Sylvester Stallone’s recent sit-down with Robert Rodriguez for
The Director’s Chair made a pretty compelling case that the Rocky movies ought to be taken seriously as Sly’s greatest artistic achievement. Sure, most of them are exactly the same movie. (Rocky has to fight somebody no one thinks he can defeat, he trains real hard, and then he ends up winning—or, at least, gaining a significant moral victory.) But Stallone (who wrote every installment except for the forthcoming Creed and directed every one except Rocky and Creed) added feeling to the formula by fashioning the series as a running commentary on celebrity, aging and the way boxing grinds up its greatest fighters. (One of this Oscar-winning franchise’s secret weapons is its poignant charting of the passage of time, which sorta makes the Rocky films the Boyhood of sports sequels.) With Creed receiving glowing reviews, let’s go back and rank all seven films. Cue Bill Conti music!
There’s not much more that says “Rocky Balboa” than a movie that begins with the fighter being diagnosed with brain damage (and still having two more movies to come, over the span of 25 years). This is pretty obviously the worst Rocky movie, a hackneyed, sort of embarrassing retread of every Rocky trope, filtered through a ham-handed father-son bonding story between Rocky and his son Robert (played, shakily, by the late Sage Stallone, Sly’s son). There’s a Don King character, a soundtrack that includes M.C. Hammer and, in the worst decision of all, the lead villain played by real-life boxer Tommy Morrison, who claimed he was related to John Wayne (he wasn’t), seemed to lack even fundamental acting skills and ended up more famous for contracting HIV six years after the film came out and later claiming that he was “cured.” (He died in 2013 at the age of 44.) This is the Rocky movie everyone tries to forget about. In the original script, Rocky was supposed to die in the street fight at the end, but Stallone, wisely, changed his mind during filming.
Or, Rocky Helps Thaw Cold War Relations. Following the pattern set up in Rocky III, Rocky IV burdens our hero with the death of someone close to him—in this case, Apollo Creed—before facing his greatest opponent yet, a feared Soviet Union fighter elegantly named Ivan Drago (played by the equally elegantly named Dolph Lundgren). What was always great about this franchise—the underdog narrative, Rocky’s scrappy likability—is buried under Stallone’s well-intentioned but badly overblown attempt to address the growing tensions between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. that were occurring at the time. (We will confess, though, that seeing this movie as kids made us assume that the winner of a boxing match always delivered a speech to the crowd at the end of a bout.) File Rocky IV alongside other awkwardly earnest 1980s political commentaries like Sting’s “Russians” and Superman IV: The Quest for Peace and never think of it again. (The James Brown song in the movie ain’t bad, though—even if we do kinda prefer Weird Al’s parody.)
All right, so allotting for the fact that there has never been a worse fake-boxer name in the history of boxing movies than “Mason (The Line) Dixon”—played perfectly acceptably by Antonio Tarver—this one is closer to the emotional heart of the original than it is given credit for. In this one, Rocky has spent the last 20 years retired and mourning the death of Adrian until a computer boxing simulation predicts that an in-his-prime Rocky would beat Dixon. This, inevitably, leads to the two men fighting for real, and then the greatest hits start playing: We get a vintage Rocky training montage, some inspirational speeches, some cartoonishly brutal fight scenes and, “Get up, Rock, get up!” This is all corny, but it’s played with real sincerity, and the father-son business that grated in Rocky V works much better here. This one probably deserves to be better remembered than it is.
We confess to being a little less enthused about Creed than a lot of other critics are. Michael B. Jordan is compelling as Adonis, the forgotten son of Apollo Creed who has decided to walk away from a comfortable L.A. life to become a boxer. But for all the movie’s attempts to offer a new perspective on the Rocky legacy, putting Balboa on the sidelines while Adonis takes center stage, Creed ultimately feels like a lot of other Rocky flicks that came before it. (There are plenty of training montages and boxing-is-a-metaphor-for-life soliloquies.) Creed wields a back-to-basics approach, and director Ryan Coogler brings a lot of energy to the in-the-ring action, but the new coat of paint only makes the old engine parts stand out more. Still, it’s hard not to get a little misty seeing the aging Balboa come to terms with the fact that his past stretches out far longer than his future does.
Unlike The Dark Knight or The Empire Strikes Back, Rocky II isn’t the sort of second installment where the story takes a darker, edgier turn. Despite the threat to Rocky that he might go blind if he keeps boxing—or the scare of Adrian falling into a coma after giving birth to their son prematurely—this sequel delivers the rousing, satisfying conclusion that anybody could have hoped for (or seen coming) after the Oscar-winning original. If the knock on Rocky II is that it’s just like the first film except Rocky beats Apollo this time, well, the first film was pretty great, right? Stallone, who got nominated for writing and starring in the first Rocky, took the reins as director on this one, betting big that there was a future in this lovable lug. He was right.
This one will be a point of contention next to Rocky II, but Rocky III is the better movie because:
A) It’s the classic storyline of a hero who loses touch with what makes him special, and so he has to relearn things about himself in order to make it back to the top. (“You got civilized, Rock,” Mickey tells him.
B) The ridiculous Thunderlips scene still sort of works.
D) Rocky gets the worst beatdown of the entire series, but this time he loses.
E) Mickey dies!
F) Clubber Lang is the best villain of the series and, honestly, a pattern not just for Mike Tyson, but also every video game bad guy for the next 20 years.
G) “He’s not getting killed, he’s getting mad!”
H) This scene, obviously—the same one that might have actually launched Bill Simmons’ career.
The original is so good, and so distinctive, that watching it now, it’s almost difficult to believe it did launch such a massive franchise. It’s almost too modest for that. At its heart, Rocky is simply a quiet love story about two shy Philadelphians who might not be the smartest folk but are good-hearted and discover that they need one another. It’s a completely different type of Stallone performance than we would ever see again. Roger Ebert was gently mocked for once saying Stallone in this film reminded him of the young Brando, but if this were the only movie Stallone ever made, I bet we’d talk about him that way. The later films kept trying to recreate the underdog story—attempting to constantly reinvent Rocky as a scrappy unlikely hero after the previous movie had just told us how much of a champion he was—but this one does it naturally, with no effort as all. You feel like you know Rocky, and Adrian, and Paulie, and Mickey, within seconds of meeting them; they feel like people in your life. The fight scene is stirring, but, for the only real time in the series, because of what’s going on outside the ring rather than inside it. As universal as this film is and as hugely popular as it became, you can see the indie ‘70s film it started out as in every frame. Remember: When the fight ends, Rocky doesn’t want a rematch, he ignores the ringside reporters, he doesn’t even listen to the judges’ scores being announced. He just wants to find Adrian:
The rest of the series, as fun as it was, was never quite as powerful as that.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.