Thus, our lust for revenge was denied until Stallone rewrote history. In Creed we had a young, trim, taunting, bellicose Ali. The public’s racial antagonism was rekindled, and the revenge was spiced by the fact that the instrument of our retribution was the white Rocky Balboa. Rocky would not only avenge the taunts and the societal criticisms of Ali, he would exonerate the role of the white warrior as well. The last white heavyweight champion was the Swede Ingemar Johansson, who won the title from Floyd Patterson in 1959, only to lose it back in their rematch in 1960. Since then, there had been an inept parade of “white hopes” who proved to be genetic embarrassments. The best the white fan could do was muster memory: “Argh, Marciano or Dempsey would have killed him.”

Of course, boxing only mirrored other sports in that the predominant figures were black. In a society where the whites control the property and the power, this could be seen as a minor irritant—except that as the world turned increasingly violent, and physical truculence seemed to be reaping rewards from neighborhoods to nations, the sports world became a dark metaphor.

So Rocky, for all its filmic crudity, bordered on a colonial restoration. The white man was no longer the hapless victim, the body gone slack, but the swashbuckler of yore. If one doubts this premise, simply and honestly test these equations to see if Rocky would maintain its emotional power: Would Rocky work if Apollo Creed was a white champion? If the film had intrinsic merit or the quality of art, couldn’t it survive a role reversal? How about Rocky as an underdog black challenger vs. a white champion? There isn’t a studio that would have bankrolled this version.

Besides our racial animosity, Rocky had another factor going for it. Near the end of his career Ali, like so many of those in the Sixties who used the media to expostulate their messages, was devoured by hype. He wore us out with his endless appearances and chastisements. He joined the company of Bella Abzug, Dr. Spock, Jane Fonda, Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, and Gloria Steinem. Instead of electricity, he produced instant ennui. We began to suspect that to these people the media was not the message but the Messiah. They all seemed only a step above Jerry Lewis, who was so craven for attention he would show up on talk shows sporting false buck teeth.

So not only did the racial baiters have something to cheer about in Rocky, but also those who had become nauseated by sermonizing hype. The low ground was that Rocky was a white avenging angel; the high ground was that he was a censor with taste. After all, one man’s creed is often another man’s bullshit.

Yet, for all its flamboyant ingredients, Grand Guignol acting, recycling of golden oldies, and manipulative music, the original Rocky had energy and a modicum of restraint. Under director John Avildsen, the scenery was merely gnawed, not devoured, and Rocky, for all his spartan showing, did lose the fight to Creed (though barely). The film pulled back from the abyss. The rednecks were given only a pyrrhic victory. Logic, like the cavalry, arrived in the last reel.

It’s a shame the saga didn’t end there. But Stallone was unable to find success in any other guise, so Rocky was reduxed under his own scripting and direction. Rocky ll, with its ludicrous ending of Rocky and Creed on the canvas in the fifteenth round, each struggling to beat the 10-count (Rocky Rises!) even had the kids, Hollywood’s target market, groaning. After that finale, one and all hoped Stallone would hang them up, since Rocky was not the champion, and his two bouts at the box-office had been boffo. Besides winning the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1976, Rocky and then Rocky II (1979) rank 22nd and 25th, respectively, on Variety’s list of all-time film rentals.

But in the interim, Stallone’s four other films, “F.I.S.T.,” Paradise Alley, Escape to Victory, and Nighthawks, went into the tank. So Rocky has been resurrected yet again to complete what Stallone says is his trilogy, and the less generous view as a three-round prelim.

In Rocky lll, as in Rocky II, Stallone plays triple-threat: actor-writer-director. If one had any hopes that the final chapter of the Stallone trinity would be elevated, that notion quickly disappears with the film’s opening scenes. Stallone-Rocky is seen in a montage flattening opponents in 10 title defenses. To his credit, he does resist the flying calendar pages and the clicking train wheels of the pug pix of the 40’s and 50’s. While Rocky is demolishing contenders, the camera pans in on a menacing black with a Mohican haircut in the fight crowd, who obviously scorns Rocky’s rough-housing. The film’s central theme is set: Rocky will have to make this malevolent cat cry “Uncas.”

