Somehow, in my decades on this earth, in the US of A, watching lots of lots of movies, especially those from the 1970′s, I missed the Rocky movies. I’m not exactly sure why. They were before my time, but lots of stuff I like was before my time. When I was first getting interested in film, the Rocky series was coming to its ignominious end with the critically and commercially unpopular Rocky V. Actually, Sylvester Stallone’s entire career was coming to an ignominious end as the Rockys and Rambos dried up and the Judge Dredds and Daylights started piling up. But I think the real reason I skipped Rocky was that I really only knew it as the movie that kept Taxi Driver, Network and All The President’s Men from winning Best Picture at the 1976 Oscars. It became a symbol of the feel good, dumb fun movie beating out dark, challenging masterpieces, the same fate that befell my beloved Pulp Fiction at the hands of silly ol’ Forrest Gump in my formative years.
As the years went on, though, my teenage angst flamed out and Rocky felt like more and more of a hole in my movie knowledge. The original film is still loved by so many people today, and while audiences — and the Academy — can get fooled in the short-term, it’s rare that something that sucks retains a sterling reputation 35 years later. So over the past two weeks I decided to watch all six Rocky movies and see if they’re any good to me, the only person in the Western world who has not yet seen them. Join me, won’t you?
The first thing that struck me about Rocky is how small it is. Most of it feels like an indie movie from the 80′s or 90′s, examining lower middle class life in a run down neighborhood through the eyes of a hard luck brawler. It’s grainy. It’s not well-lit. It consists almost entirely of people talking. Believe it or not, Rocky cost less than all of those classics it beat for best picture; the stripped-down All The President’s Men cost over eight times more, and even the notoriously low-budget Taxi Driver cost a couple hundred grand more. Though I’ve never been a longshoreman in Philly or spent a lot of time in gyms boxing, the gray, shabby locations felt very authentic to me.
Rocky doesn’t do anything revolutionary, but it does what it does extraordinarily well. Despite its meager means, it’s easy to see why mass audiences have adored it for so long: it’s simple, it’s sweet and it’s completely relatable. Anyone can see themselves in Rocky. He’s a good guy stuck in a rut who has big dreams. Hating it is as dumb, mean and pointless as hating puppies. It’s so good-natured that there isn’t even a villain. Rocky’s opponent is Apollo Creed, whose only real crime is arrogance and showiness, and once his head is deflated he becomes Rocky’s best friend by the third film (only to be brutally murdered by Communism when he slips back into his old habits, but we’ll get to that much later).
The film is anchored by a trio of great performances. Burgess Meredith as Rocky’s trainer Mickey is still a force of nature that makes you forget every silly parody you’ve seen of him in the three decades since. He’s definitely from the “yell to be noticed” school of acting, but damn if he isn’t effective, evoking years of being hungry and fighting and seeing good men go down for the count. Talia Shire’s Adrian is the complete opposite, a shy wallflower who can barely get a word out when Rocky first sets his eye on her. There isn’t a whole lot on the page for Adrian to do except be the sweet girl whose personality is drawn out by a sweet guy, but Shire is so lovable that you want to give her a big hug and a pep talk about how awesome she is just like Rocky.
Who affected me most, though, was Stallone himself. After decades of bad movies and tabloid scandals and Planet Hollywoods, it’s easy to forget that he’s a completely self-made man who went from a poor grunt doing bit parts in Roger Corman movies to writing a signature role for himself, refusing to sell it for a huge payday as a big budget blockbuster with Robert Redford, getting it made for nearly nothing, then earning 250 times what it cost to make and winning Best Picture. Even without that real life story behind it though, Stallone as Balboa is one of the greatest everyman performances ever. Sly is remembered less fondly than his 80′s/90′s action compatriots Arnold and Bruce today because he has big embarrassing flops on his record, and Bruce has much better pure acting chops. But Stallone is more complex and ambitious with his work than either of those guys. He fell flat on his face a few times because he took chances and swung for the fences when most would worry about career strategy. Vulnerability is at the heart of Rocky the character and Rocky the film series, and that comes from Stallone himself. What other tough guy actor would let his hero lose the big fight at the end, or make his love interest a wallflower who rejects him over and over again, or craft a signature role out of a washed-up high school dropout? The first Rocky film is great, and the best of the series, because Stallone makes Rocky human when everyone else would make him superhuman. The success of the sequels comes down to how far or how close Stallone sticks to that simple principle.
