Cheesy movies are a special joy. Despite an earnest attempt to create compelling stories, filmmakers often miss the mark. Some movies turn out simply mediocre. Others become entertaining in spite of their flaws or authorial intent. They become cheesy. In Your Weekend Cheesy Movie, we’ll examine some of these misguided efforts for what they fail at achieving and what they manage to do right.
This week: Rocky III
It’s time to talk about Sylvester Stallone again. As a filmmaker, his work features a certain rough charm. The ideas are there, but the craftsmanship often loses something in the translation from his brainmatter to his mouth or his fingertips. Rocky II, for instance, is very much an autobiographical film about Stallone’s first brush with fame following the release of the first film. But it’s also an accidental remake of the original as it pits Rocky Balboa (Stallone) against Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) for a second time. An event, in hindsight, which very much anchors Rocky’s journey across another five films with a sixth on the way. But as a film, it’s very much a next episode; stylistically in line with its predecessor. Stallone follows the format handed down from Rocky director John G. Avildsen — Avildsen himself would use it again in The Karate Kid — and it makes the sequel, in many ways, a lesser film for that repetition even as it pleased crowds curious about Rocky’s life after he went the distance in the ring.
And that success, compounded with others Stallone experienced in the early 1980s, led to a quick third installment. But this time, his eye and writerly hand seemed more confident in telling Rocky’s story with his own singular vision. In doing so, he also issued a warning to himself.
Where Rocky II concerns the initial flickers of fame Stallone experienced in the 70s, Rocky III dives headlong into the superstardom and presidential hobnobbing the actor/writer/director would experience in the next decade. As was now tradition, the film opens with a recap of Rocky’s victory over Apollo in the previous film. After that, we are treated to the first of several montages; this one details Rocky’s meteoric stardom. He’s in print ads for watches, lucrative TV commercials instead of the local ads seen in Rocky II. He even appears on The Muppet Show thanks to the use of Stallone’s actual 1979 guest appearance. The connection between star and character is very clear once you can look at the sequence without getting lost in the music: Survivor’s famous track, “Eye of the Tiger.” Thanks to the pulsing rhythm, the montage both illustrates Rocky’s success and the passage of time as we glimpse a couple of his post-Apollo defending matches.
The plot, once it stats, concerns Rocky’s increasingly insular world while hungry, young boxer Clubber Lang (Mr. T) tries his best to get a shot at the heavyweight championship. Rocky, for his part, is in the lap of luxury with awesome cars, a lavish home and plenty of money to shower on his son, Rocky Jr. But when the city of Philadelphia chooses to honor their favorite son with a statue on the top of the museum steps he use to train upon, Clubber baits him into a challenge; one Rocky’s trainer Mickey (Burgess Meredith) resists because, as he put it, Clubber will “murder your to death in ten rounds!” So the champ starts to train in a well-appointed gym open to the public where his best pal Paulie (Burt Young) sells Rocky merchandise. Clubber meanwhile, trains in more modest facilities.
Once they get in the ring, Clubber also pummels Rocky but good; inducing a coronary in Mickey.
With his trainer dead and his title lost, Rocky’s despair only lifts when Apollo shows up to train him in the rundown gym he first trained at so Rocky can get “the eye of the tiger” back.
Despite all the excesses of the first half — both in Rocky’s choices and Stallone’s emerging style — this seeming self-awareness is the charm of a film that would otherwise be another middling chapter in Rocky’s life. As a writer, Stallone is warning himself of the very clear dangers present in his own celebrity. Through Apollo, he suggests the houses and motorcycles and European vacations with tall models might endanger his talents.
Also, there are plenty of training montages, a weird prototype version of “Eye of the Tiger” Apollo uses to teach Rocky how to dance, Paulie’s latent racism when he discovers he’s one of three white people to ever enter Apollo’s hometown gym in Los Angeles, and the first instance of someone telling Rocky he can’t win. But within those story points are Stallone’s hallmarks as a director. Even in the rundown gyms, there’s a slickness to the photography and production design. The montages themselves are as much a signature of Stallone as characters staring into camera is Stanley Kubrick’s. The remaining grit of Avildsen’s aesthetic gets used up in re-igniting Rocky’s hunger to be the champion. From the moment Rocky and Adrian (Talia Shire) have a beach side chat about Rocky’s fears, the slick look dominates the series until 2006’s Rocky Balboa, when Stallone rediscovered a portion of the grit left back in Philly.
But don’t let the highfalutin’ film school musings about the film mislead you, Rocky III is still a cheesy movie. Its characters move to the dictates of plot — yes, even Paulie’s racism — and its whole presentation stands alongside the inherent cheesiness of subsequent Stallone films like the next year’s Staying Alive, the previously discussed Rocky IV and even a much later film like The Expendables. And, perhaps, that last vestige of Avildsen’s style left in the film is all the more remarkable in contrast to the Stallone gestalt which emerges even as Rocky hits one of his lowest places in the overall narrative.
Then there’s that song: a supreme work of cheese so potent, it can become something so genuine in the right context and then find itself backing a Bounce ad on television the next day. In some ways, “Eye of the Tiger’s” legacy looms larger than Rocky III at this point. Perhaps because it skirts that space where cheese and genuine acceptable sentiment co-exist; much like the film itself.
Rocky III is available for rent on the usual streaming platforms and on a Rocky Blu-ray collection wherever physical media is sold.