To the fight camp follower, Stallone’s surly critic is disturbingly familiar, though the coiffure is wrong. His identity is revealed by scalping the dude, who is none other than the real life “Mr. T.,” formerly the boorish bodyguard of the aforementioned, short-lived champion, “Neon Leon” Spinks.

Whatever one’s estimate of Stallone as a moviemaker, at this point you’re moved to ponder whether Stallone is a Melvillean delver into the dark side of the American soul. Could it be that he fathomed Spinks was more reprehensible to us than Ali? After all, Ali, whatever message he was delivering, mirrored our middle-class mores. He was handsome, glib, and (when it struck him) courtly, as befit a well brought up, churchgoing child of Louisville. Spinks, a product of St. Louis’s rough public housing, lacked all this as well as orthodontia. A mouth such as Spinks’ would mortify us on Donahue.

The level of the movie is fixed in the next series of scenes. Rocky is shown doing an American Express commercial and an appearance on The Muppet Show. The audience with whom I saw the film chorded in delight at this juncture. Thank God! The film wouldn’t be beyond them. Rocky III resided in their orbital channel.

Mr. T. as “Clubber Lang” (ahh, the subtlety) is not to be confused with a two-dimensional villain. He continually directs epithets at Rocky’s skills and virility. It is a performance of unrelieved rage. And when Clubber really works himself up (which is constantly), he resorts to unintelligible growling, snorting, and grinding of teeth. The latter grants him more virtuosity than his former benefactor, Mr. Spinks. There is no doubt about it: Clubber is a cat who could empty a subway car quicker than a flasher.

On the side of divinity we see Rocky cooing with wife Adrian (Shire again) in nice Fifties fashion. The sweet, shy Adrian, whom Rocky discovered working in a pet store (St. Francis in drag?), must never be seen as blatantly sexual. Since the couple now has Rocky, Jr., we know she does it, but she cannot allow us to think she revels in it.

Rocky Jr. is sheer window dressing for Pop to bounce off. Rocky is seen reading him fairy tales in his estimable elocutionary fashion, and there is some parental hand-holding and the goodbye before Dad goes into training for the big fight. As a third wheel, the kid could have used the agent Cheetah had for the Tarzan series.

Burt Young also returns again as Rocky’s brother-in-law, Paulie. His main function seems to be allowing Rocky superiority of diction. After three films and his brother-in-law’s 10 successful title defenses, Paulie has yet to find a new tailor or haberdasher. He is still scratching himself as if his native Philadelphia was a Tijuana cathouse.

But Paulie is given “dimension” in Ill. He is discontent because Rocky hasn’t looked out for him. While the champ resides in a gaudy house schlocked with mock provincial, he has bequeathed Paulie only an expensive watch, which Paulie smashes to the ground in anger. Instead of being hurt by Paulie’s allegation (as any street guy would), the corporate Rocky lectures Paulie on the danger of expecting handouts. After all, he, Rocky, went out and beat the odds, and the proper way is for all of us to do our own thing. The reconciliation with the pissed-off Paulie comes when brother-in-law offers him not a share of the swag but a job working the champ’s corner. Paulie, contrite but effusive, accepts. Score that round for David Stockman.

Paulie, of course, like the rest of the white underclass in the film, is Hummel figure adorable. When Mom and Pop are out, and Paulie is babysitting, he and Rocky Jr. (in the best Runyon-mawkish tradition) dope the Racing Form.

“The low ground was that Rocky was a white avenging angel; the high ground was that he was a censor with taste. After all, one man’s creed is often another man’s bullshit.”

