(On Blu Ray, September 2018) After mostly holding up for three entries, the Rocky series took a serious hit with Rocky IV and became even worse in Rocky V. Within five minutes of the previous film’s conclusion, capricious plotting shows up to ruin everything: Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky is brain-damaged, and suddenly penniless except for a convenient boxing gym. The riches-to-rag story feels like a cheap shot this far in the series (not to mention that it makes no sense for an athlete as famous as Rocky to be suddenly penniless—even the movie itself, later on, has his name plastered on magazine covers) and the result makes for a poor follow-up to the series so far. Five movies in, it feels like a soap opera, not helped along by the nature of the film that spends far too much time around the dinner table and not enough in the ring. We cannot believe in the film’s attempt to return to the humble roots of Rocky’s character, not at this point. There’s a nice narrative fillip in having Rocky be a rather bad mentor and seeing his protégé turn evil, but whatever originality is sought is sabotaged by the execution of the film—The Rocky series has never been about subtlety, but seeing the character of Duke being presented as cartoonishly evil, and the journalists acting as plot explainers is a low for the series. Even the familiar characters behave in dumb ways, with Rocky not quite noticing his neglect of his suddenly teenage son, Adrian keeping her emotions in check until her mandatory once-a-movie shouting scene and brother-in-law Paulie is just an idiot (who also got rid of his robot). Annoyances abound—I still can’t fit rap music in the pre-Creed Rocky universe, and the ending street fight seems to step out of the series as well—and the film’s execution seems perfunctory at best. No wonder Rocky V is often left off from movie marathons of the series.
(On Blu Ray, September 2018) If the first three Rocky movies have an admirable consistency to them (sure, the first one is considerably more realistic, but the second and third volumes do provide satisfaction to viewers), the same absolutely cannot be said about Rocky IV, which jumps all sorts of sharks to include a robot assistant and have Rocky win the Cold War in order to avenge the death of a friend. Whew. How did we get here? It’s not as if the film is terrible … it’s that it’s got those weird things to it that make it easier to dismiss. Picking up once again by repeating the last few minutes of the previous film, Rocky IV has a dumb birthday interlude (introducing the robot!) before things get underway, as a Soviet boxer comes to compete with American heavyweights and Apollo Creed answers the call out of sheer boredom. Things don’t go well, and Rocky suddenly thirsts for revenge, travelling all the way to the USSR to teach the communist empire a lesson. The classic montage scenes contrasting the honest American way and the cheating Soviet one is a classic (I recall seeing it in class in the 1990s because my classmates used it to illustrate some dubious high-schooler thesis on dehumanization) even though, like much of the film, it doesn’t deal in subtleties. All the Americans are virtuous (although they obviously can’t tolerate a bit of pushback during press interviews), while all the Soviets are duplicitous. So it goes, until a final inarticulate speech in which Rocky promotes world peace and, I suppose, hastens the fall of the USSR. Whew. As an episode of the Rocky series, it does plant seeds that eventually become important in the excellent Creed. As a standalone, though, it has visibly aged faster than most other entries until then, and it doesn’t quite follow from previous episodes in the way that, say, Rocky III did. The plot is formulaic to the point of being laughable, with the training montage taking the place where a second act would go. It’s still reasonably entertaining (Sylvester Stallone does sport a really cool beard at the end of his rural training) and the series regulars all have a moment or two to shine. Still, this is where the series breaks form—and as Rocky V showed, the fallow period was a long one.
