despite the character’s shortcomings, he’s still made that much worse with a modern context of Mr. T. But, like Hogan, historical context doesn’t allow for any undue criticism. To establish the timeline, Rocky III came out in 1982, whereas a The A-Team debuted in early 1983. Mr. T hadn’t had a chance to become much of anything in the public eye, let alone a caricature of 80’s bizarro celebrity culture. Realistically, this film and this role, are the first on-screen experience for Mr. T. Like with Hogan, without Rocky III, Mr. T wouldn’t have become a huge and weird enough celebrity to be such a distracting element of the movie that started them on the path toward fame.
It seems unfair to nitpick but this is all in the interest of suggesting that maybe, in a cultural vacuum, Rocky III isn’t as bad as it first appears. Because of the unfortunate self-creation of two future caricastures, the movie is peppered with references and characters whose inclusion demand answers from modern viewers. The answer to this question is that it’s 1982 and those things that seem ridiculous haven’t yet evolved into the jokes they will become.
Amazingly, for a brief second, Rocky III does show signs of recognizing timeless greatness. About two thirds of the way through the movie, when Rocky walks into the gym where Apollo trained for his fights, we look around to see dozens of hungry, shirtless fighters with their cigar-chomping managers and trainers. Then, for no reason, we get a glimpse of this guy,
the coolest looking person on the planet. In a movie fraught with 80’s trappings and the débuts of two celebrities whose cartoonish personalities would make them synonymous with the decade, there is one cool cucumber who recognizes the timeless coolness of this 20’s era get-up. Except for those three seconds, we never see this man again. Instead, we spend the other hour and a half of Rocky III trying to suss out what’s dated from what’s truly terrible.