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Ranking the Rocky Franchise

After recently seeing the excellent film Creed, I have revised the rankings for my beloved Rocky franchise. I rank the movies from worst to best, based on a four star system. This took a long time, but it was a real labor of love.

  1. Rocky IV (1985) 1/2 *

I hated this movie. The flick gets off to a good start with the awesome “Eye of the Tiger” theme from the previous film. Then however, we cut to Rocky’s mansion where he, his best buddy Apollo, and the rest of the family are eating a meal. This is when the stupid robot appeares to annoy Paulie and us in the audience. The whole scene just looks kind of sterile and detached. I don’t feel close to the characters that I had grown up with and missed since the previous film. Who are these plastic “beautiful” people?

Those are just minor annoyances. What bugs me about this movie is everything related to the main plot. It’s bad enough that they have to kill off another great character in Apollo after killing Mickey in III. However, if you’re going to kill off a fan favorite at least don’t make the movie a boring, ludicrous, implausible cartoon. The scenes in Russia when Rocky is training are some of the most boring in the history of the franchise. Instead of the memorable training scenes and epic musical score that we are used to, we get gawd awful 80’s cheesy-rock blaring from the screen. It’s one long, boring, music video.

Now, how about the big fight? Only in Stallone’s ego inflated wet dreams can his Rocky convince the Soviet crowd AND politicians to cheer for him in the heart of the USSR, in the middle of the Cold War. Puleeeze. That would never happen. Ever!

Adrian and Paulie are hardly in this movie and it totally lacks heart and authenticity. The only thing good about this movie is James Brown’s kick ass “Living in America” performance. Also, I must give credit to the special effects whiz behind the robot playing Ivan Drago, but Bridgitt Nielson does show a spark of charisma and talent as Drago’s prideful and power hungry wife.

Look, I understand for many, this is the most popular movie of the series. Obviously those people don’t love the character and saga of Rocky Balboa as much as I do. This movie does not fit in well with the rest of the films of the epic series. It’s a corny 80s action flick, which seemed commissioned by Ronald Reagan as a propaganda piece for unintelligent Americans. If it starred someone like Steven Seagal or Chuck Norris, and was based on a different made up action hero character, I would not feel so harsh and antagonistic toward it. As it is, Rocky IV is an abomination to the franchise.

  1. Rocky V (1990) *1/2

Sigh, this isn’t a very good movie, but I do like it better than IV. One problem is continuity. Rocky IV shows Rocky’s son, Robert as a 6-8 year old kid cheering on his dad against Drago while watching it on T.V. Well, Rocky V begins with Rocky suffering some neurological symptoms in the dressing room after the Drago fight. When he comes back home, we find young Robert to be a pre-teen. So, exactly how long was Rocky in the USSR? Maybe they elected him prime minister after the Drago fight.  An interesting development back home in Philly shows one of the most implausible plot points in the history of the series. That drunken, low-life Paulie was somehow put in charge of some financial matters and accidentally signed power of attorney over to a crooked accountant. The Balboa family is left broke and owing the IRS millions. After Rocky is unable to get his license back due to brain damage issues, the family are forced to move back to the old neighborhood. Rocky starts training other fighters at Mickey’s gym, Adrian goes back to the pet shop, and Paulie goes back to the meat packing plant. I gotta say, I get a little nostalgic seeing Rocky in his old clothes, with his old swag, on his old stomping grounds.

The main plot involves Rocky training Tommy Gunn; solidly played by real life fighter, the late Tommy “The Duke” Morrison. Eventually, Tommy turns on Rocky with the shady guidance of Don King clone, “George Washington Duke,” a charismatic promoter, and fun villain to root against. The eventual showdown between Rocky and Tommy is an anti-climatic street fight. It’s pretty well choreographed, but we prefer to see Rocky in the ring. Rocky winning the fight doesn’t give us quite as much pleasure as seeing Rocky slug George Washington Duke, afterwards.

