Sunday, May 27, 2012

Summer of 1982: ROCKY III (May 28, 1982)

Released Memorial Day weekend 1982, the highly-anticipated ROCKY III ended the two-week box office reign of CONAN THE BARBARIAN, grossing a then-very impressive $16 million on 939 screens.  Sold-out showings and a whopping $17,000/screen average would cause the film to expand to just over 1300 screens at its widest release.  By way of comparison, CONAN was playing on 1600 at this same time; there were none of today's 4000 screen rollouts back then, so things actually stayed in first-run theaters for a long time, because it sometimes took people weeks to be able to see them (as an example, PORKY'S was still in the top five after Memorial Day, in its 11th week of release).  ROCKY III was a durable hit, staying in the top five until late July and going on to earn $125 million, making it the fourth-highest grossing film of 1982.

Written and directed by Sylvester Stallone, ROCKY III is thoroughly predictable at every turn, but few people know how to work their base like Stallone in his prime.  After two immensely crowd-pleasing films, audiences had grown to care about Rocky, his wife Adrian (Talia Shire), his dumb brother-in-law Paulie (Burt Young), and his tough-as-nails trainer Mickey (Burgess Meredith).  As ROCKY III opens, the Champ finds himself under fire from all directions:  Paulie's still jealous and feeling left out and Mickey doesn't want to fight anymore, but biggest (and loudest) of all is upstart heavyweight Clubber Lang (an iconic performance by Mr. T), making a name for himself and calling out Rocky as a "paper champion."  But the thing is, Clubber's right.  Rocky seems to be everywhere but the ring:  TV commercials, magazine covers, THE MUPPET SHOW, and even charity wrestling matches with Thunderlips (Hulk Hogan!).  He's more celebrity than fighter, and after Mickey confesses that he's only lined up chump challengers to keep Rocky at the top ("Ya ain't been hungry since ya won that belt!" Mick growls), Rocky starts to question his legitimacy as a champ and, despite announcing his retirement, agrees to fight Clubber to prove his ability to himself.  Rocky not only gets his ass kicked, but Mickey dies of a heart attack in the Madison Square Garden dressing room.  Enter Rocky's old opponent Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) who sees that Rocky's gotten lazy and complacent with his title and his fame and he needs to regain the "eye of the tiger."  Apollo takes over as Rocky's manager and trains him for a rematch with Clubber, who's become an even more insufferable dick now that he's the champ.

Few actors embody the underdog as well as Stallone, and as a writer, he needed to find a way to once again make Rocky fit that mold.  But was it necessary to have Rocky and company move into a fleabag Skid Row flophouse so the Italian Stallion could regain his edge?  But as hokey as it is, ROCKY III looks like RAGING BULL compared to 1985's on-leave-from-reality ROCKY IV, made the same year as RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD PART II, in the midst of the Stallone-as-American-hero mania.

One major reason that ROCKY III had such staying power with audiences--it actually had an increase in box office in early July, over a month after it was released--was the soundtrack.  And no, I don't mean the three Frank Stallone songs featured on it, but rather, Survivor's chart-topping, Oscar-nominated monster anthem "Eye of the Tiger." It's said that every summer has its song, and you couldn't go anywhere in the summer of 1982 without hearing "Eye of the Tiger."  And even today, it's an impossible song to dislike.  If you listen to "Eye of the Tiger" and don't feel even a little bit of an adrenaline rush, then there's something wrong with you.

The other major release this same weekend (on 237 more screens than ROCKY III?!) was the Canadian slasher film VISITING HOURS, directed by Jean Claude Lord.  Expectedly trashed by critics, VISITING HOURS isn't the best of its kind, but it gets a lot of mileage out of a truly repulsive, disturbing perfomance by Michael Ironside as Colt Hawker, a deranged, sadistic killer obsessed with a TV newscaster (Lee Grant).  When an attempt on her life fails and she ends up in the hospital, he just goes to the hospital to try and finish the job.  Ironside had been at the center of an instantly-legendary scene a year earlier in David Cronenberg's SCANNERS, and with VISITING HOURS, it seemed like he was poised to become a new horror icon.  Instead, he's stayed busy to this day as an in-demand character actor, in films ranging from A-list to D-grade DTV garbage, plus frequent TV guest spots.  But his reputation as a go-to bad guy was built on his turns in SCANNERS and VISITING HOURS. Aided by a creepily effective TV spot and similar poster art, VISITING HOURS managed to open in second place--a distant second at $5 million, but second nonetheless.  I watched VISITING HOURS again about a year ago, and it holds up fairly well, getting a touch of class from the participation of veteran pros like Grant and William Shatner as her TV station boss.

 VISITING HOURS trailer/TV spot

And speaking of Shatner, VISITING HOURS would not be the last time he'd be seen on the big screen in the summer of 1982. In fact, he had another film that was scheduled to open the next weekend...

*box office figures obtained from Box Office Mojo (www.boxofficemojo.com)

1 comment:

  1. Although I was living in Oregon at the time, I happened to see Rocky 3 in a Chicago innercity theater because I was attending Summer CES. Combining the Mr. T Chi-town mystique with Stallone's manipulative skill, in that locale, Rocky 3 was the ultimate interactive movie experience. The audience was going absolutely nuts.