Wednesday, 20 January 2016

Film Review: Rocky I - VI (1976-2006)


Source: HD Wallpapers

With Creed now out in European cinemas, I thought it's the perfect time to go back to the roots and have a closer look at the movies that inspired Ryan Coogler's spin-off: the Rocky franchise. Six films, all starring Sylvester Stallone in the lead, were released somewhere between 1976 and 2006, and you can read my mini-reviews for them below.

Many people associate the Rocky cinematic universe with kitsch, pathos and, yes, quite a few implausibilities. However, it is also the franchise of uplifting, heartfelt emotions, fantastic boxing choreographies and masterfully crafted movie montages. Not to mention all the lovely characters that make you invest your own soul completely in their respective journeys. The Rocky movies, for me, are ones of great passion and deliver a powerful message: Never stop pursuing your dreams and standing up for yourself and the ones you love! So, despite some flaws here and there, Rocky is meant to win you over and knock you out with joy and underdog spirit.

I guess you already noticed, I'm a devoted fan. So, if you're looking for some Rocky bashing, you certainly won't find it here. But if you'd like to join me in my celebration of the franchise and my attempt to point out the pros and cons of each respective movie - hey, I'm a critic after all - you've definitely found the right article. Or maybe you'd just like to inform yourself before you hop over to the cinema to watch Creed. Whatever brought you here, let's get ready to rumble!


Rocky (1976)
© MGM Home Entertainment | Source: One Perfect Shot
USA; 120 min.; drama, sport movie | Director:  John G. Avildsen | Writing: Sylvester Stallone | Cinematography: James Crabe | Cast: Sylvester Stallone, Talia Shire, Burt Young, Carl Weathers, Burgess Meredith, Joe Spinell

 "Apollo Creed vs. the Italian Stallion. Sounds like a damn monster movie." -- Apollo Creed

The Gist: Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone), a  small-time boxer and debt collector, feels like the world has turned its back on him. Living hard, without any success or reputation, his self-esteem is at a low point. When his crush, shy and silent Adrian (Talia Shire), finally warms up to him, things begin to have a better outlook - despite Adrian's good-for-nothing brother Paulie (Burt Young) disturbing the harmony. But it's only when Rocky gets the rare chance to fight heavyweight champion Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) that he really sees an opportunity to prove to himself his self-worth and endurance.

Look Who's Talking: Or singing in this case. Sylvester Stallone's musician brother, Frank, features as one of the film's street corner singers, giving a rendition of the popular Rocky song "Take You Back".

The Verdict: The first part of the franchise became a surprise hit and won three Oscars for Best Editing, Best Director and Best Picture. From where I'm standing, the original Rocky really is the best film out of the six, uniting gritty visuals and an atmosphere of hopelessness with an understated, yet intriguing underdog narrative, an instantly likeable, good-natured lead character and a deliciously sweet romantic plot. Rocky's lack of prospects is skilfully visualised, and his final triumph an epic feel-good moment in cinematic history. What has this part stand out amongst its company certainly is the film's ability to make its characters look like everyday people with everyday struggles, and then have them find their happiness not in money or countable victories, but in self-respect and mutual affection. In Rocky, love is all you need, for yourself and your dear ones.

The Rating:


Rocky II (1979)
© MGM Home Entertainment | Source: Daily Snark
USA; 119 min.; drama, sport movie | Director:  Sylvester Stallone | Writing: Sylvester Stallone | Cinematography: Bill Butler | Cast: Sylvester Stallone, Talia Shire, Burt Young, Carl Weathers, Burgess Meredith, Tony Burton, Joe Spinell

"I just got one thing to say to my wife at home: Yo, Adrian! I DID IT!" -- Rocky Balboa

The Gist: After going the distance against Apollo, Rocky enjoys life to the fullest. With the money he made from the fight, he buys a car and a house, and marries his beloved Adrian. But marital bliss is not meant to last long. The naive Rocky spends money too fast, forcing him and his wife, now pregnant, to go back to odd-jobbing. Fortunately, Apollo, still humiliated by the fact that Rocky managed to give him such a hard time in the ring, demands a rematch. Rocky accepts, without Adrian's approval. She fears for her husband's well-being. Can Rocky manage to reconcile his passion for boxing with his family life? 

Look Who's Talking: Frank Stallone is back at yet another street corner, singing a love tune for newlywed Rocky and Adrian. 