What really bogs this movie down is the storyline involving Robert, played by Stallone’s late son, Sage. The kid was an okay enough actor, but his storyline about overcoming bullies in school is tired and boring. I’d rather spend more time with Paulie and Adrian. The only good scene involving the son is at the end, in front of the historical Philadelphia Museum of Art. It’s kind of a sweet moment which ends with Rocky mentioning how he “likes most everybody.” It’s a nice moment and expresses the humanity that Stallone is able to inject in the character of Rocky. This scene between Stallone and his son now has added poignancy, with Sage Stallone’s untimely passing at the age of 36 in 2012. I’m glad he was able to share in a part of his father’s greatest professional accomplishment, the Rocky franchise.

  1. Rocky Balboa (2006) **1/2

This sixth installment in the Rocky saga is a pretty dang good flick. It exceeded expectations at the box office and with critics. For one, it has one of Stallone’s better acting performances since the earlier films in the series. Stallone at the time, like the character of Rocky, was well into his fifties and he plays the character’s years well with nuanced world weariness, though still looking great for his age physically. We later learn that Stallone was on performance enhancing drugs for this film, but really, so what. Stallone’s facial plastic surgery is a tad distracting for a bit, but eventually we settle well back into the rhythms of the Rocky character.

He’s once again in the old neighborhood, where V left off. The main story in this film is that Rocky is now a widower. He lost our beloved Adrian to “woman’s cancer.” I hate to see another great character taken away, but her passing creates a strong narrative to build the film around. Rocky’s loneliness is palpable and touching. He owns a restaurant, and seems to have a decent enough of financial well being, though well short of the extravagance of III and IV. Paulie is still a drunken, racist, asshole, but we’re happy to see him on the screen. It’s quite a pleasure to see the long forgotten “Spider Rico” as a frequent guest of Rocky’s restaurant who insists on working off his tab.

The most surprising retread from earlier in the series is “Little Marie” whom Rocky tried to teach life lessons 30 years before, during the first film. She serves as Rocky’s friend, supporter, and possible future love interest in this film. Her part is played well by Geraldine Hughes. She creates a loving, yet tough woman that Adrian would approve of to keep Rocky company in the coming years. The most unwelcome returning character is Rocky’s son Robert. He grew up to be a worse spoiled little prick than we imagined. I would have preferred if Robert was killed off with Adrian, or explained to be overseas in Iraq. Everything involving him drags down the movie. If we just ignored his existence altogether (like Chuck Cunningham on Happy Days), you wouldn’t hear any complaints from me. His screen time could have been used by “Duke”, Apollo’s old trainer that we never spent enough time with throughout the series. He shows up here for one last great pep talk to Rocky as he training for his exhibition match against the champ.

Oh yeah, the boxing match. I’m sorry, but I can’t buy into a man in his fifties being competitive against a prime heavyweight champion of the world. The plot point regarding the computer game analysis spurring the champ to challenge Rocky to prove who could beat who, also seems a tad farfetched. The champion is played by real life former light heavyweight champ, Antonio Tarver. Tarver is okay, but a tad wooden in his performance. I expected more of his real-life charisma. As far as the matchup is concerned, should Rocky really be able to come back in his late fifties to give a credible performance in the ring? I doubt it. Could an over fifty Evander Holyfield or Lennox Lewis come back and be competitive against a top-ten contender, let alone the recognized world champ? I doubt it. However, I suspend enough disbelief to once again get charged up for the big fight scene, which was shot pretty realistically under the circumstances. The ending is great, as Rocky excised the rest of his demons in the “basement” and walks back to the dressing room for the final time; oblivious to the result of the contest. The closing credits are surprisingly moving as it shows various real life people doing their best “champ” at the top of the museum steps. It seemed a fitting iconic end to an iconic franchise, which has had a major impact on pop cultural history and inspired millions around the world. Good movie.

  1. Rocky II (1979) ***

This sequel certainly doesn’t live up to the original, but it is still a really good film. It is pretty damn touching at the beginning, when the hospitalized, beaten up, Rocky goes down the hall to see the equally battered Apollo, to ask if Apollo gave his “best” during their encounter. Apollo says he did, because of course he did. Apollo is a true champion.

After Rocky receives his decent payday from the Creed fight, he and Adrian move out of the hood and into a middle-class home. Rocky tries to capitalize on his minor celebrity status by trying his hand at commercials, but his reading problems and lack of telegenic charisma make it a failed effort. Rocky eventually gets a job at Paulie’s meat plant, and generally tries to adjust to life outside of the sport and provide for his household.

But the ring always calls, and it calls for Rocky. Why? It’s because Apollo is taking a lot of heat from fans for barely beating a so-called bum in their previous fight. He goes on a campaign to verbally assault Rocky to force a much in demand rematch. Rocky is more concerned about staying retired and starting his family, but after getting laid off from his job, and selling off some items, he needs the money. Though he promised Adrian he’d retire, boxing is the only way he knows to provide for his family. Plus the taunts are starting to annoy him, and they really annoy Mickey

Oh Burgess Meredith, thank you sir for giving us the character of Mickey before your passing. Mr. Meredith should have received at least one Oscar for his brilliant work in three of the Rocky films. He’s excellent in this installment as he tries to help Rocky improve his athleticism and motivated to get his head into training properly.

The main plot point in this film involves Adrian slipping into a coma after giving birth to young Robert. This is a major crisis that causes Rocky to stop training and Mickey to movingly offer his presence and support in the hospital. Some people think the hospital scenes drag, but they really get to me. I love Rocky’s poem to Adrian, “…I”ll always be there to catch you.” The score is well done and sets the perfect tone. Eventually Adrian awakes from her coma.

At one point, young Robert makes his inauspicious debut. This causes Mickey to deadpan the funniest line of the movie. I’ll never know where they found the Joan Jett wig for the baby, but it leaves an image that I’ll never get out of my mind. When Adrian gives her permission for Rocky to get back to fighting and to “Win!” it gets Mickey and the fans in the audience completely amped up.

What comes next is one of the better training sequences in the series with Bill Conti’s inspiring score, and the infamous one-handed pushups. Rocky shows his improved speed by finally catching the chicken Mickey makes him chase around. Later things get a tad silly when every kid in Philly starts running with Rocky throughout the city, and up those iconic museum steps, but it’s a contrivance I roll my eyes on and let pass.

The big fight represents the Rocky series at its best. Sure it’s a tad over the top, but after watching Arturo Gatti’s career it’s not too implausible–dramatic yes. This time Apollo is all business leading up to the fight, and he’s trying to beat the hell out of Rocky early to quiet all of the critics. However, Mickey taught Rocky to box conventional as opposed to his usual southpaw stance. The strategy, along with Rocky’s heart proves to be the difference. In the final round, the two beaten gladiators unleash an assault on each other that still gives me goose bumps thinking about it. It climaxes with a double knockdown. Of course, Rocky barely beats the count as Apollo slumps back to the canvas. In 1979, pandemonium occurred in theaters around the country. Rocky did it! He addresses the crowd, and Adrian watching at home, “We did iiiiiiiiitttttttt!” Rocky is champion at last. As fans at this point, we’re spent.

  1. Creed (2015) ***1/4

I love so much about this movie, but most importantly, it gives me so much more peace of mind about being a lover of the Rocky franchise, as a black man. Let me explain.

I come from a family that was active in the civil rights movement. My grandfather was a local civil rights leader in Greenwood, Mississippi who risked his life registering black people to vote. I worshipped my grandfather as a small boy. And his spirit of racial pride and advocacy is part of my makeup as a man and how I live my life.

When I first saw Rocky as a boy, I instantly fell in love with Rocky as an American hero. My grandfather, understandably, saw the movie as propaganda to placate white people and perpetuate their sense of privilege and superiority. He rooted for Apollo in Rocky I and Rocky II.

