Alright you sissies, you pansies, you sushi-eating, latte-swigging libtards, listen up: from this point on, it’s no girls allowed in this Sylvester Stallone column ‘cause we’re entering the Golden (Stallolden?) Era. You may think you’re a man because you’ve seen Rocky a buncha times or can make a jokey reference to “that Stallone porno,” but with Rocky III (1982) and First Blood (1982) we’ve arrived at the period that’ll put fire in your belly and hair on your chest (margin of error: Rhinestone). These are the years that defined the persona we think of when we think about “Sylvester Stallone.” The mid-80s may not have been our man’s best or riskiest era, but it was undoubtedly his Stalloniest.
Say goodbye to Rocky Balboa for the foreseeable future. Oh sure, Rocky III features a character named “Rocky” who happens to be a boxer, but forget it. The affable lug you knew from parts I and II – the one with the leather jacket and the felt hat who fawned over Adrian and loved his dog – is gone, replaced to a snarling brick of a man with gelled hair, tailored suits, and, evidently, no dog (seriously Sly, what happened to the dog? Is he okay?). Where Rocky and Rocky II were quiet and leisurely, as much about romance and working-class Philly as boxing, Rocky III is a lean, mean kitsch machine. At 99 minutes, it’s the shortest Rocky so far, boiling the series down to an essential formula as rigid and dependable as the James Bond series. It takes the basic template of the earlier films, eliminating most of the human qualities and magnifying the ridiculousness. Just to clarify: Rocky III is a movie where Rocky fights Hulk Hogan, and that’s just a throwaway scene near the beginning.
Rocky III opens after Balboa’s victory against Apollo Creed, a three-year period in which he shows up on magazine covers, telethons, ads, The Muppet Show, and, that ultimate signifier of extraordinary fame, his own pinball machine. Much has changed since the days of Rocky II when he could barely wander his way through a TV commercial. Now, when he arrives to bail Resident Bumbler® Paulie (Burt Young) out of jail, it’s clear they’re in opposite socioeconomic brackets. And, since the rematch with Apollo, Rocky’s been coasting, fighting a string of run-of-the-mill fighters while Clubber Lang (Mr. T), a tough young fighter, gains momentum. For these years, Rocky’s trainer Mickey (Burgess Meredith) has been purposefully avoiding the up-and-comer, seeing him as a real threat to Rocky’s stardom. “It was my job ta keep ya safe and keep ya winnin’,” he grunts. Yes, in these past three years, Rocky has lost his edge. He has nothing left to fight for, no longer just a man and his will to survive. So many times, it happened too fast: he traded his passion for glory. He lost his grip on the dreams of the past, and now must fight just to keep them alive.
Rocky III may not be an officially licensed “good movie,” but I’ve never met anyone who doesn’t like it. Its appeal can be summarized in three/sixteen letters: Mr. (motherfucking) T. Now, we’ve all enjoyed plenty of jokes at Mr. T’s expense, many of them involving Flavor-Wave Ovens, but you know what? Fuck that shit. In Rocky III, Mr. T kicks ass un-ironically. Sure, he isn’t much of an actor, and it’s sort of amusing how he can deliver any long, vitriolic speech (“Why don’t you tell all these nice folks why you been duckin’ me! Politics, man! This country wants to keep me down! Keep everybody weak! They don’t want a man like me to have the title because I’m not a puppet like that fool up there!”) in the same deadpan monotone. But somehow, even this works to his advantage. He’s such a raw, unusual presence that he really doesn’t seem to be playing by any rules, and because writer/director Stallone shows us even less of Clubber’s private life than he did of Apollo’s, he becomes an ominous force in the Jason/Michael Myers tradition. Mr. T personifies Rocky III’s curiously winning mixture of the awesome and the ridiculous.
But Mr. T also shines a light on the most unsettling facet of the Rocky series: its exclusively white-working-class perception of “the underdog story.” To James Lipton, Stallone spoke of being inspired by the journeyman boxer Chuck Wepner, who surprised everyone by knocking Muhammad Ali down. Stallone described Ali as “the perfect fighter,” in contrast to Wepner, “a real American working-class stiff who takes it on the chin.” For the third movie in a row, Rocky has been pitted against an arrogant, tough-talking black man, and for the third time Rocky’s humility and determination lead to victory (although to be fair to Stallone, we do see Clubber training hard in a few montages).
