A Look Back at the Rocky Films
Rocky - It's one of the most beloved film franchises. The name stirs up different emotions. For some, the Rocky franchise is a series all about triumphing over adversary. To others, it's a franchise that overstayed its welcome. Even before I saw ANY Rocky movie, I knew about the series's reputation for having too many sequels. Mad Magazine made a joke about Rocky Balboa fighting Bullwinkle J. Moose, Spaceballs made a joke about the series reaching film number 5,000. The Simpsons made a joke where Bart thought there was a seventh film with the subtitle Adrian's Revenge. (Hey, we ARE up to seven, and it's not that...)
Rocky has survived all these years for various reasons. "Eye of the Tiger" is still one of the most perennial sports jams. The film has been spoofed countless times on TV and other movies. People still quote lines such as "Yo Adrian, I did it!" and "I must break you." That statue from Rocky III still resides at the art museum in Philadelphia. So how do the films hold up? Rocky is one of those franchises where people fall into two camps: They've either seen them and have their own opinion already. However, a film series like is Rocky is the type where people know them well enough that they probably feel like they have seen them even if they haven't. So I'm going to give my opinion on all the Rocky films... up to Rocky Balboa.
Here we go, the film that started it all. This film was a smash hit that launched the career of star and writer Sylvester Stallone, and it won Best Picture (Against stone classics Network, All the Presidents and Taxi Driver. Yes, Taxi Driver is one of my all-time favorites,but I can still live with Rocky beating it). Anybody watching this film for the first time may be surprised there is not a TON of boxing action. However, the Rocky films are about more than boxing. Where this movie succeeds is in tone, mood, atmosphere and of course, characters. We meet Rocky Balboa, a sweet, quiet man with more heart and muscle than brains. He is managed and trained by Mickey Goldman, a grouchy but likable grump with a unique vocabulary. Rocky is smitten with Adrian. Fans of the series probably think of this character as "the wife" who bounces between supportive and naggy. However, in this film, she is seen as a shy pet store owner. Rocky and Adrian's relationship is sweet in that both of these people are flawed and weird in their own ways. Adrian's brother Paulie is an alcoholic who isn't the full blown comic relief he'll become in later films. And there is Apollo Creed, a talented fighter with a cocky side. All of these parts are played by great actors who just own their roles. It is hard to imagine any other actors playing these parts. Every scene just oozes atmosphere. We see the crummy world these characters occupy and what is on the line if Rocky can go the distance in his dream match against Apollo Creed. In a way, the character is surrounded by reminders of what happens if he loses. There is boxing action, and (almost) every film in the series has excellent boxing action. This film won an Oscar for best editing, and rightfully so. Some of the things that might seem like negatives actually work in this film's favor. The dry tone and the low budget give this film a raw, almost documentary-like feel to it.
Overall rating: 9.5/10
Rocky II (1979)
As far as sequels and Rocky films go, I find II to be incredibly underrated. On paper, the premise sounds like pure sequelitis. In the first film, he fights Apollo Creed. So in the second film, he'll fight Apollo Creed... again. But there is so much more to this film. Like a good sequel, Rocky II is not just a retelling of the first film, it is a continuation. We see how the events of the first film affected the characters. The once jovial Apollo Creed is now embittered by fans who think he was just making Rocky look good. Does that one big fight just set Rocy up to be rich and famous for life? Not yet. Rocky suffers an eye injury which makes him want to retire. His lack of education makes it difficult for him to obtain a job outside of boxing. As a fan of wrestling, I can honestly say, this has happened to many other athletes. Even Rocky's spending habits seem natural. Once he makes money, instead of saving it, he starts spending it on jewellery and other items. Yeah, he buys a house, but even when he buys a car, he still buys something fancy instead of something practical. The pre-fight press conference is also a great scene that shows off the differing attitudes between Rocky and Apollo. Apollo is snippy and on edge while Rocky talks about buying dolls for his soon-to-be-born son.
I feel like this movie is often lost in the shuffle because it doesn't introduce a new opponent for Rocky, but it is the one film that measures up toe-to-toe with the first film.
