I can’t name a film series that spans more than four parts that I appreciated more than Rocky. Though in truth I don’t think it has that much competition.
I don’t care for Star Trek. I thought the Star Wars prequels were ordinary, (especially when compared with the originals). James Bond neither shakes nor stirs me. Leonard Part 6 was a huge disappointment…
Friday the 13th. Halloween. A Nightmare on Elm Street? All mostly suck with a couple episodic exceptions. Apollo 13 was alright, but are there any fans of the first 12? And what about the films between that and last year’s Apollo 18?
I dread what the new 2013 Die Hard might look like (and hear there still might be a 6th entry down the line). The news that Indiana Jones is creakily considering a 5th chills me to the bone after the mis-step that was The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.
And let’s not talk about ‘Disney presents… Star Wars: Return of the cuddly Merchandise Opportunities’.
So why Rocky, a series where the dopey, punch drunk boxer was already washed up before the first film even kicked into gear? Why do I rate a series which essentially tells the same story over and over again, with only the identity of the bad guy and the soundtrack really changing along the way?
How can I stake this claim when – yes it should be no spoiler alert – the 5th entry in the series sucked so very badly?
The truth is I can’t really say, but somehow at about the 60 minute mark of (almost) every film the hairs on the back of my neck start to tingle, the eyes open a little wider and the juices start flowing. Lotta juices…
Sylvester Stallone is written off constantly as a one trick pony, despite his two signature repeating roles (who else has more than one?) influencing multiple generations of teenage males of all ages and genders. Wait. What?
Rambo might have a better bodycount and prettier scenery. (It is also the one that shows on high rotation on pay TV.)
Rocky is the one that packs the punch…
In my opinion the main reason that we the general public love Rocky is that everyone either hates or at best ignores Rocky – in the 1976 film that is.
Rocky himself is a slightly slow-witted and awkward moving heavily set young man with a drawl that makes him sound even simpler. While this is offset with an eagerness to please and a self effacing sense of humour, there can be no doubting that Rocky is no-one’s poster boy for the ideal male specimen.
Rocky is a local constant in his inner city Philadelphian neighbourhood, and while many are happy to acknowledge him and say ‘hi’ he has no close friends and lives alone with his two pet turtles Cuff and Link. It seems that despite his size Rocky is a non-threatening individual but also not an especially compelling one, merely existing while life goes on around him.
The one thing that Rocky can do is fight. But even then he hardly stands out among the many struggling amateurs slugging it out part time and booking fights opportunistically. Even his nickname ‘the Italian Stallion’ is more a clever rhyme than an apt description – though there are no nude scenes in the film to enable verification. Sure the big name boxers rake in huge bucks and have large numbers of fans, but for the 99% not fortunate enough to make it, boxing is an unforgivable game…
Rocky is somewhere in the middle of that 99%, fighting because it’s the only thing he is even partially good at and because it pays some of the bills. Ditto being a ‘standover guy’ collecting for local loan sharks. Rocky needs money and cannot think of another way to make it.
He is also a local nobody who wants to be a somebody, or at least to have his own somebody. So Rocky tries out his clumsy moves and lame jokes on the meek and mousy pet shop employee named Adrian (Talia Shire). Though this doesn’t initially pay dividends what is evident is the dogged determination that will help him later in his career, and Rocky and Adrian commence one of the more awkward relationships on film.
A career can be made in many ways. Rocky’s career is effectively gifted by his polar opposite.
Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) being everything he is not. Creed is the Heavyweight Champion of the World, with countless fans and a cadre of staff with him at all times. He is savvy, well spoken, classy, well dressed and black. The one thing the two men share is that they seemingly have nowhere left to go, Rocky is on the bottom, Apollo is on the top, and everyone is tired of watching them fight.
Then Apollo comes up with a hook that will ensure far more interest in both of their next fights, by hand-picking a local nobody to be his opponent in a charity bout to be held in Philadelphia. A bout with the World title on the line…
No-one is better qualified than Rocky Balboa to be the nobody.
The first Rocky film is hardly an action packed adrenalin fuelled flick. At a full two hours, it’s only in the last act of the film that Rocky even makes his decision and starts training.
The film is really a romantic drama, with Adrian being Rocky’s only bona fide believer. And even she has her doubts, it’s just that she is better at keeping them to herself. Everyone is far more forthcoming with their unwanted opinions, from Adrian’s boorish alcoholic slob of a brother Paulie (Burt Young) all the way to Mick (Burgess Meredith), the trainer who reluctantly accepts the task of prepping Rocky for the fight, it seems everyone agrees that Rocky is just another bum wafting through life and wasting his potential.
