‘ROCKY’ RETURNS: The Good, Bad and Ugly of a Celebrated Film Franchise

Written by Steve Pauwels on September 5, 2015

Friday before Labor Day 2015, the Bravo network featured back-to-back Rocky films – in this instance II and III. O’Reilly was broadcasting a holiday-weekend pastiche of past episode clips, so when I stumbled upon the final moments of Rocky II, I decided to camp out for a while – which got me thinking about this storied movie franchise.

Rocky I and II, of course, are not just worthy sports films, but genuinely great films, period; truly among the best cinema of the past generation (particularly that maiden flick). Colorful, wonderful dialogue and indelible passages abound in both. Rocky I is actually a skillfully wrought drama/romance embroidered around a boxing backdrop, rather than a mere fisticuffs tale. Rocky II? Definitely more a straight-ahead boxing story; still an impressive product.

There’s a heartbreaking colloquy up in Rocky’s garbage-dump of an apartment involving whispered desperation from Mickey and a door-pounding outburst from the fighter, all capped off by a poignant reunion when Balboa chases down the geriatric manager. Not nearly as iconic, but powerfully affecting in its own way, is Mick’s monologue in the hospital chapel as Rocky prays for his bed-ridden wife’s recovery.

Can anyone fend off goose-bumps when Adrian comes out of her coma to urge her husband to “Win … WIN!”? And who, honestly, doesn’t feel like he can go out and conquer the world after watching either flick’s centerpiece workout sequence?

Critics routinely bestow four stars on Rocky. Good call — it’s a modern classic. Befuddlingly and infuriatingly, alas, is the chintzy two star rating they often confer on the sequel, especially when considering how they score the remaining installments in the exploits of Philadelphia’s favorite slugger. (See below for the details.)

Rocky III is a competent movie overall, marred by a handful of poorly rendered scenes: the Hulk Hogan segment, for instance, is amusing but doesn’t hold together: how does a fake athlete, I don’t care how huge, go toe to toe with the pugilistic champion of the entire planet? Sorry, not buying it. The press conference on the museum steps, where Rocky announces his retirement, is another sloppily staged and unconvincing sequence: clunky dialogue, wooden pacing; poor editing. “Clubber Lang” (Mr T), the number one boxing contender in the world, manages to slip into a crowd worshipfully surrounding Rocky Balboa and nobody notices him until he starts railing at the champ? Yea, right.

The second reel’s overly-self-conscious beach confrontation between Rocky and Adrian doesn’t work for me either — corny, disjointed, and both husband and wife are weirdly spazzy. It’s like Sly wasn’t altogether clear how to write the exchange so he just stitched together a fistful of disparate platitudes; whereupon the actors, realizing it was second-rate stuff, tried to compensate by shouting and screeching their lines.

Having said that — Mickey’s death scene? Shattering. Then there’s the contrasting training sequences: the pampered, carefully coiffed and coutured Balboa, mugging for the cameras, barely going through the motions of a work-out, while a nightmarishly monomaniacal Clubber grunts and grimaces in his grimy garret of a gym (love the pull ups on those ropes!). Riveting. And foreboding.

And I’m glad Stallone settled on a different route for number three’s inevitable, main-event finale. We’re not served the predictable fifteen round nail-biter we’d already seen twice before, in which Rocky indisputably loses the first five or six rounds, and most of the remaining ones, too, but roars back at the very end. Instead, Rocky III wraps with an electric three-rounder in which the disgraced, but now retooled and re-invigorated, ex-champ dominates most of the way through. And Mr. T’s berserker, howling paroxysm after round one’s drubbing is unforgettable.

My cable company tagged Rocky III with two stars; the same as its assessment for number two, which is ludicrous. A pair of stars? Probably about right for Rocky III; but II was much better than that.

Rocky IV is fun, but, let’s be blunt: it’s almost literally little more than a big-bucks, very stylish, ninety-minute music video. Seriously, folks, the flick needed another twenty minutes of plotline and character development. I mean, how many flashback montages and training sequences set to rock music tunes can a single movie carry? Clearly, Stallone’s creative juices here lost a good deal of the soul which so delightfully energized the original Rocky and it’s admirable successors.

Paulie and the Robot. Really?? I read an interview in which Sly conceded he didn’t know what he was thinking with that ridiculous gimmick. We’re with you, dude –- what were you thinking? A poor scripting call? That’s an understatement.

