Yeah, to you it’s Thanksgiving; to me it’s Rocky Week. On Wednesday, Ryan Coogler’s highly anticipated Rocky spinoff, Creed, hits theaters and to celebrate, we’re carving out a feast of features. Today, Dan Caffrey shares his notes after sprinting through a Rocky Marathon of his own, tomorrow we’ll go over all the sidekicks that helped make the Italian Stallion a champ, and Wednesday we’ll celebrate the art of the montage. Come Thursday, you’re gonna be crappin’ thunder!
I didn’t grow up with Rocky Balboa, and as a result, I’ve always associated his first film with sports-movie cheesiness. Why bother with something that contains so many cliches of the genre? The training montage, the underdog-turned-champion, the uplifting music — none of it seemed worth my time. After all, I’d seen all of these things in so many other sports dramas. The Oscar wins, annual TV marathons, and general praise from everyone I knew didn’t matter. To me, the Rocky films were old hat.
Or so I thought.
Ignorant dumbass that I am, I never stopped to consider that Rocky was also the first hat (a beat-up old fedora, specifically), the film that embraced these cliches back when they weren’t cliches at all, but innovations.
So when, on a drunken whim, I finally decided to watch the first film after a Fourth of July party earlier this year (I was feeling patriotic), I was blown away. Not by its bombast, which really only rears its head in the third act, but by its tenderness. Rocky is as much a sweet and awkward love story as it is a boxing movie, with Rocky and Adrian’s romance becoming a bedrock for the rest of the series. Even when some of the later installments succumb to the kind of outlandish excess and plotting the early entries dodge so expertly, they still have heart because their central relationship has heart. And as Adrian tells Rock in part five, “You beat ’em with heart, not muscle.” It’s the heart that matters most.
Some prestige helps, too, and after the peoples’ champ saw yet another comeback with 2006’s solidly downplayed Rocky Balboa, indie darling Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station) has recently taken over directing duties from Stallone, who’s written every Rocky film and helmed all but the original and V. So before Creed — which follows Rocky training Apollo Creed’s son, Adonis—hits theaters this week, take us by the boxing glove for a first-timer’s journey through all of the previous sequels. Keep in mind, I’ve never seen any of these before, and most of my notes were written in real-time. In other words, please excuse any factual errors.
Alright, time to run up those steps. There are some falls along the way, but in the end, Rocky ends up being that rare series that achieves comeback after comeback. Our own Justin Gerber didn’t call Creed the second-best chapter in the franchise for nothing. Cue the music, ya bums, and say it with me now, even though the quote makes almost no sense in this context. Sometimes it just feels good to say these sort of things:
“Yo, Adrian! I did it! I watched all five Rocky sequels!”
– Dan Caffrey
Senior Staff Writer
ROCKY II (1979)
1:06 p.m. Ding!
2:18: Hmm, this one begins exactly where the last one ends. Are we going to see the entire Creed/Balboa fight?
3:44: Looks like we are. That makes Rocky II the boxing equivalent to Halloween II.
4:17: Gah, it’s Joe Spinell in the crowd! Run for your lives! Sorry, Joe Spinell’s great, and I loved him as Rocky’s sympathetic loan-shark boss in the first one, but I saw Maniac for the first time a few months ago, so he will forever freak me out. What’s that? You’ve never seen Maniac? This is what he looks like in it:
6:02: Ah, we’re finally on to some new footage. Rocky’s getting taken to the hospital after the fight. This is like Halloween II. Does Apollo Creed spend the rest of the film stalking Rock with a knife and injecting hypodermic needles into nurses’ eyeballs?
7:15: All joking aside, I’m loving how this first sequel, just like its predecessor, is showcasing Philadelphia’s cinematic grit. This ambulance sequence does a nice job of that, showing us a fairly comprehensive view of the city (for a credits sequence, anyway).
9:33: Despite what he said earlier, Creed wants a rematch. It would be completely badass if he and Rocky got out of their wheelchairs and started duking it out right here in the waiting room.
11:39: Rocky’s nurse seems nice and all, but One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest has forever left me with a deep distrust of nurses in 1970s films.
12:31: Rocky goes to Creed’s hospital room at night. “Did you give me your best?” he asks him. I truly love how much respect these guys have for each other, despite their rivalry. It makes Creed a compelling antagonist. His charisma and intelligence don’t hurt either.
14:37: A tigah! At da’ zoo! Is that the Philadelphia Zoo? The Internet tells me it is. I was born in and lived in South Jersey for a brief period as a youth and still have a lot of family there. So I’ve spent a lot of time at Philly’s zoo. It’s a wonderful place, despite an incident in 1995 that killed 23 primates in their sleep through carbon monoxide poisoning. Sorry to be so depressing, but that always comes to mind when I think of the Philadelphia Zoo.
16:16: Rocky and Adrian’s wedding. I’m chuckling to myself every time the priest speaks Latin, then breaks it up with a crystal-clear “Rocky Balboa.”