Obviously once Apollo breezes through this unknown chump and heads back to his palatial estate with his hangers on for the after party, Rocky will fade away back into the background, another tale of wasted talent.
But he didn’t count on the power of the montage and a little ditty called ‘Gonna fly now…
Once again this is the touching drama and not the brutal exhibition of pugilism – they come later – but while the actual bout seems a little rushed after the hundred odd minute build up, it is still extremely well realised. Fifteen rounds of sweat stained, bloody knuckled, muscle tenderising smackdown, obeying the cinematic convention that 9 out of every 10 punches must land square on the jaw.
A young Stallone establishes an instant career in a role that he wrote for himself and stubbornly refused to relinquish. Smart move. Rocky is a film for the ages, perhaps the greatest ‘against all odds’ story on film even though it is at heart a love story between two of life’s born losers. (That’s not my opinion, that’s what the film wants you to believe.)
As the braggadocios ying to Rocky’s humble yang, Carl Weathers imbues Apollo with personality and charisma to spare, you can really see this guy being the Champ and idolised the world over. Burt Ward is suitably abrasive and obnoxious as Paulie – and he only gets worse from here, Talia Shire begins a 5 film character arc that will see her come into her own, and Burgess Meredith turns Mick into a 76 year old gravel-voiced force of nature with enough awesome quotes to fill three months of an ‘un-inspirational quote of the day calendar’.
It’s ironic that the biggest fans of the Rocky series are probably the least likely to revisit the first film that frequently, given that it is the slowest and most deliberate.
Final Rating – 8.5 / 10. Rocky doesn’t get the pulse racing like other films in the series. That’s because this is a ‘film’ and not a ‘movie’. And it’s a great film.
(But the ‘movies’ are pretty awesome too!)
Mick’s words of wisdom: “WOMEN WEAKEN LEGS!”
Stallone was savvy enough to realise that he couldn’t replicate the love story theme from the first film – not without breaking Rocky and Adrian up anyway – so he remade the rest of the first film, only with the bias heavily tilted toward the action.
And speaking as a guy here, that was the best decision he ever made…
Perhaps to get us in the mood Rocky 2 actually starts with seven minutes to go in the original Rocky. Therefore we get most of the final fight and in reality most of the action from the first film, without wasting any of the action scripted for this film. It’s kinda like a successful musician opening their new album from the most well known and liked song from the previous one.
It works so well here that they trot out the technique across the series.
Cut to post fight with both Apollo and Rocky in the hospital, battered and bruised. Both agree there will be no rematch, with the agreement lasting all the way until they nearly start a wheelchair-based fight in the lobby…
Kardashian marriages, NBA celibacy pacts, American Idol winner careers, all have lasted longer than this cease fire.
Days later and Rocky finds himself rich, famous and in demand everywhere he goes. He celebrates his new found popularity and appeal by taking himself off the free agent market by marrying Adrian and settling down to enjoy his new found wealth. In the weeks that follow Rocky spends up big and indulges himself more than just a little, to the extent that Adrian ends up expecting.
But the real world is harder for Rocky without boxing, and loud black satin tiger jackets don’t pay for themselves…
From here the plot takes care of itself, and in doing so carves a solid gold template that three of the four further sequels follow to box office success while simultaneously prompting millions of out of shape boneheads (myself very much included) to shadow-box around their living rooms at inappropriate hours.
We have what may be the first example of ‘duelling montages’ as both Rocky and Apollo’s camps prepare for the fight, both of which more than prove that Weathers and Stallone are equally if not more competent as athletes than actors. And of course being the star Rocky gets the ‘everybody run’ through the Philadelphian streets and up the steps to whatever famous landmark building is actually at the top.
Both sequences are guaranteed to have the hair on the back of your neck standing to attention, whetting the appetite for the ensuing battle.
And what a battle it is. The first title fight in Rocky was exceptionally well crafted, somehow this is even better, with the punches looking and sounding more authentic. (It must also be said that one of the strengths of the entire series is that there isn’t a WWE style commentator who takes things totally over the top with cartoonish inane dialogue.)
The action and anticipation doesn’t allow for a sense of déjà vu to pervade the film – even though it is essentially the same movie, and by carefully extracting 95% of the ‘romance’ stuff this is the first balls out, guy’s own Rocky that it’s safe for any testosterone charged male to acknowledge regardless of their own athletic ability.
Final Rating – 8.5 / 10. Lays the table for all that will follow, and provides a great two hours’ entertainment in doing so.
