It’s hard to believe that Rocky Balboa, Philadelphia’s favorite fictional son, has been part of the cultural landscape for 45 years. Or is it? In some ways, it seems like he’s been around forever, like a moth-eaten toy panda or a beat-up old couch you haven’t got the heart to kick to the curb. Looking back over the long strange trip he’s taken since first stepping into the ring, it seems an age ago that the Rocky was a hungry fighter, pummeling sides of beef to prep for his first shot at the title. And if it seems like another world too, that’s because it was.
When ROCKY hit screens in December 1976, the same year as TAXI DRIVER, no one, least of all Sylvester Stallone, imagined it as the first installment of a billion-dollar franchise that is still on its feet well into the twelfth round and beyond. Written by a then-unknown Stallone and directed by John G. Avildsen, ROCKY was a gritty, no frills drama that for all its feelgood buzz was as much a product of ‘70s Hollywood as THE GODFATHER (1972), MEAN STREETS (1973), or DOG DAY AFTERNOON (1975). Yes, it hews more closely to the Underdog chapter of the Sports Movie Playbook than any film before or since, but it has a true blue-collar heart and doesn’t stint an iota on the hardscrabble nature of Rocky’s world. Inside the ring it’s a fairytale. Outside, it’s Rust Belt America in all its frost-bitten, sooty glory. ROCKY might be a fantasy, but it is not fantastical and, viewed in light of the Italian Stallion’s subsequent adventures, it is surprisingly grounded in reality. Scenes between Stallone and Talia Shire, who plays his timorous love interest Adrian, capture the awkwardness and intimacy of a fledgling relationship perfectly. Even the central premise isn’t all that implausible. The history of boxing is littered with makeweights who got a shot at glory, including Chuck Wepner (AKA the Bayonne Bleeder), who went fifteen rounds with Muhammad Ali in 1975 after epic beatings from both Sonny Liston and Joe Frazier had, in most fight fans’ eyes, put paid to a never especially promising career. It was the Wepner-Ali fight that inspired Stallone to write ROCKY in the first place.
Watching ROCKY again, all these years later, it holds up remarkably well. The fight scenes, although obviously choreographed, have the visceral thrill of real boxing, of punches landing hard and the punishing physical toll of a toe-to-toe heavyweight bout (if it looks far-fetched, load your google machine with the 1985 Marvin Hagler-Tommy Hearns fight for a bone-crunching example of life imitating art). It’s also a reminder of what a genuine flesh-and-blood character Rocky Balboa was back then – something he didn’t remain for long, but we’ll get to that – and what a fine actor Stallone was and, arguably, still is. It’s a terrific performance, steeped in working class nobility and tipping its porkpie hat graciously to ON THE WATERFRONT’s (1954) Terry Malloy. Suddenly, those ‘New Brando’ epithets thrown Stallone’s way in ‘76 don’t sound quite so ridiculous.
In the first installment of the saga, very much chalk to the rich assortment of cheese to come, we meet Rocky Balboa, amiable palooka and underachieving amateur boxer who earns a crust collecting debts for a loan shark. Fate smiles on Rocky when reigning heavyweight champ Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) offers him a chance to fight for the title. Initially reluctant, Rocky teams up with grizzled trainer Mickey Goldmill (Burgess Meredith) and accepts the challenge. Cue the greatest training montage in history, culminating in Rocky’s iconic sprint up the 72 steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, punching the air in triumph at the summit.
With girlfriend Adrian, and her alcoholic brother Paulie (Burt Young) figuratively and literally in his corner, Rocky overcomes lingering self-doubts to go a punishing fifteen rounds with Creed, battling more for his self-respect than the title. Creed wins by a narrow-split decision, an ending that Stallone, to his great credit, fought tooth-and-nail to preserve. Rocky has to lose the fight to illustrate the real spoils of victory – his pride and Adrian’s love.