18:21: Rocky’s carrying Adrian past the doo-wop group from the first film. “I never knew you were so light. If I did, I would’ve carried you everywhere.” Fucking great line. Also, does anyone start trashcan fires to keep warm anymore?
20:39: “You’re the best thing that came into my life.” Part of why their romance works is because it’s so unfussy and straightforward. I really believe in them as a couple who’s gonna make it.
21:45: Talia Shire keeps pulling Sly’s lower lip when they kiss, though. I know every couple on the planet does that, but it’s grossing me out. Fade to black before the boning begins. Does the Rocky series have any sex scenes? I’m guessing no.
22:25: Uh-oh, Rocky’s buying a Trans-Am. And expensive watches. And a house. And a leather jacket with a tiger sewn onto the back of it! Me thinks all this spending will cause trouble. Is he going to have to agree to Creed’s rematch just so he can pay his bills? Also, tigers seem to be a motif here.
26:55: “You’re a fake and the fight was a fake. You should go kill yourself.” Sounds like some of Consequence of Sound’s commenters. Hey-yo! “Why can’t you ignore it?” Good advice. Don’t listen to ’em, Dan. Don’t listen to ’em…
29:53: Now Rocky’s wearing tiger-striped caveman garb. They’re really driving the tiger thing home here. Hey, when do we get to the robot? Isn’t there a robot in one of these movies? I hear there’s a robot. Please bring on the robot.
32:05: I’m probably reading too far into this, but is this a Hairy Ape sort of thing? Is the caveman thing a metaphor because Rocky has become a slave to consumerism and his own masculine image?
32:50: Rocky looks like a Frank Miller character when he’s wearing that prosthetic brow and nose.
36:22: It just now occurs to me that Rocky’s dog Butkus is a boxer, get it? Like him! Shit, just Googled that, and it turns out he’s actually a mastiff. Never mind.
41:59: Paulie doesn’t like that Adrian isn’t letting Rocky go back to the ring. “Is my sister giving you a hard time?” he asks. “If she is, you break her teeth.” Paulie really is an asshole to her.
43:05: “Ain’t gonna fight.” No, Rocky, fight! The character development so far has been — if I may be a little hoity toity — quite elegant. But we want the fight! It’s what ya were born to do, ya animal! Ya gorilla!
44:31: Rocky doesn’t believe in “pet-shop diseases.” Apparently he hasn’t heard of FAIDS.
48:02: Stallone does very effective eye acting when Mick tells him he ain’t a fighter no more. It’s easy to forget what a good actor the guy is. It makes his decision to fight again that more powerful.
102:32: Rocky feigns ignorance when it comes to the Muppets. That has to be an in-joke, seeing as Sly Stallone was the guest star of The Muppet Show just four months earlier:
1:05:50: Rocky’s chasing a chicken to help build up his agility. He’d fit right in in the City of God:
107:10: I always enjoy hearing Mickey say words that have “er” in them: “hoits,” “woiks,” etc.
108:55: Did Apollo Creed originate the eat lightning, crap thunder saying?
1:22:06: Rocky’s bedside chat with Adrian is touching, but she’s so much in the foreground that her head looks way bigger than his entire body. It reminds me of the Starchild at the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey. When she wakes up a couple minutes later, it’s nicely understated.
1:24:52: I know it’s only the first film, but I didn’t get a lot of sleep last night, so my left eye keeps twitching, and I’m afraid that if I look in the mirror, it’ll be all swollen like Rocky’s was at the end of the first film.
1:25:31: Their baby has been born. I’m disappointed it’s not a Centaur baby — half human and half stallion.
1:28:09: “Get that olive oil outta ya!” during the obligatory training montage might be Mickey’s best insult so far.
1:29:39: Speaking of which, does anyone else get “Gonna Fly Now” confused with Ides of March’s “Vehicle”?
1:31:53: More steely Philadelphia greatness in this montage: the steam vents, the gray skies, the industrial architecture, all mixed with fading history — I love it.
1:35:04: The priest is back to bless Rocky before the fight! Latin, Latin, Latin, “Rocky Balboa,” Latin, Latin, Latin…
1:37:16: I’m anxious to see if they’ll get the color of Rocky’s shorts right on the banner this time.
1:40:54: They did!
1:43:14: With each film’s climactic fight, I’m going to refrain from typing so I can just soak in the action.
Notes from afterwards:
The bout is quicker and more intense than the one in the first film. My only complaint is the canned-sounding punch effects.
Creed makes his windup look cartoonish in the scariest way possible.
I just saw Mark Kozelek in concert, so boxing’s been on my mind a lot lately. I’ve noticed how he never frames the sport as having good guys and bad guys — just fighters who are hungry, determined, and find nobility in nearly killing themselves for glory. The same goes for these first two Rocky films. Apollo Creed is never portrayed as villainous, but a man with power and integrity who deserves respect.
