The Rocky series is one of those rare, generation-spanning franchises that’s helmed by one nearly unified voice and starring one actor. I’d almost venture to say that Sylvester Stallone is an auteur here. The main character, Rocky Balboa, is both conceived of and portrayed by one man; Stallone himself penned every script but Creed (written and directed by Ryan Coogler)–and Creed II is co-written by him, with Stallone taking the director’s chair for Rocky II-IV.
This near-singular authorial voice means a Godfather-like saga about the rise and fall of a beloved boxing champion.
These films are shamelessly formulaic, and I have absolutely no problem with that. Rocky embarks upon a different, yet familiar, emotional and physical journey with each movie. A new challenger arises and Rocky must defeat him. With the series, Rocky grows; his thick accent of the streets fades as his fame builds. He gains it all and loses most of it in turn, finally leaning into his retirement in the later films, pushing himself back into the ring a few times before ultimately stepping back to run Adrian’s, an Italian restaurant named after his wife who’s passed away. Rocky changes with the times, eventually becoming just like his coach Mick (Burgess Meredith), an erstwhile champion who must coach and inspire others who come to him for mentorship. He’s an American hero who pulls himself up from the dust time and again, constantly trying to do the right thing, and who earnestly just wants to live a good life.
To be honest, the Rocky franchise might just be among the few most inspirational American films that have nothing to do with war. And yet they’re still about fighting. I’m sure that says something deeply profound about our culture, but I’ll leave that for someone else. However, whenever I watch these films, I get the urge to join Rocky, running down the streets in the early morning, jumping rope, doing impossible numbers of pull-ups and one-armed push-ups, though I draw the line at guzzling half a dozen eggs. We want to jump with him in victory at the top of the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art as he’s finally gotten himself in fighting shape. But you can’t forget about the boxing. As he fights Apollo Creed, we live and die with each punch Rocky takes, desperately hoping for this underdog to just survive another moment. And, of course, he does. Freeze frame of victory–fade out.
So, here’s my definitive, subjective ranking of the Rocky franchise. I’ve watched Rocky and Rocky II many times, but the rest only once, until this rewatch. Get involved and let us know if you agree with my rankings–maybe I’m just a crazy guy for thinking that Rocky V is actually fairly good (except the end!). Or maybe you desperately love Rocky III and think it should be the best. Or maybe I’m just a genius. Either way, we’d love to hear from you in the Comments section!
Rocky V (1990)
The fifth film brings back some of Rocky’s bad decision-making from Rocky II. He’s far too trusting, signing over power of attorney to an embezzling accountant, which brings the Balboa family back to the Philadelphia neighbourhood. Talia Shire and Burt Young return once again, and Stallone’s son makes his debut as Rocky and Adrian’s son. Instead of bringing the family closer together, Rocky tries to recapture his lost glory. If Rocky III sees Rocky becoming Creed, Rocky V sees Rocky becoming Mick. He takes over Mick’s gym, seeking out the next contender, and finds an Oklahoma boy, Tommy Gunn, who’s sure to be the next big thing, only to have the kid betray him for a faster road to the fame he craves. Rocky spends half the film trying to bond with this new kid, unintentionally ignoring his own son in the process.
I applaud them for trying to go back to Rocky’s roots (even bringing back Rocky’s accent, which faded significantly in the 3rd and 4th films). While Rocky’s son is rather melodramatic, the story of Rocky trying to recover from his bad luck and stepping into Mickey’s shoes to try mentoring a contender is really good. The problem is when it devolves into (and they namecheck it directly) Street Fighter for the final 1/3 of the film. Rocky and Tommy just brawl in the street for half an hour, which just does not work. This would likely be much higher in my ranking, but the last part of the film betrays about everything that Rocky believes in or would ever fight for. He becomes utterly uninspiring.
Rocky III (1982)
In Rocky III, Rocky has essentially become Apollo Creed, with a ridiculous house and car and career as a retired heavyweight champion. But another contender, Clubber Lang (Mr. T), is coming up through the ranks, and he’s set his sights on Rocky, challenging him for his title. The third film begins the thinning of the storylines, as we’ve just got a series of nearly interchangeable fighters (starting with Hulk Hogan–seriously!) whom Rocky must dispatch. What stands out here is the newfound brotherly relationship between Rocky and Apollo. After Rocky’s demoralizing first defeat at the hands of Clubber, Apollo takes Rocky’s training on himself, bringing him to LA to his own Mick’s gym, opening us to Creed’s origin story. While the story is weaker here, the heart stands strong.
