Rocky II was a huge success financially, dictating that Rocky III is quickly put on the cards and put into production. Again, Stallone directs, writes and stars bringing the whole cast together again with a surface-story of ‘a new contender fights against Rocky’ … but the subtext is obvious. Stallone and Shire both look shinier and thinner – new models for the latest film. Though this is not Apollo Creed fighting for respect and to uphold an image which garners him financial wealth and success. This time, Rocky is up against Clubber Lang – a man who only holds hatred towards his opponents. This is a man whose aggression and anger defines him – and this is the only way he gets what he wants: through violence. It marks a turning point in the franchise. The previous two films had a strange depiction of boxing in terms of ethnicity: We are watching a white man fight a black man – and the white man wins. I think, from my previous posts, it is abundantly clear that the films are much more complicated than this: Rocky is from poverty, Apollo Creed has already won and has lost his focus because of his financial success. He has lost the ‘hunger’ to fight as well as Rocky. It is about someone from poverty rising up and ‘fighting’ his way out. I do not believe race in Rocky and Rocky II is a subtext or theme. Whereas in Rocky III, I believe it is.
Ironically enough, despite the epic failure of Rocky in Rocky II advertising, in Rocky III the opening ten minutes depicts Rocky rising through stardom and earning money through fights and advertising. We see this as we also see Clubber Lang (Mr. T) watch every fight Rocky is in, we see him training harder and stronger and call out Rocky as the champion he is going to fight. We also see Mickey see Clubber Lang fight – and realise how dangerous he truly is. The jacket Rocky buys in Rocky II is now the Oscar-nominated song “Eye of the Tiger” as this sequence progresses – finishing with the recurring theme of the alcoholic Paulie remaining envious of Rocky’s success. Some things never change.
The truth is that Clubber Lang is a better fighter – his hatred also pushes him harder and ensures complete focus. He has no distractions and his complete attention is on the prize of becoming World Heavyweight. It is Apollo and Rocky’s friendship which clarifies how situations are solved – Apollo is personally insulted and disrespected by Clubber Lang in the ring. The lack of respect for the sport and for the nature of boxing, as a parallel to a destructive and aggressive attitude towards others, is what Apollo despises. Apollo and Clubber Lang have nothing in common – Clubber Lang actively wants to hurt people in the ring and prides himself on the pain he inflicts on other sportsmen. His arrogance in defeating Rocky initially equally highlights that even outside the ring, Clubber Lang continues to be hateful. Apollo and Rocky work together to solve the problem that is Clubber Lang. I think if you needed further evidence for this subtext and parallel you need to look no further than when we visit Apollo’s roots in LA. We see Paulie’s ignorant attitude to others, we see the hunger in the eyes of the young men desperate to fight their way out of poverty – this hunger is what Clubber Lang has but, more importantly, this hunger is fuelled with anger and hatred.
I always think that when we get to a third film in a franchise, the filmmakers often consider this to be the final film. The neatness of a ‘trilogy’ must be tempting and so we see constant parallels to the first film in the trilogy and the idea of closure. Rocky dominates the poster, echoing the god-like stature of Michelangelo’s ‘David’ ensuring that this film (despite providing a wealth of strong supporting actors in Mickey, Apollo, Paulie and Duke amongst others) is firmly focused on Rocky’s journey. Mickey’s death marks the end of Rocky’s connection to Philadelphia – the training at Mighty Mick’s, the old traditional values potentially representing old prejudices dying out and being replaced by a new ethos and a new capitalist and nationwide perspective through the assistance of Apollo Creed.
The passing of the baton takes place at Mighty Mick’s, Creed stating “I thought I mind find you here…”. The scene is steeped in shadow and creates a moody, reverential atmosphere. Even the revival of fashion in leather and motorbikes, equally give the film a darker edge with a nostalgic-element harking back to the fifties whereby motorbikes and leather jackets were modelled on icons including James Dean and Marlon Brando.
Like all of the Rocky films, the film is accessible to all and the continuing, important theme of challenging yourself is highlighted in the nature of Rocky’s training. We spend a long time watching Apollo getting more and more frustrated with the lack of effort Rocky is applying in preparation of his fight with Clubber Lang. Mickey complains to Rocky as they train in a gym surrounded by fans who kiss him and take pictures with him mid-training. You cannot achieve the success you crave if you are doing it for the wrong reasons – you cannot rest on your laurels and assume that each fight in life can be easily won. You need to constantly challenge yourself. You cannot train and work solely for someone else – you need to do it for yourself.
The final fight not only thematically closes the film effectively, but also shows stellar writing from Stallone himself. We do not see merely a challenge “whereby Rocky wins”, oh no. We see the whole strategy of taking the hits and taking the blows, in order to wear the opponent down. Apollo cannot believe his eyes, but then it is clear that Rocky is chipping away at Clubber Lang.
Like life, it is a long road and you you have to take it slow and steady and keep chipping away. That is what achieves success. Patience, determination and perseverance – harking back to the themes of the first film whereby Rocky stood 15-rounds, not to simply win – but for himself, to prove he could do it.