Rocky II (1979)
Though Rocky II picks up exactly where Rocky I ended (almost all the films pick up directly after their predecessors’ finales), a few years passed in the meantime during which Stallone’s ambition didn’t pay off. His first post-Rocky role was in Norman Jewison’s F.I.S.T., a period piece where Stallone played a Jimmy Hoffa surrogate. Jewison was known for serious, socially conscious films like In The Heat Of The Night and Fiddler On The Roof, and audiences didn’t buy the simple-minded champ they fell in love with as a cynical politico. It got iffy reviews at the time (though it’s actually a pretty good film), and made less than a tenth of what Rocky made on a budget ten times as big. Then he made his directorial debut with Paradise Alley, another period piece about wrestling brothers in Hell’s Kitchen. F.I.S.T. was a disappointment, Paradise Alley was an outright flop, savaged by critics and ignored by audiences. I wonder if Stallone’s artsy aspirations on those films paid off what direction his career would have taken. Instead of spending the next decade almost exclusively making Rockys or Rambos, would he have continued with projects like those?
In any case, Stallone wrote, directed and starred in Rocky II, which is pretty much the best sequel imaginable to a movie that didn’t really need a sequel but ended up getting five of them. It starts small and quiet, spending nearly a third of its running time in the hospital as Rocky and Apollo Creed slowly recover from their fight in the first film. It’s interesting that Stallone spends so much time reflecting on the aftermath of his protagonist’s violent profession. I can’t think of another boxing film that’s gone down the same road; even Raging Bull reduces recovery to a steak over DeNiro’s eye. Both Balboa and Creed essentially sit alone in silent meditation for days plotting where they want to go from here. Balboa wants to retire, having proven what he set out to prove. Creed, however, sees himself as a gigantic joke, the champ who won the fight but was publicly humiliated by an amateur. Thematically, it sets the tone for the rest of the movie, and sets up a decent motive for both characters to do what they do.
Stallone’s silly, crowd-pleasing side starts to pop up in Rocky II to various degrees of effectiveness. In what is by far the movie’s weakest segment, Rocky and Adrian embark on a Three Stooges-esque spending spree where they blow tens of thousands of dollars in a single day on items like a silk jacket with an embroidered Tiger on the back, a collection of fur coats, a house with several stories and Dirk Diggler’s sports car from Boogie Nights. It’s painfully out of place in a movie that still has a foot firmly planted in reality that I imagined “Yakety Sax” playing behind it. Faring better is Stallone’s harder better faster stronger approach to the training montage, which amounts to a remix in which every element from the first film is multiplied exponentially until Rocky is literally leading the entire city of Philadelphia in a race to the top of those steps. Clearly, this thing is nuts, but it’s so pumped up and inspirational that it’s hard not to go with it.
In the movie’s last schizophrenic turn, the final fight sequence in which Rocky gets his victory over Creed looks, feels and sounds like it’s out of a completely different movie. The grainy handheld cameras that captured frozen Philly are tossed aside and suddenly the thing appears to have been shot in slow motion IMAX. Stallone and his editors cut the finale for eight months trying to get it just right, and though it doesn’t match the rest of the film, it’s incredible, one of the most underrated pieces of sports filmmaking ever made. Stallone’s direction doesn’t have the consistency of original helmer John Avildsen’s, but Rocky II is still the best of the sequels because it takes place in the same world as the first film, only a little more cartoonish and conventional.
Rocky III (1982)
There’s really no reason for Rocky III to exist. There’s a reason for Rocky IV and V to exist, but like the third entries in most long film series (the third Dirty Harry film The Enforcer, Alien 3, Batman Forever, etc) III treads water like nobody’s business. Between II and III, Stallone made two films: the flop Nighthawks (which began life as The French Connection III before Gene Hackman refused to partner his gritty signature role with wisecracking sidekick Richard Pryor) and the semi-flop Victory (in which POWs Stallone and Pelé play on an Allied soccer team coached by Michael Caine and defeat Nazism, perhaps inspiring IV). Rocky III was already in development before II was in theaters, but Stallone probably didn’t mind having another big hit at the time.