1:55:11: Inspiring speech, if a little derivative of the one at the end of Part One.
Final: In terms of structure, aesthetic, and tone, Rocky II hits (punches?) many of the same notes as its predecessor, but that’s not a bad thing at all. Here we’re seeing Rocky, Adrian, Paulie, and even Apollo Creed deal with the same things, but from a different place in their lives. In Rock and Ade’s case, how do they navigate success after a life of loserdom? On the flip-side, how does Creed change after being humbled? It’s the same as before, only not. And that means it’s good. Damn good.
Click ahead to join us for Rocky III.
ROCKY III (1982)
3:08 p.m. Round Two.
0:05: They should switch that MGM lion to a tiger.
1:50: Again, we see the final fight of the last film almost in full. I guess it’s a staple of the series, but the constant flashbacks and recaps are starting to wear on me.
3:23: Oh shit. I always forget “Eye of the Tiger” is the theme for a Rocky movie. It definitely sets a different tone than “Gonna Fly Now”, possibly a tone of ego and excess (we are in the ’80s now). Could this be the Rocky installment with the robot in it? Also, that MGM lion should definitely be a tiger, and I promise I typed that previous sentence before this song started playing.
4:02: Mr. T as Clubber Lang! Glad to see a new rival in the mix.
5:25: Not only do the lovable misfits Rocky and Adrian now seem more comfortable in their own skin (fame and fortune will do that to you) — Rocky knows how to read good!
6:42: Holy moly, they’re actually showing Stallone’s Muppet Show footage and pawning it off as Rocky’s. That’s metafictional as fuck, and I love it.
6:53: This opening montage sure covers a lot of ground. We get to meet Lang — clearly a much different and more singularly minded antagonist than Creed — and we find out that Rock’s now a 10-time(!) champion.
8:05: Paulie throws his liquor bottle at a Rocky pinball machine. Is this commenting on the phenomenon of the Rocky series in general, how it grew from a underdog sports film to a wildly successful franchise about a guy who’s rich and famous? Is this the Jurassic World of the Rocky films?
10:22: Paulie remarks how doctors fixed up Rocky’s face since we last saw him. This makes sense, as Stallone had some work done on his mug in real life and speaks with much less of a slur than before. Rock’s really classin’ up the joint here.
13:08: Man, Rocky and Adrian’s bedroom has the same tacky luxury as the Hills’ in Goodfellas.
16:02: Rocky’s fighting a charity match against a wrestler named Thunderlips, played by none other than a pre-racism allegations Hulk Hogan. Call me crazy, but all the “Mountain of molten lust” stuff makes me think Val Venis stole his character from Rocky III.
16:56: Is Hogan that much taller than Stallone? I’m looking this up.
17:35: Damn, I know this is probably exaggerated in both cases, but Sly’s only 5’10 and the Hulkster is 6’7. That looks about right when they’re stacked against each other.
19:15: Thunderlips keeps calling Rocky meatball. Looks like Hogan was into pejorative slurs even back then!
19:42: It’s never clarified whether or not this fight is supposed to be staged, but even if it is, the vertical suplex and Thunderlips wailing on all those people in the audience seems unnecessarily intense (and very cool).
20:14: Damn, Mickey’s having a heart attack and Thunderlips is beating up everyone in sight. “Out of the way, worms!” he screams. This is gloriously insane. He even hits Paulie! The whole thing feels like something we’d see in a Conan film.
23:37: As if things couldn’t get any crazier, we’re now back at Rocky’s mansion, where he’s driving a Model T (or some other type of old-timey car) and telling his son that Pinocchio’s ears grow when he lies. A little bit later, Goldilocks and the Three Bears ends with Goldilocks getting busted for trespassing. The champ needs to brush up on his fairytales.
26:28: The metafiction continues with Rocky being disgusted by the real-life statue of him in Philadelphia. This movie’s fairly subversive in its self-hatred — no small feat for a Rocky film.
29:30: Whoa, Lang really goes for the throat by propositioning Adrian. I like his refusal to play by the rules.
31:55: The plot thickens as Mickey reveals he purposely booked opponents that he knew Rocky could beat. He astutely points out that luxury has made him soft, that the worst thing that could happen to a fighter is for them to get civilized. Deep stuff.
34:19: And yet Rocky still doesn’t listen! For his personalized training gym, he commissions impressionist paintings of his fight with Creed, weight-lifting demos for old people, and a self-playing piano. As Mickey would say, “This is a coicus!”
36:22: This all contrasts with footage of Lang training the old-fashioned way.
39:00: Creed is back! And he has a little more humility to boot. I love how good-natured he and Rocky are with each other.
40:34: This is getting grueling. I’m fairly sure Mickey’s going to die of a heart attack, and he’s still kicking Rocky around. “Get out there and do it,” he growls when the big ape insists on canceling the fight. A badass ’til the end.
42:26: The fight’s about to begin, and Lang barely even acknowledges Creed. There’s something special about villains who are only in it for themselves. I know I keep making other pop-culture comparisons, but it’s the same outlook shared by Marlo Stanfield in The Wire.
46:16: Some much-improved punching sound effects here — just bone-crunching.
49:45: As if Rocky losing to Lang weren’t miserable enough, he returns to the locker room to find Mickey on his deathbed. He even lies to the old guy and says he won the match so his mentor can die in peace.
50:28: When Stallone cries, it’s as if the newer, well-coiffed Rocky Balboa melts away and the original one comes out, slobbering and moaning like the animal he is. He’s been pretending for far too long.
51:27: I get that they want to give Mickey a respectful interment ceremony, but why not just cremate him and dump the ashes into one of Rocky’s punching bags? That seems more fitting.
55:35: “Hard words from a hard man,” says the newscaster about Lang. Did The Waterboy rip off that quote for this scene?
101:26: Creed takes Rocky to his gym to train, and Paulie starts almost immediately with the racist remarks. He should hang out with Thunderlips! Sorry, that was a low blow. Anyway, he insists that Rocky “can’t dance to this jungle junk music.” Even under misinformed racist terms, I don’t think “Eye of the Tiger” would ever count as stereotypical black music.
108:45: Carl Weathers rocking the midriff. His performance in Happy Gilmore always makes me forget how jacked he was in the ’70s and ’80s.
1:16:47: When Creed and Rocky are running on the beach, it’s clear the former has thigh muscles where there shouldn’t be thigh muscles.
1:17:56: Rocky yanks Paulie into the water while he’s swimming. What a clown!
1:19:27: So I guess “I pity the fool” came from this and not The A-Team? My trivia knowledge about Mr. T is embarrassingly minimal.
Meanwhile in the locker room, Creed tells Rocky he owes him a favor after the match is over. What is this mysterious favor? Could it be training his son, played by Michael B. Jordan, to be a good boxer after he’s gone?
1:24:43: Fight time. No talking.
1:32:39: The boxing stayed hard and fast until the end, a far cry from the first two films where the two fighters essentially wear each other out.
1:35:04: Rocky wins against Lang and does his favor for Creed. But who wins their match? I guess I’ll have to wait until I watch IV to find out. In about two seconds.
Final: With Rocky III, Stallone — once again taking on both writing and directing duties after II — intentionally injects excess, materialism, and humor into the franchise, all of which add a bit of variety while also setting up the characters for a hard-hitting lesson in greed. The film knows exactly how batshit it is, and at a certain point, pulls off the dazzling trick of switching from pure ’80s fun to stripped-down morality reminiscent of the first two films. Best of all, it deepens Rock’s relationship with just about everyone who’s close to him, most notably Apollo Creed and Mickey (RIP, Mick). My personal favorite of the sequels.
Click ahead to join us for Rocky IV.
ROCKY IV (1985)
4:52 p.m. Ding! (or however you say “Ding!” in Russian)
0:05: Still no MGM tiger, huh?
1:03: These opening flashbacks are getting crazier and crazier, especially with Creed’s (and soon to be Rocky’s) trainer, Duke, yelling in slow motion.
1:47: I meant to write this at the end of the last film, but I love how enthusiastically Duke hops into the ring once Rocky wins.
5:04: When Mickey died, Rocky reverted to slobbering animal mode, and I’m glad to see Stallone has kept that for this next go-around.
6:08: THE ROBOT! I’ve waited so long, and it’s finally here. What a weird birthday present for Paulie. And the ’80s robot in 2011’s The Muppets is definitely riffing on this, right? Whoa, that’s yet another Muppet connection to the Rocky series. Can we get a whole movie that’s a buddy comedy between Paulie and the ‘bot?
6:27: Rocky’s son seems like an insufferable little shit.
7:45: It would have been easy to send Rock and Ade’s relationship down the shitter as he got more famous, so I appreciate that their love stays genuine.
9:24: There’s another robot in this film: Dolph Lundgren’s Ivan Drago. Lundgren is in the Expendables series. Stallone is in the Expendables series. Has Weathers been in the Expendables series? If not, he should be.
11:17: Drago uses Predator-like thermal imaging and body chemistry to help train. Also, I’m looking it up, and in real life, Lundgren has a 160 IQ. Is this a boxing movie or a sci-fi movie?
17:02: Rocky wisely observes that Apollo doesn’t really want to fight Drago — he wants to fight himself. I like this midlife crisis a lot better than the Cold War metaphor, which only seems to be getting more ham-fisted as the film goes on. Also, did they ever say who won their impromptu bout at the end of the last film?
20:13: Lots of freeze frames in the fourth movie.
22:21: Even the music in this one has gone full sci-fi. It’s something you’d hear in a Terminator, Transformers, or even Carpenter film rather than a Rocky film.
