Star Wars: The Force Awakens will likely become the highest-grossing film of all time come February. A wondrous return for the space opera: aliens, foreign lands, spacecrafts, lasers, and lots of bright lights. Star Wars had a strong level of visual appeal before it even opened its mouth. Think on Marvel, Jurassic Park and Fast & Furious too. All with glorious assets to boast: superheroes, dinosaurs and fast cars. Now look to Rocky. Has there been an unlikelier franchise? Seven films deep, boasting just a mumbling, lion-hearted, ‘cliched’ boxer as its anchor. As we herald Creed‘s release in the UK, we receive the latest entry into one of cinema’s strongest and most involving sagas; what follows is a tale of how this southpaw transformed the movies.
For those with little knowledge of Rocky Balboa, his story appears corny, sub-par, and a dinosaur of bygone eras. To counteract the first film’s extraordinary box office success, and its Best Picture Oscar win in 1977, naysayers could baulk at the mass appeal or lack of artistry of this underdog. Its victory over All The President’s Men, Network, and Taxi Driver will only fuel the fire of a populist, rather than deserving, victory. The argument could receive (heavy) reinforcements from the sequels. Rocky II is the same movie but with a different end. Rocky III is a silly fight with Mr T. Rocky IV is Reaganist boneheadedness. Rocky V is empty ’90s trash, showcasing a franchise desperately out of time, and finally Rocky Balboa is just an impossible ego piece. Yet to accept this is to do a disservice to these films. Distaste is reasonable, but not dismissal. At the very least, one can admit that Rocky defined and redefined the sports film genre.
Here’s a game. Name the first five sports films that come to your mind. It’s a biased test, as you’re reading an article about Rocky, amidst a wave of publicity ahead of the latest entry into cinemas. I’ll wager a guess that some of the following arose in your head: Cool Runnings, Raging Bull, Field of Dreams, or even White Men Can’t Jump. Go up their respective family trees and you’ll find the first Rocky. Whether in spirit, narrative or inspiration, the air of the southpaw exists within their lungs.
As it is, all sports are elementary in their foundations. The main goal is to win by getting more or less points than your opponent. In sports films, the protagonist largely seems to do this: they hit the home run, net the three points, or shoot the winning goal. It’s pretty straightforward. Yet those who know sport know the ‘goal’ is hardly the be-all and end-all. What catapults the Rocky franchise into the higher echelons of film is the adoption and embrace of sport’s beautiful simplicity, focusing upon its emotional power. The story of going from nothing to something is not new. The basic plot of Rocky reads like an skin-crawling cliche from beginning to end. Down-on-his-luck club fighter, boy-meets-girl, an incredible title shot against the heavyweight superstar champ Apollo Creed. Stallone = also screenwriting – and director John G. Avildsen are always upfront with the audience about their gimmick in Rocky. Rocky is about a boxer with finite talent and infinite determination, who’s destined to lose. Their combined craft shines in regaling the story of a fight in which we know the result.
The result is not important. Rocky shines as the ultimate sports movie, as even after losing his heroic 15-round battle with Apollo Creed, there’s a sense of triumph for Balboa. It should be corny, but it never is. The emotional involvement of the audience with Rocky validates the entire film. There are no surprise twists. Nothing unexpected happens. Rocky loses. Yet the development of his burgeoning relationship with Adrian (Talia Shire), his patience with Paulie (Burt Weathers), and his humble spirit in the face of the arrogant champ Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) all ensure Rocky is far from an Adonis. By the film’s end, the audience champions Rocky not as an American hero, but an everyday one. The passion, emotion and determination evident in the Italian Stallion is the ideal embodiment of what sport represents. It’s not about how or if you win, but how you take part.
The relentless determination of the underdog not only inspires as a narrative trick, but it’s an active reflection of the time the film inhabits. To indulge in a simple sweeping analysis for the year 1976: the shadow of Watergate and the Vietnam War lingered over the nation, so the story of an individual defying the odds (see: system) resonates. The pattern appears in the other Oscar nominees of that year with Taxi Driver, All The President’s Men and Network all echoing this ideal. Sure, Rocky is the simplest of them all – it’s also the most digestible and enjoyable. Few sports films can claim such relevancy.