Mick’s words of wisdom: “He’d hurt ya permanent. PERMANENT!”
The third film opens with Rocky at the top of his game, sliding effortlessly into the now retired Apollo Creed’s pointy toed slippers as boxing’s undisputed #1 and somewhat of a publicity savvy elder statesman. He even takes time to take on a Hulk-ing behemoth named Thunderlips (Hulk Hogan) in a cross-discipline charity fight.
With this sequence both underwhelming and more than a little silly, danger signs abound for Rocky. Now in a comfortable low risk rut, it seems that he – and the franchise – need a hungry up and comer to shake things up a little.
Meanwhile outside the square circle, everyone is in their happy place. The kid is on deck and doddering about, Rocky and Adrian continue along the marriage that the Osbournes modelled their own erality series on. Even Mick is positively chatty by comparison to the previous films. Only Paulie is disgruntled (still), having grown tired of living in the shadow of his more famous boxer-in-law. He must also be tired of wearing the same suit, stupid hat and puzzled expression.
(An aside; I have not mentioned it enough in the opening two film reviews but Paulie is one of the most ungrateful, aggravating and undeserving stone-in-the-shoe relos that any unlikely hero and his initially subservient and reserved wife ever had. When given something he is quick to come up with a ‘don’t give me nuthin’. When he feels he hasn’t been taken care of he is equally quick with a ‘you never give me nuthin’. And in the rare times when he isn’t thinking solely of himself he is focussing his few alcohol soaked brain cells on coming up with new degrading comments for both his sister and her husband – perhaps better known to everyone else as his sole meal tickets.)
Yep. It seems all is good with Team Balboa.
Luckily enough the vertical mohawk of one Clubber Lang (Mr T) emerges into view like Jaws’ dorsal fin, perched upon the well oiled and even more muscled shoulders of B.A. Baracus himself, Mr T. Clubber is one of the leading contenders to the heavyweight throne who for whatever reason can’t seem to get a title shot, and he is honest and open – and loud and brazen – enough to admit it. This is no shrinking wallflower standing in the corners fingers crossed and anonymous (the haircut, chains and earrings wouldn’t allow it anyway), CLUBBER WANT TITLE SHOT!
And yes he gets an “I pity the fool” in, establishing a market for ironic T shirts for decades to come. A shirt that I very nearly purchased… and still might.
Mick’s giddy schoolgirl façade is instantly broken. He is worried that his contentment and all this levity has made Rocky soft and vulnerable, like Apollo Creed was when Rocky was the hungry desperado envious of his spot.
And we all know how that turned out.
But ever the gracious host Rocky agrees to a title bout anyway and promises to wax the floor with this chump. Or at least sweep it a little with the Swiffer on his head.
But Mick was right. In a whirlwind of emotion and a frenzy of well placed blows Rocky is on the canvas, with his career, reputation and training staff in tatters.
Is this the end for our beloved underdog? Rocky 3 knows its audience and wastes no time pretending this is the end. The bruises haven’t even healed before Apollo shows up to take our punchy protagonist across country to his own home digs, promising to rebuild the Italian Stallion from the ground up.
Rocky has suffered his first major setback since clawing his way to the top (not really, he fought the same guy twice and landing the first fight was a total fluke). To rise above, a hero firsts need to bottom out. We can check that off.
But how can this broken man now rise yet again? It seems that only a mega-montage can save us now, with the film’s secret weapon, Survivor’s 80s classic chunk of cheesy pop ‘Eye of the Tiger’ serving as the gloriously awful backdrop to perhaps the most homo-erotic montage this side of… well gay porn… or an episode of Jersey Shore maybe? In any case it must be the screensaver for many a proudly gay man.
After this the closing bout is almost an afterthought. It’s still good though. Even better when the movie closes with a sequence that couldn’t have been sillier even if Rocky and Apollo stripped off and jumped in the spa together…
Final Rating – 8.5 / 10. Rocky 3 is sillier and more ridiculous than a car load of clowns quoting the Twilght films while rocking out Gangnam style. Somehow that can’t stop it from being great, and the most guilty and indefensible of guilty indefensible pleasures.
Mick’s words of wisdom: Too… Many… Awesome… Quotes… (I’ll settle for this one) “You ever fought a dinosaur kid?” … “They can inflict a variety of damage.”
Just when you think that the formula is exhausted, Stallone somehow triumphs by keeping it exactly the same.
The secret here is that he once again manages to find the appropriate villain.
Rocky 4 understands that by now we all know the drill, we even know how this will end, so after a brief intro which goes through the usual stuff; Rocky’s old, should retire, etc… all that we need is to give Rocky a reason to punch and a bad guy to accept said blows.
