Tuesday, December 01, 2015

A Rocky Journey, Part II: Eye of the Tiger

This is the second post in a three-part series in which I am watching through the entire Rocky series and recording my thoughts on each movie, culminating in the current cinematic release, Creed. If you missed the first entry, it can be found here. Today's entry focuses what has now become the middle of the series: Rocky III (1982), Rocky IV (1985); and Rocky V (1990), which I watched in a span of twenty-four hours.

Rocky III:  I don't think this is the best of the series (a title which belongs to the first Rocky), but if I had to choose only one Rocky movie to watch again, it would be this one. The movie doesn't waste any time, unlike its somewhat tedious predecessor: after the obligatory re-showing of the final fight of the previous film, the action starts straight away with "Eye of the Tiger" and shots of Mr. T's Clubber Lang interspersed with Rocky's title defenses. In the first half of the movie, the action moves quickly: a match with Hulk Hogan as wrestling champion "Thunderlips"; a public challenge from Lang; a training montage; the fight with Lang that Rocky loses in the third round by KO; and Mickey's death right after the fight. (As an aside: the first time I watched Rocky III was at a youth group church sleepover in junior high, and I remember a bunch of dorks sniggering in the background when Mickey died. They just didn't get it - the bums.) We are also treated to the first (but not the last) significant continuity error of the series when we see Mickey's headstone, which reads that he dies at the age of 76, which was how old he said he was in the first movie five years earlier. Moviegoers don't ask for much, but basic continuity should be common courtesy; then again, Rocky's possible impending blindness has not been mentioned since halfway through Rocky II, so I doubt that continuity is the determining factor of plot here.

The second half of Rocky III is almost like a wholly different movie: Apollo Creed shows up in Mickey's gym (with a very off-putting lack of backlighting, I might add), offering to train Rocky; the movie then shifts to L.A. and everything changes. All of the sudden, it's about the Rocky-Apollo bromance, running on the beach in short shorts and crop tops, zooming camera shots of well-oiled men performing athletic feats, Rocky feeling defeated and Adrian (and everyone else) shifting into "yell all of your lines to make it more emotional and motivate Rocky to win" mode; Rocky learning to juke and jive like Apollo, and really awkward racist interjections from Rocky's alcoholic brother-in-law Paulie. (On a side note, it really felt like his character had run its course by this point - we get that he's a loser who hates everybody different. How had Rocky and Adrian not committed him to rehab by now? How was he still allowed ringside when he was constantly drunk? These are the kinds of things that stick out when you watch all of the Rocky movies in close succession.)

By the time we get to the final fight, Rocky III has had more action than the first two Rocky movies combined; then Rocky gets back into the ring with Clubber and uses his tested method of winning: "make the other guy tired by beating you senselessly then catch him off guard somehow with a couple of punches and knock him out". It's as completely improbable as it was in the first two matches with Apollo Creed, but it works again here as Rocky knocks out Lang to reclaim the title. I did notice in this film that the boxing scenes seemed to be more violent and visceral than it had been with Creed in the first two movies; perhaps Stallone was upping the ante for the sequels, or I was just becoming more sensitized to it, but it did seem much more intense. After the title fight, the film ends with a slightly awkward denouement of Balboa and Creed preparing to spar as Rocky's way of paying back Apollo a favor for training him; the scene works here because the movie has been so intense, and because it means that all three movies have ended with Rocky in the ring with Apollo - a fun piece of parallel structure.

Final decision: I pity the fool who doesn't appreciate Rocky III as the essential Rocky movie. Like Rocky himself before the final fight with Clubber, this movie is trim, lean, mean, and it packs a powerful punch.

Rocky IV: Not only does Rocky IV not begin with the Rocky fanfare and the title of the film scrolling across the screen like the first three movies did (a travesty!), it then proceeds to showing not only the highlights of Rocky's fight with Clubber, but the entire coda that featured Rocky and Apollo preparing to spar; it's a very strange choice - even more so than showing almost the entire first Creed-Balboa fight at the beginning of Rocky II - but this is an admittedly strange movie. I was actually trying to think of what the pitch would have looked like, but I can't imagine that it went much past Stallone saying "Rocky IV is about..." and the studio executives saying "YES!" Just trying to explain what happens in this movie is weird: Rocky wants to retire (again) as the champ; an obviously steroided Soviet boxer, Ivan Drago, comes to America to challenge him; Rocky buys a house robot; Apollo decides for some reason to fight the Russian, even though he has been out of boxing for years; James Brown does a flashy Vegas dance number, Apollo and Drago fight, Apollo dies, and Rocky decides that the only way to get back is to give up his title, go to Russia, and fight this behemoth. That's only halfway into the movie, and the plot and conflict graph is all over the place. And why does Apollo need to die, anyway? Wouldn't having him incapacitated or in a coma for awhile be enough? It really seemed like a waste of a great character to have him killed like that in the ring, since it doesn't add much to Rocky's motivation to fight Drago.

