ROCKY Film Franchise Review: Immortalizing The Underdog Story Over A Generation
While underdog films have been refined to a formula, (scrappy protagonist, succeeds against all odds due to large heart and plucky determination) the origins of that trope can easily be traced down to the ‘Rocky’ film franchise. It may not have been the first film of its kind to feature that trope, but definitely was the most memorable. Created by the original Hollywood beefcake (him or Arnold, it’s debatable) Sylvester Stallone, the ‘Rocky’ movies redefined the underdog story with each of its subsequent films, completing a circle of the archetype, over a generation.
With the recent release and incredible critical success (that leaves me giddy as hell) of ‘Creed’, a spin off of the ‘Rocky’ films, I think it would be interesting to take a look at all the films of that franchise and see how they hold up today.
The original ‘Rocky‘ movie set the tone for the rest of the franchise. the titular character, played by Sylvester Stallone, is a 30 year old man working as a collector for a local loan shark in Philadelphia. At one time in his life, Rocky aspired to be a professional boxer, but never having gotten his ‘shot a the big time’, and being well passed his prime now, he has no other prospects. The story mostly follows the menial live of Rocky, being unfulfilled at never amounting to anything, with the only bright spot in his life being Adrian, (Talia Shire) the local pet shop girl he has a crush on.
Through blind luck, Rocky gets a shot at the Boxing Heavyweight Champion, played by Carl Weathers, looking more for a spectacle than any serious competition. Seeing the shot that he’s been waiting all his life for, Rocky decides to give it his all, not to win, but to be able to have no regrets going forward in his life. It’s a story about pursuing your dreams for self satisfaction alone, and not any other outcome. That’s a theme that’s very prevalent in the rest of the franchise, and what makes ‘Rocky’ a movie more about dreams and inspiration, than a boxing or sports film.
Incredibly, Stallone wrote the film with a lot of sensitivity, and his depiction of Rocky is equally sweet and tragic. The muscle bound hulk plays the character like a pussy cat. The innocence of Rocky, bordering almost on mentally challenged, makes this one of the most unique and iconic characters of cinematic history. The stark contrast of being involved in a violent sport, but having the character be a literal nice guy, soft spoken who doesn’t want to hurt a fly, is what separates Rocky Balboa from other ‘badass’ sport film protagonists.
ROCKY II (1979)
At it’s heart, the sequel to the original film, is a love story. After going all the way (not like that you dirty creeps) with the Champion Apollo Creed, played by Carl Weathers, Rocky retires from boxing and makes a go at a nice domestic life with his new wife Adrian (Talia Shire). Rocky went toe to toe with the Champion and was satisfied with his progress enough to put Boxing out of his life forever. However, the normalcy of everyday life, with his limited education and no potential in any employment beyond manual labour, disparages Rocky, making him realize the one thing he’s actually good at.
‘Rocky II‘ is a chick flick at its finest. The entire movie is a slow drip of unspoken emotions and essentially playing the character’s less than stellar intellect and naivety for audience sympathy, and it works brilliantly. The film moves at a very slow pace, almost a crawl to properly reflect the despair felt within the character. The film focuses more on Rocky’s passion, and not being able to live it, regardless of the success he’s achieved through it.
The first film focused on ‘getting a shot’ just to prove himself, while the sequel focuses on not being able to live your passion, regardless of success or failure. The sweeter parts of the film revolve around his relationship with Adrian, and how her disapproval affects him both mentally and emotionally, even after he decides to step back into the ring. Talia Shire’s Adrian, and the love story between them is one of the foundations of the ‘Rocky’ franchise, and that is made evident and clear as day in the sequel.
ROCKY III (1982)
The first two films of the ‘Rocky‘ franchise dealt with inner turmoil and some inspirational, over coming of odds aspects, with stories that are interwoven with one another. By the third movie though, things start becoming pretty damn formulaic, and a clear on-screen routine is followed: There’s an initial boxing match which Rocky loses. Then there is some inner conflict, he has to resolve them with the help of his wife, followed by an intense montage sequence, culminating in a rematch to destroy the bad guy in a glorious battle.
‘Rocky III‘ loses a lot of its steam thematically from the first two films, as it becomes more about beat downs and revenge, than any other moral beyond the events on the screen. While the first films had a message that was universal, the third film is more in-story and about these characters and their own history. The premise is also very straight forward; Rocky gets bested by a better fighter, and needs to change his entire style of fighting to come back and win his belt back. The only progression in the story from the previous films is the relationship between Rocky and his long time trainer Micky, played by Meredith Burgess as well as his new friendship with former rival Apollo Creed.
