Kevin: CJ and I recently saw “Rocky III” for the second time on the big screen in the last few years at the Alamo Drafthouse, and I say that not to imply that we are better than most people because of that, because I think that’s pretty obvious. We’ll discuss the very, uh, close bond that develops between Rocky Balboa and Apollo Creed as the film goes on in a different post, but for the time being I wanted to highlight not only the four greatest minutes in the film, but perhaps the greatest montage in film history:
Before we get to that, let’s remember that “Rocky II” came out in 1979 and “Rocky III” in 1982, which may have only been three years in real time, but might as well have been a lifetime in terms of where both America and Sylvester Stallone were at during those respective periods. “Rocky II” came out near the middle of the Carter years, and very much looks and feels like a drab ‘70s movie about working-class folks trying to get by in a country whose best years seemed to be behind it. “Rocky III” came out as the go-go Reagan years were heating up (we even get shots of the real-life Stallone posing with Carter and Reagan, as well as Gerald Ford and Bob Hope from the 1977 Oscars), and the movie is so slick and polished that a Wall Street yuppie could snort coke off it.
Meanwhile Stallone was too rich, successful, and well-styled by then to convincingly play Rocky as a dumb, lower-class palooka. So how do you get the audience to buy into the idea that the old Rocky they remember has now turned into this ‘80s-style, Armani-wearing Balboa?
Simple, through one of Stallone’s favorite filmmaking techniques: the music-video-style montage, in this case set to the strains of Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger”:
Following the requisite recap of the previous film’s climax, showing Rocky defeating Apollo in their rematch, we kick off with some literal fireworks, a Dirk Diggler-esque lightshow proclaiming Rocky the new champ, and a series of magazine covers and advertisements which quickly acclimate us to the new and improved Balboa. In many ways, while “Staying Alive” could be seen as a thinly veiled version of the obstacles Sly faced himself when trying to get his big break, the montage in “Rocky III” is itself almost a short film about how success had changed Stallone in the last few years.
But more than just a recap of what’s happened since the last movie, in just a few minutes this montage manages to convey everything we’ll need to know about the characters going forward and all the major storybeats the film will hit along the way:
– Rocky has been defending his title easily and getting increasingly cocky about it, losing his edge as he gets more famous and beloved.
– Rocky and his wife Adrian have been enjoying the spoils of his success, moving out of the old neighborhood and into a mansion that obviously is in Beverly Hills even though it is still supposed to be Philly.
– On that note, while it’s not exactly important to the movie, when they are opening their presents, why is Rocky’s new motorcycle in the living room? Also, we get a shot of Stallone in a cowboy hat on the cover of GQ with the headline “Rocky Balboa Goes Western: Timeless Clothes Updated for Fall.” God I would have loved to have seen some of that layout, but either way I’m gonna go out on a limb and assume these clothes weren’t as timeless as they anticipated.
– Paulie is jealous of Rocky’s success. Actually I’m not sure why they included this thread since it is resolved in the first few minutes after the montage. We also discover that Paulie is kind of racist, but I guess it would be considered shocking if he wasn’t. Although it is a little jarring in 2018 to hear a comic relief character say stuff like “He can’t train like a colored fighter, he don’t got no rhythm,” and no one bats an eye.
– Trainor Mickey is no less angry than he was before, mainly since, as we find out later, he’s been setting up easy victories for Rock because he knows his fighter hasn’t been “hungry” since he defeated Apollo. You can also tell that these are easy fights for Rocky since Adrian is in the crowd and she isn’t doing her usual “STOP THE FIGHT!” shit she does every time her husband/meal ticket takes more than a couple of punches (although let’s at least give credit to Rocky for apparently defending his title 10 times in three years, which is about eight more than it seems most champs like Floyd Mayweather do in that period nowadays).
– And finally, we learn that Mr. T’s Clubber Lang is a brash young fighter with a chip on his shoulder about the fact that he obviously is a better fighter, and is also more dedicated than Rocky because he works out in a crappy gym by himself rather than some ballroom surrounded by sycophants and admirers, as Rocky does before their first match (a theme that was continued in “Rocky IV,” which is that the fighter who trains with the least amount of equipment will always win):
Either way, “Rocky III’s” opening montage sets up an eventual match-up between a pampered champ who has been coasting on easy matches most of his career, and a poor fighter from the streets who rose up the ranks with no advantages other than superhuman will and determination, and until now has been unfairly denied his shot at the title. So the question is, if this were any other movie, do we not agree that we would consider Clubber Lang to be the real hero here?
For instance, while he may be brash and confrontational, when Clubber lays out the following accusations during Rocky’s retirement announcement, as we later learn from Mickey, he is pretty much 100 percent correct:
“You got your shot, now give me mine. Why don’t you tell these nice folks why you been ducking me. Politics man. This country wants to keep me down. Keep everybody weak. They don’t want a man like me to have the title, because I’m not a puppet like that fool up there … I’ll come to you people and lay out the truth. I am ranked number one. One! That means I’m the best. But this bum is taking the easy matches fighting other bums. I’m telling you and everybody here, I’ll fight him anywhere, anytime, for nothing … You and that chump don’t know where I had to come from. You call yourself a fighter, prove it. Give me that same chance.”
Now despite the obvious racial and social issues that could be explored in a Rocky vs. Clubber match-up, the movie pretty much avoids making any sort of social commentary, which one could either argue is tone-deaf or refreshing (although as with Paulie, I doubt having Mickey refer to Mr. T as an “ape” would fly today). But when Clubber says, “This country wants to keep me down … they don’t want a man like me to have the title,” it’s not hard to imagine what he’s referring to (although any racial solidarity that may have existed between Apollo and Clubber ended apparently when the latter calls the former a “has-been”).
Hell, considering Colin Kaepernick appears to be the new face of Nike, the equally outspoken and “woke” Clubber would likely be enjoying a major endorsement deal today from what apparently is his favorite apparel brand:
Of course, while we should give Stallone credit for the fact that he wrote and directed a sequel which strongly implies that his signature character was not as good a fighter as he thought, and in which the “villain” could actually be seen as the hero in a different version, whatever nuance or shading Clubber possessed based on his backstory takes a backseat in the second half once Apollo starts training Rocky for the rematch.
(It also should be noted that “Rocky III” shares a number of similarities with “Black Panther,” helmed by future “Creed” director Ryan Coogler, in that both have a charismatic “villain” who grew up poor and on the streets (Clubber/Killmonger) win a title fair and square from a more privileged “hero” (Rocky/Black Panther) because he is hungrier and wants it more, but then the hero demands a rematch because he’s a sore loser.)
But while Rocky is the victor in the end, at least for the first half of the film Clubber Lang is the one with the “Eye of the Tiger” (it’s no coincidence that the words “staying hungry” are sung over Mr. T doing some roadwork). Unfortunately we’ve never seen from or heard about Clubber again in the series (unless Sly is bringing him back in “Creed III”), but based on the amount of gold he is wearing here he must have invested his brief payday in Apple computers back in 1982: