To me, there is the first Rocky and then there are the rest of them. As I see it, the other five Rocky movies that exist, although certainly enjoyable (and in at least one case, damn near sublime), hardly seem to exist in the same universe that the first of the series mapped out in 1976. I’m thinking mainly about the introduction of robots (IV), Hulk Hogan (III), or fucking Sage Stallone (V). These elements don’t necessarily make these movies bad, mind you. Just different, at least in comparison to the first one.
But see, I can already poke at least one hole in my theory. Rocky II, which picks up the plot with Rocky literally on his way to the hospital from injuries incurred during the first movie’s climactic fight, does feel like a continuation of what we can call “The Rocky Vibe.” The sleazy loan shark guy with the John Waters moustache, a still homely Adrian, and Frank Stallone singing on the corner with the boys- they’re all back in the first sequel for a victory lap. Philadelphia seems like the same city as it was in the first one- grey skies, litter strewn streets, and lots of ethnic types who seem to exist solely to cheer on Rocky and throw him fruit during his early morning jogs.
So Rocky II must be the best of the all the sequels, right? If it looks like Rocky and sounds like Rocky… Well, no. People seem to forget that a lot- A LOT- of Rocky II is watching Balboa comedically bumble his way through Philadelphia (his commercials, his job interviews, his Tiger Jacket!), only to then get caught up in what is the biggest drag of the entire series (well, until the entirety of Rocky V)- Adrian’s pregnancy coma.
Sweet Jesus, a lot of this movie is dedicated to Rocky tending to an unconscious Adrian. He weeps, he prays, he gets tough love from Mickey. He tries to read to her (remember, we find out that Rock is borderline illiterate in Rocky II). He wanders the hospital, bouncing a tennis ball. Finally, after a lot of the running time being eaten up by this soap opera, Adrian wakes up. And from this moment on, the movie comes alive, and it’s this final half hour or so that people DO remember, and remember fondly.
Rocky II survives on the fact that it has the best training montage and climactic fight of the entire series (yes, including the original, which was hampered by the fact that it didn’t know it had to be the standard bearer for all Underdog Stories from that point forward). The “Gonna Fly Now” sequence in II, while cheesy and unrealistic, is done in a way that you can’t help but be inspired. I know, I’ve tried. I’ve watched the scene and actively tried to NOT be inspired by the sight of a short Italian man with a mullet being chased by the entire youth population of Philly up the stairs of the Art Museum. You know what? I felt the first bit of inspiration creep in when Rocky hurtled the first park bench. I knew I was a goner when I hit the long shot of the Rocky and the masses surrounding the statue at the base of the stairs. By the time, he hits the top, Rocky’s got me. At least inspirationally.
And that closing fight is put together in such a way that the final moments still draw suspense. When Rocky and Apollo are both struggling to get up during the 10 count, and it looks like there is just no way Rocky can get to his feet… man, I’ve seen the movie a bunch of times and I’ll be damned if I still don’t get that nervous belly, at least for a moment. But aside from this last Hail Mary that Stallone seemed to throw, saving Rocky II for posterity, the movie is fairly overrated.
I find that when you enter a “Which Rocky is the Best?” conversation with people, the most common answer is Rocky IV, or “The One With The Russian” (just as Star Trek IV is often referred to as “The One With The Whales”). There is just something about that entry in the series that grabs people, and I guess you can’t deny that fact. When a movie captures the zeitgeist in any way, you have to respect it, and Rocky IV certainly did that.
In fact, in 1985, there was no one more powerful at the Box Office than Sylvester Stallone. Not only did he bring his most iconic character back for a third sequel in the #3 top grossing film of the year, he revived one John J. Rambo for the sequel to First Blood, which just so happened to be the #2 movie of the year. With these two characters, Stallone had America by the short and curlies, and we were listening.
Right in the midst of the Ronald Reagan presidency (and more importantly, the tail end of the Cold War), Stallone had the presence of mind to adapt his two most popular characters to the times. Rocky brought an end to the Cold War by pleading with the Russian people that “two people killing each other (in the ring) is better than 20 million.” This, after converting a hostile, anti-American crowd into a “Rocky” chanting mass of fist-pumpers. It is ridiculous beyond words, but if you stop thinking and begin to operate on nothing but pure emotion, I can see how this can work on you.
But ending the Cold War was only a warm-up, because Stallone’s other character that year was busy tying up those pesky loose ends of POW’s in Viet Nam. So there you have it- in the space of one filmed year, Stallone, via his movie alter egos, rattled his American saber at not only what was then our current political climate, but at the biggest black eye on our national face (again, at least at the time).
This is a pretty great scene, though.
Of course we ate these movies up.
