Movies

Rediscovering the ROCKY Series

Rocky’s been a part of my life as long as I can remember.  In particular, my family and I used to wait for a rainy, dreary, or cold Saturday and have a ROCKY DAY.  All caps.  A Rocky Day consisted of 7 things: 5 Rocky movies, a pot of chili, red beans and rice, or chicken and dumplings, and a roaring fire in the fire place.  Talk about a perfect way to spend a whole day: curled up on the couch, wrapped in a blanket, eating comfort food, and watching Rocky Balboa beat the snot out of people for about 10 hours.

For me there were always five Rocky movies.  I was born in ’83 and didn’t start watching them (that I remember) until after the fifth one came out.  And when you watch them back to back to back like that, you see Rocky fall in love, take a shot at the championship and lose, get married, become a father, become a champ and get rich, lose his mentor and father figure, lose his championship only to regain it, lose his best friend, end the cold war single handedly while avenging said best friend’s death, and then lose his fortune only to rediscover the importance of family.  It was a perfect way to spend a day with my parents and brother.

I watched them all individually as well.  As a kid I gravitated the most to Rocky IV and Rocky V.  I watched the crap out of those two.  In hindsight, I honestly don’t know what I was thinking watching V over and over again like that.  If I had to guess I’d say the father-son dynamic probably attracted me to it.  Rocky IV is easier to explain as it’s just plain old fun.  It’s the shortest of the series, has a kick ass soundtrack, and it has the most training and fighting in it.  And James Brown. And Soviets.  As a kid who grew up a bit in the 80’s and in a military family, anything about the Soviet Union and the US squaring off would be prime entertainment for me (did anybody else ever see Russkies with Peter Billingsley and Joaquin “Leaf” Phoenix? We’ll save that for another day.).

As I grew up, Rocky stayed with me.  They were always this thing that was there.  But somewhere along the way I stopped paying attention.  I stopped actually watching those movies and instead just kind of had them on, like inviting a friend over to hang out.  I watched Rocky movies while I unpacked on several moves. I watched Rocky while wrapping Christmas presents.  But I didn’t really WATCH Rocky movies anymore.  Even when the sixth film, Rocky Balboa, came out, I went to see it (my first Rocky movie in a theater!) and I enjoyed it, but I didn’t really think about it or how it fit into the whole series.

Then Creed came out and metaphorically punched me in the face with awesomeness.

I came out of Creed totally energized and with tears in my eyes, full of nostalgia for the old movies.  I needed to watch them again.  Like, REALLY watch.  So I decided to marathon through and do nothing else while watching them.  Phone and tablet put away, I settled into the films.  I didn’t watch them all in the same day, but over a series of days.  What follows are my reactions to each film along with some thoughts about how the series works together and as a part of Stallone’s career.  These aren’t reviews, just observations.  If you happen to follow me on Letterboxd some of these reactions are pulled from there.  I used it to jot some thoughts down as I went.

Rocky (1976)

Right out of the gate the first thing that hit me is how old Rocky is in this movie.  Stallone himself was 30 and he’s playing Rocky right around that age.  There’s a palpable sense in this film that whatever opportunity Rocky had to be a legitimate fighter has come and gone.  It actually comes up a few times in the film.  Early on, after Rocky’s locker has been taken away from him, he confronts his trainer, Mickey.  Mickey chastises Rocky and says, “You had the talent to become a good fighter, but instead of that, you become a leg breaker to some cheap, second rate loan shark!”

Rocky

Later, after Rocky has accepted Apollo Creed’s offer to fight him for the title, Mickey comes to Rocky’s apartment to offer to train him and act as his manager.  Mickey shows Rocky a picture of himself in his prime fighting years.  Rocky ends up exploding at Mickey.  “What about my prime Mick!? At least you had a prime!”

It’s a great scene and it really draws a line under this idea that Rocky is all but washed up before the film even starts.

As a kid this was totally over my head.  Any shades of grey between a younger adult and someone who was approaching middle age was totally lost on me; Rocky was simply a grownup.  Seeing the film now with this context, especially as someone in my early thirties who has seen various opportunities come and go, some taken, some not, some successful, some not—this film resonates so much more than it did before.