In fact, no sports film franchises can claim such continual accurate reflections of the times they’re in. In fairness there aren’t many to contend with Rocky, but that should not detract from the quality of the Italian Stallion’s saga. Take Rocky II. The film itself carries less quality as Stallone attempts to recapture that triumph of the first. In doing so, he retells the story with a different ending; the criticism above wasn’t far off. Written, directed by and starring Stallone, Balboa faces a rematch with the much-maligned Apollo Creed. There are a few tweaks – with Adrian more actively involved in discouraging Balboa from fighting – but it’s roughly the same, apart from Balboa’s KO victory at the end. That ending is what’s important here. Rocky Balboa can no longer enjoy a personal victory, as Andrew Bujalksi points out. It’s now 1979 and we’re about to hit the 1980s. It’s time for a true champion to rise, with veritable gold around his waist. In Rocky II, the underdog must actually triumph as America ejects itself from the 1970s into the strutting, confident 1980s.
You witness this reflection again in Rocky III where Balboa is now surrounded by and lost in extravagant wealth, his identity and legacy evaporating before his eyes. He’s now reigning and defending Heavyweight Champion of the World, but this registers as little more than a footnote. It’s now 1982 and nearly impossible for the champ to be shown as anything but the champ. How can you be an underdog with the gold around your waist? So when Rocky faces ferocious up-and-comer, James “Clubber” Lang (an impressive Mr. T), the champ can no longer be a champ; Rocky must become something of a superhero to attract Rocky’s true underdog status. To set this up, they position Lang as an overblown supervillain, spitting out some ludicrous dialogue to up the ante.
Interviewer: Do you hate Rocky?
Clubber Lang: No, I don’t hate Balboa. I pity the fool, and I will destroy any man who tries to take what I got!
Rocky loses his first fight against Lang early in the second round, distracted by the sad demise of his lifetime trainer Mickey (heartbreakingly played by Burgess Meredith). At his lowest point, he must call upon his old enemy – Apollo Creed – to train him. Carl Weathers is the star of the show, and the presence of two champs combining forces to overcome an evil foe is like the Power Rangers coming together to take on the big boss. And now after all the hardships and losses (personal, financial, and professional), Balboa becomes the underdog once more. His triumph over evil again echoes the key 1980s tropes of confidence and self-belief, with Rocky shining as the leading icon of this belief. Granted Rocky III is the first of the ‘silly’ Balboa movies – but even within this tongue-in-cheekery, the film has credence.
Then with Rocky IV, the franchise hit its weak streak. Straight off, it is impossible to intimate with a straight face that Balboa was the cause of the collapse of the Soviet Union. It’s a nice thought, but that’s not the way the cookie crumbled. The issue with this fourth, and eventually the fifth, entry is that Stallone has lost what made this franchise so powerful. That all important element of ‘Triumph’ must now course through every viable vein, and now simplicity is a byword for laziness. For example, 31.9% of the entire film is just montages. Worse still, Rocky IV is a blow-by-blow remake of Rocky III, but worse. Opening with a death (the unfair demise of Creed/Weathers), there’s a new, eviller, bigger (steroid-filled, no less!) villain in Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren); an internal confidence crisis; several montages; and of course a victory over an impossible enemy. Those early humble days of Philadelphia now feel a world away. Rocky IV is 90 minutes of mad fluff and there’s something greatly enjoyable in that. The montages are the height of 1980s overindulgence and Vince DiCola’s pumping soundtrack continues to provide gym enthusiasts everywhere that triumphant Rocky high. Despite the many flaws, the film is a true Rocky film. Leading with the heart, rather than the head, this rites-of-passage flick showcases the pure idiocy sport can sometimes create. That’s not a slant against the franchise; it more confirms Rocky‘s power within the genre and to its wider American audience.