It’s not as deep of a concept as the previous films, but it’s still entertaining enough to enjoy viewing and essentially works as a typical underdog story that just hits all the plot beats to keep the story moving forward. The portrayal of Rocky changes slightly in this movie, as he no longer seems like the innocent and naive Rocky from the streets, but an expensive suit wearing tough guy. Even the sequences depicting Rocky’s inner turmoil are output through violent aggression instead of the quiet frustration and child-like confusion in the previous films.
ROCKY IV (1985)
The blockbuster cinematic elements continue with the fourth film in the franchise, which is a true 80’s film. Wanting to return to the limelight, Apollo Creed is killed in an exhibition match with a new Russian boxer, and Rocky is out for revenge. This isn’t a spoiler, it happens 20 minutes into the movie. Agreeing to fight the Russian giant on Russian soil, Rocky goes against Adrian’s wishes, and isolates himself in an icy cabin in Russia to get vengeance over his friend’s death, by pushing his limits to the extreme. Obviously, Adrian joins him and supports him at one point, giving him the motivation he needs to succeed. The movie is a very 80’s film, playing on Russian-American conflicts, as well as patriotic and nationalistic elements sprinkled in throughout.
‘Rocky IV’ completely strays from the general premise and elements that made the ‘Rocky‘ franchise unique. The story has no theme at all regarding any sort of conflict or turmoil, but is an all out revenge film, with some American propaganda thrown in for good measure. Rocky’s reasons for fighting Drago are flimsy. His training sequences in the snowy woods are unnecessary, but more for contrast to the hi-tech methods of Drago. And over all, this is not at all the Rocky that we know and love, as Stallone has now fully transformed into the character he plays in other action films of his; the brooding and intense action hero, instead of the quiet gentle giant.
ROCKY V (1990)
Finally! The ‘Rocky‘ franchise comes back on track with the fifth film in the franchise, which has little to nothing to do with boxing at all. After losing all their money due to a fraudulent accountant, Rocky and Adrian have to return to their small and humble beginnings in the same neighborhood they started, struggling as middle class citizens. Adding to this the fact that Rocky has irreversable brain damage that prevents him from ever boxing again, their financial situation is permanent. Re-opening the old gym where he used to train, they settle into this life, worried about the son’s ability to survive on the streets, given the comfortable upbringing he’s had. This doesn’t last long as Rocky discovers an up and coming boxer, deciding to train him, neglecting his family in the process.
‘Rocky V’ is a glorious return to the thematic elements of the franchise that were sorely missing from the previous 2 films. There is almost no boxing at all in this movie, as the focus is more on Rocky’s life at home, and more significantly, his relationship with his now adolescent son. Being a mentor for the first time to a new boxer, Rocky spending all his time with this kid, means he’s completely blowing off his own kid, who has had to learn to survive on the new streets by himself. This causes bitterness and resentment towards his dad, and plenty of friction in their otherwise close relationship. A plot point that will be very well put to use in the final film of the franchise as well.
ROCKY BALBOA (2006)
Ditching the roman numerals, (thank God!) after a 16 year gap, the last Rocky movie of the franchise slides into our hearts, and almost rekindles the love for the story and character, near the butt end of his life. Now over 50 years old, Rocky own’s an Italian eatery in his old neighborhood, with patrons who are interested in hearing about the Champs’ old stories. Estranged from his son, (now grown up as Peter Patrelli from ‘Heroes’ himself) played by Milo Ventimiglia, Rocky tries to live life without the love of his life. Adrian is no more, and her loss leaves Rocky with a heavy heart. Seeing the big burly Stallone break down over his wife’s death… just gets me all misty. I need a minute just thinking about it.
‘Rocky Balboa’ is the last film of the Rocky franchise, made at a time when the sport of boxing has drastically changed. The antagonist in this movie is nowhere near as interesting or deserving as every other Rocky movie. But that’s not the only weakness of the film. In an attempt to do a boxing movie for a new generation, the in-ring action sequences are completely different than what we’ve ever seen in a Rocky movie. Imitating the substance and tone of the usual pay-per view like coverage of the sport that is more common today the movie completely de-cinematizes the in ring choreography to make it seem more like real, instead of stylized and choreographed for dramatic impact, as should be the case.
That takes me out of the movie and completely ruins the experience of a Rocky movie, as the visual tone looks nothing reminiscent of the franchise. The movie does shine though in the out of ring moments, as Rocky finds an unexpected friend, and reconnects with his son. It’s a sweet and soft end to an amazing franchise.
Stallone may not have a lot of stock in Hollywood beyond his ‘The Expendables’ franchise, and even that is more novelty than genuine box office draw. But the ‘Rocky‘ franchise was his biggest contribution to films and storytelling, as they effectively use the backdrop of a violent sport, to tell heartwarming and endearing stories over a period of 40 years, with characters that grow and evolve over each movie. And that’s something that very few franchises have been able to give us, even today.
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