Enter one I. Drago (Dolph Lundgren) – the I stands for “I must break you”… OK, and Ivan – a Russian super-athlete genetically engineered to inflict pain. Like Rocky, Drago is a man of many muscles and few brain cells, but he stands a good foot taller than the diminutive hero incumbent and is capable of landing punches that could give Charlie Sheen a headache.
But Drago is essentially a puppet of the communist regime that built him from the ground up, a physical marvel but a mono-syllabic orator, fed motivation by his wife (Bridget Nielson) and shady Russian types. Unlike Clubber Lang before him, Drago is driven by duty, not hatred or ambition.
This simplifies things for the film, by fighting a man with no personality it is far easier to break down the battle into Rocky vs Russkie. East vs West.
American built Good vs Russian engineered Evil.
Drago catches Rocky’s attention after a ‘friendly’ exhibition match with un-retired Apollo Creed, where the James Brown intro last longer than the bout itself. Unlike James with his staged cape and ‘I can’t go on’ routine, Apollo won’t be getting up after this one, regardless of how many capes you throw on him…
This makes Rocky mad. Real mad. After agreeing to a fight in Drago’s hometown Russia without Adrian’s approval he heads off, barely having time to grow a ‘taking this seriously’ beard – probably on the flight over.
Then, much to my delight the second half of the film is a montage of montages:
Montage 1 – I have doubt. (Shows all the highlights and lowlights of Rocky 1 through 3, with some earlier moments from 4 thrown in.)
Montage 2 – Isn’t Russia inhospitable? (By showing how inhospitable Russia is.)
Montage 3 – Hard work (USA! USA! USA!) vs clean science (BOO science!)
Montage 4 – Really hard work vs … Hey that’s cheating!
Then siss-boom –bang Adrian shows just in time to give one of her increasingly boring speeches, which if nothing else should remind us that she is practically bi-polar at this point:
“You can’t win”
“Quit for me”
“Win for me”
“Grab your balls and get in there”
“I’ve told you 37 times to retire”
No wonder Rocky finds solace in letting grown men hit him in the head.
Final Rating – 8 / 10. Rocky 4 is again absurdly entertaining – I could have done without Paulie’s sex-robot and some Adrian nagging, and the film obviously misses the classic Rocky theme, but the 40 odd minutes after Rocky and crew hit Russian soil is the guiltiest of guilty pleasures.
Mick’s words of wisdom: … *SOB*
Look it has to be done so let’s just get this over with. Just know I will derive no pleasure from sentencing this atrocity to death.
In reality this was never going to work. Time, an angry black man and a 7 foot Russian killed off the best non-Rocky characters in the series. Subtract the irrepressible Mick and the classy Apollo and what do you have left to annoy/inspire/support Rocko? Adrian, Paulie and…
Hands down the worst villain across the six films, aside from the guy who said ‘Yeah let’s make the film with a cut rate, doughy, mulletted blond gimp with no charisma and exactly zero memorable traits.’
The Balboans are in dire straits, having been fleeced by a white collar crim who took them for everything. They are ripped off and broke. Rocky too is physically ripped up and broken, a legacy of decades of being beaten senseless and pushing his body to the limit, montage after punishing montage.
Then by chance Rocky discovers a raw young tyro and decides to manage him and see if he can’t live vicariously through this new boxing braindead bonehead. Meanwhile Rocky’s son – apparently unnamed as Rocky refers to him as simply ‘kid’ for the entire film – has become estranged and resentful that his famous Dad wants to spend all his free time with the new guy. Actually now that I think of it with that attitude his name might be Paulie Jr. Strangely enough even though Adrian is fully aware of this, she waits until near the end of the film before busting out the ‘You’re losing your Family!’ speech
So to recap we’ve lost the best supporting characters from films 1-4 and introduced the worst. How else can we fuck up?
Well let me count the ways;
- / No training montage. None.
- / No ‘Gonna Fly Now’. (2a/ Not even ‘Eye of the Tiger’.)
- / This is too damn long for a film that sucks.
- / Cardboard cut-out stereotypes – might as well have named them Kon Ding and Tike Myson.
- / A horribly dated, horribly inept ‘old school’ soundtrack.
Not only would the series be a far better one without Rocky 5, the world would be a better place without Rocky 5 in it. The series between 2 and 4 tip-toed the line between cheese and genius, Tommy Gunn and Rocky 5 extract every brain cell from a plot that wasn’t sharp to begin with.
