Rating the Rocky Series
A look at all the films in the boxing franchise before Creed II.
A look at all the films in the boxing franchise before Creed II.
Sylvester Stallone and Carl Weathers in Rocky (All Photos: MGM)
(For a review of the latest in the series, Creed II, go here.)
Rocky (1976) is the real deal, offering a raw, gritty feel that none of the slicker sequels even attempted to replicate. Stallone wrote for himself a terrific character, a lovable lug who’s plucked from obscurity and given a shot at the championship. All the familiar faces are here: Talia Shire as Rocky’s mousy girlfriend Adrian; Burt Young as her slovenly brother Paulie; Burgess Meredith as the crusty trainer Mickey; Carl Weathers as the swaggering heavyweight champion Apollo Creed; and Tony Burton as “Apollo’s Trainer” (as he’s billed in the first two flicks) Duke (as he’s billed in the remaining four). Backed by a buoyant Bill Conti score (including his chart-topping single, “Gonna Fly Now”), this is rousing entertainment. Nominated for 10 Academy Awards (including acting bids for Stallone, Shire, Young and Meredith and a scripting nod for Stallone), this won three: Best Picture, Director (John G. Avildsen) and Film Editing. Rating (out of four): ★★★½
Although Rocky II (1979) builds itself around a rematch between Rocky and Apollo, the movie is anything but a lazy sequel. Instead, it shows the effects (both good and bad) that greet Rocky after the first film’s championship bout made him famous, among them a pathetic attempt to star in a TV commercial and his acceptance of meager jobs in order to put food on the table. But Apollo’s taunting finally leads him back into the ring for a fight that’s as exciting as their original skirmish. Rating: ★★★
Rocky III (1982) marks the point where the series starts to get silly, but the end result is so enjoyable that it’s hard to carp too much. After growing soft from facing too many lesser opponents, Rocky ends up losing the championship to a street brawler named Clubber Lang (Mr. T in his film debut). To reclaim the title, he accepts help from his former nemesis, Apollo Creed. Mr. T is often more comical than menacing, but he has screen presence to burn; you also get Hulk Hogan in his film debut as an excitable wrestler named Thunderlips as well as Survivor’s Oscar-nominated, number one hit “Eye of the Tiger.” Rating: ★★★
As a motion picture, Rocky IV (1985) is a veritable cheese factory, but as a relic of the Reagan ’80s, it’s absolutely priceless. This finds Rocky entering the Cold War and doing his part for the U.S. of A. by taking on the seemingly invincible Russian boxer Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren). Weathers is particularly good — even poignant — in this outing as Apollo grows restless in retirement, and the boxing matches are, as always, pulse-pounding highlights. But there are simply too many ludicrous elements to ignore: Paulie’s robot; Brigitte Nielsen, even less expressive than the robot; about a thousand music-video-styled montages; Lundgren’s delivery of Drago’s deadly dialogue (“I must break you,” “I defeat all man,” etc.); and a jaw-dropping finale in which all the Russians — even the members of the Politburo! — cheer Rocky as he delivers a “Kumbaya” speech. Rating: ★★
The first four Rocky flicks, all released three years apart, were commercial hits; not so Rocky V (1990), which arrived five years after the previous installment. John G. Avildsen, who helmed the first Rocky (Stallone directed II–IV), returns to the saga, but he’s knocked out by a soggy tale in which (in an absurd development) the Balboas go bankrupt and are forced to move back to their crummy Philadelphia neighborhood. Rocky ends up training an eager rookie named Tommy Gunn (real-life boxer Tommy Morrison, who passed away last September from AIDS; he was 44), all the while ignoring his own son (Sly’s real-life son Sage Stallone, who passed away two years ago from coronary heart disease; he was 36). This is the first picture in the series that feels inert, and poor performances from series newcomers Sage, Morrison and Richard Gant (as a Don King-like promoter) — not to mention gratuitous flashback scenes with Burgess Meredith’s Mickey — help sink the project. Rating: ★½
Even the crustiest of reviewers might feel a protective twinge when faced with the spectacle that is Rocky Balboa (2006). That a sixth Rocky movie arrived 16 years after Rocky V is perhaps the ultimate in both money-grubbing and star groveling, yet because Stallone so obviously loves this great character he created, it’s hard to get worked up in a fury of righteous indignation. My only regret is that Rocky Balboa isn’t a better film. It has some nice touches, particularly in the way it draws upon memories of previous installments, and Stallone is never more human as an actor than when he’s essaying this role. But the movie spends too much time in idle and not enough in overdrive, and what should be the central storyline — Rocky comes out of retirement to fight an undefeated champion (Antonio Tarver) half his age — only takes shape once the picture’s nearly over. Still, it’s at least a corrective to the fiasco that was V, and it sends the character off on an appropriately triumphant note… at least until the Creed flicks. Rating: ★★½
For a stretch of 30 years, Stallone wrote the scripts for all six Rocky films — if ever a series could have benefited from fresh blood, it was this one. The franchise was gifted to writer-director Ryan Coogler, but what’s disappointing about Creed (2015) is how slavishly it follows the template of the previous pictures. Michael B. Jordan is excellent as Adonis Johnson, the result of an adulterous tryst by the late Apollo Creed. Now grown up, he returns to Philadelphia and asks Rocky Balboa (Stallone, of course), his father’s nemesis-cum-friend, to take him under his wing. Stallone is never better than when he’s playing this role he nurtured from birth, and his relaxed and generous performance shows he has no problem moving from series star to supporting sage. But too many beats are overly familiar: There’s even a Rocky-cribbed scene where Adonis is surrounded by fans and friends as he jogs down the Philly streets, and anyone who doesn’t know exactly how the climactic fight will turn out clearly isn’t paying attention. Creed certainly isn’t bad — it’s the best entry since Rocky III — but one’s enjoyment depends entirely on how charitable one is feeling in the nostalgia department. Rating: ★★½
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