A Look at the Rocky Movies

When families get together for the holidays, they often get into heated debates about politics, religion, sports, or current events.  During Christmas Eve dinner this year, some of my cousins and I had a far more interesting discussion -- we chatted about our favorite movies.  Eventually, we started talking about Sylvester Stallone's Rocky franchise and ranked them from best to worst.  We all had different favorites (and we all agreed that Rocky V was the worst, with some, like me, enjoying it more than others). Overall the series, for all its cornball cheesiness and predictability, is a beloved saga about one of the greatest characters in cinema history.

Here's my overview of the saga:

Rocky -- The original film, written by Sylvester Stallone and directed by John Avildsen, won the Academy Award for Best Picture of 1976.  The now familiar story follows an underdog boxer nicknamed "The Italian Stallion" who gets a shot at the title against the charismatic champion Apollo Creed.  All he wants to do is "go the distance" by avoid getting knocked out, and, of course, win the love of his lady Adrian.  Realistic, full of humor and drama, this is a definite crowd-pleaser that stands the test of time.

Rocky II -- Sylvester Stallone started directing the sequels with this film as he continued the adventures of his pugilistic hero.  This 1979 followup is one of the lesser Rocky films but it still has its moments of greatness.  Taking place immediately after the conclusion of the previous film, Rocky Balboa and Apollo Creed have been beaten to a pulp and are dealing with the repurcussions of their epic bout.  Rocky gets odd jobs trying to make money to pay his bills while having to address physical ailments from years of getting pulverized in the ring and having to face upcoming fatherhood when he learns that Adrian is pregnant.  Champion Apollo has to overcome public reaction and media scrutinity over the fact that a "nobody" from Philadelphia almost defeated him.  The inevitable rematch finally takes place and it is just as epic as in the first film, ending with both fighters on the mat about to be counted out.  In a movie that feels meandering at times and tries too hard to match the beats from the first film, the conclusion is still riveting.

Rocky III -- Some people view this 1982 sequel as cliched and cartoonish, but even though it may not be a perfect movie, it is without a doubt my favorite.  I can watch this over and over again.  Rocky is now champion of the world, fighting easy opponents hand-picked by his handlers, raking in the money, living a fairytale life.  Along comes a challenger named Clubber Lang (in a star-making performance by Mr. T) who's hungrier than he is -- as hungry as Balboa was himself back in the early days when he had nothing to lose.  Rocky loses the title, his manager Mickey (played by the great Burgess Meredith) dies, and he loses confidence in himself.  Apollo (Carl Weathers at his best), the nemesis of the first two films, now becomes the mentor, helping Rocky recapture the "eye of the tiger" and win the title again.  Yes, it's corny and predictable.  Yes, some of the dialogue and action are laughable -- but all in a good, entertaining way.  This movie never grows old for me.  It's a cult classic.

Rocky IV -- I'm surprised how many people consider this to be their favorite Rocky movie.  It's fun and exciting, but it's also ultra-cartoonish and jingoistic. This was made in 1985 during Stallone's "patriotic" period (the same year as the first Rambo sequel) at the height of the Ronald Reagan Cold War era with the "Evil Empire" Soviet Union.  A steroid-pumped Ivan Drago (played by Dolph Lundgren) is the villainous opponent, so fearsome he actually kills Apollo Creed in the ring.  Rocky goes to Russia to battle for revenge and national honor.  In the end, even the Russians are cheering for the Italian-American Stallion.  What finally killed Communism in the U.S.S.R?  Rocky Balboa.

Rocky V -- Considered by many to be the worst and most boring episode in the Rocky saga, I still think this film has its nice moments.  Tommy Gunn (played by Tommy Morrison) is a punk of a bad guy, and the climactic battle is a wimpy street fight, but I give Stallone credit for trying to bring the character back to his roots, having him lose his fortune and address the dark marketing side of professional boxing, with greedy promoters playing with the lives of aspiring fighters who give their blood, sweat, and tears in pursuit of the dream, only to be cast aside or used as pawns for profits they never see.  The movie fails on many levels, but in my opinion, it adds a lot to Rocky's character. 

Rocky Balboa -- Sylvester Stallone finally brought his character back in 2006 in a surprising, critically acclaimed, box-office winner.  With an all-too-true storyline based on old fighters coming out of retirement for one more stab at glory, the plot resonated, and Rocky was as heartwarming and likable as ever.  It was a nice way to end the saga and it managed to wipe away the bad memory of Rocky V, sending Balboa out in style.

Rocky Balboa continues to be a great American character that moviegoers can relate to and root for.  Some might call the Rocky movies guilty pleasures, but I call them true classics.