Over the years, I’ve struggled but never wavered in my love for Rocky. To me, Rocky is everyman, mankind, a symbol of the struggle, the spirit of the underdog and overcoming the odds. I don’t see any inconsistency between my black pride and militancy alongside my love for Rocky. For example, and this imperfect analogy is horribly unfair to the Apollo Creed character, and Carl Weathers for that matter, but I respect and appreciate white Jon Stewart as a person who understands and supports the struggle of black Americans who experience injustice, than someone like black Clarence Thomas. Apart from that, growing up a minority and overcoming a lot of adversity, I can relate to Rocky.

Adonis Johnson (Creed), like his father eventually did, relates to Rocky like family.

The movie Creed opens with Apollo’s young illegitimate son, Adonis, being adopted out of an orphanage by Apollo’s widow, played by Phylicia Rashad. Adonis was born after the tragic death of his father and grew up angry, troubled, and bred with his father’s love for fist-fighting. Even after Adonis is raised with the wealth and luxuries from the widow Creed, he is still stayed angry and fighting; including unsanctioned boxing matches in Mexico. The adult Adonis, played extremely well by rising star Michael B. Jordan, eventually leaves the Creed family lifestyle and his solid 9 to 5 office job to embark on a career as a professional boxer. His search for a career in the fight game and a desire to understand who and why he came to be, leads him to Rocky in Philadelphia.

Stallone’s Rocky pretty much lives as he did in the previous installment of the franchise, Rocky Balboa. He still owns a restaurant in his home town, still beloved, and still lonely. The first encounter between Adonis and Rocky puts a lot of my racial concerns about the franchise to rest. Adonis is looking for a trainer, and a father figure. He is curious about his past. In this very well-acted scene, Rocky explains what a great man Apollo was, and as a fighter, the greatest. He tells how the only reason why he ever bested Apollo in the ring, was because of Apollo’s advanced age and his long in-ring career had caused wear and tear by the time Rocky fought him. Rocky even gives away one of the biggest secrets of the franchise- Apollo actually won their rubber match in an empty gym at the end of Rocky III. It’s like this whole scene was written for the benefit of my late grandfather and proud black Rocky fans across the country. Rocky is family and speaks of Apollo with love and brotherly affection.

By their next scene together, Adonis is referring to Rocky as “Unc” short for “uncle.” Soon, Rocky decides to start training the raw but talented Adonis as a light heavyweight. The film does a good job of concentrating on the title character. He develops a relationship with a lovely young lady in his apartment building, before moving in with Rocky for training and companionship for the lonely old champ. The prideful Adonis is eventually convinced by promoters to take on his father’s name of Creed, for marketing purposes as he’s fast-tracked into a fight against the light heavyweight champion of the world, “Pretty” Ricky Conlan, played by real life British boxer Tony Bellew.

As an antagonist, Conlan is a little weak and will likely go down as the most forgettable one of the Rocky franchise. That said, the final fight scene is brutal and well edited. A pivotal plot development of the film involves a health crisis for Rocky, and Stallone’s performance in this film will likely be rewarded with a well-earned Oscar for best supporting actor. This film has a lot of heart and is arguably the best Rocky movie since the first one. In the theater, the story also made me feel emotional a couple different times. I am so happy this film was made. I love it a lot, but I can’t quite rank it higher than the next overwhelmingly entertaining entry in the series.

  1. Rocky III (1982) *** ¼

This movie is probably the most entertaining for casual fans of the series. I enjoy it a great deal. It is the first film in the franchise to look slick and polished, and shows Rocky as a wealthy man. Hulk Hogan became a megastar after his appearance in this film as “Thunderlips” the wrestler. Of course, the most memorable aspect of the movie is Mr. Freaking T. Mr. T. stole this film. This unknown, bad-ass, black dude with the scowl and the mohawk, breathed new life into the franchise, and created one of the most entertaining villains in the history of action movies, Clubber Lang.