ROCKY II (1979)
ROCKY ends with both fighters utterly exhausted, neither one wanting a rematch. A box-office haul of $225 million said different. Leading inexorably towards another showdown between Rocky and Apollo Creed, this time fueled by Creed’s obsessive need to prove the first fight was a fluke, ROCKY II maintains much of the spirit of the first film, but lacks its heart. ROCKY the movie was, like Rocky the fighter, a true underdog that beat the odds to become a champ. This is a cash-in and no amount of razzle-dazzle can disguise that. It also sails into some decidedly soapy waters en route to the climactic punch-up, largely surrounding Adrian’s pregnancy. It doesn’t drag exactly, but it has nothing like the surging momentum of the first film. The pay-off, as ever, is the final battle royale, another expertly-staged knock-down, drag-out affair that is certainly exciting but which, inevitably, substitutes theatrics for drama. After all, there’s no doubt who wins this time.
ROCKY III (1982)
A few red flags as you approach ROCKY III – the film’s main theme is “Eye of the Tiger” by Survivor, and Hulk Hogan plays a character named Thunderlips. Depending on how generous you’re feeling, this is either where the law of diminishing returns begins to bite, or the rot sets in. “The first Rocky was primitive in a relatively innocent way,” wrote Pauline Kael in The New Yorker. “This picture is primitive, but it’s also shrewd and empty and inept.” It’s hard not to agree. Critic Tom Milne, however, got it dead wrong when he claimed it had “Nothing to offer but more of the same.” It offers, in fact, a great deal less of the same. Mr. T, making his screen debut, is fun as thuggish challenger Clubber Lang, but the two big fight scenes that prop up the sagging storyline have all the tension of a Harlem Globetrotters game. Rocky himself is reduced to a one-dimensional all-purpose American hero whose triumphs, once personal and relatable, are now mechanistic and implausible. Before the final bout, Apollo presents Rocky with his famous stars-and-stripes shorts, hopefully after a thorough laundering. What were once a part of Creed’s showboating shtick take on an entirely new symbolic significance. And thus, his nether regions literally wrapped in the flag, Rocky is all set for his next escapade.
ROCKY IV (1985)
The franchise reaches a high-point of hyperbole, a knuckle-headed pageant of Cold War propaganda that is so far removed from the tone and spirit of the original movie it might as well be set in Narnia. Rocky, now a fully-fledged cartoon figure, takes on Soviet super-athlete Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren) ostensibly to avenge the death of Apollo Creed (killed in the ring by Drago, with icy Russian distain), but really to show those commie goons who’s boss. Cue the most ridiculous training montage in history: Rocky, transplanted to Siberia, adopting the lifestyle of a pre-revolutionary serf as his regimen; Drago working out in some mad sports scientist’s lab, bristling with every futuristic contraption imaginable, while his trainers/keepers juice him with steroids.
Apparently, for added authenticity, the boxing scenes in ROCKY IV were the first ever to use the live sound of gloves hitting flesh. Strange then that they’re the most hokey and over-the-top of the series. Despite barely reaching Drago’s knees – the ring action looks like a scrap between a to-scale G.I. Joe doll and Thor. The real Thor – Rocky is victorious, not only besting Drago but also winning over the local crowd with his rugged individualism and star-spangled skivvies. Five years later, the Soviet empire crumbled. Coincidence? Yes.
Stallone recently announced that a forthcoming director’s cut of ROCKY IV would ditch what is, with stiff competition, the film’s most absurd element – Paulie’s sexy robot maid SICO. If he could also, somehow, excise the risible dialogue, flag-waving jingoism, crude racial stereotypes, and blaring cock-rock soundtrack this would still be rubbish.
ROCKY V (1990)
Following the histrionics of ROCKY IV, viewers might have anticipated the fifth installment to be subtitled Rocky Conquers the Martians. Instead, RV takes Rocky right back to his roots: the mean streets of Philadelphia. Now broke thanks to a crooked accountant squandering his fortune, and retired from the ring due to a mild case of brain damage, Rocky turns his hand to training, taking on a promising young pug named Tommy Gunn (played surprisingly well by real life boxer Tommy Morrison). Trouble brews when Tommy falls under the influence of shady Don King-a-like promoter George Washington Duke (Richard Gant), turning his back on his mentor – but not before Rocky’s bromance with Gunn has alienated his son Rocky Jr. (played by Stallone’s own son Sage), and lots of other stuff has happened to stack the odds as high as possible against our hero in the endless lead-up to the climactic fight. Which is, it turns out, an utterly anti-climactic street brawl rather than a proper boxing match. Sad to see, but a fitting finale to this doltish, underwritten, cliché-ridden conclusion to the franchise’s official cycle.
