Favorite Film Franchises: ROCKY

I have some Black friends who have criticized the Rocky movies, saying this was basically a fictional way for “the White man” to symbolically dominate boxing during a time when the heavyweight division was dominated by Black fighters in real life. And I can’t deny that there can be some subtext found in the films if you really look for it.

Sylvester Stallone admits that the character of Apollo Creed was loosely based on Muhammad Ali, brash and loud-talking, while the first film was clearly based on the 1975 Ali-Wepner fight. That’s where champion Muhammad Ali fought a little-known and lightly-regarded contender named Chuck Wepner, who surprised pundits by lasting in the ring with Ali until suffering a TKO in the final round (the 15th). But in Stallone’s film, Rocky (Wepner) lasts the whole fight without getting knocked down or out, and then goes on to beat him in the sequel and goes one to reign as champion. So maybe there is some kind of wish fulfillment there but, whatever, I still like this franchise. And taken together as a whole, it does chronicle a realistic saga of the career of a boxer, as we’ve seen many times in real life.

The underdog wins, becomes champ, gets lazy and suffers his first loss and has to win the belt back. Retires and goes broke. That describes a lot of boxers, including the iconic champs. And even the final one, with Rocky getting back into the ring as an older man, that could be seen as a parallel to George Foreman. Only part 4 doesn’t really fit the narrative, but is decent in its own way, but I’ll get to that in a minute.

ROCKY
Written by Sylvester Stallone, directed by John G. Avildsen. December 1976.
The classic underdog story. Rocky Balboa, the uneducated wannabe boxer, who makes his living fighting other little-known boxers and working as a collector for loan shark, gets the shot of his life when he is handpicked for a title match against the Heavyweight Champion Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers). Nobody, including Rocky, thinks he can win, but he shocks the world by knocking Creed down in the first round (due to the fact that Creed hadn’t taken him seriously therefor hadn’t trained as hard as he could), and then lasting the entire 15 rounds. Although Creed wins in a 2-1 split decision, Rocky is just proud of himself for going the distance. There was also the subplot of him starting an unlikely relationship with an extremely shy young woman in the neighborhood named Adrian (Talia Shire), who is the sister of his gruff but lovable buddy Paulie (Burt Young). And, of course, there’s Burgess Meredith, in his memorable role as the local gym owner that trains Rocky for the fight. This film is considered a classic for a reason. You don’t even have to be a boxing fan to love it. A+

ROCKY II
Written and directed by Sylvester Stallone. June 1979.
This film picks up right where the previous film left off. Both Rocky and Apollo are leaving the hospital after the fight. In front of the press, Apollo challenges Rocky to a rematch (contradicting the end of the first film, where he said there would be no rematch), which Rocky declines, he’s retired. He needs surgery in his eye and doesn’t want to risk further injury. Flush with money and national fame, due to his fight with Creed, Rocky marries Adrian, and are delighted that she’s soon pregnant. But the money doesn’t last, and Rocky’s attempt to cash in on his fame with endorsement deals doesn’t pan out, due to his lack of education and inability to speak, and he soon finds himself back to working at Mickey’s gym.

Meanwhile, Apollo is facing pressure from the boxing world, who question his inability to put Rocky down in the fight, so he begins a campaign of public humiliation to force Rocky to accept his challenge for a rematch. Rocky finally agrees, against Adrian’s wishes, which hurts his motivation in training. Then Adrian slips into a temporary coma after prematurely giving birth to their son, Robert, and she gives Rocky his blessing for the rematch. Rocky goes back to training, gets in shape, and then the next fight goes to 15 rounds again. But then both men knock each other down, and the ref starts counting, and Rocky gets up just before the 10 count, thereby winning the championship. I thought the subplot with Adrian’s pregnancy was too heavy handed, but other than that, I have no complaints. This was a more than satisfactory sequel. A

ROCKY III
Written and directed by Sylvester Stallone. May 1982.
This is 5 years since the rematch. Rocky has reigned as an undefeated champion, with a string of successful title defenses. He and Adrian and their young son are living in a mansion with Paulie. Rocky is also a celebrity with many endorsement deals and appearances on TV shows.

The character is written a lot more intelligently then in the previous films. Last time he couldn’t even properly read a teleprompter, and in this film we see him filming American Express commercials, and appearing on the Muppets TV show. Perhaps he’s had some kind of tutoring and speaking lessons in the meantime?

The city of Philadelphia dedicates a statue in Rocky’s honor, and at the ceremony Rocky announces his retirement from boxing, but then he’s interrupted by Clubber Lang (Mr. T), the #1 contender to the Heavyweight title, who accuses Rocky of ducking him, and demands that he gets a shot at the title before Rocky retires. Although Mickey tries to avoid the challenge, Rocky accepts in public. Afterwards, in private, Mickey confesses that he’d been personally picking Rocky’s opponents making sure they were guys Mickey knew Rocky could beat, and that’s why he didn’t want Rocky fighting Clubber, because Clubber is too dangerous. Now that Rocky knows that truth, he gets Mickey to agree to train him for this one last fight, so Rocky can prove to himself that he deserves the title. But Rocky still doesn’t train as hard as he could, turning his training camp into a non-stop party, against Mickey’s advice. His training scenes are cut with scenes of Clubber training hard in an old gym (apparently by himself). Right before the fight, Mickey suffers a heart attack, but he insists that Rocky still go out. So Rocky goes out to fight, and is easily overwhelmed by Clubber, who knocks him out in the 3rd round. Then Rocky rushes backstage, just in time for Mickey to die.

Demoralized and dejected, Apollo Creed shows up, offering to train Rocky for a rematch with Clubber. Taking Rocky back to Apollo’s old gym, he teaches Rocky to be faster on his feet and to regain the old hunger that he had as a younger boxer. During the rematch, Rocky ends up using a version of Muhammad Ali’s “Rope A Dope” strategy, tricking Clubber into throwing hard punches and wearing himself out, finally enabling Rocky to score a knockout and regain his title.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention an early scene with Hulk Hogan playing a pro-wrestler named Thunderlips, who faces Rocky in a boxing vs. wrestling exhibition for charity, but then snaps and goes crazy, forcing Rocky to fight him for real. And then of course there’s the iconic theme song, Eye of The Tiger by Survivor, which helps make this film memorable. This film also helped make Mr. T a household name and 80’s icon, but I thought the character of Clubber Lang was a little too one-dimensional and vicious. I would have liked if they’d fleshed him out a bit more. But the final shot of this film, Rocky and Apollo fighting alone, in a gym, just to see for themselves which one was the better man, would have been the perfect ending to the Rocky saga… A

ROCKY IV
Written and directed by Sylvester Stallone. November 1985.
This film introduces Dolph Lundgren as Russian boxer Ivan Drago, who comes to America with his wife Lumida (played by Brigitte Nielsen) to box. Apollo Creed, feeling bored since his own retirement from boxing, arranges to fight an exhibition match against Ivan, with Rocky in his corner. During the fight, Ivan brutally beats Apollo, who makes Rocky promise not to throw in the towel. And Ivan knocks out Apollo, who dies in the ring.

To avenge Apollo’s death, Rocky agrees to fight Ivan next, in Russia. Adrian doesn’t want him to do it, so Rocky goes to Russia to train without her, taking Paulie and Apollo’s old trainer, Duke (Tony Burton), with him. Eventually, Adrian flies to Russia to give Rocky her blessing and he begins to train in earnest, using old fashioned methods, which is contrast with scenes of Ivan training in a high tech lab, surrounded by Russian scientists who monitor him. During the fight, it’s initially going bad for Rocky, until he manages to get the upper hand, and even turns the hostile Russian crowd on his side, and then knocks him out in the 15th round.

This film has gotten some criticism, and it’s true that the character of Rocky doesn’t really grow in the film. The whole subplot where Adrian doesn’t want Rocky to fight, but then changes her mind which helps Rocky’s motivation is retread from Rocky II, and even the fight with Ivan seems similar to the fight against Clubber Lang in Rocky III. And the film may have been overly jingoistic, but it was the Reagan Era, it was the US vs The Commies, a little blatant in your face patriotism isn’t such a bad thing. Still, I wish Apollo didn’t have to die like he did. But at least we got James Brown singing Living In America out of this. B

ROCKY V
Written by Sylvester Stallone, directed by John G. Avildsen. November 1990
Coming back to America after the fight, Rocky announces his retirement from boxing. A doctor’s exam shows that he suffers mild brain damage from the fight with Drago. But then he soon learns that his accountant has lost most of his money, and Rocky, Adrian and their son Robert (now played by Stallone’s real life son Sage Stallone) have to move with Paulie back to their old neighborhood, where Rocky starts running Mickeys old gym.