We are treated then to a series of montages, including the most awkward in the series so far (which is saying something) to "No Easy Way Out", featuring Rocky driving and reflecting on almost every significant moment from the series so far. Between the initial scenes and this montage, something like 15 minutes of the movie's very lean 90 minute run time is eaten up with old footage; it's almost like the plot for this movie was too thin to sustain an entire movie (which it is). Rocky goes to Russia to train by chopping wood, running through snow, and lifting logs, Adrian joins him and spurs him onto the final fight, along with the still-alcoholic and awkward Paulie and Apollo's old trainer Duke. I loved Mickey - I think he might be the best character in the whole series - and Apollo was great as a trainer, but Tony "Duke" Evers is by far the most inspiring trainer that Rocky ever had. Seriously, just watch this speech and tell me you're not motivated to fight a giant Russian:

The fight begins, and it's as ridiculous as expected to be. Rocky, with the unfriendly crowd booing him, is getting pulverized by the Russian, who has a 60 or 70 pound advantage on Rocky and purportedly punches with force of 2150 pounds per square inch. Early in the fight, he sends Rocky soaring across the ring, and that's only the fifth or sixth most ridiculous point in the fight.  One interesting note about the realism of the fight, however: I discovered in reading about the filming of the fight that Dolph Lundgren severely injured Stallone with his punches, meaning that Stallone had to be hospitalized for eight days as a result. In the movie, the two trade increasingly exaggerated rallies, with Rocky clearly losing badly, but he gains confidence when he cuts Drago. Somehow, despite the beating he has taken, Rocky keeps boxing, wins over the crowd (including the Gorbachev-lookalike Premier), and finally knocks Drago out before ending the Cold War with an impromptu rousing speech. It's all so completely over the top that it actually works as a movie on the force of sheer adrenaline, much like Rocky's inexplicable performance in the ring, which ranks up there with the most improbable sports upsets of all time.

Final Decision: Rocky IV works despite itself: sure, it's thin on plot, character, and content, but its heart propels it to a treasured place in the Rocky series. And if nothing else, it has given us this faux-documentary that captures the tone of the film perfectly.

Rocky V: I had deliberately avoided until this movie until now because of its dubious reputation, but in the interest of completion, I made myself watch it for this project. Now I know that it has earned its reputation, as this is truly the worst movie in the series; the acting is terrible; the plot is contrived; and the final fight is underwhelming, to say the least. The problems start from the very beginning with a continuity error and a dubious plot choice that drives the film forward. Although the movie is set directly after Rocky's fight in Russia, his son has aged several years; I do understand Stallone's attempt to create conflict by having his son be older, but it is a jarring juxtaposition with the previous movie. Balboa's press conference (held in an airport hangar?!) is hijacked by the promoter George Washington Duke, a hackneyed caricature of infamous boxing promoter Don King who helps drive the plot of the movie. Duke has his sights set on his fighter, Union Kane, getting a title shot at Rocky, who until he abdicated his title to fight Drago was the Heavyweight Champion. Rocky, however, will not be cleared to fight because of the brain damage caused in his fight with Drago, and he retires. Duke won't take no for an answer, and so the conflict starts- well, one of them does.

In the meantime, Paulie made a poor decision with the Balboa's finances (surprise, surprise), and Rocky has been fleeced of all of his money by a shady accountant, meaning that the Balboas have to move back to Philadelphia after auctioning off most of their possessions, save for one: the gym that Mickey left to Rocky's son, Robert, who has to relocate to a new school and faces issues of his own with the school bullies. Suddenly, a new young boxer named Tommy "The Machine" Gunn (real-life boxer and obvious non-actor Tommy Morrison) petitions Balboa to be his trainer, only to be sidelined by Duke's reappearance. Duke goes away for the moment, Rocky agrees to train Tommy, and the conflicts begin to really swirl: Robert with the bullies at school; Robert competing with Tommy for Rocky's affection; Duke trying to get Rocky to fight; Rocky and Robert's broken relationship; Rocky fighting for self-respect; Adrian and Paulie left with nothing to do except occasionally yell at Rocky; et cetera.  It's all kind of a mess by the time it comes to Tommy rejecting Rocky for Duke, defeating Kane for the title, and then returning to Philly to call out Rocky (for the which the timeline is very confusing - did this happen directly after the fight? If not, why is Tommy still wearing his ring outfit? Or is he? It's all very unclear). Rocky and Tommy have a street brawl, Rocky wins, avoiding the assault charges (or any consequences whatsover), and the movie ends the series (or so was thought at the time) with a montage of images over the final credits.

I was surprised to see a number of positive reviews from critics for this movie, but I suppose it makes sense that there would be some sympathetic voices after the bombast of the previous two iterations. The critic in me wants to continue to treat this movie harshly, but the artist in me sympathizes with what Stallone was trying to do in re-humanizing Rocky by putting him back on his home turf. The fact that Stallone's attempt is bogged down by poor acting and a mess of plot makes it a little more difficult to appreciate his efforts, but I can see how some of the decisions he made would be defensible for the sake of Rocky's story. I suppose the legacy of this movie was helped significantly by Rocky's return, since it meant that it could be regarded as an awkward middle movie rather than serving as the final word on the series, as it did for fifteen years.

Final Decision: Rocky V is a disappointment and easily the worst movie in the series (slightly ahead of Rocky II), but it's not entirely a loss. I doubt I would ever feel the need to watch it again, but I'm glad I saw it at least once, if only for this scene:

Coming up: Rocky's triumphant return to the ring in 2006's Rocky Balboa, including some of the best dramatic dialogues and fight scenes of the series, as well as his return to training a fighter in Creed and my overall thoughts on the series.

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