Clubber Lang got a raw deal.
Like you, most likely, I’ve had some, uh, extra time on my hands sitting here at home in my New York City apartment. And I’ve been watching a lot of movies. Some of these are movies I’ve never seen before. (For example, I watched the Humphrey Bogart/Lauren Bacall movie Key Largo for the first time. For some reason I thought it would be a leisurely romance set on an island – this is probably because of the Bertie Higgins song of the same name that I hear once an hour on the Yacht Rock station – as opposed to a movie about mobsters. Anyway, way more people get shot in Key Largo then I ever imagined.) But, other times, I watch movies that make me happy. And over this past weekend, I watched Rocky III and Rocky IV back to back.
Before we get to Rocky III, I did want to address Rocky IV for a quick second, which is probably the Rocky film that’s most absurd, and it’s also the most written about because it’s so absurd. Though it is also insanely appealing for a couple of reasons. It’s surprisingly short, clocking in at just 90 minutes. And since Stallone didn’t use Bill Conti’s score, he instead loaded it up with so many songs that would go on to be radio hits, the whole film basically acts as a 90-minute MTV video. The movie is known for basically being one montage after another, which is true, but each montage is set to a great song. There’s one in particular where Rocky is just driving around as we see flashbacks from the previous three Rocky films and the first 20 minutes of Rocky IV set to Robert Tepper belting “No Easy Way Out.” Anyway, yes, Rocky IV: highly recommended!
When Creed 2 came out in 2018, it was remarkable that it was less a direct sequel to Creed and more of a direct sequel to Rocky IV – getting into all the minutia of what happened to Ivan Drago after he was humiliated by losing to Rocky Balboa. At the time, I spoke to Creed 2 director Steven Caple Jr. and inquired if there’s a chance a similar treatment could happen to the antagonist from Rocky III, Clubber Lang, played by Mr. T. He responded, “I’m not going to lie. There was a moment where I got pretty stingy and was thinking about Clubber Lang. I was like, dang, wouldn’t it be cool if we brought in Clubber Lang?”
After rewatching Rocky III, I think this is a fantastic idea because, for some reason, Clubber Lang remains Rocky’s most underrated foe. And there’s a lot of interesting material to mine out of Rocky III because, as I watched, I found myself rooting for Clubber Lang.
Now, for a lot of reasons, 2020 is a lot different than 1982. (This may sound nuts, but back in 1982 humans were allowed to have contact with other humans.) But a big reason is I think we as an audience are more in tune with seeing stories from different angles. At least, with Rocky, in 1982, we rooted for Rocky. Now, this doesn’t seem like such a straightforward point of view. Because in Rocky III, Rocky comes off like a spoiled asshole. Now, this is by design. But the movie expects us to start rooting for Rocky as he’s mourning the loss of his trainer, Mickey, and he starts training with his formal rival, Apollo Creed. This time around, this did not happen for me. I remained fully on Team Clubber Lang. In Rocky III, it’s Clubber who comes from nothing and nowhere and becomes the champion based on pure desire. The theme song to Rocky III is “Eye of the Tiger” by Survivor. This is a song about Clubber Lang, not Rocky Balboa.
There’s one particular line of dialogue that Clubber says that made me like him even more. When he’s being followed by a camera crew, he says, “I live alone. I train alone.” This movie is so weird because it wants us to hate Clubber so much. Oh, he’s mean! He yells at the press! He’s even a jerk to Apollo! (Okay, I’ll concede that maybe Clubber should see a professional about his anger issues. He does seem to have a temper.) And I think that line about him living alone and training alone is supposed to make us think, oh, what a strange guy. But I find it endearing. Rocky Balboa has access to the best trainers on the planet, and now here’s a guy who does it all by himself and becomes the champion of the world. Again, Rocky III bends over backward to try and make us dislike Clubber by basically telling us over and over that he’s a mean guy. But the facts are the facts: Clubber Lang was a self-made fighter and what he did was more impressive than anything Rocky ever did, yet the movie treats him like garbage. Enough! Clubber Lang is the real hero of Rocky III.
“Oh, but he killed Mickey,” you’re probably saying. Again, this movie secretly knows that Clubber is the hero of the story so it has to add in tricks like this to get us, the viewer, to dislike Clubber by insinuating that Clubber killed off a beloved character in Mickey. And I’ve always had it in my head that Clubber basically killed Mickey, but rewatching this again, I believe this is false. First of all, Mickey first has an issue when Rocky is fighting Thunder Lips. Mickey clutches his chest. He’s asked what’s wrong, he says, “Oh, it’s my heart,” then no medical attention is sought whatsoever. On what planet is a heart condition just treated like it’s a bought of indigestion? Mickey should have been taken to a hospital immediately.
Then, before Balboa v. Lang I, Rocky and Clubber get into a pissing match before the fight. Now, it’s Mickey who sort of charges at Clubber yelling, “Get him outta there!” Clubber then deflects Mickey away, who then has a heart attack. Now, here’s the really crazy part: Mickey still doesn’t go to the hospital. He claims he just needs to lie down. They do call for a doctor, but it’s a comically long time before a doctor arrives, which seems almost impossible at a heavyweight fight where doctors would be in abundance. And, somehow, Mickey is still alive after the fight ends. That is a remarkable amount of time that Mickey is just lying there in the locker room, not being taken to a hospital. To blame any of this on Clubber is absolutely insane. There’s no reason Mickey should have died that night and the blame is on Rocky for not calling an ambulance.
During the movie, Clubber often complained that the press wasn’t treating him fairly and that they were all in the bag for Rocky. Clubber is correct. And the movie is indicative of this claim, too. Clubber is clearly the hero of the movie. A boxer who comes out of nowhere. He has no trainer. He lives alone! And then beats the pampered champion who, we find out, had been fighting less-than-worthy challengers and refused to give Clubber his shot. The only reason Clubber got a shot at the title – and won! – is because he became “mean” and finally called Rocky out on all this in person. Clubber realized that the only way he could get what he was due was to become a jerk. If I were Clubber Lang, I’d also be a jerk. Being the obvious hero of a movie, but treated as the villain would make anyone a little ornery.
So, yeah, it’s time for Clubber Lang to get the respect he’s due, and the only way for that to happen is for the character to be resurrected by a Creed movie.
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