Something else that’s striking is just how gritty this film is.  The film is grainy, it’s very contrasty.  There’s a lot of darkness, with very little definition.  It’s like director John Avildsen and his cinematographer, James Crabe, were deliberately aping Gordon Willis.  One thing the film does have that makes it ahead of its time is a damn Steadicam, and they use it A LOT to great effect.  Just imagine this film without the smooth, moving image of Rocky running up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art or jogging across the railroad tracks under Philadelphia’s elevated train.  Magical, iconic images.

Overall, Rocky is a much quieter, personal film than I remembered.  It’s almost Neorealist in its sense of the working class man who’s up against it.  It’s also a very touching love story (if perhaps a tad creepy in one scene) about people who bring out the best in each other.  In other words, it’s a damn fine film and totally deserving of its Best Picture (and director and editing) Oscar.  I mean, sure, when you compare it to other films up for Best Picture that year like All the President’s Men or Network or Taxi Driver, it’s not quite in those films’ league, but as a piece of populist entertainment that appeals to just about everybody living, it’s clearly the winner.

Rocky II (1979)

As a kid this was my favorite of the “serious” Rocky movies.  Even as a 10 or 11 year old there was a definite line between the serious ones and the cartoony ones.  Why was this my favorite? Easy: Rocky wins.  What I wasn’t prepared for this time around is to discover that this one is actually kind of cartoony too.  Just think of Rocky jumping over those park benches, hundreds of kids in tow:

Rocky and the Park Benches

Let’s talk about Apollo Creed.  In the first film Apollo is basically Muhammad Ali.  He’s the fast talking, politically minded champion.  In II Weathers (and Stallone’s script/direction) largely drop this element and turn him into an arch villain.  His behavior lapses into some unfortunate masculine crisis nonsense about proving he’s a real man and a real champ.  This is paralleled with Rocky’s struggle to find employment and his discomfort with Adrian going back to work, especially while she’s pregnant.

As would become a tradition with the later Rocky films, this one picks up with the fight from the last one.  Post-fight, Rocky and Adrian get married (YES!) and they do a bunch of shopping (always fun).  Then Rocky has to get work.  He tries commercials but he can’t read, which we get bashed over the head with about a dozen times, not only with multiple scenes of him struggling to read, but also because the director of the commercial screams, “YOU CAN’T READ!”

The rest of the scenes in this section are about as subtle.  Rocky tries and fails to get desk jobs, but is told repeatedly he doesn’t have the qualifications.  He ends up working in some kind of slaughterhouse doing all the grunt work.  He gets laid off from that job and, over Mickey’s objections and any sense of dignity, ends up carrying spit buckets and sweeping up the floors at the gym he used to train at.  A pregnant Adrian also ends up working back at the pet shop despite Rocky’s protestations.

Here’s the thing, it’s not that this is a bad story Stallone is telling here, it’s not even the wrong story.  It’s probably pretty realistic in terms of the prospects someone like Rocky would have.  And of course the whole point here is to show us that Rocky has no choice but to take on Apollo’s challenge to a rematch.  Even if it might blind him (something that will NEVER come up again in the series, but is a huge deal here), Rocky needs to fight this fight.  Unfortunately, Stallone lays it on super thick that he needs the money and (like Creed) he needs to prove to himself that he’s a man.  He literally says to Adrian, “I never asked you to stop being a woman, so please don’t ask me to stop being a man.” BLAAAHHH.

The first film includes an astonishingly emotional moment, just before the fight, where Rocky quietly tells Adrian (and himself) that all he really wants to do is prove to himself that he can go the distance with Creed.  That he can stand toe to toe with him and stay standing for the whole fight.  It’s a test of will and self-worth. The way the fight in Rocky II is set up it’s more a split between needing money and the same masculine crisis Apollo Creed is going through, which is fine, but way less compelling.