The Verdict: For part II, Sly Stallone took over the director's chair, a position he would maintain for all the following Rocky films except part V (and Creed). While I find the pace drags a bit and the individual plot elements are slightly redundant, the film still manages to convince by further fleshing out Rocky and Adrian's love and respect for each other, and by presenting a very noteworthy finale. Stallone pushes the training montage to new heights, has a knack for thrilling fight sequences and knows how to orchestrate a nail-biting climax. Rocky II might lack the overall atmospheric perfection and tight narrative of its predecessor but it's still an entertaining and rewarding sequel.

The Rating:


Rocky III (1982)
© MGM Home Entertainment | Source: Cool Ass Cinema
USA; 99 min.; drama, sport movie | Director:  Sylvester Stallone | Writing: Sylvester Stallone | Cinematography: Bill Butler | Cast: Sylvester Stallone, Talia Shire, Burt Young, Carl Weathers, Burgess Meredith, Tony Burton, Mr. T

Adrian: You gotta want to do it for the right reasons. Not for the guilt over Mickey, not for the people, not for the title, not for money or me, but for you. Just you. Just you alone.
Rocky: And if I lose?
Adrian: Then you lose. But at least you lose with no excuses, no fear. And I know you can live with that.

The Gist: Rocky has become a little too comfortable in his skin. He enjoys his fame and reputation instead of taking his training seriously, not realising that a younger generation of boxers is waiting to take him down. When the up-and-coming talent Clubber Lang (Mr. T) defeats him in a title fight, Rocky's motivation is at a low point. Of all people it's former boxing rival Apollo Creed who makes it his mission to bring Rocky back on track and back to the championship title.

Look Who's Talking: Hulk Hogan is featured in a small role as 'Thunderlips', an arrogant wrestling star taking on Rocky in an exhibition fight.

The Verdict: I'll be honest with you. After the film started off with a very much over-the-top, perfectly terrible, atrocious, horrendous - did I mention terrible? - sequence in which Rocky has to protect a boxing audience from out-of-control wrestling maniac 'Thunderlips', I was perfectly sure that the franchise had jumped the shark and that the remaining minutes of the film would be pure torture. Girl, was I wrong! What started off as an exaggerated mess, quickly turned into my second favourite film of the franchise. I love to see Rocky and Apollo team up and form a bromance for the ages. It's not only a nice twist to the established lore, it's also a great opportunity for actor Carl Weathers to shine. He brings charisma and vigour to Apollo, and has wonderful chemistry with Stallone. Furthermore, watching Rocky struggle with his success and the sudden death of his trainer Mickey (Burgess Meredith) is an intriguing storyline. Plus, last but not least, Adrian gets to act like the tough gal that she is by putting Rocky's head right. Throw in the usual fantastic fight sequences, a top-notch training sequence and a thrilling end fight and you're good to go. What's not to love? 

The Rating:       


Rocky IV (1985)
© MGM Home Entertainment | Source: Movieclips
USA; 91 min.; drama, sport movie | Director:  Sylvester Stallone | Writing: Sylvester Stallone | Cinematography: Bill Butler | Cast: Sylvester Stallone, Talia Shire, Burt Young, Carl Weathers, Tony Burton, Dolph Lundgren, Brigitte Nielsen

"I guess what I'm trying to say is, if I can change, and you can change, everybody can change." -- Rocky Balboa

The Gist: When Apollo is killed in an exhibition fight against hard-hitting, ruthless Soviet boxer Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren), Rocky is willing to come out of retirement and seek revenge in the ring. With the Balboa vs. Drago fight to take place in the Soviet Union, Rocky must rely on the support of his family and training staff in order to stand tall in a hostile country miles away from home.

Look Who's Talking: Soul legend James Brown has a cameo appearance, singing "Living in America" for Apollo Creed right before his deadly fight against Drago. Apollo sure went out with a bang - in two different ways.

The Verdict: Released in the final years of the Cold War conflict, Rocky IV tries to function as a comment on the political situation of the time. On the one hand, US American values are celebrated and Soviet values broken down to a negative pile and frowned upon. On the other hand, Rocky, in his final speech, addresses both nations, asking for change and reconciliation. This approach is obviously pretty basic and cliché-ridden. The interpersonal undertones, however, are what makes the film so exciting. Losing Apollo to a conscienceless fight machine is a harsh blow for Rocky. Coming to terms with his death and realising that vengeance won't take away grief is a valuable lesson learnt for the ageing fighter. On a random note, the training montage is one of my favourites. It might not be set in Philadelphia, the usual place, and it might not feature the iconic Rocky song "Gonna fly now", but the snowy Soviet setting and the 80s pop anthem "Hearts on Fire" sure make up for it. Besides, I really like how Rocky's reputation as a strong-willed, spontaneous, hands-on fighter is visualised here in contrast to the clinical, isolated Drago. So, while Rocky IV certainly falls flat in its political ambitions, the story, characters and usual beloved Rocky 'elements' are in good shape, guaranteeing solid entertainment.

