Saga Review: Rocky

With Creed entering cinemas in the UK this week, I decided to watch and review all of the Rocky films to get my opinion on them all. While I have seen the original film and the sixth entry, I hadn’t seen any of the others before now.

Rocky will always be Sylvester Stallone’s own; it was his breakaway performance back in 1976 and he has always been open about how much personal investment and emotion he puts into the character. He has directed four and written all six films, with director John G. Avildsen making the other two entries.  The result is a surprisingly humble and heartfelt series of films, playing out as much like a dramatic piece as a straight up sports film.

While I am not the biggest fan of sport films in general, I do recognise that Rocky is one of the most prominent and powerful sports films ever made. It is often paired up beside Raging Bull by many!

But I know that the franchise does get a little… silly…

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Rocky (1976)

While Rocky is seen now as quite a ridiculous franchise that Stallone champions, the original film is perhaps one of the definitive boxing films; to be copied and replicated forever.

Nobody underdog Rocky Balboa only has his dedication to boxing in his life; seeing himself as too dumb to do anything else, it pays his way through a meager existence. While he tries to earn the affections of Adrian, a shy introverted girl working in a pet shop, a boxing Champion named Apollo Creed is about to give him his big break.

John G. Avildsen directs the original film and besides his part in Death Race 2000 a year earlier, this is megastar Sylvester Stallone’s first major film. Stallone has a lot of love poured into this particular film; at the start of the film’s development he had barely $100 to his name and was looking to sell his dog because he couldn’t afford to feed it.
The idea of being an underdog, under the stresses of life, was clearly close to him! This translates into the film wonderfully with the opening thirty minutes; Rocky is portrayed as a poor but extremely kind and supportive man towards everyone in his neighbourhood. I can easily say that this is Stallone’s best performance.
It is the classic underdog tale, the film is slow paced and builds towards the big climax, Rocky’s battle with Apollo Creed. I enjoy the spontaneity of how these two completely different fighters come together; Carl Weathers’ Creed decides to hold “a show” for America, for the people. But he doesn’t know the willpower that Rocky will develop in preparation!

I am not a fan of boxing, and by extension boxing films. However there is an honesty here that is endearing; Rocky isn’t some confident, battling hero, he’s quiet and sincere and surprisingly inward thinking. The relationship with Adrian is well played out and unique in how slowly it gains traction.
And of course the training montage, which again is a classic film moment now. Perhaps most intriguingly, Rocky features one of the first uses of Steadicam technology during Rocky’s ascent on the Museum stairs during the montage.

It is a great boxing film, and fans of sport films and underdog stories must watch this if they somehow haven’t already. A defined classic which really hasn’t aged badly. Stallone will never be better than his first dramatic role here.

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Additional Marshmallows: Stallone’s dog, that was almost sold away before production began? Found his way into the film as Rocky’s own dog Butkus.

Additional, additional Marshmallows: Michael Dorn, of Star Trek fame, had his debut in Rocky.

 

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Rocky II (1979)

Following the final scene of the first film, Rocky 2 is a decent sequel that maintains a lot of the original’s spark and honesty, although takes some liberties to get there.

Upon their first fight’s conclusion, Apollo Creed demands a rematch after he is slandered by the press for  going easy on Rocky Balboa. Rocky in the meantime marries his sweetheart Adrian, but realises that his desire to live a life outside the boxing ring might not be so easy.

I had not seen Rocky 2 until now, and while I know the sequels do get ridiculous I found this film to be a worthy continuation from the original. Sylvester Stallone reprises writing the script, but has now taken up directorial duty as well, and for the most part he does a good job in both departments.
The film maintains the honest and frankness that the character exudes, we get an opening first act with Rocky drunk on fame and fortune, and how his poorly existence has led him to be quite moronic with money. This is perfectly in keeping with his character, and we see that it will all quickly backfire on him.

Perhaps the make or break for the movie is Carl Weathers’ Apollo Creed, a fighter who loves to show off, an undefeated world champion, a man we heard say at the end of Rocky that “There will be no rematch”. A sign of nobility and respect to Rocky. Yet immediately in Rocky 2 what happens? He asks, no demands a rematch.
In fact Creed literally vilifies himself to make a rematch a reality, and while the film says as much, and even goes into Creed’s personal conflict (a scene where his anger is fueled by hatemail from the press) it is much later than his demand for a rematch within the first five minutes. It feels like events are out of sequence, and that Apollo deserved a better character arc to get to his bitter resolution.

That all said, the finale of Rocky 2 is still exciting and the series first inclusion of slow-motion during the fight is not over extended or overblown but effective.  The teamwork between Rocky and Mickey is as great as it was in the original, and while Adrian feels a little sidelined she does make sacrifices to herself that fuels Rocky’s demands upon himself even further.

It is a good sequel. Maybe playing fast and loose with Apollo Creed, but you wouldn’t go wrong to watch both films back to back.

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Rocky III (1982)

Like all third parts, Rocky 3 feels a little different than its predecessors; less meaningful but still a good time.