Overall rating: 9.5/10
Rocky III (1982)
In a few ways, I feel as if Rocky III is the last PERFECT Rocky sequel. As you will find out, I do not mean this is the last good film. I do like the subsequent sequels. However, I find this to be the last perfect film in the way it advances Rocky Balboa's story. Also - semi-spoiler - this is the last film to feature the original cast of characters (I don't know if it counts as a spoiler if a quick perusal of IMDB will tell you that). After two movies of Balboa being broke and struggling to make a living, the Balboa brood being wealthy is a fresh change. This film is more lighthearted than its big brothers, and that works in its favor, really driving home that Balboa's life has changed.
All of the Rocky films are products of their times, and Rocky III is one of the most 80's movies ever made in the most wonderful ways. The film is brighter, more colorful, it introduced "Eye of the Tiger" to the popular lexicon, Rocky battles Hulk Hogan for no good reason, and Mr. T plays the villain. Yeah, Rocky's opponents are often referred to as villains, but Clubber Lang was the first guy to come off like a true villain. Mr. T is... Mr. T. Actually, Mr. T is a real life good guy so Mr. T is more like an evil Mr. T. Clubber Lang is such a colorful character and such an entertaining trash talker that he is second only to Apollo Creed for Rocky's foes. Having Rocky be rich and successful is already a new idea. However, as soon as it is laid on the table, Stallone takes it in a new direction with Rocky becoming so wrapped in his success that he loses his edge. He spends so much time fighting softball opponents that he is unprepared for a Clubber Lang. He has to return to his roots in order to beat Clubber so he returns to his old foe Apollo Creed.
While Rocky I and II may technically be superior films, Rocky III is the most entertaining film in terms of popcorn enjoyment. Despite goofy moments, this film also has serious moments so it has a perfect balance between the two. For that reason, this is the film I have watched the most.
(Nitpick of the film: Why do the opening credits begin AFTER the opening montage? This doesn't make the film worse, but it is an unusual editing choice that has always bugged me.)
Overall rating: 9/10.
Rocky IV (1985)
Speaking of films that reek of the 80's, Rocky IV may be more 80's than its predecessor. Thought Rocky III was goofy? This one tops that film. From the opening moment where the film replaces the traditional Rocky title crawl with an American flag boxing glove hitting a Soviet boxing glove, Rocky IV is an amazing time capsule of 80's cold war hysteria. Rocky IV is enjoyable because it goes all the way in pure kitsch. For crying out loud, this is the film that introduced Paulie's robot to the series! In contrast, Ivan Drago is the most stoic villain in the entire series. He rarely talks - when he does, he is terse and monotone. And he rarely changes facial expression. One of the best scenes in the movie is when Drago stands in the ring, looking positively confused as Apollo Creed makes the most ostentatious entrance ever while James Brown performs "Living in America." I also love the way this movie plays loose with the rule of boxing. Rocky is knocked down three times in one round, normally a TKO, but the match continues. Also, I'm pretty sure the bodyslam Rocky performs on Drago out of the blue would be illegal. In lieu of all this absurdity, Stallone still mixes in messages about war and learning to love each other.
Rocky IV is definitely a formula picture. In fact, it may be the most formulaic of the series. In a way, that works - Stallone knew what worked about the series and these formulas and just played every note with the volume cranked up. I do have one gripe with the film. This is the shortest film in the series, but is also the most montage heavy. According to IMDB, nearly an hour was cut from this film. The only scene that outright feels like filler is when Rocky flashes back to the previous films. Also, the 80's was the era of the movie song, and Stallone had already seen the power of music in these films so he may have been trying to recreate that soundtrack magic. After all, "Living in America" DID become a hit. But why don't we hear "Hearts on Fire" more often? That song rocks!
In conclusion, Rocky IV is such a wonderful cacophony is bizarre ideas and formula that it deserves to be seen.
Overall Rating 8/10.
Rocky V (1990)
And this is when it all went downhill. To be fair, I don't dislike this film as much as its reputation says I should. As a matter of fact, I will never be as hard on this film as Stallone himself is. In addition to giving it A ZERO OUT OF TEN, he said he only made it out of greed. Damn. Even though I don't HATE this film, I still consider it mediocre. Rocky V was supposed to be a return to the series's roots. After 3 films of Stallone directing, original director John G. Avildson returned to the director's seat. After years of being rich, Rocky loses his money, and has to return to the old neighborhood. The idea of Paulie giving his accountant power of attorney always struck me as a lame way for Rocky to lose his fortune, especially since Paulie never gets his comeuppance for ruining the Balboa family.
