Stallone as director 3: Rocky III (1982)

Rocky III

In between fight scenes on Rocky III, Sylvester Stallone would feel light-headed.  At this point he was subsisting on twenty-five cups of coffee a day, a few scoops of tunafish and a kind of oatmeal biscuit made from brown rice.  It’s hard to imagine anyone surviving on such a small level of food whilst at the same time performing a physically arduous role AND directing a huge blockbuster motion picture.  You have to return to the days of silent movie making to find directors who pursued physical perfection alongside artistic intent.  For that alone, Stallone should command respect.

Within his body of work, Rocky III stands as a picture of interest as it chronicles a performer wallowing in hubris.  Balboa has become convinced of his own talent; he becomes a shill for cheap products and lazily challenges unworthy competitors in the ring.  It is a document of the excess that comes with the ‘new’ money of the eighties.  The parallels between Balboa and Stallone can be easily drawn.  For Stallone, the only guarantee of legitimacy and glory is to return to your roots and conquer your own demon of self-loathing.  It’s a chronicled deconstruction of himself; a rejection of a simplistic vision of masculinity and denial of any intrinsic value of adulation.  It is a path of forensically detailed self-examination that he would deny himself in the years to come.  Balboa has always been an avatar for Stallone; an opportunity for his to explore his hopes and his fears.

Equally, he turned this perceptiveness onto the supporting cast.  He began to respond to the representation of black culture in the previous instalments.  Where previously the African-American members of the cast were presented at best as an alien ‘other’ and at worst, the villain, he begins to show how other cultures share as much in the struggle of survival in America as working-class Italian immigrants.  Both Apollo Creed and Clubber Lang are presented as more deserving holders of the title belt; their determination and sacrifice are shown to be greater than Balboa’s.  They understand the struggle you have to face to gain and maintain success; Balboa takes it, as most white people do, for granted.

Many of Stallone’s visual prompts come into play.  There are low angled shots at the beginning of the film.  Dialogue scenes are framed in close-up.  There are freeze frames and slow-motion employed during moments of tension or suspense.  Heavy shadow is used to show internal anguish.  Sepia flashbacks are used to recall an earlier time.  These are fairly superficial devices to be used.  But Stallone is a workmanlike director.  His priority is direct storytelling.  He seeks to visually represent internal conflict; this results in a pure aesthetic effectiveness.

But Stallone was determined to push cinema into a new decade.  He is pioneering in this regard as he sought to reject the dour reality of seventies American cinema and replace it with a dynamic, glowing attractiveness.  The colours become heightened, and he regularly employed soft focus to create a dreamlike haze to scenes (the transfer on the BLU-RAY reveals the gauze applied to the lens in order to achieve this effect.  Rather than appear distracting, if gives the scenes an almost pop art, Lichtenstein quality).  Stallone escalated his use of montage; no longer restricted to training scenes, it became a narrative device used throughout the movie.  Inspired by the burgeoning music video movement that sprung up with the rise of MTV, Stallone set these sequences to dynamic music, most notably here, Survivor’s Eye of the Tiger.  Stallone was determined to move direction along with his audience; he understood that their aesthetic was changing, and there was no need to deny them this in cinema.

Despite the gruelling diet, Stallone has never appeared more beautiful.  The lumpy awkwardness of his youth has been replaced by a lean grace.  His lack of body fat ensured his slightly exaggerated bone structure came to the forefront.  Coupled with an almost feather like haircut, he became a figure of elegance and desire.  Few actors put as much effort into the physicality of their part as Stallone; Balboa is almost an entirely different person to John Rambo as Rambo is a physically distinct person to Cobra.

With its focussed runtime, aesthetic inventiveness and intelligent skewering of conventional masculinity, Rocky III represents the high point of the franchise, and a towering achievement in regards to physical magnificence on the part of Stallone.

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