22:55: Drago’s wife (Bridget Nielsen!) has a sinister smirk on her. Does she know her husband is going to kill Creed? Spoiler alert: I already know that Drago kills Creed. Blame Pusha T quoting Drago for that one.
23:10: The American jingoism at the exhibition match is pretty stupid — didn’t we get away from this kind of stuff at the end of the last movie? However, I do appreciate how Drago looks overwhelmed and appalled by it. Out of all of Rocky’s opponents, he’s the most cold, logical, and field-stripped.
24:24: James Brown??? And he doesn’t even play one of his best songs. Between this, the giant bull head, and the ugly patriotism, I don’t blame Drago for wanting to kill Creed.
27:26: “The Count of Monte Fisto.” That’s Creed’s best nickname, hands down.
32:37: Here comes the death blow. I’m surprised we don’t get another slow-motion “Nooo!” from Duke. Stallone really loves adding that device for dramatic effect.
32:40: “I defeat all man.” “If he dies, he dies.” Drago doesn’t talk much, but when he does, he makes it count.
36:36: Rocky was really critical of the Creed/Drago match and seemed to roll his eyes at all the overblown American imagery. But now, as he gears up to take revenge on Drago on Russian soil, he seems to embrace his status as the country’s hero. I’m unclear on what the film is trying to say about the Cold War and each country’s role in it.
41:36: Since Rocky’s license plate is missing a “U,” I thought that SOTHPAW read SLOTHPAW which would be equally cool.
42:45: Too many flashbaaacks…
46:41: Rocky explaining fighting to his son has real warmth and vulnerability, an essential departure from the rest of the movie’s exhausting maximalism.
“Don’t forget to feed your robot,” Rocky tells Paulie before he heads to Russia. I wonder if Stallone inadvertently inspired the Nano Pet and Tamagotchi.
48:08: The classic, minor-key version of “Gonna Fly Now” works well until Rocky solemnly walks past the robot. That kind of just kills the whole thing.
52:35: We’re in Russia now, and I actually like Paulie having to deal with his xenophobia head-on. Additionally, the wintry somberness contrasts well with all the James Brown/Uncle Sam/robot madness we’ve seen so far. I would have no problem if the rest of this movie was just Rocky holed up in this Soviet farmhouse gearing up for the Drago fight.
54:43: It feels weird that Duke is suddenly so prominent as Rocky’s trainer, but Tony Burton really makes it work.
57:01: This is kind of a neat montage, with Rocky doing all this old-fashioned training like hauling horse-carts through the snow while Drago does his absurd body-chemistry, Predator-vision thing. And holy Hell does this score sound an awfully lot like the one for Transformers: The Movie (’80s cartoon, not Michael Bay). And lo and behold, the same man composed them both! Admittedly, Vince DiCola’s music seems way more appropriate when it’s scoring robots beating the shit out of each other than a sports drama. Then again, Rocky IV kind of does feature metaphorical robots beating the shit out of each other, not to mention the actual robot at Paulie’s house. Anyway, here’s a supercut of the Transformers music if you want to compare the two:
103:32: There have been two separate montages for almost seven minutes straight now, separated only by a tender scene where Adrian comes to visit. What was a flourish in the first two films has now become a crutch. There are smarter ways to develop a story.
1:05:42: Paulie’s speech to Rocky before the fight is heartfelt and suddenly makes him not as much of a sister-abusing asshole. I’m realizing how sad he is as a character.
1:07:05: Drago’s entrance music sounds like the THX sound test. Comparison time, round two! First, listen to this:
And now this:
THX was founded two years before the film, but I don’t think they started doing the sound-test thing until the ’90s (correct me if I’m wrong).
1:11:50: Fight time! No typing.
1:16:10: Look out, Rocky’s son! There’s a creepy robot dressed as Santa behind ya! On a side note, I don’t like that the music is playing the whole time during the fight. The series’ boxing matches are much more effective (and realistic) when they’re scored by nothing except the cheers of the crowd and the thud of glove on muscle.
1:23:28: The music finally cuts out for some raw punching, but at this point, everything feels padded. Did we need all these bells and whistles (and montages) to get to what’s more or less the standard ending for a Rocky film?
1:25:31: “In here, there’s two guys killing each other, but I guess that’s better than 20 million. I can change. You can change. Everybody can change.” Did Rocky just end the Cold War, a war he didn’t once mention throughout the rest of the movie?
Final: It seems that Rocky IV is a fan-favorite, so I know I’m going to get shit for this, but for me, it’s the first chink in the armor. III does such a nice job of building up the ridiculousness, then driving home the point that you don’t need any of it. It’s only when Rocky cuts out all the distractions from his life that he’s able to defeat Clubber Lang.