(On Blu Ray, September 2018) I may not like Sylvester Stallone or boxing all that much, and most of the Rocky series has left me lukewarm at best, but there’s something surprisingly interesting about this third film in the series and how it evolves naturally from the first two instalments. The opening five minutes is a montage (set to Survivor’s classic “Eye of the Tiger”) that pretty much give Rocky everything he’s ever wanted: Boxing success, a happy family, money and the mastery of the media that so eluded him in the second film. Naturally, there’s only one way to go from there, and after a hilariously mismatched bout with a wrestler, it’s on to a fight with a boxer with more fury and drive than Balboa at that point. As it usually goes in movies, losing means finding oneself, and so steps in Apollo Creed for a third and far more sympathetic turn in as many movies. While Rocky III is seldom less than formulaic, it does evolve with its characters, balance humour and tragedy (even of the melodramatic kind) and ends on a satisfying note, closing off a trilogy of sorts with a full character arc. (It’s interesting that the underdog roles have been switched a few times, but the film is clear about character being the ultimate determinant of valour—the antagonist here is hungry and driven, but ultimately not nice and henceforth inferior to a humbled hero.) Rocky III does have a few other charms, chiefly being a terrific capsule of the early eighties with no less than both Hulk Hogan and Mr. T in early roles. Carl Weathers is once again very good as Apollo Creed, while Sylvester Stallone does put in a few impressive physical scenes in portraying a heavyweight boxer. Even Talia Shire gets a nicely overdramatic sequence to play with, showing how her character too has evolved over three movies. It all amounts to a surprisingly interesting sequel at a time when most series are getting winded. After all, how different can you make movies all ending with a triumphant match?
(On Blu Ray, September 2018) It’s interesting to see how hard Rocky II works at both following its limited protagonist in the aftermath of an unexpected success, and then again to remove much of the pleasant ambiguity of the first film. Whereas
(On Blu Ray, September 2018) Intriguingly enough, Rocky is one of those movies that you think you’ve seen even if you haven’t: It was a massive success, earning both an Oscar and great box-office returns. It made Sylvester Stallone an icon, complete with iconic visuals (arms raised over Philadelphia) and sounds (“ADRIAN!”) It spawned a series of sequels still going forty years later, and is often used as shorthand description of just about every underdog sports drama out there. I may have seen Rocky as a kid, but not, to my recollection, as an adult. Remedying to that, I was struck by how (contrarily to many other movies so popular that you think you’ve seen them even if you haven’t) Rocky is darker than expected yet almost exactly what it says it is. It follows a declining not-too-bright boxer as he’s given a second chance, pursues a girl and dislikes his job as a loan-shark “collection agent.” Stallone is at his Stalloniest as Rocky Balboa, playing a simple character with some nobility. If it works, it’s because Rocky’s sports aspect takes a visible back seat to the character-driven drama: even the premise of a champ giving a chance to an unknown is purely arbitrary, albeit cloaked in good work from Carl Weathers. Talia Shire is cute enough as Adrian, with one good scene toward the end of the film being enough to elevate her role above being simply the romantic interest. Some of director John G. Avildsen’s visual touches are interesting—while most commentary about the film’s visuals focus on the “Rocky Steps” training montage, I was more impressed by a quiet static neighborhood shot showing Rocky hiring his manager, with a train passing in the background as a flourish. Rocky is not subtle, and it’s not sophisticated, but (much like its eponymous character), it’s tough and can absorb a lot of punishment. It holds up, and not just for those who like boxing.
(Video on Demand, March 2016) As a sequel in the Rocky series, Creed is far better than it could have been. Part of the appeal is to shift the perspective from Rocky Balboa to a new protagonist: Michael B. Jordan is very good as the new lead, but Sylvester Stallone turns in an even better performance that taps into the vulnerability of old age, wringing a lot of drama out of seeing a once-invincible protagonist facing down his own mortality. But Creed also works because it’s got a bit more on its mind than simply presenting an underdog boxing story: in its own way, it tackles racial inequality, class issues and romantic entanglements where the two lovers have their own agendas (the woman isn’t simply there as a complement to the male protagonist). It also helps that Ryan Coogler knows how to shoot a movie: The best sequence of the film is a two-round boxing match unbelievably shot as a single take from within the ring, giving a fresh and viscerally compelling look at boxing sequences that are usually stale and familiar. Creed adds up to a worthy generational passing-of-the-torch, an above-average boxing film and a film that dares go a bit beyond the expected to deliver something deeper and better.