By MATT GOLDBERG (for Collider.com)
When Rocky won Best Picture in 1977, it was up against some serious competition. It beat out All the President’s Men, Network, and Taxi Driver, three films that stand as all-time great works of cinema. While the warmth of Rocky perhaps gave it the edge against its competitors, the Rocky franchise has had a bizarre route over its decades-long lifespan. What began as a barebones, character-driven drama about people trying to get one last shot at love and respect eventually grew to a tale where the protagonist is trying to single-handedly win the Cold War, and then shrank back down to an intimate character drama about a pugilist aiming for one last fight. It’s a fascinating series that’s tried to evolve with the time and also with the career of its creator and star, Sylvester Stallone.
With Creed opening on Wednesday, I went and re-watched the original Rocky movies and ranked them from worst to best. Even though I’ve seen Creed, I’ve left it off the list for now because A) the film hasn’t opened yet; and B) one of the great things about the spinoff is that while Rocky is a key part of that story, co-writer/director Ryan Coogler found a way to make it more about Apollo Creed’s illegitimate son Adonis (Michael B. Jordan) as opposed to just another way to tell a Rocky Balboa story.
6. Rocky V
On paper, Rocky V seems like a great idea to bring the series down from its ridiculous orbit and back to the streets of Philly where it all began. Stallone even got Rocky director John G. Avildsen back behind the camera, but instead of taking the franchise back to its roots, Avildsen kept going where Stallone had taken the series, which was into increasingly campier territory.
If you can swallow that Rocky was dumb enough to let Paulie lose all of the family’s money while no one was paying attention, then it’s not a bad concept to send Rocky back to the streets, and then not worry about trying to recapture the title or his money, but just stay true to being a fighter in the figurative sense. Unfortunately, the film juggles too many plotlines as Rocky tries to mentor Tommy “The Machine” Gunn (Tommy Morrison), be a good father to Robert (Sage Stallone), and avoid taunts from Don King stand-in George Washington Duke (Richard Gant) every five seconds.
The emotional honesty is gone, and it’s been replaced by an after-school special where Rocky learns that he should pay more attention to his flesh and blood rather than Gunn, a man who feels no reluctance to share his abusive childhood with the Balboa family when they invite him over for dinner the first time. Also, Gunn is easily seduced by Duke’s charms and the lure of fame and wealth, which leads to the cardinal sin of the Rocky franchise, arrogance. Once you get arrogant in a Rocky movie, you’re going to lose. Which makes Rocky V a hypocritical film because Rocky overcomes brain damage to defeat Gunn in a street fight… It’s a climax that goes against everything the Rocky movies had established, and it’s a clumsy finish to the story. Instead of Rocky gracefully exiting to let a new champ reign, it’s Stallone reasserting that even if it’s not official, he’s the true champion and no one is going to take his crown. The one upside of Rocky V’s conclusion is that it opened the door for better Rocky movies, although no one knew that back when they made the series’ nadir.
5. Rocky IV
This one was very close to taking the bottom of the list because it’s such a nothing picture, and yet it’s so painfully campy and drenched in 80s culture that it’s at least occasionally entertaining to watch in between the endless montages and training sequences. Rocky IV demands to be seen with a group of people, because on the merits of being a “Rocky” movie, it’s not very good, and it undermines the stronger aspects of the series to reach self-indulgent, silly goals. When the USSR shows off its picture of boxing perfection in Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren), Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) decides to behave completely out of character and take on the Soviet. While Apollo makes the case that he and Rocky are fighters that need to fight, that’s fine, but the Apollo in the previous films would have recognized his limitations, and played it smart. Even in Rocky II, he realizes that he needs to play the heel—that’s not who he is, but he knows how the game is played.
In Rocky IV, he’s an arrogant moron who doesn’t seem to train at all, thinks that Drago being bigger will make him slow enough to beat, proceeds to have a dance number before the fight, and then gets murdered in the ring. Apollo exists in Rocky IV to die, and that’s a shitty way for the character to go out not to mention lazy motivation for Rocky. The rest of the film is essentially flashbacks and training montages with almost nothing in the way of storytelling or character development. Instead, Rocky takes it upon himself to basically win the Cold War to the point where A) the crowd starts chanting for his name for no reason; and B) even the Soviet leaders in attendance stand up and applaud his victory. Rocky then gives a wishy-washy speech about how “Everybody can change,” meaning, “You guys can love America because I represent America!”…It’s corny as hell and a product of its time, but the fact that it’s so stark in its jingoism and has delightfully dated touches like Paulie’s butler robot and terrible songs like “Hearts on Fire” has made the picture at least memorable.
4. Rocky II
The difference between Rocky II and Rocky III is very slight, and on any day they could flip flop, but I rank Rocky II lower because it pushed the franchise is a campier direction. Rocky III embraced that lighter touch and turned it into a positive, albeit slight picture. The first four Rocky sequels pick up in the middle of the previous film’s climax. Rocky II presents an interesting conundrum to a series that had previously stated that winning a boxing match isn’t everything. The first Rocky is about a second chance, and so a second chance at a second chance is automatically a matter of diminishing returns. Rocky II has a promising start by trying to follow Rocky’s public victory to its natural conclusion, and shows that he’s not ready for the accompanying fame and fortune, and that what was presented to him was all too fleeting. If the film really had the courage of its convictions, it would bring Rocky back to where he started, or at least only slightly above where he began. It’s a tough message to swallow that a second chance isn’t a life-changing wish, and going 15 rounds with Apollo wasn’t going to give Rocky a perfect life, but Rocky II lapses into wish fulfillment rather than following the honesty that made the first movie a success.
