This video essay is part of the “Cruel Summer” series of articles; this series examines influential movies from the summers of the 1980s. The previous entries in the series covered THE BLUES BROTHERS (1980) and STRIPES (1981).
[The following is the working script of the video essay above. It was modified during the editing process.]
He’s one of cinema’s most beloved heroes. He represents strength, decency, and determination. Born and raised on the streets of Philadelphia, the city of brotherly love and the birthplace of democracy, Rocky Balboa stands for all that is good about America.
Taken together, the first two ROCKY movies tell a human-sized story of triumph, with the original ROCKY as a Bicentennial fairy tale about a bum winning his pride and the love of his girl, while ROCKY II shows him becoming a man and champion.
But how do you continue a story that everyone assumed was complete? Well, if you’re writer-director-star Sylvester Stallone, you look within yourself, and the rapidly changing tastes of the movie-going audience, and you come out ready to ROCK.
ROCKY III continued an American tradition by transforming the stage of Rocky into a 4th of July fireworks show. It used compact storytelling and groundbreaking montage editing to create a new kind of fist-pumping summer crowd-pleaser.
The opening montage recalibrated the viewer’s ability to take in multiple pieces of information simultaneously. Made nine months after the launch of MTV and one year before FLASHDANCE, ROCKY III is the first instance of a major Hollywood entertainment embracing MTV-style editing. A kind of ROCKY 2.5, the sequence caught us up with our favorite characters, introduced the themes of fame and becoming soft, and kicked the story into motion by letting us see the villain all but stalking Rocky—with everything held together by Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger,” a piece of working-class pop perfection.
Stallone used his overnight success following the release of ROCKY to inform ROCKY III’s portrayal of how celebrity can lead one to be isolated and lose touch with everyday life. Rocky—and Stallone—had become such outsized characters that some self-criticism was necessary.
But Stallone places all this thoughtful reflection in the background of the movie. What’s front and center is keeping the movie in constant motion. Shorn of nearly 30 minutes, ROCKY III compresses its story without sacrificing emotion. Some viewed this as an indication that audiences’ attention spans were growing shorter, but what it really said was that audiences were able to process events and plot points at a quicker pace.
The story of ROCKY III shows Rocky getting a comeuppance courtesy of street fighter Clubber Lang, who’s enraged by Rocky’s softening. Rocky takes the challenge, but his trainer Mickey knows it’s a bad idea.
It’s only the 30 minute mark when Roc loses his title and, in a plot twist that shocked audiences back in ’82, Mickey dies from a heart attack. Normally these events would’ve occurred at the halfway point of the movie, but ROCKY III was so relentless in its pacing that the movie felt halfway over by this point. The death of the beloved Mickey gave weight to the remainder of the story, reminding us of the dramatic pull the ROCKY movies have on audiences.
The rest of the movie shows Rocky returning to the top, as former adversary Apollo Creed offers to train him. Apollo wants Roc to go back to the beginning, to get back in touch with his roots as a street fighter. How does he plan on doing this? He teaches him rhythm—to dance around the ring.
It must be noted that a lot of the elements of ROCKY III—from the cocky hero to the musical montages to the shaking of the hero’s confidence from an early defeat to the death of a friend—would become key elements of several popular movies throughout the 1980s. ROCKY III created a template for success.
Everything leads up to THE SHOWDOWN, which, following the car chase, became the defining movie sequence of the 1980s. What made the climax of ROCKY III different from all the others is that it’s the only one that doesn’t compress the final fight into a montage. Instead, it plays out in something approximating real time. It’s a three-round action sequence that pummeled the audience into submission, as ROCKY III set a new standard in summer entertainment. ROCKY III trained us to demand more bang for our buck.
San Antonio-based film critic Aaron Aradillas is a contributor to The House Next Door, a contributor to Moving Image Source, and the host of “Back at Midnight,” an Internet radio program about film and television.
A critic, journalist and filmmaker, Matt Zoller Seitz is the staff TV columnist for New York Magazine and a finalist for the Pulitzer prize in criticism. He has worked as a movie critic for The New York Times, New York Press, and New Times Newspapers, and as a TV critic for The Star-Ledger of Newark. His video essays about Terrence Malick, Oliver Stone, Kathryn Bigelow, Budd Boetticher, Wes Anderson, Clint Eastwood, Michael Mann and other directors can be viewed at the The Museum of the Moving Image web site. Seitz is the founder of The House Next Door, a website devoted to critical writing about popular culture. His book-length conversation with Wes Anderson about his films, titled The Wes Anderson Collection, will be published in fall 2012 by Abrams Books.