Random thoughts on Rocky III & IV

Let’s get a few things out of the way…

– I make no apologies over my respect for Sylvester Stallone as a writer, director, and actor. Both Rocky and First Blood are easy shoo-ins for my all-time top 20 list. I think Oscar is a seriously undervalued comedy. The first 10 minutes of Cliffhanger are only rivaled by the first 10 minutes of 28 Weeks Later as the best opening scene of all time.  

– I haven’t seen either of these films from start-to-finish since I sat my butt in a theater and saw them on their respective opening nights.

– I hate boxing.

With all that said, I was stuck at home today with a busted rib (thank you Snowmageddon), and getting off the sofa just wasn’t in the cards. What better time to look at a Christmas gift. Rocky: The Undisputed Collection gathers all 6 films plus bonus material on absolutely amazingly remastered Blu*Ray. No joke folks, these movies are from ’82 and ’85, and they look and sound absolutely amazing on Blu*Ray.

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I really hadn’t thought too much about the Rocky films for years. About 2 years ago, I caught the beginning of Rocky Balboa on cable, and thought it would be good for a laugh. Holy sh*t, was I wrong. It’s an excellent film that deals with aging, and what it means to prove something to yourself. It’s a little sappy and indulgent, but overall it’s a fantastic film that made me curious to revisit the older ones.

On a cross-country plane trip, my wife and I re-watched Rocky. Again, I was shocked at what a compelling story it was, and what a great job Sly did as the lead.

But Rocky III and Rocky IV remained as the two “star vehicle” films for me. Empty vessels showcasing Sly’s pecs. I really didn’t feel I needed to see them again.

Until I was stuck on the sofa and tired of staring at my laptop.

Rocky III is a far better movie than I remembered. In fact, it’s actually a good movie. Sure, it’s a showcase for a bulked-up Stallone, and it’s full of all the other goofy things you remember (Mr. T and Hulk Hogan), but it also is a stinging indictment of materialism and complacency.

Say what?

Oh yeah, Rocky lives in a big house, surrounded by material things, luxury, and wealth. He stays on top by fighting chumps. Then Clubber Lang kicks the everloving crap out of him. What happens? Apollo Creed takes Rocky under his wing, teaches him to rediscover “the eye of the tiger”, by going back to basics. No more expensive training for the former champ, Rocky goes to L.A., to Apollo’s old gym, and trains old-school.

Other than the most (unintentionally) homoerotic training montage ever assembled, it makes for a story very similar to the first film’s. Rocky suffers loss (both in the ring and of his trainer), gets back to basics, and overcomes a superior foe.

I’l also say that the boxing footage is (for this hater of boxing) is downright inspired. As I’ve said before, Stallone knows how to direct, and the fight scenes with Clubber Lang are brilliantly choreographed and shot. Mr. T acquits himself well at expressing unbridled rage. His character is one-note, but he plays the hell out of it.

Rocky IV is a bit more problematic. For starters, it mines a lot of the same territory as the first 3 films, though instead of compressing 1 & 2 like 3 did (a loss, followed by training, followed by a win), it substitutes a loss by Apollo (who also loses his life), followed by training, followed by a win. But then there’s the rather stinging indictment of the USA, as is brilliantly highlighted in the Apollo/Drago bout.

Say what?

Watching the James Brown lead-up to the fight, we’re given a glimpse into how the rest of the world sees us; garish, loud, and ugly. It’s surprisingly subversive in the context of what is (at heart) a propaganda film about American superiority over communism.

Rocky IV also has the mother of all training montages. It’s actually broken up by an interlude with Adrian (which is snipped out of the link), but my God, it makes me want to go out and run in the snow.

The fight between Drago and Rocky is somewhat anticlimactic (since there’s no doubt that Rocky is gonna win), and pole-vaults over the goofy line when hundreds of Soviets (including members of the Politburo) start chanting, “ROCKY!”, but it’s still pretty well done. Well, ok, the slow-motion punches are a bit over the top. And so is the, “If I can change, and yous can change..” speech.

Rocky IV is no Rocky III.

I’m actually curious now to watch Rocky V, a film that was almost universally panned.

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