In that way, IV feels like a cynical cash-grab, a fuck-you to III. When the film begins, Rocky’s back in overindulgence mode (he buys his brother-in-law a fucking robot, for Christ’s sake!), and the script is super unclear about how he (and the rest of us) are supposed to feel about all the Cold War business. I realize that was a much more timely thing back then, but the film never has the balls (“cojones!”) to fully tackle it. Is Rocky doing this for Creed or his country? And if it’s both, why doesn’t he mention his wish to resolve the Russian-American rivalry earlier on in the film?
Also, it’s kind of shitty that it takes nothing more than a single boxing match with an American to make the Russians realize the error of their ways. I know it’s just a Rocky movie, but it gives the protagonist (and us as a collective country) way too much credit. At the end of the day, this is a film that embraces a pretty severe political ideology without addressing it with in any kind of realism. And despite a cool villain, a heartbreaking end for Creed, and some extravagant montages, the whole thing just feels silly. The worst of the series.
Click ahead to join us for Rocky V.
ROCKY V (1990)
11:04 p.m. Feeling a little punch-drunk…
Real quick, I want to mention that right after IV, I went to go have dinner at a friend’s house while we watched Masters of the Universe. In other words, it was a Dolph Lundgren kind of night, and watching two of his films back to back made me realize how much variety he brings to his tough-guy roles. No joke! He-Man, despite his brute strength, has a welcoming nobility to his character, where Drago is chilly and relentless. Lundgren’s way more talented than people sometimes give him credit for. Anyway, back to Rocky.
0:55: No tiger. Another flashback.
5:46: When Rocky gets back to the States, he’s greeted by a marching-band version of “Gonna Fly Now”. Does that mean his theme exists as an actual song in the world of the film, too? My brain hurts.
10:26: “Maybe I’ll take you upstairs and violate you like a parking meter,” Rocky says to Adrian. He’s embracing his slob status more than ever these days. That being said, it’s nice to see him back in cornball (or is it creepy?) family mode.
13:42: I’m glad to see Bill Conti back on music. No offense to Vince DiCola, whose work I also love. He just doesn’t belong in a Rocky film.
15:40: It’s after midnight, and this legal jargon about Rocky losing his fortune is starting to wear on me…
23:52: Shit, I fell asleep for a little while. Oh well, I’m not rewinding.
24:20: This dream sequence/hallucination with Mickey is a bit heavy-handed, but hey, anything to bring back Burgess Meredith, even if it’s only for a few minutes.
27:03: Sign o’ the times — there’s some New Jack Swing music in this Rocky film.
33:07: Wow, not only is Rocky bankrupt, but they’re having him move back to the exact same neighborhood, house, and gym from the first film. Far-fetched for sure, but I appreciate how they’re returning to John G. Avildsen’s hardscrabble aesthetic after the techno-maximalism of IV.
34:50: When Duke (George Washington Duke, not Duke Evers) asks Rocky to fight Union Cane (himself a pale imitation of Clubber Lang), it feels especially like the first film. We’ve got the stark winter, we’ve got the fish food. We’ve even got Adrian in awkward frantic mode once more.
39:07: ’90s bullies are addictive in how much you love to hate them. They have zero complexity, and they always come with mullets and rat tails. I hope Rocky’s son, Robert (I think that’s the first time I caught his name), kicks the shit out of them.
42:50: “For an Italian kid, you’ve got a nice butt.” Are Italian men known for having unimpressive asses?
50:23: Stallone’s really amping up the gorillaness of his performance. I guess the old neighborhood just brings it out in him.
51:41: At least the dated New Jack Swing music is only playing in the background, not as part of the incidental score. If we’re being fair, there would be NJS echoing from the schoolyard around this time.
54:17: I’ve read that Stallone views V as a bona fide cash grab on his part, but I’ve gotta say, he’s going for broke with his performance.
56:14: Hmmm, I like this new fighter Tommy Gunn so far (seems like a nice galoot from Oklahoma), but he’s definitely not reading the room when it comes to Robert. Stallone goes to great lengths to plant some seeds of jealousy during the training montage. Is the final fight going to be between Lil’ Rocky and Tommy Gunn? I hope so. After all, the latter does have a mullet.
57:04: Paulie is more or less a functioning alcoholic at this point, which makes sense.
1:00:48: Once again, we get a key plot point (Tommy Gunn’s ascent to fame) accomplished entirely through a montage.
1:02:28: Until seeing the magazine cover with his name, I thought it was Union Crane, not Union Cane. I think Union Crane would have been a much cooler moniker.
1:03:10: Calling Tommy Gunn Tommy “The Machine” Gunn seems redundant. Isn’t Tommy Gunn already a pun in itself?
1:04:03: Hey, it’s National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation! Of course Rocky gets a kick out of seeing Clark Griswold punch Santa. Stray thought: until semi-recently, I thought Uncle Lewis in that film was played by Burgess Meredith, not William Hickey.
1:06:00: Having beaten one of them up, Robert’s hanging out with the bullies now. He’s also wearing a dangly earring. Does this mean he’s becoming a bully?
