Sunday, July 26, 2015

Rocky Weekend: III & IV

New boxing flick Southpaw opened to decent reviews and a solid $16.5 million bucks based on a $25 million budget this weekend. The flick isn't bad but just smacks of trying to be a grittier version of the Rocky series. While for someone like my lady who hadn't seen the trailer or a single underdog tale featuring the Italian Stallion it was fine but for me it had all just been done before. With my appetite for gloved fisticuffs whetted, I bypassed the Blu-Ray collection and let Netflix take me on a journey of glory, failure, belief and personal happiness with Rocky III, IV and V.

I've sadly never seen a Rocky film on the big screen but they've always been a staple of my movie viewing diet. 1982's Rocky III sees Sylvester Stallone writing and directing as well as showcasing his more familiar, ripped and vascular condition after being more of a hulking bruiser in Rocky and it's sequel. On top of the world with 10 title defenses to his name, Rocky runs into the menacing, hungry and formidable wrecking machine that is Mr. T's Clubber Lang. A worthy contender with a big mouth, Lang isn't shy to confront Rocky but trainer Mickey (Burgess Meredith, View In Peace) is having none of it. When Rocky and Clubber finally meet, it's bad news as Mickey dies backstage during the match then Rock gets pummeled and Knocked Out. After struggling and taking his million to one shot, boxer Rocky did the worst thing for a fighter, he got civilized and soft with endorsement deals, a big house, stylish treads and shiny cars. Wanting to retire and wallow in his realization that he held the title too long, former rival and champion Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) comes knocking with a proposition. On one hand Creed wants to help Rocky get his edge back, or The Eye of the Tiger as well as sell the rematch into one of the biggest fights of all time against the disrespectful Lang. Traveling to the ghetto of Los Angeles, Rocky finds his guts with the help of wife Adrian (Talia Shire), confronting his fear of losing what he has and trains old school, regaining the edge and hunger necessary to defeat Lang in the rematch.

While Rocky is a straight classic, it's also one of a kind. A low budget, cheap looking near documentary that's much more about life and characters than it is boxing. The sequels get bigger, slicker, shorter and more far fetched with each outing. III walks an excellent line of providing drama and sports thrills. Rocky and Apollo both get solid arcs here with the champion needing to overcome self doubt while the former champ transitions from rival to ally in order to stay relevant. Then you get a great and random scene of Rocky fighting Hulk Hogan's professional wrestler Thunder Lips ("The ultimate male, in the flesh, baby!") in a charity match gone wrong along with some great training montages set to the fantastic soundtrack anchored by Survivor's Eye of the Tiger. Some of the era's fashion is laughable like Stallone and Weathers in cropped top sweat shirts but if you had a body like either of theirs, you'd do the same thing. In an era before bromance you have two men working towards a common goal together, appreciating the other then jumping into the ocean and hugging to celebrate. It's beautiful but people today gotta make it weird. Stallone is at his most handsome here while Weathers delivers a passionate yet cool performance as Rocky's new mentor. The final bout with Lang is actually the only full fight we see in a Rocky film as it lasts just 3 rounds and is arguably the most effective. Rocky starts strong, receives some hard shots, realizes he can take it, gets mad and knocks out the champ. The boxing action is non-stop with combos, close ups, slow motion and sound effects used to really relay the impact and violence.

With a budget 16x the original, Rocky III opened on May 28th, 1982 and pulled $12 million dollars on opening weekend on it's way to a $124 million total. Good enough for 4th place on the years highest earners. A stint in the director's chair for Saturday Night Fever sequel Staying Alive and a role opposite Dolly Parton in the musical comedy Rhinestone followed before 1985's Rocky IV. Taking place directly after the events of III we find Rocky and Apollo being the best of friends before being introduced to the Soviet Union's Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren), a giant, freakishly strong amateur boxer looking to challenge Rocky and show the world what Communist training looks like. Never one to be upstaged, Apollo challenges the untested Drago to an exhibition match to show that it's us (the U.S.) against them. What starts as a joke becomes tragedy when the over strong Drago kills the cocky and over the hill Creed in the ring. Feeling responsible for his friend's death after not throwing in the towel at Creed's insistence, Rocky gives up the title and agrees to fight Drago in Russia. Training in snow covered isolation with the help of Apollo's former trainer Duke (Tony Burton) and brother in law Paulie (Burt Young), Rocky finds the inner warrior and prepares to die in his fight against Drago. But it's Adrian once again who takes it over the top by telling Rocky he can do it, providing that final mental boost our guy needs.

Rocky IV is arguably the most enjoyable and weirdest of the series. You have a housekeeping robot, new age training equipment, the Cold War, steroids and an incredible fighter entrance featuring a ring rising from the floor, dancers, singers, brass band, James Brown performing and Carl Weathers dancing in an American flag outfit consisting of a vest with coattails and top hat. While some might not appreciate the simple story: Apollo gets killed, Rocky trains, fights Drago, wins Cold War, I find it all to be incredibly entertaining and inspiring. Once again Stallone writes and directs with heart and style as Apollo questions what happens to the warrior class when there's no fight or challenge, Drago has to figure out being a propaganda tool while fighting for himself, Rocky realizing he can win because he's willing to die and his poor wife Adrian who suffers through all of this. While Weathers was a great corner man in III, Tony Burton's Duke edges him out here by being paternal and an incredibly great screamer. "Take it to him, no pain!" "This is your whole life!" "You see?! He's not a machine, he's a man!" "Punch, punch until you can't punch no more!" Then you have the awesome training sequences with Rocky out in the wilderness with no real equipment, just running in the snow, carrying logs, lifting carriages and doing chins while Dolph has a whole team of scientists and equipment around like treadmills, versa climbers and the juice. All set to Vince DiCola's incredible synth score, the only Rocky film not to have orchestral music by Bill Conti. Watching it again I was surprised at how brutal Apollo's death scene was and how heart string pulling Rocky's driving around remembering his life up until that point is constructed. Of course Dolph is perfectly cast as the seemingly unstoppable specimen of a man but is given just enough humanity and free will so you don't hate him. After Weathers' fast talking, big idea, cocky and funny Creed followed by T's grunting and straight mean barking, Dolph plays it near silent, stoic and intimidating.

Costing an estimated $30 million bucks, Rocky IV opened up in time for Thanksgiving on November 27th with a whopping $19 million dollars, bested only by Stallone's own Rambo: First Blood Part II. It would be a banner year for Sly as Rambo and Rocky would be the 2nd and 3rd highest grossing films of 1985 behind Back to the Future. The film also lives on as songs by DiCola, Survivor, James Brown and Robert Tepper have become work out tracklist staples and at the time were part of a platinum selling soundtrack that yielded three top singles.

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