It also starts pushing characters like Mickey (Burgess Meredith) and Paulie (Burt Young) into more cartoonish figures rather than the achingly earnest outsiders presented in the original. Rocky II is the beginning of the slide towards Rocky III and IV, and while III manages to be a good film, Rocky II is frustrating because you can hear the echoes of a great film in scenes like Rocky trying to get more hours at the meat-packing factory or staying at Adrian’s (Talia Shire) bedside no matter what. But the end of the movie tells Stallone’s true intentions, which is that there’s no going back to being a nobody for Rocky Balboa. He has to be a winner, and while it’s good that the film doesn’t transform Apollo into a cartoonish villain in order to make Rocky a champion, the problem is that the film believes that a fleeting title should be recognized as a bigger victory than the personal accomplishment Rocky made in the first film. When Rocky wins in Rocky, it’s “Yo, Adrian!” and a loving embrace. When Rocky wins in Rocky II, it’s “Yo, Adrian! I did it!” while she watches on TV at home. The victory is now about the Italian Stallion.
3. Rocky III
There are two “Rockys” within the Rocky franchise: the honest, reality-based, working class guy, and the glossy, American Hero/Icon who takes on the world. If you don’t fully invest in the former, you get Rocky II. If you go too far with the latter, you get Rocky IV. If you don’t know what the hell you’re aiming for, you get Rocky V. Rocky III is the lighter side of the franchise, and while it has none of the gravitas of the original, it’s an enjoyable movie that has just enough camp to be fun without veering into an outright guilty pleasure like Rocky IV. Rocky, like Stallone by this point, has no problem with fame or being a spokesman. However, this fame also leads neatly to a tidy Hero’s Journey where Rocky has to realize he’s strayed from his path, lost his mentor, and with the help of an old rival, defeat the cartoonish antagonist, Clubber Lang (Mr. T). This is the point where Stallone decides, “I don’t really need my Rocky movies to be based in reality,” and decides to fulfill a fantasy world where notions of good and evil are decided in the ring, and if you just train hard enough, you can be a champion. It’s a nice sentiment, and the movie plays it well.
“Eye of the Tiger” is a much better song than “Hearts on Fire” even though they’re both cheesy. Rocky III goes just far enough before you start to cringe, but it gets a lot of power from Stallone’s charisma and the lighter touch. It’s also nice to see the friendship between Apollo and Rocky, and while the film never satisfactorily answers why Apollo would train his former opponent rather than go for the title himself, it’s still nice to see them work side by side rather than reiterate Mickey’s regiment of consuming lightening and excreting thunder.
2. Rocky Balboa
Admittedly, you have to set aside the silly framing device that a computer simulation convinces Rocky to get back in the ring, and at first blush Rocky Balboa looks like it has the same hubris that’s in line with The Expendables and Rambo with Stallone trying to sell himself as a viable heavyweight. What’s so surprising about Rocky Balboa and what makes it better than the other sequels is that it feels like the true follow up to the original in tone and sentiment. It largely ignores all the other sequels, and instead keeps an eye on the intimate character drama that made the first Rocky so endearing. While some elements could stand to be a bit more fleshed out, such as Rocky’s relationship with his son (Milo Ventimiglia), the core of the story is the same we came to love, which is exploring the character of the underdog rather than emphasizing the boxing match.
This is a movie looking to see what Rocky “has left in the basement”, and it’s not necessarily about “proving” anything as much as it’s trying to connect to what makes sense for him on a personal level, especially since he’s so lost without Adrian. While the other sequels reach for glory, this is the one that reaches for Rocky’s humanity, and that makes it so much better despite its flimsy setup. So yes, it is a bit funny to see old Stallone get back in the ring against a fighter named “Mason ‘The Line’ Dixon” (Antonio Tarver) because a computer simulation said Rocky would win, but that thin pretext holds up a lot of good story, and a much better exit for the champ. Dixon isn’t a cartoonish foe like Clubber Lang or Ivan Drago, and Rocky stays in the fight, which is the value the series originally praised.
Still the reigning champ, Rocky isn’t as hard-hitting as the nominees it beat for Best Picture, but it deserves to endure just the same, and not because it’s “an underdog story”. That sells the film short, and that surface identity leaked into the sequels until Rocky Balboa brought the whole franchise back around. If you go back and watch the original Rocky, you’ll see that the fight is almost an afterthought, and it’s really a character piece about a guy who’s an average boxer who gets one chance to give everything he’s got. What makes it richer is that Rocky’s ticket becomes a ticket for everyone around him, and yet his hopes remain modest. Rocky doesn’t dream of big riches or endorsement deals. When he’s told how much he’ll make from the fight, he’s far more enthusiastic about saying “Hi!” to Adrian on TV.
Apollo’s offer to fight Rocky isn’t just a chance for the Italian Stallion. It’s also for Paulie, who feels neglected even though he’s an utterly pathetic character, and also for Mickey. Mickey becomes a total cartoon in Rocky II and III, but his pleading to train Rocky in the first film is absolutely heartbreaking. You can tell this is a man who is choking on his own pride because he knows this is as close as he’ll get to train a fighter who could win the championship. Avildsen shoots the film with an eye towards realism. He wants us to walk the gritty streets of Philly alongside Rocky. He wants Rocky’s circumstances to feel hopeless without veering into the mawkish or Dickensian. It’s a story that doesn’t want to veer into clichés, so it makes sure to go for specificity when presenting its characters. Rocky may seem a little slow or a little shy, but it’s charming to watch him try and charm Adrian or dole out wisdom to a local teenager who has absolutely no patience for his preaching. Rocky is a man who desperately wants to matter and the original 1976 finds the aching humanity in that universal desire.
After almost forty years, it’s a little boxing movie that has truly gone the distance.
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