Having won the Heavy Weight World Champion belt Rocky has been on a winning streak ever since, with his wife Adrian and trainer Mickey he is living the high life. He even has a statue made in his honour! But when a challenger from the streets called Clubber Lang challenges and defeats him within two rounds, Rocky has a midlife crisis, a loss close to him weakens his resolve even further…

Rocky 3 is by no particular means a bad movie, but it does open with a ridiculous “charity fight” between our hero and… Hulk Hogan (excuse me, Thunderlips) who is playing himself. The fight plays out with Hogan as a wrestler, no surprise there, and anarchy ensues! After the sincerity of the first two films the audience isn’t sure if this is a serious fight or not, even after the fact!
So the film loses most audiences immediately, although as a novelty it is good fun.

The meat of the film lies with Rocky’s disillusion and Clubber Lang’s anger and rage-filled underdog. It feels like the original film turned on its head; although Lang is nothing but rage, he is the first genuine villain the franchise has ever had. They cast Mr. T as Clubber Lang…
Which isn’t a bad move, given how two dimensional his character is (though one might think the character was written for Mr T.) and certainly there might be many boxers like him. But I really wish there was more focus on his character to make him more relatable.

Perhaps the best moment the film lies with Adrian, who has one scene with Rocky at his lowest point of self-esteem. Talia Shire gives her best performance in the entire series in my opinion. Other scenes between Rocky and Creed, Rocky and Mickey are also excellent. There’s a good sense that Sylvester Stallone did indeed plan this storyline, apparently writing it straight off the production of Rocky 2.

Unlike the previous films though, Rocky 3 feels more dated; there’s a lot more slow-motion this time, unnecessary and drags fights rather than promoting tension correctly. Way too many references to “Eye of the Tiger”, and some questionable fashion choices too!

The newcomers here are weaker, but it concludes Rocky’s storyline well enough as far as trilogies go.

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Rocky IV (1985)

If you like montages, this is the film for you!

Soviet Russia enters the boxing championship with their enhanced fighter Ivan Drago. When Rocky’s best friend Apollo Creed is killed in the ring, Rocky must travel to Russia to avenge his friend’s life.

Where is that shark? Oh, there it is, far behind the Rocky franchise since it has clearly been jumped!

Rocky 4, what can you say about it? Running at one hour and twenty five minutes it is the shortest of the franchise, yet it was the highest grossing of the franchise! It is, so far, easily the silliest and most grandiose entry, abandoning American roots and underdog sensibilities for a loud and abrasive American idealism and reaction to the Cold War.

The film lacks almost all of the heart that the previous films had, literally becoming a parody of them in the process. Without Apollo or Mickey and Adrian cruelly sidelined and providing little to no input, the film is a solo experience for Stallone’s Rocky. He trains alone with little to no dialogue, making for elongated montage sequences. Dare I say, half of this film is montage. We have montages of the previous films, we have training montages for both Rocky and Drago, and even the final fight becomes a montage!
Drago himself is much like Clubber Lang in the third installment, only Lang was distinctly a human being. Drago is clearly chemically enhanced, and while this is brushed over very quickly, it makes us far less convinced (in light of the realistic Rocky 1 and 2) that any of this could happen. The Russians themselves are painted as villains, uncompromising and methodical.

And I haven’t even gotten to the robot in the room!
Yes, Stallone put an actualy robot, artificial intelligence and all, in his gritty Philadelphia boxing franchise.

It feels like a spoof of a boxing film rather than a continuation of the franchise, designed to get people pumped up and excited with little to no effort. The score is dominated by 1980s electronica, composed by Vince DiCola (who also did the 1986 Transformers soundtrack), replacing franchise mainstay Bill Conti.
While Ivan Drago is intimidating as a villain (he is gigantic in the ring and there’s a sense that Rocky really is outmatched) he is simply too powerful, making even Rocky’s chances of survival seem comical.

Rocky 4 is very stupid, it hasn’t the heart, honesty or integrity that the original films had.

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Rocky V (1990)

People have so much ire for this film! Why? Because Rocky doesn’t fight in a ring? Seriously? Rocky 5 is a recovery for the franchise after the nonsense of Rocky 4.

Beaten and suffering brain damage after his battle in Russia against Ivan Drago, Rocky returns home only to find a fight organiser demanding he return to the ring and his own crippling bankruptcy. But while Rocky’s wife Adrian insists he retires, Rocky finds a means to fight again through training a younger fighter… but his blind obsession with this risks him losing his relationship with his son…

See how long it took to write that synopsis compared to Rocky IV? That’s because there’s actually a story happening here, and characters who go through development and arcs!