Final Rating – 4 / 10. There isn’t a moment of worth to be found in this unfortunate mess – it is a 105 minute snoozer. My heart rate only increased at any stage due to rage.
Rocky Balboa picks up some 20 years after Rocky 5 tried so determinedly to kill the series, with Rocky older, fatter and finally retired.
With Adrian now deceased – probably after a heart attack brought on by one of her patented speeches – Rocky wiles away the time running his own personal restaurant, telling stories of his glory days to patrons and apparently gifting second and third chances to those down on their luck or desperately in need. This means Paulie is still around and still requires coddling.
But it isn’t only restauranteur Balboa who is living in the past. In one of those gimmicky and frankly all too possible moves, ESPN creates a boxing sim that pits heroes from boxing’s past against the modern day greats, televises the results and has those big long panels full of experts (and morons there to be argumentative) discuss the possibilities.
One such simulated bout has a pixellated Rocky re-enter the ring to go up against the reigning Champ Mason Dixon, a cocky young juggernaut with a huge entourage and an ego to match. When an emotionless computer informs Mason that he would lose the bout to a sixty year old fat white guy, it’s fair to say Mason Dixon doesn’t take it well, which is rich given that he somehow still accepts that his nickname is Mason ‘the Line’ Dixon.
Meanwhile Rocky’s kid is all growns ups and a mildly successful businessman who nonetheless still resents his Father’s fame and renown, and for his part Rocky – still oblivious to the buzz created by an XBox result – is quasi-adopting a family of his own in a young single mum and her teenaged kid.
Let’s fast forward a little. Unscrupulous see dollar signs, Rocky sees a fleeting return to former glory, Mason Dixon sees validation, everyone else sees a 60 year old guy getting pounded mercilessly like the sides of beef Rocky himself made famous.
We have a training montage replete with ‘Gonna fly now’ that raises the hackles once more in a way that Rocky would require Viagra for, and within these three or four cinematic minutes we are expected to believe that this senior citizen became insanely buff by moving some barrels around instead of injecting steroids.
Kinda like Sylvester Stallone expected the authorities to believe even when confronted with all those bottles of steroids… But both Rocky and Sly have made careers in proving the doubters wrong.
The fight itself is good and almost allows you to believe, which ultimately is the point. Rocky’s power has always been fueled by the doubt of others, Adrian, Paulie, his opponents, ‘experts’. It is only the steadfast belief in triumphing against the odds that keeps him coming back, this is supplied by only Rocky himself and the audience.
Those that have seen the four (plus one) films so far will likely be willing to believe one more time simply because they want to. Those newbies just becoming aware of the Rocky legend will obviously – and forgivably – guffaw at this broken old man taking on an elite athlete.
One of those groups is realistically in the right and thinking logically. I feel sorry for them.
Final Rating – 7.5 / 10. Like the Rambo reboot that was released only a couple years later Rocky Balboa succeeds by patently refusing to acknowledge how silly it is if you think about it. But then again this is an entire franchise that suffers if you think about it too hard.
Franchise *Excluding Rocky 5* Rating – 8.5 / 10. Sylvester Stallone devised the perfect character for his personality and skillset then continually risked his audience’s apathy by releasing the same film over and over. For a quarter century.
Maybe he was smart enough to know that 18 – 49 year old males are essentially hamsters repeatedly pushing tabs for a pellet of instant gratification. Maybe he was just lucky. All I know is that if any of Rocky 1-4 or 6 are on TV at any stage, I am settling into the couch for the duration.
I’ve said before that no one actor has made two different characters so indelible and undeniably ‘them’. Think of Schwarzenegger and you think T-1000, think Bruce Willis and you think John McLane, think Seagal and you think if pretentious faux-mystical douches, but ask any guy in the demographic and you would likely get a 50/50 response, which given the lasting appeal for both Rambo and Rocky can’t be a bad thing.
In the end no physical or tangible thing could stop Rocky, not his self doubt, not the resistance of others, either implied (Paulie) or more direct (all those other guys that punched him).
Ultimately only time could stop the Italian Stallion, though both the fictional form and the film franchise thoroughly earned the right to go out on their own terms. I choose to look at Rocky 5 this way, a Champ needs the ultimate adversity to overcome before it can rightfully call itself the Undisputed Champion.
Rocky 5 was this film series’ ultimate adversity and fiercest rival. Rocky Balboa managed to restore the image of the franchise by overcoming the odds and actually emerging as a respectable entry worthy of inclusion. As a result Rocky Balboa – both the character and the series – can lay claim to being the Undisputed Champions of sports movies and pretend boxing.
Punch on Champ.