Robert doesn’t adjust to well to attending public school, finding himself being picked on by bullies. And Rocky meets a wannabe boxer named Tommy Gunn (Tommy Morrison) and begins training him, neglecting Robert. Tommy starts building a steady record of knockouts in his fights, causing boxing promoter George Washington Duke (Richard Gant, in a very thinly veiled analog/parody of Don King) to get the idea of using Tommy to goad Rocky back for one more fight, which could earn millions of dollars.

So Duke slowly lures Tommy away from Rocky, taking over as his manager and promoter, while Rocky reconnects with his son, whom he realizes he’s been neglecting. Tommy eventually rises to the top, becoming the new Heavyweight Champion, but doesn’t bother acknowledging Rocky’s help in his success, and most of the public doesn’t accept Tommy as champion, so he agrees with Duke to try to publicly force Rocky into accepting a match against him. The film ends with Rocky and Tommy fighting a street brawl, while local news cameras are filming. After getting knocked down, Rocky has visions of Mickey talking to him, and rises for “one more round,” to successfully knock out Tommy.

I never understood all the hate leveled towards this film. I liked it. Newbies Morrison and Sage held their own against the veterans. As improbable as the final fight in the film may have been (where were the police while this street fight was on live TV?), and as cheesy as the scene squeezing in Mickey into the film was, I thought it was a decent film, and a suitable ending to the Rocky franchise, which we all believed it was at the time. B

ROCKY BALBOA
Written and directed by Sylvester Stallone. December 2006.
Rocky is long retired, and is running an Italian restaurant called Adrian’s, after his wife whom we learned died of cancer some time since the events in Rocky V. Paulie is still his same old irascible self, working at his old meat packing plant when the film opens, but he eventually gets fired. Rocky is somewhat estranged from his son Robert (this time played by Milo Ventimiglia), who feels he’s spent his whole life overshadowed by his father.

Antonio Tarver plays Mason Dixon, the current undisputed Heavyweight Champion, who isn’t taken seriously by the press or the boxing fans, despite his record. When a computer simulation on ESPN says that if they’d fought in their prime, Rocky would have beaten Dixon, Dixon’s manager, L.C. (A.J. Benza) arranges for an exhibition match between the two fighters, for charity. Rocky agrees, even though most people think he’s too old and therefor has no chance. But after training with Duke again, focusing on building power punches, and with Robert in his corner, Rocky manages to knock down Mason once (after getting knocked down twice himself) and survives the full 15 rounds, walking out before the final decision (2-1 in favor of Mason) is even announced. Rocky was just happy that he could go the distance, same as in the first film, 30 years earlier. The final shot is Rocky sitting at Adrian’s grave, thanking her for helping him fight one last time

Now THIS was really a great ending to the franchise. I thought this was the most realistic match portrayed in all the films. Only a couple of things didn’t quite work for me. Rocky and Robert’s initial estrangement was never adequately explained. You’d think Robert would love having a dad like Rocky. And I would have liked to have seen more characterization from Mason. They played him in the film as if he had no regard for Rocky, and assumed the fight would be easy. I think it would have been more dramatic if he had idolized Rocky, and didn’t want to fight him because that’s his hero. They could have show flashback scenes of Mason as a young boy, watching Rocky’s fights (showing scenes from the previous films) and show that’s what made him decide to become a boxer in the first place. Basically make this sort of like when Rocky Marciano had to fight his hero, Joe Louis. Still, I’m mostly happy with what we got. A

So overall, this is a great film franchise. And if it must continue, I’m intrigued with the idea that instead of trying to squeeze in a Rocky VII or, shudder, filming a remake with some younger star, plans are underway for a spinoff featuring the son of Apollo Creed becoming a boxer, with Stallone appearing as Rocky to mentor the young boxer. If done correctly, that could be a whole new franchise. But even if not, these 6 films of the Rocky saga will outlive as all…

Rocky: The Undisputed Collection is available on Amazon

  3 comments for “Favorite Film Franchises: ROCKY

  1. February 22, 2014 at 1:22 PM

    I vaguely remember Rocky I but I definitely remember Rocky IV and the line from the Ruskie boxer “I must break you”. This was back during the time was a young elementary student and I was so pro-American this and that. I wanted Rocky to go over to that guys home country and whoop arse and he did eventually.

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    • February 22, 2014 at 3:23 PM

      Rocky IV re-aired this morning on some channel, I watched part of it. Like I said, you could cut this film out of the franchise and not miss anything, as far as character-development goes, but it was good pro-America/anti-Communist propaganda piece. Nothing necessarily wrong with that.

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