Lang is sort of like Mike Tyson before Tyson. He is mean, physically intimidating, and seems unstoppable. In the first two Rockys we may have felt Rocky was in over his head against Apollo Creed, but in III, we think Lang would kill Rocky.

This film has an excellent early montage as it shows Rocky defending his title in bout after bout, while showing Lang as a contender destroying the opposition as he rises up the ranks. When Lang finally challenges Rocky for a title shot, Mickey declines outright. For us boxing fans, Mickey’s reasoning to Rocky makes a lot of sense. Rocky is a limited fighter who struck gold in taking Creed’s belt. Mickey, in his role as manager, cherry-picked opponents for Rocky to keep his belt and put some money away. Mickey feels Clubber would destroy Rocky, and doesn’t want any part in it. However, Rocky is able to convince Mickey to train him for one last big challenge.

The death of Mickey is hard to see. The great Burgess Meredith plays the scene beautifully, and though Stallone may have over-sold the crying a tad, it is still an emotional experience for the audience. Rocky is greatly distracted in the ring. Clubber Lang severely destroys the sad, pitiful, champion and takes his belt. So what is Rocky supposed to do without his belt or his trainer/mentor?

Apollo Creed comes to the rescue. Carl Weathers was born to play Apollo Creed, and he does his best acting work in III. The former foe turned friend was ready to step in, and help Rocky build his confidence and get his belt back. First Apollo has to teach Rocky to fight a different style. He takes him to his all-black gym in Los Angeles to rebuild him. The scene where Rocky first walks in the gym and everyone stops and stares at him like he’s an alien is a little much. I’m not sure if Stallone was going for surrealism, or what, but it doesn’t work for me. However, once Apollo gets Rocky into a workout routine to teach him to fight like a brotha, things are fun. It starts out shaky as Rocky is clumsy, and still suffering from PTSD after the beating Lang gave him. But after Adrian flies out to LA and gives him one of the series’ patented pep talks, Rocky is ready to roll.

Rocky gets his footwork down like a true pure boxer, and jumps rope with speed. After getting beaten by Apollo during their beach sprints repeatedly, Rocky is finally able to win one final race and the two hug in jubilation. This scene has been mocked as homoerotic, but I think it is just good ole’ ebony and ivory male bonding. Apollo and Rocky was the best interracial bromance in the cinema until Lethal Weapon. When the big fight finally comes, it is fun to see this new and improved Balboa. As the announcer stated, “he looks like a middleweight” out there. He jabs, dances, bobs and weaves, and generally beats the hell out of Clubber on to Rocky’s most dominant performance of the series. It’s an awesome moment when Rocky collapses to his knees in joy after the knockout win.

However, again, the best part of the movie is still Mr. T. Memorable scenes include him, hitting on Adrian to provoke Rocky into a match; punking out Apollo as opposed to shaking his hand before the first Balboa bout; and training alone-prison style. But my favorite is: “No I don’t hate Balboa, but I do pity the fool….Prediction?…Paiiiiinnnnnn.” Mr. T is great.

Lastly, I’d be remiss if I didn’t give props to the awesomeness that is Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger” theme song. III is just a joy of a movie.

  1. Rocky (1976) ****

I consider the 1970s to be the greatest decade in the history of cinema. Every year produced multiple masterpieces. Rocky is right at the altar of the greatest films of that great era. Stallone’s story is well known concerning how he wrote the script as a struggling actor, and upon finally selling the rights, being told that somebody like James Caan would be playing the part. It was a smart move for Stallone to insist on playing the role himself, because he understands the character inside and out. His Rocky had a walk, talk, and general essence that we’d never seen before. He created one of the greatest of American characters. Rocky is brave, vulnerable, simple, street-smart, compassionate, protective, and most importantly, heroic.