1982 proved to be a banner year for Stallone. In addition to continuing one franchise, he launched the Rambo series with the release of First Blood. (R-named characters did well for him, perhaps inspiring the name Robert Rath, his character in the not-very-good Assassins.) Rocky III continued the hit streak of the first film and its sequel, though it’s really only remembered today for launching Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger” and the career of Mr. T, who was a bouncer and bodyguard when Stallone saw him win the title “America’s Toughest Bouncer” on a game show. “I pity the fool” also comes from this, and it’s pretty hilarious to hear it in context for the first time (it’s Mr. T’s answer when he’s asked if he hates Rocky). But it’s a silly and pointless movie. If the growth from I to II found Rocky inspirationally learning how to lose and win with grace, the growth from II to III finds Rocky going broke and then learning to manage his money by doing commercials for a sundry of local Philly businesses. And though Mr. T as Clubber Lang is a live wire villain, his motivation goes no further than being a huge asshole with rage issues.
The dramatic meat of Rocky III is in the final appearance of Burgess Meredith as Rocky’s trainer Mickey. He and Stallone share the film’s only quiet scene, and Meredith is at his most fatherly, giving his protegee one last pep talk in a hushed tone I thought unimaginable from the man who bellows “WOMEN… WEAKEN… LEGS” in the first film. It’s a nice change of pace for Meredith, who only appears in half of the Rocky films but looms large over all of them.
Rocky IV (1985)
IV hit right at the center of the most gonzo period of both Stallone’s career and America itself. This was 1985, a year after Reagan won 49 out of 50 states. The hair was big, Wall Street was dismantling blue-collar America, Iran-Contra and secret wars all over Latin America were underway, and Jefferson Starship’s “We Built This City” topped the charts. Meanwhile, Stallone wrote and directed Staying Alive, the misbegotten sequel to Saturday Night Fever, starred in the hated Dolly Parton vehicle Rhinestone, and made Rambo II, which took the series from being a serious examination of the physical and psychological scars of Vietnam to being a murder fantasy in which Rambo kills pretty much everyone in the world.
Rocky IV has very little in common with Rocky I except that the lead character is a boxer named Rocky. All vestiges of the regular, gawky guy from Philly are gone, replaced by a slick pro covered in black leather and wrap-around shades that likely inspired Bono’s Zoo TV look. He lives in a mansion far from his old neighborhood and drives sports cars. Bill Conti’s timeless score is replaced by Vince DiCola’s now laughably dated 80′s synthesizers (DiCola is best known for writing music for Transformers). It’s a sad and soulless movie that perfectly resonated with the sick era that birthed it, making it the most financially successful sports film of all time.
That said, if you can get past the horror of seeing one of cinema’s sweetest underdogs turn into a bloated right-wing cartoon, Rocky IV reaches levels of camp greatness. It’s worth watching just to see Dolph Lundgren’s insane performance as Soviet Superman Ivan Drago, the best villain of the series. In the film’s best scene, Apollo Creed agrees to an exhibition match with Drago and proceeds to turn the thing into a James Brown concert (this is where “Living In America” comes from). Drago is disgusted by the display of capitalist black people running around dancing, and makes his feelings known by beating Creed to death in the ring. Later, Rocky defeats Drago — and with him, communism — in front of Mikhail Gorbachev himself and gives an inspirational speech to the Russian people to cast aside their overlords and welcome McDonald’s to their frozen shores.
IV is a classic example of a series losing its way. In just 9 years, a small indie film about ordinary people doing something extraordinary turned into a creep in leather beating up Russkies. Despite its huge financial success, it seems everyone involved realized this thing sucked, because in retrospect it’s the only film in the series that looks, sounds and feels this corny.
Rocky V (1990)
Though it feels like a ground-up reinvention compared to the glitzy IV, Rocky V is about as back-to-basics as movies get. A shady accountant embezzles the Balboa fortune, so Rocky is forced to move back to his old neighborhood with Adrian and his son Rocky Jr (played by Stallone’s real life son Sage). To make matters worse, the fight with Drago has broken Rocky; he’s lost his nerve and vows to never get in the ring again, and brain damage has left him unable to fight safely even if he wanted to. He tries to make a go of being a trainer like his hero Mickey, but after training a young fighter named Tommy Gunn (played by real life boxer/lunatic [seriously, Wikipedia this guy] Tommy Morrison), he’s snatched away by Don King clone George Washington Duke. Basically, Rocky’s life sucks.