1:09:10: Jesus, I’m reading about Sage Stallone’s troubled relationship with his father in real life and how he was channeling that in this scene where he yells at his pops for neglecting him. That, along with Sage’s 2012 death, make this really hard to watch.
1:12:37: Rocky warns Tommy about Duke (let’s just call him Washington to avoid confusion with Duke Evers) being a vampire. Tommy shoots back with, “I ain’t you and you ain’t Mick. When you gonna understand that?” Truer words, Tommy. Also, are they setting him up to be the true villain of the film? Because that would be cool and unexpected.
1:15:30: Adrian gives Rock some valuable words of advice: “You beat ’em with heart, not muscle. If you have something to pass on, pass it on to your son.” I like her analysis of Rocky trying to relive his youth through Tommy when he probably shouldn’t. It’s territory that hasn’t been explored by the series yet.
1:18:56: Sorry, to keep harping on this, but I’m continuing to read about Sage and his dad’s relationship, and it’s breaking my heart. Here’s a quote from a People article around the time of his death:
“When I was screaming: ‘You never spent time with me! You never spent time with my mother!’ that was true. I was looking into my father’s face and really saying that,” Sage, whose parents split in 1985 amid rumors of Sylvester’s affairs, said at the time. “I got a lot of things out. We broke into tears a few times. After the film, everything changed. We’d do anything for each other.”
1:21:49: Alright, Union Cane gets knocked out almost right away. That means Tommy Gunn is most definitely the antagonist from here on out. Rocky’s created a monster.
1:27:52: Goddamnit, now I’m reading about how the guy who played Tommy Gunn was a real-life fighter who died of AIDS. No more Wikipediaing, Dan, at least not until the movies are over.
1:28:31: I know people hate this about the film, but I love, love, love that the final fight takes place on the street and not in the ring. It feels like Rocky going back to his pre-fame roots.
1:30:34: It was only a matter of time before Paulie got hit.
1:34:18: Damn it, the cheesy music almost sinks this sequence, but I love the schizoid collage with Mickey yelling at Rocky, Drago killing Creed, and all the neon blood and black-and-white memories. Very Tim & Eric and a wonderfully bug-nuts way to end this movie.
1:36:04: “Knock the bum out! He took my room!” Robert’s been waiting for this moment since he first laid eyes on Tommy Gunn.
1:37:55: “Goddamn. Only in America.” You’ve got that right, Washington.
1:38:34: The priest is back to watch (and not stop) the fight! Speak some more Latin, please.
1:40:15: “I love almost everybody.” Just not Tommy Gunn.
Final: I’m calling it: Rocky V is leagues above Rocky IV. It’s got its problems, sure, mainly in Rocky’s far-fetched financial reset, and a final fight that almost jumps the shark with its length and music. At the same time, though, the concept of the student becoming the villain feels new to the series, and I love that the script brings Rocky back to his rough-and-tumble, working-class roots. Him brawling in the street with the entire community egging him on is unquestionably scummy, but also frees up Balboa to embrace the lovable slob inside himself. That scrappy underdog part of his soul is something he’ll never be able to escape, no matter how rich he gets.
Click ahead to join us for Rocky Balboa.
ROCKY BALBOA (2006)
12:44 a.m. Out for the count.
Shit, I nodded off right as the credits started rolling for V, and Balboa started playing automatically. I woke up to discover that Adrian has died! Restarting it now.
Somewhat unrelated, but I’m finding that I’m able to focus on each one pretty sharply after a little power nap, even though it’s late. The Rocky films don’t exactly demand a lot from you intellectually.
1:05: Looks like this is the first one not to begin with a flashback. Thank God!
3:45: The turtles … are all that’s left of Adrian. This is a genuine bummer.
4:12: There’s that melancholy version of “Gonna Fly Now”. Glad to see Bill Conti’s returned.
4:56: Every Rocky film has a handful of tiny, idiosyncratic details that make the characters distinct. Here, it’s our hero keeping a foldout chair in the tree next to Adrian’s grave. That’s actually pretty practical. Also, Burt Young’s absolutely breaking my heart as Paulie. Amazing how he can be such a prick yet so sympathetic. I knew being mean to his sister would eventually come back to haunt him.
6:58: I could be wrong, but this feels like the first Rocky movie to rely on handheld cameras more than the Steadicam. It enhances the melancholy grit.
7:45: I wonder how many times Stallone has taken that exact same photo with fans on the street. And was Sage Stallone ever up for a return as Robert? Whatevs, I’ll settle for Milo Ventimiglia, even if he is a little too conventionally handsome to be a Balboa.
9:38: There’s something sad yet dignified about how Rocky caters to his fans with old war stories and lets former opponents (including his first, Spider Rico!) eat for free.
11:46: I love how this movie isn’t afraid to recognize that Rocky the character and Rocky the series have both become legacy acts. That allows Stallone to pave some new ground with the story.