ROCKY BALBOA (2006)
Perhaps the best thing to be said about ROCKY V is that its egregious awfulness persuaded Stallone to take one more swing and give Rocky the send-off he deserved. And claiming that the storyline of RB closely mirrored the events of his own recent life, he does just that, managing to capture a sweetness and likability that had been missing from the series since around the first reel of ROCKY II. His method for achieving this was quite straightforward – remake the original. Well, not quite. But the plot, in which a widowed and wistful Rocky finds himself once again the plucky underdog with a shot at glory, has an undeniable air of familiarity. It has a distinct air of something a little more pungent too, of course.
The brain damage seems to have cleared up nicely, but with Rocky now in his 60s, punchy and arthritic, the exhibition bout with reigning champ Mason “The Line” Dixon (Antonio Tarver), doesn’t exactly reek of credibility, even if the computer-simulated fantasy fight that spawns it is a clever set-up and – monumentally self-evident spoiler alert ahoy! – Rocky doesn’t win. It is, in fact, sentimental horse pukky of the first order. But it’s sentimental horse pukky with heart and, its more outlandish elements aside, feels tethered to real life more securely than any of the films since the original. Rocky is, once again, a believable, sympathetic human being rather than a Horatio Alger wet dream. And if a manly (or otherwise) tear doesn’t pipe your eye at the sight of the battered old slugger at his wife’s grave mumbling “We did it Adrian, we did it!” you are a soulless droid, undeserving of this rather marvelous and disarmingly dignified coda to a franchise that is, by any standards, a rollicking ride on the quality-coaster. Your penance is to watch ROCKY IV on continuous loop, with the volume at 11, until your eyes melt.
CREED (2015) / CREED II (2018)
Rocky Balboa should, by rights, have been the last round, putting the Italian Stallion out to pasture to enjoy his twilight years. Filmmaker Ryan Coogler, however, had other ideas. While still at film school, the Fruitvale Station helmer came up with the ingenious notion of Apollo Creed’s estranged son Adonis (Michael B. Jordan) joining the family firm by making his own bid for the title. And who better to train him than dad’s old comrade in arms? Of course, this fine conceit would’ve come to nothing if Stallone hadn’t been willing to reprise his most famous role, and as a supporting character at that. Again, to his enormous credit, Sly signed on immediately, granting Rocky one more bite at the cherry by effectively taking on the role Burgess Meredith played with salty relish in films one through three (he also appears as a ghost in Rocky V, but let’s not dwell on that.) And thank the Lord he did since what ensued is one of the best boxing pics since… Well, you know what. Stallone’s performance earned him an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor.
The follow-up, three years later, (directed by Steven Caple Jr. and written by Stallone, who also wrote all his scenes in CREED) boasts an even more audacious premise: recently crowned heavyweight champion Adonis takes the challenge laid down by Ivan Drago’s son Viktor (played by hulking German boxer Florian Munteanu), a man no less scary, or deadly, than his father. Lest we forget, Drago Sr. killed Adonis’ father in the ring before his fateful encounter with Rocky. There are some serious scores to settle here. CREED II stretches the bounds of belief far tauter than CREED, but compared to its 1984 forebear it comes off like a particularly representative example of Italian neorealism. There’s a classic training montage and a brutal show-down in Moscow that bears comparison to anything to be found in the ROCKY universe. And it would be a lie to say that seeing Stallone and Lundgren facing off in the ring again, even as corner men, isn’t doesn’t raise a smile.
So, after almost half a century, is it time for Robert Balboa Sr. to hang up his gloves/retire to his corner/spit out his gum-shield (delete as applicable)? Don’t bet on it. At last year’s Cannes Film Festival, Stallone intimated that a seventh ROCKY movie is in the pipeline, and that plans are afoot for a prequel TV series. His days as a pugilist may be over, but Rocky boxes on.