The last scene of Rocky IV and the first scene of Rocky V perfectly illustrate the tonal shift. They directly follow each other as far as Rocky canon goes, but in practical terms it’s like putting Predator back to back with The Grapes of Wrath. Rocky was a godlike agent of retribution draped in the stars and stripes in the ring, and backstage he becomes a shaking wreck draped in a dingy towel who doesn’t know if he can walk anymore. V goes to extreme lengths to recapture the soul of the series. Rocky literally moves from a mansion to the dilapidated neighborhood he started out in. There’s no victorious final match. Rocky, a paragon of principled manliness, is mocked by his only son. Apart from the plot, Stallone seems desperate to get back to his performance from the original film, with mixed success. He slowly devolved from mush-mouthed nice guy to grunting alpha male in the first four films, and his attempt to capture Rocky I‘s voice again sounds like a mix of Vinnie Barbarino, Steve O and the singer from Crash Test Dummies. It’s incredibly endearing all the same, though, and doffing the signature black hat and slipping back into the nervous duck walk from the first movie got me all verklempt. John Avildsen returned for this film, and it feels more finished and professional than any of the ones Stallone made. The thick layer of cheese that’s slathered over every studio film from the 80′s and early 90′s is definitely present here, but once you get past that you have the solid third best Rocky movie behind I and II. The message of the film hearkens back to the series’ beginning, where proving something to yourself and the people you love means much more than winning an event that soon ends up as a number in the record books.
Needless to say, everyone hated it. Savaged by critics and audiences, Rocky V made a fraction of the film that preceded it and killed the franchise. I think almost anyone who sees the film today would like it, especially if you didn’t live through the series as it was happening. But this thing landed with a thud, and the Rocky series was done forever. Or so we thought….
Rocky Balboa (2006)
For me, Rocky V is a great end to the Rocky series. Our hero ends with a win personally and professionally, and he may not die a rich man, but he’ll live a great life with a wife and child who love and respect him. But the film left an awful taste in Stallone’s mouth. He felt the film ended on a depressing note, and badmouthed it in the press any chance he got. V may have flopped at the box office, but I’m not sure what made Stallone so mad about it content-wise. He wrote the script, after all, and even toyed with actually killing Rocky at the end. Whatever the reason, Stallone wanted to make another Rocky movie, but nobody wanted to give him any money to do it. In the meantime, Stallone’s career slipped into obscurity, and his hope of another Rocky movie slipped further and further away.
Finally, 16 years later, Stallone scraped up enough money to end the series on his own terms with Rocky Balboa. It’s not called Rocky VI, and though the title is probably a marketing decision more than anything, it underlines that the film feels more like an inessential epilogue, or fan fiction, than an important part of the Rocky story. It’s also about a hundred times more depressing than Rocky V. Adrian has died of cancer, and Rocky has no involvement with boxing anymore. His son ignores him. He spends his days managing a small restaurant where he halfheartedly regales the guests with tales of a life he stopped living long ago. Other than that, he sits in silence in his house and looks very, very sad. One day, some weird show comes on ESPN where they computer animate Rocky fighting the current heavyweight champion of the world and Rocky, now 60 years old, decides he wants to do one last one last one last one last fight (for those of you keeping score, I, II and IV were previous one last fights).
Like III, there’s no reason for Rocky Balboa to exist aside from the fact that Stallone wanted to end the Rocky series with his hero going out with honor in the ring, which happens in a sweet and inspiring fashion. The lead-up to that is poorly thought through, full of mishandled subplots that go nowhere and a central conceit that is completely insane. Weird theoretical fights are bandied about all the time on the 17 collected ESPN channels, and not one has ever captured the public’s consciousness and coaxed a senior citizen to get back in the game. Rocky gets a quasi-love interest, a quasi-surrogate son and a half-assed reunion with his real son after a rift that happened for no reason. But there’s no denying that Rocky’s final coronation is moving, and it’s probably the most stylishly shot of the series despite its small budget. Rocky Balboa ends up in the Alien Resurrection class of sequels: an interesting curio, but largely unrelated to the events of the other films. Rocky V remains a much more momentous and fitting conclusion to the series.