There are a few things to like about this movie. Once his career is over, Rocky wants to live vicariously through another boxer to the point where he neglects his own son. That is an interesting idea. The final brawl is pretty exciting. Mickey returns in flashbacks - the reason may be flimsy, but seeing him again is fun. However, for the for the few good qualities this film has, it has several worse qualities. Rocky Jr. is irritating. It kind of makes sense he would behave the way he does because he's been reduced to poverty after only knowing a life of luxury, but his whining grows tiresome after a while.
Tommy Gunn is hands down the lamest Rocky villain. His non-existent personality is only made worse by the fact that he is a pawn for another character. Adding insult to injury is the fact the movie seems indecisive about what attitude we the audience are supposed to have for him. Also, this movie depicts violence as an all-too-simple solution to problems - and not even in a fun cathartic Charles Bronson-way. Rocky Jr. has a bully? He beats him up. Rocky Sr. doesn't get along with Tommy? They fight. Rocky doesn't like the manipulative manager? He slugs him. Also, there is a running joke where Rocky does the "something behind your ear" trick. That grows old as quickly as you think.
Even this movie's song is limpwristed. The end credits song is "Measure of a Man." It was written by Alan Menken and performed by Elton John. Sounds like a slam dunk, right? Wrong! The song is listenable, but so blasse and forgettable that it sounds almost like a spoof of both men's styles. Rocky V is in fact watchable, but I only recommend doing so if A) You're a competitionist like me or if you're having a marathon of the series.
Overall rating: 5.5/10
Rocky Balboa (2006)
Rocky Balboa is a good film, but it is also the film I have the least emotion about. In many ways, this film feels like the movie Rocky V should have been. Stallone has picked up the pieces of his life since Rocky V and has become a successful restaurant owner. Adrian has sadly passed away. With so many characters either six feet under - in real life or on the screen (Carl Weathers actually wanted to return despite his character being dead), it may seem disappointing that this movie lacks so many of the supporting characters that helped define the series. Paulie is the last other survivor, but his relationship with Rocky was hardly the backbone of the series. However, Adrian's absence does add a layer of tragedy to Rocky's life. Besides, we all KNOW that Adrian were still around in this film, it would have been the same shtick: Adrian doesn't want Rocky to fight, Adrian nags Rocky, Adrian eventually supports Rocky. Plus, it does give Rocky a chance to build relationships with new characters. Rocky's relationship with his son is far more engaging in this film as Rocky Jr. resents living in his father's shadow. Rocky reunites with Marie, a minor role from the first film who is fleshed out in this film. Also, this is one of Stallone's best performances in a while - his best since Cop Land (For the record, if you haven't seen Cop Land, it's pretty good).
While this film does bring new cards to the table, the film is not perfect. Even if he is a huge leap from Tommy Gunn (Then again, Thunderlips was a more formidable opponent), Mason Dixon is kind of forgettable. I rewatched this movie to write this review and I STILL had to look up his name. It make sense that Stallone would pick a more realistic boxer character for 2006, especially since Carl Weathers was very much a character for the 1970's (especially since Antonio Tarver is a real boxer). This film also meanders a bit. There are a few scenes that drag, and not every scene feels like it builds to the next one.
Also I must give a mild spoiler: The original ending has Rocky win the fight. However, Stallone decided to have Rocky lose by decision. Stallone made the right choice without question. Besides simply being more believable, this is more in tune with the original film. Plus, Rocky has a great speech about how life isn't always about winning, but surviving. So Rocky losing but still going the distance is in line with this film's own thesis statement.
As the final Rocky film - assuming you consider Creed a spinoff - Rocky Balboa is a satisfying conclusion to the series. If nothing else, it ensured Rocky V was not the final note in the series so that alone justifies this film's existence.
Overall rating: 7/10
So those are my thoughts on the Rocky series up to Creed. How will Creed stack up against these films? I hope to find out soon. Also, feel free to share your opinion and how you'd rank these films.
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