IV‘s final clash between the Italian Stallone and the Russian giant gets the blood-pumping job done, but apparently Rocky forgot everything Apollo had taught him in the preceding film about speed, moving around the ring, slipping punches, etc. Without explanation, Rocky IV ushers in the return of the lug from the first and second movies: essentially a brawler-tank who advances headfirst into his opponent’s gloves while soley trying to outlast and out-bludgeon him.

Aforesaid cable company generously confers two stars on this film — and maybe it rightfully deserves them; but if so, just barely.

Now, regrettably, I give you: Rocky V. Yikes. Words fail to describe how terrible, how deeply, grievously terrible, is this effort. No exaggeration, I’m talking jaw-droppingly bad, so much so it’s literally hard to believe Stallone actually had anything to do with it — except there he is performing a veritable caricature of the titular figure who made Rocky‘s I and II so irresistible. There he is, overacting, reciting atrocious dialogue, front-and-center in one cartoonish scene after another. Segment upon segment, involving just about anyone who made the mistake of signing on to this celluloid train-wreck, leaves me gasping — in disbelief. A shocking poster-child for how sequels can go wrong.

A couple of the flashback interludes are briefly okay, I’ll admit; but even these are thuddingly conspicuous in a way, simply by their lack of in-your-face awfulness. And these respites last only a few moments, anyway — then we’re left with the balance of this embarrassing insult to the Rocky franchise.

To his credit, Sly was clearly aiming for something altogether different from the first four installments — and I’ll grant him, it is different. But that’s about the only thumbs-up observation I can conjure for this stinker. So dreadful is Rocky V that the next outing — 2008’s Rocky Balboa — seems to unapologetically pretend it never happened. There are no references in that offering to the fighter’s “brain-damage”, “Tommy Gunn” or “George Washington Duke” elements of number five.

For which I am grateful, because the eponymous Rocky Balboa is a fine film and more than suitable for what was presumed, at the time, to be the denouement to the chronicles of the sweet-spirited pugilist from the City of Brotherly Love. It returns to an emphasis on the narrative’s character and plot, as opposed to an overriding focus on the goings-on in the square-circle, with some genuinely lovely moments, evocative of high-points in the earliest two flicks.

The late-middle-aged Stallion’s excruciating reminiscences of his now-deceased Adrian, and his tender, stumbling attempts to explain to his brother-in-law the hollowness he feels inside, are truly touching. Paulie’s agonized regrets over the way he mistreated his sister are painful to observe in a different way. There’s a restrained but effective exchange on a city street corner between Rock and his bitter, self-pitying son.

Ironically, my complaint about Rocky Balboa is that Stallone seems almost over-eager to scant the sports’ aspect of the story. When the flick’s training and boxing stretches finally come around, they are handled briskly, almost cursorily. Rocky Balboa is a much better piece of work than Rocky III, but like that film it could have benefited from another ten or fifteen minutes — this time, however, centering on Rocky the fighter.

I heard somewhere that, unlike lots of cinematic powerhouses who come to resent their signature characters, Stallone insists he has no resentment for being somewhat pigeon-holed artistically by his Rocky Balboa productions. He acknowledges the obvious: that character made his career, and opened the door to whatever professional successes he’s experienced besides.

We can also be grateful because, in the Italian Stallion, movie-lovers have been served up one of the unforgettable figures of contemporary filmdom, probably of all cinematic history. Not every Rocky movie was top-flight, but the character himself certainly was, dependably presenting viewers with lots of potent themes to consider; including:

– Dreams: aim at them daringly and refuse to abandon them.
– Hard Work: it can yield prodigious results.
– Relationships: whether marriage, family or friendship, they must be priority.
– Our adversaries: they can become our allies, even our companions.
– Comebacks: they’re possible.
– Our fears: they must be faced and overcome.
– Prayer: it’s a good thing!

And surprise! Slated for a November 2015 release, one more Rocky feature: Creed.

No telling how that one will challenge us; nor how many stars it will fetch?

Image: https://hu.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rocky_(film)

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Steve Pauwels is pastor of Church of the King, Londonderry, NH and host of Striker Radio with Steve Pauwels on the Red State Talk Radio Network. He's also husband to the lovely Maureen and proud father of three fine sons: Mike, Sam and Jake.