The domestic side established, the film moves on to its major themes. Rocky, still dodging the slings and arrows of Clubber, enters a wrestling exhibition with one “Thunderlips.” Thunderlips sees himself as the consummate male and is attended by a bevy of adoring beauties in the ring. Like Clubber, Thunderlips badmouths Rocky’s manhood until one is led to believe the only rising Rocky does is from the canvas. With the wrestler, Stallone is again shilling Ali’s legend in that Ali had an exhibition with a Japanese wrestler for a reported million-dollar purse. Again the truth in the film ends with that basic fact.

The Ali exhibition was choreographed for the Japanese mat champ to win, until Ali blew the ending when he announced it at an airport press conference on his arrival in Tokyo. The Japanese, who took this hokum seriously (Godzilla movies deaden credulity), became incensed, and the match ended up in an honest, tedious draw with the grappler lying on the floor for the majority of the fight and kicking at Ali’s legs, trying to trip him.

Rocky takes on Thunderlips for charity, much against the wishes of his trainer Mickey (Burgess Meredith). Mickey exclaims nobody would fight such a monster for charity. Rocky responds, “Bob Hope would,” and thus another note of recognition is struck. The celebrity screening audience got the gag. It meant they are on the inside, and poring over People magazine is redeemed. In Rocky you namedrop Bob Hope; in Woody Allen films cultural avatars. The only difference in audience mentality is McDonald’s vs. Elaine’s.

Thunderlips is not a believer in choreography, and he pummels Rocky with fists, elbows, and knees. After unsuccessfully trying to snap his spine, Thunderlips throws Rocky a few rows into the audience. Rocky, enraged, runs up the aisle, leaps back into the ring, and claps Thunder around, then throws him into the seats. If this is to be believed, watch for a sequel to Jim Jones.

But this is a minor storm. The big bang has to be the endless needler Clubber. Clubber finally has his way when he attends a dedication of a public statue of Rocky by the Philadelphia city fathers. The accuracy of this scene can be disputed, since ex-Phillies pitcher Bo Belinsky said that it was a burg that booed parades. Nonetheless, Clubber ruins the proceedings by first challenging Rocky and then coming on to Adrian, snarling that it must be tough living with half a man. When Clubber invites Adrian to share his cave, Rocky has had enough. It’s time to get it on.

But we have a plot twist. Mickey, the gnarled old trainer, tells Rocky that he doesn’t want the fight because Rocky isn’t “hungry” anymore. He then confesses he has picked the opponents for Rocky’s 10 title defenses. The 10 weren’t hungry either. Meredith, whose mangled, tortured speech makes Stallone and Young seem like Lincoln and Douglas, explains this all-consuming famine by saying that Rocky is suffering from the worst thing that can happen to a fighter: “You got civilized.” The best laugh in the movie didn’t get a titter.

When Rocky convinces Mickey he will retrieve the lean and hungry look, abandon post (Emily) and return to pillory, Mickey agrees to train him for one more fight.

On fight night incredulity main events once more. In professional championship fights the contestants always enter from different sides of the arena, respectful intervals apart, so that each fighter can milk his claque. This is orchestrated via walkie-talkies from the promoter’s aides at ringside. In Rocky Ill, as Rocky exits his dressing room, Clubber is coming down a flight of stairs directly in Rocky’s path. Both fighters are heading for the same tunnel at the same time! Or course, the anti-social Clubber starts badmouthing, and a skirmish begins. Mickey moves to intercede, and he is hurtled aside. We see Meredith clutching his chest and turning puce. He is either dying from a heart attack or reaching for a complex sentence. Alas, he is dying, and cinematic subtlety in acting will now be the sole province of Jack Palance. One doesn’t know if the cheering heard is from the expectant crowd in the arena or the grateful Stanislavsky in heaven.

Rocky, with Mickey fading, goes on alone to be thrashed quickly by Clubber. He returns to his dressing room in time to render the slipping Mickey a rosy outcome of the fight. A lie, to be sure, but a kindly one for the road.