The other big surprise to me in Rocky II is just how long the sequence of Adrian in a coma lasts.  Due to stress and over work, Adrian gives birth to their son prematurely and then slips into a coma.  At this point Rocky has already been training to fight Apollo, over Adrian’s objections, but he’s been doing it half-heartedly.  In the parlance of the film, he’s not yet eating lightning and crapping thunder.  Adrian slipping into a coma totally stops his training dead in its tracks.  It also stops the narrative trajectory, but that’s actually ok here, because we finally get some quiet moments to reflect with Rocky on what is really important.  We also get a REALLY good scene between Mickey and Rocky in the chapel at the hospital.

When Adrian finally wakes up and tells him that she wants him to win, Mickey shouts, “Whadda we waitin’ for!?” Cue music, cue training montage, cue the awesome.

My overall impression of Rocky II now is that there definitely is a line between the “serious” Rocky movies and cartoony ones, but that line is a lot less clear than I thought.  On the serious side we’ve got Rocky, Rocky Balboa, and Creed.  On the cartoony side we’ve got Rocky III, Rocky IV, and Rocky VRocky II sits right in the middle, with one foot firmly planted on each side.

Rocky III (1982)

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This film is notable because it’s one of those films that’s criticizing the very thing it is. It’s also a kind of predictive meta-commentary on the career Stallone was about to have.

In the six years between Rocky and Rocky III, Stallone only made 4 films that weren’t Rocky movies. Of those 4, Victory is the only one I’ve heard of or seen. All of them though seem, at least from their IMDB descriptions, to be smaller movies that were at best modestly successful. Stallone was basically in the Rocky business during this time and it wouldn’t be until his first film after Rocky III that he would have a bonafide hit outside of the Rocky-verse with First Blood, the first Rambo movie. Rambo would then set Stallone up to become an action star and would lead to films like Cobra, Rambo: First Blood Part II, and eventually totally ridiculous stuff like Demolition Man (which I love) and Stop or My Mom Will Shoot (which we will speak no more of).  His career would falter in the mid to late nineties, only to be resuscitated by returning to what made him a star initially with Rocky Balboa and Rambo in 2006 and 2007.

So, what does this have to do with Rocky III? The film opens with a montage of Rocky (read: Stallone), becoming a mainstream star with success after success in the ring along with endorsement deals and untold wealth. We learn later though that most of these successes in the ring, while not setups, were easy pickings designed to further Rocky’s success as a champion. It’s easy to draw a comparison to these easy fights, meant to cash in on Rocky’s status as the champ, to films like Over the Top, Tango and Cash, and Cliffhanger as obvious paydays for Stallone. Not necessarily bad films, but nothing like the quality of Rocky or First Blood, both legitimately good, thoughtful films.

Rocky III exposes these fights for what they are, and Rocky for what he has become, by introducing Clubber Lang (Mr. T), and the devastating fight that Rocky loses to him. Just like Stallone would later go back to basics by making a fresh Rocky and Rambo film at the end of the first decade of the new century, Rocky in Rocky III has to go back to basics and train to become a whole new fighter who is slimmer, leaner and faster.

The film, on the other hand, couldn’t be bigger and more cartoonish. It’s easily the cheesiest of the films to this point (Rocky IV would, of course, surpass this), and gets way out of control in its depiction of Clubber Lang as a force of nature that must be defeated.  When Rocky is initially training for his first fight with Clubber Lang, he does so in a lavish hotel ballroom with a band and souvenirs.  Compare this with the gritty, tough as nails gym that Rocky trains in later.  The film’s message is that you have to take this stuff seriously and really put your heart into it.  It’s unfortunate that the film itself is so big and over the top.  As I’ve been rewatching these, III, is by far the least successful so far. It’s entertaining in its own way, but it feels kind of hollow and devoid of true emotion (except for the scene where Mickey dies).

One final note about Rocky III.  It’s the first Rocky movie to introduce the Rocky theme into the world of the movie.  TWICE during the movie live bands play Gonna Fly Now.  I don’t know about you, but I absolutely hate it when movies introduce non-diegetic music into the diegesis.  How exactly do the people in the world of this movie know about music that was played only for people in our world? It’s as if a hole was ripped into the multiverse and Bill Conti emerged within the world of the movie and told the mayor of Philadelphia that he had some kick ass music for that statue unveiling ceremony.

