“The world ain’t all sunshine and rainbows. It’s a very mean and nasty place and I don’t care how tough you are it will beat you to your knees and keep you there permanently if you let it.”
Creed is getting closer. Just a few more days until one of Stallone’s most beloved characters returns to the big screen and has a go and relighting that fire we all saw in 1976. It’s been a fun time to revisit these films that have such a special place in the hearts of so many; and getting to spend some time with one of Sly’s most iconic creations has been amazing.
Last time, we left our hero, the Italian Stallion, having just beaten the mohawked Mr. T and won his title back much to the delight of us and the crowd. Having beaten the monster that embarrassed him, this should have been the official retirement of Rocky Balboa, the boxer with a legendary will to keep going. But common sense be damned. Unbelievably, we are only at the halfway point of Rocky’s story. So what do you say? Before this year’s latest chapter in Balboa’s saga comes through the curtain, you want to join me in seeing through the last of the iconic boxing franchise’s entries?
Rocky IV (1985)
Box Office – $300,400,000
Rotten Tomatoes Score – 40%
Mr T is done, Apollo and Rocky have had their little bit of fun, now it’s time to retire. Surely, now it’s time to retire?
Sadly, no. After watching his friend, Apollo Creed, die at the hands of a pre-Masters of the Universe Dolph Lundgren; our hero swears revenge on the seemingly indestructible Russian wrecking machine. Calling out the monosyllabic monster, Rocky and his entourage of mainly former Creed trainers and his lifelong pal, Paulie, head to a frozen cabin in Russia to train for the latest in a long list of biggest fights of his life.
After Creed embarrassed him with his Stars and Stripes entrance that includes fireworks, flags and James Brown, Lundgren’s Ivan Drago turns the tables and gets his own super-patriotic entrance for the Russian crowd. With Rocky getting nothing but boos from those in attendance as his entrance music, the stage is set for another dominant Drago performance.
Another fifteen round barn burner ensues, with the tables balancing well between the two. Drago knocking Balboa on his arse in the first round, with our hero coming back and opening up the challenger’s face in the second. It’s a tough match with both men having to dig deep for the win they both so desperately need. Call it luck, call it will, call it what you like, but Rocky pulls out a final round miracle as he floors the Russian monster and gets the knockout win. His victory speech includes a rousing call to the Russian people to remember that if they can change their tune towards him, the world can change its tune towards each other.
I think, at least quality wise, diminishing returns kicked into full gear here. Rocky III was passable as a film but there was a definite dip in quality; this time around I felt the struggle to keep watching was more powerful than the film I was sitting in front of. We were on the fourth straight copy/paste film in the series and I was beginning to lose my patience with watching the same formula over and over again. Simply changing location doesn’t change the fact you’re watching the same film. If this was a horror movie, it would be the one set in space hoping the change of scenery would fool the audience! I wasn’t invested in the fights at all. Worse, I just wanted them to be over. The subtle-as-a-sledgehammer implications with the beefy Russian juicing on multiple steroid cocktails versus the good, wholesome American were maybe the clumsiest “America! Fuck Yeah!” moments I’ve seen in a film in quite some time.
Rocky IV substituted the first film’s Oscar nominations for more than a healthy amount of Razzies. Stallone’s direction, writing and a large amount of his cast all fell foul of the Golden Raspberry nominations with quite a few wins to boot. The first film in the franchise to not have “Gotta Fly Now” in its soundtrack is much worse for that fact. Don’t let that box office take fool you; this film isn’t worthy of the Rocky name.
Rocky V (1990)
Budget – $42,000,000
Box Office – $119,900,000
Rotten Tomatoes Rating – 29%
Diagnosed with brain damage from years of taking abuse and suffering from a severe lack of money after a crooked accountant loses the Balboa fortune, Rocky and his family head back to where it all began. The dirty streets of Philadelphia.
Slumming it in a house much like the first one Rocky and Adrian bought together, the man of the house finds solace back at Mickey’s gym with no thoughts of being back in the ring; categorically turning down an offer to fight again. When Balboa gets the chance to mentor a young, raw boxer named Tommy Gunn, he jumps in so deep that it strains the bonds of his family. Caring more for the success of his young protégé than the problems his own son is having with bullies at school, Rocky quickly begins to lose all touch with his family.
After a string of healthy wins, Tommy is poached from Rocky by George Duke; a loudmouth, unscrupulous promoter who gets Tommy a title shot with the champion he also manages. After an easy win for the belt and little time for Tommy to celebrate, Duke’s intentions become very clear: He wants the fight with Rocky to happen whether it’s with his champion or Tommy Gunn – and now, he doesn’t even care if there is a ring involved. After an embarrassing press conference, Gunn seeks out his fight with Balboa in Rocky’s home town where a war of words ends with a war of fists in the street.
After both nearly killing each other, Rocky defeats Gunn; leaving him beaten and bloodied on the floor where our hero quickly puts Duke next to him.
Bringing back John G. Avildsen, the director of the original Rocky, was supposed to be a shot in the arm for the franchise. Hoping to rekindle the magic that made the early films such a success, Stallone went from boxing drama to family drama with-a-bit-of-boxing to try and change the tune a little. Sadly, it was a miserable failure. Undoubtedly the worst of the franchise and barely recognisable from the inspirational drama that saw us join the Italian Stallion on his path a mere fourteen years previously.
This killed the series for sixteen years, until…
Rocky Balboa (2006)
Budget – $24,000,000
Box Office – $155,700,000
Rotten Tomatoes Score – 76%
The world has long forgotten about Rocky Balboa. A former champion who now runs a restaurant named after his dead wife, he shuffles through life from one day to the next, passing on his little pearls of old man wisdom and thinking nothing of the life he once had.
That is, until a computer simulation shows an in-shape, championship holding Rocky of times long gone beating the current champ. Spurred on to do what he was born to do all along, realising the fire hasn’t quite fizzled out yet, Rocky gets his license back and heads out to train after securing himself an exhibition fight with the reigning title holder. Using current events as an opportunity to mend fences with his estranged son, Rocky becomes his most humble self as he looks to everyone around him – from his family to his community – for the inspiration he needs to dig deep for just one more training montage.
The big night rolls around and in modern boxing fashion, we are in Las Vegas. Champion Mason Dixon and Rocky lock horns for another full length boxing match where the pair trade blows almost evenly ending in a loss for Rocky via a close split decision.
Rocky Balboa brings back everything you loved about the early films: A reason to get behind our champ. A great, well built boxing film and (most of all) an amazingly written and directed drama that, once it gets to the ring, doesn’t pull any punches. A great, great fight is the delicious icing on a perfectly made cake that packs as much emotional punch as it does ACTUAL punch.
Easily the best of the Rocky series for me.
That brings us completely up-to-date and leads up nicely to…
Budget – $35,000,000
Box Office – $109,000,000 (so far)
Rotten Tomatoes Score – 93%
Stallone has handed both directorial and writing duties off to other people to focus on acting this time around. His and Michael B. Jordan’s performances (and the film itself) have been critically acclaimed since it released in the US at the end of 2015.
Come see me in a few days, when I can give you my full opinion on the film and whether or not it’s been worth me trudging through this series over the last couple of weeks.