Who’d have thought Bill Conti’s immaculate soundtrack could sound so drained of life? Rocky III is the sequel that never needed to be, following on from Rocky II, a sequel that wasn’t particularly necessary either. One of the many differences between the two is that Rocky II had heart. It showed Sylvester Stallone could star and direct with competence. Inevitably, then, he would wish to strike the same notes of success again. We cannot fault him for trying, but where can Rocky Balboa (Stallone) go if he has already reached the top of the food chain? That is where we left him, and from here on in, the staple style of the franchise was lost. No longer was the series an underdog punching up, it was the famed fighter hitting down.
He finds himself at the top of the pile. Balboa is the cream of the crop, hand-picking easy opponents to keep a hold on his title. Clubber Lang (Mr. T) knocks some sense into him and some movement into the story. His performance could use some work, but we are not here to pity such a foolish role. We are here to revel in the work Stallone and Weathers can provide. There is a sense that placing characters in familiar scenarios but in different roles will aid the struggling story. Balboa and Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers), for instance, are together again, but as allies rather than enemies. Somewhere in the downtime between the second and third film, the two must have reconciled and overcome the differences they seemingly faced. But the issue is how we get there and the changes made to the character of Balboa.
He is still the likeable underdog, despite becoming a premium advertising mogul living the high life. It does not quite work when the whole point of the superior second film was that Rocky could not live that life. Where Balboa now loses that image as the plucky up-and-comer, the replacement brand of superstar loved by all is the natural progression, but not an interesting one. It undoes much of the work that portrayed Balboa as a simple, likeable man who competed because he had to and needed to. The desire for money did not compel him, he was happy to work in meat-packing plants. Something between the two sequels changed him, and it is never acknowledged, aside from a quick montage to catch us up to speed with his many accomplishments.
Feeling more like a sequel than a continuation of the story so far, the only real connection to the strong predecessors is character. They lose the weight of the unlikely champion being given a second chance. The beauty of that arc within the first two films is that Balboa had yet to prove himself by the end of the second film. He cannot prove himself again if he is already at the top of his game. He surely is to some degree. They would have to wait until revenge (Rocky IV) or age (Rocky Balboa) factored in to give the story that little something extra. This has Survivor’s Eye of the Tiger, though. Not all is lost. Just a lot of the themes and charm of the characters. You don’t need that when you have Survivor.