Rocky 5
sees the return of Rocky director John G. Avildsen, and while by far a perfect film or especially great in terms of the franchise, I feel he did a good job returning the heart to the series. It is a surprisingly dour experience though, especially compared to the bombastic, popcorn munching experience we saw previously. Rocky is injured and Adrian doggedly prevents him from fighting, he loses everything; house, cars, possessions, and soon struggles to keep his own son!
It hammers home the idea that while Rocky can provide for his family, he will have to stop some time. Colours of the third film come through, which might seem repetitive but after Rocky 4, this development actually vindicates the fourth installment.
Our newcomer, Tommy Gunn (yes, that is his name) provides an interesting new direction for Rocky’s character; a young and fresh-faced individual from the streets looking to prove himself. Rocky sees a lot of himself in him, but the relationship drives a wedge between him and his son; his son Robert getting much needed development now!

Sure, the film is far from perfect. Rocky 5 is apparently the only film in the series to have lost money at the box office. I can only imagine this is due to its mostly down tone, and ridiculously because Rocky doesn’t actually fight in a boxing ring. Rocky’s final fight takes place in the street, which is shot and directed with a lot of shaky camerawork. Whether Avildsen was wanting to deliver a more brutal, kinetic feel to the fight or not, it didn’t do it any favours. The late heavyweight boxer Tommy Morrison, who played Tommy Gunn, maybe wasn’t the best actor but he looked the part as someone echoing Rocky’s past self.

I wasn’t that blown away by it, but I was pleasantly surprised by Rocky 5. Seeing Stallone take the character in a different direction, a fatherly direction, Adrian getting more gravity to her part, gave a good amount of development that the series needed.

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Rocky Balboa (2006)

Rocky is back! Stallone returns to direction and writing for what is the character’s “final fight”.

Sixteen years on we see former heavyweight boxing champion Rocky Balboa living a humble but sad life after the slow passing of his wife Adrian. Now with his distant son and brother-in-law Paulie as his only solace, Rocky feels as though he is standing still in a modern world. When a computer generated fight between him (in his prime) and the current champion sees him victorious Rocky agrees to “one last fight”, an exhibition fight, despite everyone telling him not to.

Rocky Balboa (or Rocky 6) is the first of a series of films that star Sylvester Stallone made to rekindle his movie career. While I enjoy this film, I would ultimately dislike the overused “old warhorse” archetype that he would play for years afterwards. Between Rocky 5 and this film, Stallone had a hit and miss career: highs like Cop Land and lows such as the Get Carter remake and Driven, Rocky 6 would provide a springboard for his career.

While the film does rely on nostalgia quite heavily (we see Rocky returning to his old stomping grounds with a myriad of ghostly flashbacks) it is still progressive with the character. We see the ever humble and honest Rocky, a friendly giant in a modern world that may not have forgotten him but sees him as a relic. A conformist world, with Rocky remaining a kind soul that would help total strangers at the drop of his hat.
This is most strongly recognisable in his relationship with his son Robert, who entertains Rocky’s company but still does not forgive the past mistakes and dislikes his father’s fame. This and with Rocky’s relationship with Marie, a woman who he had once helped out when she was a girl (in the original film).
All of this a year before Bruce Willis’ turn as an older John McClane in a modern world in Die Hard 4.0.

There is a lot of heart here, between these three characters and Paulie (who perhaps gets the most conviction he’s ever had in the series!) and while it is sad to not have Talia Shire return as Adrian one last time, her absence does provide Rocky all the emotional drive he needs for one last fight. It is great to hear Bill Conti’s classic soundtrack making a come back also, almost a character in its own right by this point!

The narrative mechanics of the film are cumbersome though; Stallone on writing duties once more invents a fictional “computer generated prediction” to bring Rocky back into the ring. It feels as unnatural as it sounds, and while press and public cheering and jeering goes a long way, the two fighters shouldn’t get as wound up about it as they do…

Who exactly is Rocky’s opponent now? Mason Dixon, perhaps the weakest character Rocky has had to fight in the series. This could have been anyone; he simply has no character, there’s none of Clubber Lang’s rage, Apollo’s enthusiasm or Gunn’s desire to win.
True, Dixon might be a representation of the modern sporting age: sponsors, rules, advertisement and logic. He is a disconnected and efficient sportsman next to Rocky’s old school brawler.

I enjoy Rocky 6. It is a great return of an old friend and no more silly than anything that came before it. It maintains its honest and heartfelt roots, Stallone looks to be having a great time.

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On final reflection, it is by no means a perfect series: Rocky 4 acts like an atomic bomb on the integrity of the franchise. Certain chapters feel a little offset from what should have been and are marginally unnecessary; Rocky 4 should have been more like Rocky 5, and Rocky Balboa feels avoidable to be replaced with the Creed spin off (if it weren’t for the dynamics between his character, Paulie and his son).

Ultimately though, these are all good fun sports films! I certainly enjoyed them and they surprised me with their kind-hearted nature. Yes, and though I berated Rocky 4, it was silly nonsense but fun silly nonsense. It simply didn’t fit well in the overarching storyline that the franchise provided, and wasn’t as well crafted.

I’ve heard great things about Creed from its opening in America last year. Hopefully Stallone can impress everyone once again.

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