Rocky IV (1985)

Rocky IV

I don’t have much to add to the discussion of Rocky IV.  I unabashedly love this film, but it is also categorically ridiculous.  Case in point: there’s a robot in this movie.  My feelings can be summed up by quoting Jack Black in High Fidelity (although he’s talking about Evil Dead 2), “It’s funny and violent and the soundtrack kicks fucking ass!”

However, I do think there’s something interesting going on with the ratio of actual scenes to montages and fighting.  In Rocky we spend two minutes and 43 seconds in a training montage and eight minutes and 16 seconds in the actual fight.  Together that is ten minutes and 59 seconds of montages and fighting.  The total running time of Rocky is about two hours.  That means the training montage and fight (from bell to bell, not the surrounding drama) is about 10% of the movie.  The rest of the film is legitimate character building, love story, loan-sharking, etc…

Now let’s look at Rocky IV, shall we?  IV sports not one, but TWO full-fledged training montages.  Now I know what you’re saying, Rocky II and Rocky III both split up Rocky’s training.  This is the third film in a row where his first bout of training is half-hearted, then he has some kind of discussion with Adrian, suddenly his heart is back in it, and he trains again, but for realsies this time. However, the initial training in Rocky II and Rocky III are legitimate character building moments with dialogue and scenes that have beginnings, middles, and ends.  It isn’t until Rocky begins to train in earnest that the music kicks in and we get a musical montage of nothing but training.  In Rocky IV, there is a complete, uninterrupted training montage that lasts three minutes and nine seconds.  Then Rocky has a chat with Adrian, the music kicks in (Hearts on Fire baby!) and we get another training montage, this time lasting four minutes and 12 seconds.

But those aren’t even the only montages! There’s also a montage that occurs just before Rocky leaves for the Soviet Union (this one is set to No Easy Way Out—seriously, listen to that soundtrack again, it rocks).  I call this one the “Thinkin’ about stuff” montage.  It’s basically just Rocky driving around thinking about his life for four minutes and 22 seconds.  Total montage time for this film is a whopping eleven minutes and 42 seconds and we haven’t even gotten to the fights yet!

Apollo’s fight with Drago lasts three minutes and 42 seconds and that’s NOT counting the awesome James Brown performance of Living in America.  Rocky’s fight with Drago lasts twelve minutes and 25 seconds bringing the total fight time in this movie to 16 minutes and seven seconds.  That means total time spent in montage or fights is 27 minutes and 49 seconds.  The running time of Rocky IV is 91 minutes meaning all that montaging and fighting takes up almost 30% of the film!

So we have Rocky, 10% montage and fighting vs Rocky IV at 30%.  That pretty much sums up the direction the series took after the first film-a larger focus on the drama of fighting and training at the expense of whatever other real-life drama might be playing out in these people’s lives.

Rocky V (1990)

Street Fight!

As a kid, I loved this movie.  As a younger man, I loathed this movie.  As a 30-something adult human being—I think it’s pretty much ok with pockets of awfulness.

In hindsight, this movie feels a little like a dress rehearsal for Rocky Balboa.  An attempt to take the series back to its roots and tell a fresh story about family.  Stallone even brought back the director of the first Rocky, John Avildsen, to direct again.  A lot of the film doesn’t work. The writing and performances aren’t very good.  Also, the reason for the Balboa’s loss of wealth (Paulie somehow signed over their fortune to a crooked accountant) doesn’t make a lick of sense.  It perhaps would have been more affecting if Rocky or Adrian had somehow mismanaged their money.  But to have them busted back down to poverty because of some random thing Paulie did-it’s just weird.

This film has one truly great scene.  Rocky, now poor and training other boxers in Mickey’s old gym, has a protégé he has groomed named Tommy “The Machine” Gunn, played by Tommy Morrison.  Morrison is a real life boxer and it shows.  Physically he meets the demands of the role, but his performance is not very good.  Late in the film Gunn has betrayed Rocky by signing with a rival manager who has gotten him a shot at the title.  Rocky has taught Tommy everything he knows and has sacrificed time with his son to do so.  Despite being betrayed, Rocky still wants to see Tommy do well in his title fight, and so he watches it with his family.  Check it out:

You can really feel what Stallone was going for with this whole film in this one scene.  This idea that Rocky’s time as a boxer has passed, but that emotionally he still has fights to fight, that he still has passion and needs an outlet for it.  Great stuff.