The Rating:


Rocky V (1990)
© MGM Home Entertainment | Source: Collider
USA; 104 min.; drama, sport movie | Director:  John G. Avildsen | Writing: Sylvester Stallone | Cinematography: Steven Poster | Cast: Sylvester Stallone, Talia Shire, Burt Young, Sage Stallone, Tony Burton, Tommy Morrison, Richard Gant, Burgess Meredith

"Yo, Tommy! I didn't hear no bell..." -- Rocky Balboa

The Gist: After the Balboas have to declare their bankruptcy due to one of Paulie's (many) mistakes, the family moves back into Rocky's old neighbourhood. The ageing fighter turns to coaching and contributes to the success of newcomer Tommy Gunn (Tommy Morrison). Tommy, however, betrays Rocky's good nature and kindness by signing with greedy manager Duke (Richard Gant). The latter plans to have Balboa and Gunn face off in a fight. Can Rocky resist his sportive passion? And can he regain the respect and love of his estranged son Rocky Jr. (Sage Stallone)? 

Look Who's Talking: Kevin Connolly, famous for his role as Eric in the Entourage franchise, stars as Rocky Jr.'s school rival. He was 16 years old when Rocky V came out.

The Verdict: I have heard so many bad things about this film, and I really don't know what's wrong with people. I actually enjoy it. It counts on nostalgia, evoking memories from the original Rocky - and, in my opinion, does so much better than the 2006 sequel Rocky Balboa. Moving away from the established storyline that always has Rocky return from retirement to defend/win a title, this part is much more about Rocky's life after professional boxing: how he tries to stay in touch with his passion, how he navigates through family life, how he sets his priorities straight. The plot line allows the character to gain more depth and, frankly speaking, I think that Sly delivers one of his best performances as Rocky in this movie. His frustration and passion in boxing matters are just as touching and heartfelt as his sadness over losing his son's confidence as well as the ability to provide a high living standard for his family. I also like the conflict between him and Tommy, and how it brings out Rocky's inherently naive and vulnerable nature. The finale is a downer, though. I give you that. It lacks choreography and doesn't manage to evoke an uplifting feeling like all the previous showdowns, which is a pity, really. 

The Rating:


Rocky Balboa (2006)
© MGM Home Entertainment | Source: Quotes Gram
USA; 102 min.; drama, sport movie | Director:  Sylvester Stallone | Writing: Sylvester Stallone | Cinematography: Clark Mathis | Cast: Sylvester Stallone, Burt Young, Milo Ventimiglia, Tony Burton, Geraldine Hughes, Antonio Tarver, James Francis Kelly III

"But it ain't about how hard you hit, it's about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward, how much you can take and keep moving forward." -- Rocky Balboa

The Gist: Still grieving over the death of his dear Adrian, Rocky is now a retired boxer and a successful restaurant owner - and yet merely a shadow of his old self. His son (Milo Ventimiglia) has a hard time living in his father's shadow and thus distances himself from him. When sports experts begin to fantasise about a fight between Rocky and the current heavyweight champion Mason Dixon (Antonio Tarver), Balboa sees a final chance to fight his inner demons and regain his self-respect.

Look Who's Talking: Boxer Mike Tyson makes a cameo appearance during the Balboa vs. Dixon fight, set in the Mandalay Bay Hotel in Las Vegas. Famous ring announcer Michael Buffer and referee Joe Cortez are also featured. 

The Verdict: When Sly released this sequel 16 years after Rocky V, critics were abuzz with praise. For me, Rocky Balboa is an entertaining, yet so far the weakest addition to the franchise. The homages come across as force-fed here and there, and the plot feels slightly rushed. For this reason, Rocky's motivation to get back into the ring isn't explored thoroughly enough, and Rocky Jr.'s development from angry to loving son seems rather unbelievable. Besides this, Dixon really isn't a memorable antagonist, only a mere plot device. Visually, Sly gives a nod to Sin City (2005) in the final fight sequence, which is kind of irritating. However, having said all this, the blossoming friendship between Rocky and bartender Marie (Geraldine Hughes) is nice to watch, and Rocky's grief over Adrian's passing is heartfelt. And in the end, when he leaves the ring proud, confident and surrounded by his loved ones, I can't help but flash a happy, silly grin and shed a little tear of joy. So, yeah, Rocky Balboa might be a little out of breath and technique, but it sure still knows how to throw a punch.

The Rating:

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