Rocky III tries to cover its ass by bringing back Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers), retired and humbled, as Rocky’s new manager (Clubber Lang pushed the beloved Mickey, triggering a heart attack – boo! hiss!). As with Rocky, Apollo is barely the same character anymore – wise, noble, more Morgan Freeman than Muhammad Ali. When Apollo takes Rocky to the gym he used to train in, and a swarm of African Americans greets our hero, it comes across as a little condescending. These scenes are redeemed, just barely, by the magnetism of Carl Weathers, who somehow makes Apollo’s inexplicable transformation believable.
What I find troubling is that Clubber and Apollo, two brash trash-talkers, are both such thinly veiled Ali caricatures. I don’t think Stallone was motivated by a racist agenda, but the first three Rockys can be read as white working-class wish-fulfillment fantasies to reclaim boxing from a certain kind of uppity black. When Rocky tells Clubber, “You know you got a big mouth,” I cringe a little. Don’t you think it would have felt different if a white actor had shown up in the ring dressed as Uncle Sam instead of Carl Weathers? And don’t you think it would have carried less of a charge if a white actor, instead of Mr. T, told Adrian, “Hey woman, since your man ain’t got no heart, maybe you’d like to see a real man”?
Incidentally, I’d also like to address these ongoing accusations that Rocky III is somehow “homoerotic.” Frankly, I find these accusations absurd. There is nothing in any way homoerotic about anything in this movie.
It’s easy to lament the relative dearth of artistic ambition in large swaths of Stallone’s career, but in his defense, he pulled off the impressive feat of creating two durable, iconic characters. What’s interesting is that Rocky Balboa and John Rambo should be such opposites. After serving in ‘Nam, numbing himself with slaughter, watching his entire battalion get their guts torn out, and turning himself into the perfect killing machine*, Rambo returns home to find himself vilified by protestors, ignored by politicians, and bypassed by Americans at large, who just want to move on. “To me, Rambo is a modern Frankenstein,” Stallone told James Lipton. “You took this normal body and converted it basically into a machine to go out and do the dirty work. Then, he was basically punished, thrown out, castigated, for doing the job he was trained to do. Nobody ever said, ‘Come back and meet the family’.”
If Rocky is the American dream personified – a “bum from the neighborhood” who rose to the top thanks to hard work and good luck – then the alienated, war-scarred Rambo is someone the American dream excludes. Still, they share a few characteristics: 1) rugged individualism (probably the defining trait of a Stallonian Protagonist), and 2) their raw energy is channeled into something powerful by a strong-willed trainer. For Rocky, it’s Mickey; for Rambo, it’s Colonel Trautman (Richard Crenna), the man who turned him into a killing machine/the man who warns everyone about what a badass this dude is (“I didn’t come to rescue Rambo from you. I came here to rescue you from him”). Oh, also 3) they have great big muscles. Can’t forget those.
Until the final scenes, Rambo is opaque: an expressionless hulk who speaks only rarely, in monosyllables. When arrested by a small-town sheriff who thinks he’s some sorta longhaired hippie scum, Rambo has Vietnam flashbacks, and makes short work of every goddamn person in the police station. In the midst of a full-on mental breakdown, Rambo flees to the wildnerness, and as the police hunt him down, he calls on all his military training to fight his own personal Vietnam. Come to think of it, since the police are the ones mired in the unwinnable conflict, maybe they’re the ones fighting their own Vietnam. Some food for thought, folks
As with the first Rocky, the dirty, gritty First Blood is so tonally different than its sequels it hardly feels like the same franchise, and as with Rocky, it’s easy to forget how good it is. Just as Rocky III focuses single-mindedly on the boxing, First Blood forgoes the usual romance and comedy-relief subplots, and has as little music and dialogue as possible. The action is intense, but compared to the explosions of future installments, it’s mostly human-scaled and brutal. Most surprising is how powerful and, yes, understated its political edge is. Astonishingly, when Stallone saw the first cut, he reportedly insisted on big cuts to his own part, eliminating most of the speeches about Vietnam to let audiences infer Rambo’s desperation.
A dirty secret: before starting this marathon, I had never actually seen First Blood. I know, I know, and I call myself a Professional Stallone Historian. Having only ever seen the jingoistic sequels, what surprised me about First Blood is how objectively it treats its protagonist. The film is sympathetic to Rambo’s plight, but it’s also smart enough to regard him as something of a madman. Rambo: First Blood Part II, the much more popular sequel, is the movie Rambo might have made about himself.