13:50: Adrian’s face materializing on Rocky’s stoop like the ghost of Jacob Marley is a little creepy and out of place.
14:31: Not the ice-skating rink, too! Everything good in this world has died. For once, I’m with Paulie — all of this revisiting the past is getting too depressing.
17:41: And Marie is that girl Rocky walked home in the first film, right? Rocky Balboa is really getting deep with the references.
20:35: “You punch-drunk goofy bastard.” That’s mean, but also an accurate description of Rocky these days.
21:24: Rocky threatening the guy with a mere pullback of a punch — not the punch itself — is a nice touch.
26:59: Spider’s now washing dishes to pay off his meal tab. Good on you, Spider.
27:56: Of course the douchey bro bar Robert and his coworkers are hanging at is playing The Killers.
28:50: Current champion Mason Dixon has been “spoon-fed opponents.” Mickey said the same about Rocky in III.
30:44: Robert’s friends call him “Baby Rocky.” That’s especially stinging since Sage Stallone had a hard time stepping out of his real-life father’s shadow, so much that he’s not even in this film to reprise his role.
35:25: Rocky’s restaurant comprehensively honors the series’ mythology. It’s even got the watercolor painting of him and Creed fighting from III.
47:57: As much as I appreciate the realistic, downtrodden nature of the film, things are really starting to get slow. I don’t need to see Dixon pleading with the boxing commission or whoever they are to let him fight Rocky in an exhibition match. Let’s just make it happen!
52:53: JUST START TRAINING ALREADY, PLEEEAAASE.
1:02:31: I never thought I’d say this, but I want more montages. MORE MONTAGES. We’re an hour in and there hasn’t been a single montage (or a single real boxing match, for that matter).
1:06:35: Duke! Duke is back, and his pep talk is revving me up. “Let’s start building some hurtin’ bombs,” he says. And then “Gonna Fly Now” kicks in. Now we’re talking.
1:09:55: Rocky running up the Museum of Art’s steps is even better when he has a raggedy-ass dog at his side.
1:10:15: Like III, Rocky Balboa starts off as a different kind of film, then sheds its robe to become a full-blown, traditional Rocky sequel. I love it.
1:13:42: The punch sound effects between Rocky and Dixon sound better than any of the previous sequels.
1:16:19: The kind of lame, kind of awesome, kind of Italian “High Hopes” (Frank Sinatra edition) is just about perfect for Rocky’s entrance music.
1:17:47:, And Dixon gets Three 6 Mafia! Mafia, mafia!
1:20:01: The fight’s starting. You know what that means.
1:28:07: More slow-mo exclamations, this time from Paulie. I know this is supposed to mimic the effect of being punch-drunk, but if there’s one thing I’d omit from every Rocky movie, it would be the slow-motion yelling.
1:38:10: Like the first film, Rocky loses again, but doesn’t care. Actually, he didn’t even care from the beginning in this one. It was more about proving he could step back into the ring at all.
1:36:12: I’m not even lying — Rocky kissing Adrian’s headstone at the end is making me tear up. I’m putting myself in his shoes, imagining if this ends up happening to me or my wife someday (it will, as one person always has to go first). He kisses the cold granite tenderly, but it must feel so different from the real thing, a stark reminder that the person you love isn’t there anymore and never will be. I know it’s probably supposed to be a happy moment for him, but … Jesus Christ, just get me a tissue.
Final: In its first half, Rocky Balboa almost falls victim to being too realistic. Stallone becomes so concerned with showing us how down in the dumps our hero is (and let’s face it, that’s exactly the state he would be in these days) that he stalls on giving us the kind of persevering fun that every Rocky film before it delivers. Also, I’d scrap the stuff with Marie in favor of making Mason Dixon more distinct. Real-life boxer Antonio Tarver gamely slips on his acting gloves, but the film doesn’t exactly give him a lot of personality or things to do, thus making him Rocky’s least-memorable opponent.
Still, once he and Rocky finally decide to fight, the bout becomes all the more riveting thanks to the film’s front-loaded sense of introspection and entropy. Rocky Balboa knows that, at this point in his life, its protagonist has to settle for small victories. But small victories, whether it’s stepping into the ring for one last exhibition match or taking steps to reconnect with your son, can sometimes mean the world.
Alright, I’m tired as stray dog-shit, but there’s one thing left to do: rankings. Here they be:
02. Rocky III
03. Rocky II
04. Rocky Balboa
05. Rocky V
06. Rocky IV
And while we’re at it, let’s rank Rocky’s main opponents from each film:
01. Apollo Creed
02. Clubber Lang
03. Tommy Gun
04. Ivan Drago
05. Mason Dixon
That’s it! I’m battered and bloodied from 10 hours’ worth of boxing films, and despite my swollen eyelids, I feel like a champ, a champ who desperately needs some shuteye. Goodnight, yo!
Artwork by Tommy Castle.