Rocky IV (1985)
The heart comes back to the series with Rocky IV, and Apollo Creed is killed by Soviet muscleman Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren) during what should be a fun exhibition. Despite the ridiculousness of what follows, I really loved its emotional impact. Rocky needs to fight Drago to get revenge for Creed’s death, so he travels to the middle of the Russian wilderness and chops trees, hauls massive logs, and runs up mountains to train, while Drago trains through machines and science. In the movies, American ethos and ingenuity beat scientific logos every single time. Other than the shameless Cold War American propaganda aspect, the loss of Apollo Creed, who’s become Rocky’s best friend, propels Rocky toward his goal.
Rocky Balboa (2006)
Sixteen years after Rocky V had effectively killed the series in a badly conceptualized street fight, Stallone takes the reins again with Rocky Balboa. Our hero, thirty years after his initial fight with Apollo Creed, has retired, opened an Italian restaurant, Adrian’s (his wife has passed away), and his son works in finance. And Rocky is itching in retired life. He needs to test his mettle once again, not for fame or fortune, but to see if he’s still got it in him. The writing is solid and inspiring as far as Rocky himself is concerned, though I wish that they’d have used Ventimiglia better, or even do with him what they’ll do for Adonis Creed in Creed, but this is about Rocky’s last run, and to that end, the film works surprisingly well. A solid comeback for Stallone and Rocky Balboa, bringing back everything that led up to this moment while still adding something new to the conversation.
Rocky II (1979)
Rocky II follows Rocky and Adrian, moments after the first film ends. They finally get married, as Rocky deals with the intense fame that follows him going the distance with Creed. Publicity doesn’t suit the near-illiterate Rocky, who makes more than a few expensive impulsive purchases but can’t speak eloquently for commercials (though I don’t know why they don’t just go with print ads…).
Relegated to working in the meat processing plant, Rocky needs to fight again, so he faces the now furious Apollo Creed once again in a public rematch, though Rocky never bears any animosity toward Creed, who hurls insults at him throughout the film. That’s why we love Rocky–he’s infinitely lovable, juxtaposed with his chosen career path.
Creed came unexpectedly, and because of that and Ryan Coogler’s superb writing and direction, stands second only to the original film in this franchise–both are head and shoulders above the many sequels. Instead of Rocky or his son, we follow Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan), the orphaned b*****d son of Apollo, who never met his ill-fated father, but who is determined to fight, to make it on his own, refusing to take his father’s name. At the start of the film, Adonis has just about the same job as Rocky’s son, and his storyline is what I’d hope for from Milo Ventimiglia’s character. He works at a respectable finance firm in LA and fights in Tijuana on the weekends, where he’s undefeated. But he wants more. He’s angry and he needs to make it for real, not just in backroom brawls. So, he seeks out Rocky Balboa, who’s still quietly retired, and persuades him to train him. Then, an incredibly sweet, real, fully-formed relationship grows between the two lonely men. The absence of Rocky’s son is palpable, and Adonis steps easily into that role. The fighting is superbly choreographed and shot, and the emotional weight we loved from the original Rocky fully returns.
The long-running Rocky series starts in the dingy, mean streets of Philadelphia, with Rocky Balboa–the Italian Stallion–a down-on-his-luck small-time boxer who just can’t catch a break. He’s been locked out of his locker at Mickey’s Gym because he’ll never be a contender, he’s got to make ends meet as a low-rent enforcer for an oddly lovable gangster, and he’s fostering an unrequited love for his friend Paulie’s sister, Adrian (Talia Shire, in basically the exact same role, but better written, than her Godfather part). Then, Rocky catches a break.
Boxing superstar Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) comes to town to celebrate the United States’ 1976 Bicentennial with a huge boxing match, and he offers a chance for some nobody to challenge Creed to the heavyweight title. He literally picks Rocky’s name out of a book.
Then, Rocky trains–what will become a staple of the franchise–in a series of montages, getting ready for the match that will change his life. He begs his former trainer, Mick, to take him back, to fight with him again.
To me, Rocky is a nearly perfect film, with a wonderfully relatable character. I say nearly perfect because of Rocky’s pushiness with Adrian; while I think it comes from an earnest place in Stallone’s mind, it’s more than a bit problematic when viewed through today’s #MeToo lens. However, despite his very real flaws, Rocky is just a lovable enforcer who talks to his turtles, overanalyzes their food, desperately loves the lady at the pet shop, and just wants to box.