Rocky, who has always blessed himself before combat, is then seen attending a Jewish burial service for Mickey. Rocky might have lost, but Mecca, which is now so prevalent in boxing, has taken a drubbing.

Of course, Rocky has now lost all self-esteem. He is so down on himself he rediscovers his roots and resorts to the conduct of a native Philadelphian. Late at night, from his motorcycle, he throws his crash helmet at his statue in the civic plaza.

Help then comes from an odd but familiar quarter. Apollo Creed, whom we have seen as a color commentator at the fight, approaches Rocky with the secret of how to beat Lang. He will train Rocky for the rematch. Creed (Carl Weathers) tells Rocky he has lost the look, “The Eye of the Tiger” he had when he met Creed. This serves a dual purpose: showing that blacks even have more rhythm in speech, and introducing a rock song, “Eye of the Tiger,” performed by Survivor.

Though Creed knows the secret, it is never explained why he doesn’t challenge Clubber. And in early training sessions with Rocky, Apollo makes Rocky look like a chump. Yet Creed has retired for some mysterious reason, confounding to students of the sweet science but not to showbiz clockers. Second bananas don’t carry pictures.

Creed, like Mickey, insists Rocky return to his beginnings, but then we are perversely returned not to Rocky’s but Creed’s beginnings in an all-black gym in south Los Angeles. This gives Paulie a chance for a few yuks at the expense of the neighborhood (“I don’t have a gun”) and at the gym’s training regimen (“Rocky can’t move to that jungle music”).

It seems that Creed’s plan is to transform the mauler Rocky into a ring dandy in the interim between bouts—Marciano into Ali on the three-month plan. In Rocky II Stallone switched from southpaw to righty to beat Creed. Stallone, a fine physical specimen, fancies himself a boxing buff, but his ideas about prizefighting (if they’re truly rendered) equate with those of a small child’s. “Secret weapons” win fights; gimmicks, not craft, make great fighters.

So Rocky is put through muscle-stretching exercises, sessions in swimming pools, and aerobic dancing to unknot his puncher’s muscles and make him loose and limber, a black-style fighter. Creed is a patient, loving trainer, and all this might be Stallone’s apology to Ali for so shamelessly bastardizing his legend. After counting the box office, a mea culpa of “Black Is Beautiful.”

But Stallone is never content. Bad enough we must buy the premise of the bear learning to dance, he also asks us to believe that Creed insists Rocky not only train in a slum but live in one as well. The former champion and his wife are ensconced in a flophouse near the gym, complete with sterno-drinkers and the Degas tableau of Adrian performing her toilette over a minute wash basin, the only bathing facility in the one-room flop. It is a breakthrough in fight films—the audience suffers the brain damage. For all his faithful ministrations, Creed asks little: only that Rocky wear Creed’s American flag trunks into the ring plus a favor to be named later. Rocky is touched by the former and curiously amused by the latter.

After two films, Stallone must have figured the Rocky theme was growing stale. Stallone is, wisely, a great believer in music. Since the acting in this trilogy has been so atrocious and the lines so limp, he has continually used emotional soundtracks to jolt and jerk his audiences. Here, as Rocky enters the ring, Stallone resurrects George M. Cohan, and the “Marine Hymn” blares.

Needless to say, Rocky is successful in his quest. His punches land like howitzers, and as in I and II the referees and the ring doctor are off on another set.

After the victory, Creed’s favor is divulged. In the final shot (some time later) Creed and Rocky are seen in full pugilistic regalia entering a ring in an empty gym or in Rocky’s basement (it’s not clear). Apollo wants one more shot at Rocky sans audience. The men square off, Rocky throws a left, Creed counters with a right, and the frame freezes.

The dark specter is that this ending, Stallone’s pronouncements aside, is a natural segue to a sequel. If so, the unfathomable depths of eternal damnation begin to assume definable dimensions.

Top photo via MGM

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