Rocky V was a good try, but it would take more time and reflection on Stallone’s part to come up with an actual good story to tell.

Rocky Balboa (2006)

Rocky Balboa

By 2006 it had been 16 years since Rocky had been on the big screen.  In a lot of ways, Rocky Balboa feels like a whole other kind of movie.  Visually it’s drastically different.  Over exposed images, lots of blown out whites and very dark blacks.  It’s rough and gritty.  And it’s emotional as hell.  Kind of like Rocky himself.

The film opens with the gut punch realization that Adrian is dead and then Rocky takes you on a tour of Rocky and Adrian places, flashing back to some of their best moments.  It’s a very emotional way to open the film and its note perfect, including a moment from Burt Young as Paulie lamenting the way he treated Adrian when she was younger.

The film hits a couple rough patches, especially any time Milo Ventimiglia is asked to do anything but look angry.  He’s really good at that (as he demonstrated in Gilmore Girls), but his performance in his big scene isn’t quite up to par with what Stallone is doing.  Stallone is on a whole other level in terms of performance.  He’s old, he’s broken down, he’s wiser, he’s sad.

To be completely honest, rewatching this film actually took Creed down a peg in my estimation, if only because this film is mining some similar material.  Seeing it in Creed felt fresh and new.  Seeing it here, in this film, makes me now feel like some of Creed is a bit of a retread.  I guess I’ll just have to see Creed again to make up my mind!

Let’s talk about the final shot of Rocky Balboa.  After successfully completing his fight with Mason “The Line” Dixon (someone please stop letting Stallone name these fighters), he visits Adrian’s grave and lays some roses down.  He utters the classic line, “Yo Adrian, we did it!” and then he walks away, out of focus, the grave and the roses in the foreground.  In the last instant before the film fades to black, Stallone’s out of focus body fades away, leaving an empty frame of just the grave with the roses.  Either I didn’t catch that the first time around or I’d completely forgotten it.  Either way, to me that clearly signals to me that Stallone is saying that this is the LAST Rocky movie.  And a fitting end for him it would have been.  Creed director and co-writer Ryan Coogler must have really pitched the hell out of Creed when they brought it to Stallone.

Final Thoughts

I’m really glad I rewatched these films.  They have sort of a bad or cheesy reputation, but there’s something good in all of them.  They’ve also definitely shuffled around in terms of which I think are the best.  If I had to rank them, the list would shake out something like this:

  1. Rocky
  2. Rocky Balboa/Creed
  3. Rocky II
  4. Rocky IV
  5. Rocky III
  6. Rocky V

III is probably a better movie than IV, but IV is the more entertaining of the two, at least to me.  Looking forward I really hope we see more Creed films.  Michael B. Jordan did a fantastic job in the role, as did Tessa Thompson as Bianca (Creed’s Adrian).  I actually prefer Thompson to Talia Shire/Adrian.  Bianca is a much more complex, interesting character.  And please, oh please, let’s definitely bring back Phylicia Rashad as Creed’s mom.  She was terrific.

I think what Creed got most right about the Rocky movies, and why it makes for such a great entry into the Rocky-verse, is the sense that anything is possible if you work hard and fight for the right reasons.  Rocky always works his tail off in these movies but there are times when he loses his way and can’t seem to get anywhere.  These are always the times when he’s messed up inside about something that’s happened whether it’s Mickey dying or Adrian not supporting him.  For Adonis in Creed he’s finally got to let go of and work through some of that anger he’s held onto his whole life.  Like Rocky in the first movie, he’s got to prove it to himself that he’s worth it.  Proving to yourself that you’re worth it, whatever “it” might be is always a compelling reason to get into the ring and it’s one of the main reasons these movies have endured for so long.

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Ryan Ferguson

Ryan Ferguson