Rocky came out right on time. Although our great nation was celebrating its Bicentennial, our collective self-esteem was in the crapper. We were just ending the unpopular Vietnam War that needlessly killed thousands of our finest. Watergate proved to us that we couldn’t trust those whom we had entrusted with the most power. Hollywood films, though great, reflected our cynical attitude about society and life in general. Rocky was like a shot of adrenaline for our nation.

This was the ultimate sports story of the underdog getting a chance to prove himself and overcoming odds. Hollywood has done it to death since, but when this movie came out, the theme was fresh.

Rocky is a lonely club fighter, with a good heart that works as “muscle” for a loan shark to supplement his income. His best friend is a drunken, pathetic, bigot named Paulie, whom we trust must have some good qualities somewhere, because Rocky is friends with him. Rocky’s career isn’t going too well, and the owner of the gym he works out at, Mickey, hates him because of his lifestyle and wasted potential.

Rocky’s fortunes take a dramatic turn when Apollo Creed, an “Ali-like” figure in regards to talent and talking smack, makes him an offer to fight for the title. It is a bit of a charity gesture to a no-hoper like Rocky, and figures to give Apollo some media attention, and a good payday by giving this unknown “Italian Stallion” a one in a million chance at a dream, in Rocky’s own hometown. Once Rocky and Mickey iron out their differences, Rocky has a trainer/manager, and is ready give it his best shot. As Mickey explains to Rocky, this would be his one chance to make something big of himself in the fight game.

Rocky and Adrian is a great American love story. Adrian, like Rocky, is very lonely. Though, unlike Rocky she is very shy and lacks confidence. Adrian lives a sad life working in a pet store and shares a home with her jerk of a brother, Rocky’s pal Paulie. In a sweet parallel, Rocky’s chance to turn his life around with a shot at the Heavyweight Championship of the World, is in line with Adrian’s opportunity to turn her life around by taking a shot at love-with Rocky. They are the perfect match.

Another great thing about this movie is the music. Bill Conti’s “Gonna Fly Now” is one of our most inspirational, American, cinematic songs. It perfectly fits the training sequences as Rocky gets himself into shape for the opportunity of a lifetime. Rocky’s climb up the museum steps and followed by his arms raised in triumph, is an iconic American image. In fact, this image is the largest framed picture in my office at work.

The big fight scene had moviegoers around the country caught up in the ebb and flow drama from the first round on. This so-called bum was giving the Heavyweight Champion of the World the fight of his life. We admire Rocky’s no-quit attitude, and his desire to bring out every ounce of his best effort from within.

There is a sequence towards the end of the fight, which is so powerful and important to me. Towards the end of round 14, Rocky takes a hellacious combination from Apollo and is dropped to the canvas. All seems lost. Mickey is begging Rocky to stay down, because he should have nothing left to prove. The exhausted Apollo believes the fight is over and raises his arms in a sign of victory. Yet, Rocky slowly, but with determination, like staying down would mean defeat, or worse, failure, struggles to his feet and barely beats the count. The referee checks to make sure he’s fit to continue, and then, in a perfectly edited piece of art, Apollo turns around just as Rocky is giving him the “bring it on” signal, and Apollo slumps his shoulders and shakes his head in disbelief. It’s beautiful and never fails to give me chills.

I saw that approximate 2 minute sequence as a small child and it’s forever ingrained in me. Because of the emotions the scene created inside of me, I am positive that piece of film is why I love the sport of boxing so much, and it’s also the reason why I love movies. Those two minutes are also how I try to live my life.

After a brutal battle, Rocky loses the decision but he gains so much more, pride and redemption. He proves that even when you “lose” you can win. As the battered and bruised Rocky holds his Adrian in the middle of the ring after the fight, he knows that he gave his all in a showcase of self-determination and dignity. He gave more. He gave us a true American hero.

One Comment

  1. rdioses

    January 26, 2016 at 8:28 am

    Very nice read!!!

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