I get why Rocky IV is so popular, but you know what? Not only is it NOT the best, it would be the worst if not for Rocky V. Here are seven very good reasons as to why:
- The robot. Could there be a visual symbol more antithetical to what the original Rocky was all about?
- The music. Stallone had a falling out with Rocky composer Bill Conti for this one movie; hence, this is the only Rocky movie without the classic Rocky music. It makes a difference. It really does.
- The opening credits. Every Rocky begins with the title, writ large across the screen, triumphantly passing across with the Rocky overture playing behind it. Every Rocky except IV, which opts instead for cheesy USA/USSR boxing gloves that smash into one another, causing an explosion.
- The verisimilitude. Or lack thereof, actually. If Drago punched at 2000 psi, it would kill Rocky. Giving him brain damage in V wasn’t enough to explain this away.
- This scene. I know I mentioned it earlier, but if there was a more cringe-worthy moment in Rocky-dom, I don’t know of it.
- Cut-rate Survivor. “Hearts On Fire” is no “Eye of the Tiger”. It just isn’t.
- The training sequence. I know a lot of people love this, maybe even think it’s the best of the series. But come on. That mountaintop he climbs? That is really high up- like 30,000 feet- and no beard and leather jacket combo is going to protect him from the elements. Also, the music. Where is “Gonna Fly Now”?
- Finally, and most importantly, it’s a pretty lazy movie. Think about it. Rocky IV is a 90-minute movie. Now let’s do some subtraction.
- The first 5 minutes are the end of Rocky III.
- The Apollo/Drago fight opens with James Brown singing “Living in America” in its entirety. That clocks in at nearly 6 minutes.
- After Apollo dies, we get a montage of clips from the earlier movies as Rocky drives around in his Lamborghini. This is to the song “No Easy Way Out,” which runs 4:30.
So we are already around 75 minutes of new, fresh Rocky material, and that isn’t counting the fact that there has to be at least 10 minutes of the movie dedicated to surveying Dolph Lungren’s pale abs.
Interestingly enough, in 2006 Stallone once again gave us another Rocky/Rambo one-two punch, 31 years later. I may be in the minority, but I thought the 2006 versions of these characters were way better than the 1985 editions. Rather than having to literally be the symbol of America (a job that John Mellencamp now deftly handles), Stallone was free to make these characters underdogs once again. Which is exactly what they needed.
Rocky Balboa, while it really doesn’t need to (nor should it) exist, turned out to be the best Rocky movie since Rocky III. It took the worst part of Rocky V, his relationship with his son, and made it not only believable, but sort of moving as well. It brought the series back into something resembling reality, which allowed us to believe that this 60 + year old man could climb in the ring with Antonio Tarver and hold his own.
Speaking of Tarver, it was nice that he wasn’t written as a typical villain. With Drago, we were moving fairly close into James Bond bad guys (of which Dolph Lungren portrayed in A View to a Kill).
The end fight does everything that you’d ask of a Rocky fight, and it gave fans the closure on the series that V never did. And he did all of it with a PG rating, which is only noteworthy because of the material he gave audiences in Rambo.
Have you ever seen Rambo? The carnage in this movie is astonishing. Even by comparison against the other Rambo movies… this movie has to be seen to be believed. But again, Stallone pulled it off by acknowledging the wear and tear on his two most famous creations, and by giving audiences exactly what they wanted.
The question remains: What is the best Rocky movie? As I said earlier, I think when answering that question you must immediately remove the original from the choices. It is a unique and original movie; it just exists on another plane than the rest of them. It does. If you think differently, you are wrong.
I’ll also take Rocky V out of consideration, mainly because leaving it IN consideration is an offense to not only Rocky fans, but fans of common decency. When people are talking about bad Stallone movies, Oscar or Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot are often mentioned. I think Rocky V has got to as bad or worse. You can’t see me but I am literally shivering right now, thinking about how awful it truly is.
So… the best of the Rocky sequels? It’s gotta be Rocky III, right? As much as I love the original, I’ll bet Rocky III is the most rewatchable of them all. It’s got everything- the best bad guy of the series (Apollo doesn’t count as a “bad guy,” does he?) in Mr. T. He killed Mickey- sweet, gentle Mickey. It’s got “Eye of the Tiger”, the first 45 I ever bought with my own money, and a song that to this day is used in a “pump up” capacity. It gave us a new locale- Apollo’s grimy LA gym. Most importantly, it had something to add to the Rocky story. We saw what he was like as an underdog loser, and with Rocky III, we got to see him with fame and success.
Although there were six total movies, the story was really over after the third entry, wasn’t it? And if I ever decide to revisit these movies in chronological order, I’ll watch the first three and then skip to Rocky Balboa.
I think Drago would understand. And who gives a shit what Tommy “The Machine” Gunn thinks.