Rocky V represents the darkest point before the eventual dawn. Stallone has, and still does, continually apologise for the film. Rightly so. In Rocky V, Rocky is (again) the underdog. He has (again) retired, is broke thanks to Paulie and he’s (again) found back in Philadelphia’s badlands. The twist this time is that Rocky is now the mentor to up-and-comer Tommy Gunn (a solid Tommy Morrison), a protege who lacks the moral code that Balboa lives and swears by. Whilst Rocky IV can cling to the power of its heart to gain some credibility, Rocky V chews up all the above qualities to serve as the worst entry in the franchise.
In their attempt to bring Rocky back to his roots, recapturing the ‘gritty’ feel of Rocky I, Stallone and Avildsen indulge in all the poor traits they avoided first time around. Cliches abound, numerous plots confuse including but not limited to Rocky’s declining health and wealth, Rocky and his son, Rocky vs. Tommy; worst of all, Rocky himself is a hollow anchor for this film. No longer a bastion of those unshakable values of determination, honesty and valiance, Stallone is phoning this one in. The champ isn’t humbled or an underdog, he’s just trying to revive a dying horse with a kitchen-sink approach.
However no film is entirely as bad as its reputation. It’s clear that this ‘grit’ is also an attempt to appeal to ’90s agnosticism. Rocky V attempts to be the boxing film of the MTV generation – with a humble champ, cool moments, and deep emotions. It doesn’t work, but the film is trying to become a mirror of its time. Yet to parade this film as anything more than a blip is misdirection. There’s little else to cling onto apart from its very existence. Cling on to that existence we shall. This may sound like the highest exclaims of desperation; yet, to inadvertently salvage the ultimate underdog, they had to send Rocky to the point of death.
In the following decade, the world moved on from Rocky. The tale of an sensationalised, Hollywood fighter with little grip on reality. Come the announcement that the 60 year-old Stallone would return in 2005, there was dismay and laughter. Yet all this facilitated the southpaw’s return. Adding to the aftermath of Rocky V, skeptical audiences and time provided the humbling the champ needed. In the film himself, Stallone ensures Rocky is at the bottom. Mickey, Apollo and now Adrian have left him and he’s almost alone. Rocky has aged. He’s got calcium on his bones, he slurs when he speaks and the world has moved on without him. Whilst some of the Rocky sequels replicated their original with weaker results, Balboa shines by keeping that same spirit that Rocky I had. We know Rocky is going to lose. He has to. He’s up against a fighter undefeated in 33 bouts, Mason ‘The Line’ Dixon. 30 years in, Stallone understands what hooked us in the first place. It wasn’t the winning; it was the heart, the determination and the emotional involvement that made Rocky the people’s champion. Rocky Balboa should be cheesy like its forefather, and our modern angst probably provides the sixth film with its toughest crowd. Yet the film still works, and it still wins over. Thank goodness, Balboa abandoned the alternate ending where he actually wins.
As we live and breathe in 2016, it’s now been an astonishing 40 years since the Italian Stallion first hit the big screen. An incredible achievement, but that does not beatify it. How this southpaw transformed movies is evident in its legacy. Throughout all the highs and lows, Rocky‘s presence in Western cinema has never changed. Each movie is a time capsule of the era it inhabited and to rewatch them all is to relive a slice of popcorn history.
Charming, inspiring and flawed, Rocky is an epic saga that even David Lean could only dream of. Much more, as the AV Club state, this is a living, breathing biography of a lovable character. Whether it’s Stallone’s or Balboa’s is impossible to differentiate, yet that facet only makes the films stronger. With Creed seeming to show Balboa edging closer to the exit door, the final chapters appear to be falling into place and a new story can begin. Defeating that final criticism of being the “Great White Hope“, Rocky now stands as one of the most inclusive, inspirational sagas the movies have ever seen. Now seven films deep, one must imagine Stallone replaying one of the last lines of Rocky II:
“I just got one thing to say… to my wife at home: Yo, Adrian! I DID IT!”
He sure did.