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Stallone officially enters the 80s with the entertaining ‘Rocky III’ — Ultimate Movie Year

Clubber Lang challenges Rocky Balboa
Clubber Lang (Mr. T, left) challenges Rocky (Sylvester Stallone) in 1982’s “Rocky III.” (United Artists/MovieStillsDB.com)

“Rocky III”
Released May 28, 1982
Directed by Sylvester Stallone
Where to Watch

From uncredited roles in various films to his breakthrough role in 1976’s original “Rocky,” Sylvester Stallone’s career in the 1970s mirrors the rags-to-riches story arc of his most famous creation. As Hollywood evolved from the auteur cinema of the 70s to the high-concept entertainment of the 80s, Stallone returned with “Rocky III,” ready to claim his role as the industry’s top box office actor.

“Rocky III” begins where the previous film concluded: the underdog Rocky Balboa (Stallone) defeating Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) for the world championship in a rematch of their fight in the 1976 original movie. From there, Rocky speeds to the high life, defending his championship regularly while becoming a celebrity athlete. However, a fierce and rising contender, Clubber Lang (Mr. T), grows impatient in earning a title fight against Rocky. Lang challenges Balboa publicly, which Rocky accepts over the objections of his manager, Mickey (Burgess Meredith).

The championship fight finally arrives, but Mickey suffers a fatal heart attack just before the match. He is rocked by Mickey’s failing health and the revelation that his manager hand-selected opponents for him to overcome; the intensely-focused Lang quickly demolishes Balboa. Rocky’s former rival Creed volunteers to become his new manager, but Balboa struggles to regain self-confidence before his rematch with Lang.

It’s quite a journey from where the character started in 1976. Stallone channeled his frustrations in not getting opportunities in Hollywood into the “Rocky” screenplay that he insisted on starring in. As directed by John G. Alvidsen, the film lacks the complete cynicism of many acclaimed contemporary films like “The Conversation,” “Nashville,” “Network,” and “Dog Day Afternoon.” Still, “Rocky” features the type of gritty cinematography and hard-edge realism that blends in well with those movies and the 70s aesthetic. Stallone himself looked the part of a dumpy boxer who would typically be considered a supporting role for a character actor, not the leading star athlete fighting for the world championship.

Following the success of “Rocky,” Stallone took control for the 1979 sequel as a writer, director, and star, but the mood still generally follows the look and feel of the original film. When the calendar moved to the new decade, populist entertainment like “Jaws” and “Star Wars” began to shift the movie industry away from auteur cinema. Audiences were ready to leave behind the troubles of the 70s and embrace the uplifting (and excessive) culture of the 80s, and Rocky was prepared to go with them.

Once again, Stallone ultimately steered the ship, but you can begin to see some differences in the series. Now that Rocky is stepping into the cinematic ring for the third time, the story replaces character depth with humor and melodrama while speeding up the pace (“Rocky III” shaves about 20 minutes from the previous two movies). Rocky’s fleshed-out, charismatic former foe joins his team, and the new opponent Lang is never shown to have a life outside of the ring. Pop music enters the series, including the classic “Eye of the Tiger” by Survivor, to not only complement the score but add additional marketing opportunities to the growing MTV channel. Stallone himself loses the palooka look of the original to lean out, muscle up, and transform himself into a movie star with fitted suits.

Stallone as Rocky in 1976 (left), and in 1983. (United Artists/MovieStillsDB.com)
Stallone as Rocky in 1976 (left) and 1983. (United Artists/MovieStillsDB.com)

“Rocky III” clarifies that Stallone had reached movie stardom, and he was determined to ride the wave to keep audiences thrilled in their seats for as long as he could. The final battle of “Rocky III” waved off any facade of realistic boxing, but it’s a great scene to quicken your heartbeat.

“I’m somewhat moody, and I’ve changed over the past six years,” Stallone said in a 1982 interview. “The character of Rocky is also moody, and I felt that he would have to go through a similar transition in not only the way he perceives himself but how people perceive him. He changes the way he dresses; he becomes a spokesman for products. He becomes America’s favorite son.

“I like it the best out of the three.”

Stallone found his antagonist in unexpected places. Mr. T worked as bar security when he won a nationally televised competition, “America’s Toughest Bouncer,”… twice. Mr. T’s menacing look and intense charisma won him the part. After the film was completed, Mr. T joined the popular action-adventure television series “The A-Team.” He teamed up with his “Rocky III” castmate, Hulk Hogan, to headline the first Wrestlemania for WWF. While Mr. T’s career faded from the spotlight by the end of the decade, he is still considered one of the most iconic pop culture figures of the 80s.

“Rocky III” knocked out the competition when released on Memorial Day weekend in 1982, scoring a $16 million debut and remaining a top-five contender for almost two months. The film remained in the ring for five months, finishing with a total gross of $124.1 million, making it one of the year’s most successful movies.

Audiences enjoyed “Rocky III” (the appreciation would continue to grow over the decades). Critics were a bit more reserved, but many had positive things to say about the film.

“‘Rocky III’ is an engaging exercise in discreet, incisive and good-humored hokum,” wrote Gary Arnold for The Washington Post. “Sylvester Stallone looks almost surrealistically fit. His features are so impressively chiseled above the neck and muscled below it that he puts his statue to shame during an unveiling sequence outside the Philadelphia Art Museum. He’s become statuesque to a remarkable degree. Yet, although ‘Rocky III’ is a striking piece of popular filmmaking and a considerable bit of harmless fun, the star doesn’t seem to derive as much pleasure from the experience as he should.”

Given the success of “Rocky III,” it would be only a matter of time before another sequel came along. “Rocky IV” was released four years later, with a Cold War story that continues to dial down the story to its basics while ramping up the montages and music videos. Rocky lasted for two more sequels, then became a crucial supporting player in the legacy sequel, “Creed,” with Michael B. Jordan stepping in the ring as Apollo’s son. Between Rocky and Creed, the franchise has released eight sequels over 46 years, with another one on the way.

Stallone’s action star status may have cooled down since the mid-90s, and he refocused his career on more dramatic work outside of the occasional Expendables movie. But Rocky remains his most famous and personal role. Stallone received two Academy Award nominations for playing the character in the original 1976 film and 2015’s “Creed,” more grounded takes from the bombastic crowd-pleasers like “Rocky III.” It’s a testament to Stallone’s range. Whether it’s a dramatic story or exciting fun, few cinematic characters are more iconic than Rocky.

At the Box Office: Rocky regained his championship in the film, and “Rocky III” added to its first box office crown by scoring the best opening weekend in 1982, almost doubling “Conan the Barbarian’s” first round a few weeks earlier. Was this the start of the Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger rivalry that would continue in Hollywood for the rest of the 80s? It’s got to be close.

The horror film “Visiting Hours” debuted in second place. With a cast like Lee Grant, Michael Ironside, and William Shatner, the film seemed intriguing enough to make it stand apart from the growing slasher movie genre. It had a solid debut at the box office with $5.2 million, but the audience quickly decreased over a few weeks. Whether it was the increasingly competitive market of that summer or the prospect of older stars not appealing to the target audience, “Visiting Hours” bowed out of theaters after three weeks with a total gross of $13.2 million.

The final three movies of the top five remain in the exact order as last week’s top three. “Conan the Barbarian” brought in another $4.9 million, “Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid” picked up $4.6 million, and “Porky’s” hauled in $4.5 million to add to its $85.5 million gross.

Next Week: “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” and “Poltergeist”

Originally published at https://www.ultimatemovieyear.com on May 27, 2022.

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