Rocky in Review, Part 1: The First 3 Rocky Movies And a Changing American Cinema
Kicking off a new Thursday review series with the original Rocky classics
Starting today and continuing on Thursdays for the foreseeable future, I’ll be publishing reviews of classic movies, pieces that have never appeared here before taken from my book 200 Reviews, available now in Paperback or on Kindle (which you should really consider buying, because it’s an awesome collection!). Given last week’s passing of the great Carl Weathers - Apollo Creed himself, among many other wonderful characters - I thought we’d start with a few weeks on the Rocky movies. Today’s piece covers the first three movies together. Enjoy!
Rocky - 1976, Dir. John G. Avildsen
Rocky II / III - 1979/1982, Dir. Sylvester Stallone
Originally written September 27th, 2023
The original Rocky competed at the Academy Awards with Alan J. Pakula’s All the President’s Men, Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, and Sidney Lumet’s Network for Best Picture (alongside Hal Ashby’s fictionalized Woody Guthrie biopic Bound for Glory, though nobody talks about that one), and in the Film Studies circles I swim in, the film is often mocked for dethroning those three undisputed mid-70s masterpieces with its victory. This was, certainly, one of the single most striking Best Picture line-ups the Oscars have ever had, and I understand the sentiment that Rocky feels a bit like the odd film out. The argument more or less goes that, when the Oscars were confronted with multiple films that stared straight into the heart of darkness of 1970s America, that reflected back brilliant and biting observations which continue to resonate with as much or more power and relevance today, the Academy instead went with the ‘safe,’ ‘feel-good’ choice instead. I certainly won’t deny that Rocky was up against three historically great, important films; Network in particular is about as prescient a film as has ever been made in Hollywood, and if I were making a list of the ‘best’ films ever made, Lumet’s film would probably find its way there before Rocky.
But I will still defend Rocky winning the 1976 Best Picture statue, because I think the choice is more complicated than it simply being the ‘feel good’ option amidst several ‘darker’ films. In many ways, Rocky is just as much a defining 1970s movie as the films it competed against; its cinematography is gritty and textural, its world rough and unvarnished, everything aggressively ground level and on location, and it tells a story about the working class being ground out of existence and fighting back against its own destruction. The world of Rocky is, in many ways, the world of Taxi Driver and Network and all the other celebrated ‘feel-bad’ masterpieces of the 1970s, which is precisely why Rocky Balboa’s dreams are so limited. Considering just this first film and ignoring where the sequels took the character, Rocky isn’t out to get famous, or become rich, or even win the big match – he’s out to prove something, but not even necessarily to other people. He just needs to prove to himself that he matters, that he is alive, that he can ‘go the distance’ and stick it out in this crazy, brutal world. His goals are externalized through boxing, but they are almost entirely internal; even ‘getting the girl’ isn’t really what his fight is about, because he woos Adrian just by being himself, a kind and decent and sort of goofy guy who looks out for others and proves himself a reliable, loving partner long before the third act rolls around.
And of course, Rocky’s ultimate ‘victory’ is, in a literal sense, a defeat – he goes the distance, but he does not win the match against Apollo Creed. In this way, Rocky is a deeply archetypal 1970s film story, where victory can only be imagined within the predestined space of losing (it is, after all, something of a rigged game, because there is no version of that fight, save an outright knockout, where Rocky would have been declared the winner against Creed). Rocky is about turning life’s external losses into internal victories, about being proud and resilient even when the world declares someone worthless, and it expresses that idea beautifully. That – combined with how deeply lived-in every aspect of the movie feels, how moving I find Sylvester Stallone’s and Talia Shire’s performances, and what a great and iconic score it has thanks to Bill Conti – is why I love Rocky so much, why I think it is truly one of the great American movies, and why, for all the things the Academy Awards should be ashamed of, giving Rocky Best Picture is not one of them. This was a film of its moment, and like the movies it beat for that title, it remains vital and powerful today.
This is also, however, why I don’t have much enthusiasm for Rocky II. If you line up all the sequels, the second definitely stands as one of the most altogether competent, perhaps even the ‘best’ after the original and before the 21st-century revival. Yet Rocky II is easily the entry I think about least, the one that feels least essential in my memory. It exists, mainly, as a bridge between the 1970s ‘winning through losing’ ethos of the original film and the 1980s ‘winning through getting bigger, faster, stronger, richer’ ethos of the next two films, doing the legwork of maneuvering Rocky from a character of modest ambitions into one who will become the World Heavyweight Champion.
To be clear, Rocky II does this well. It is well-acted, by Stallone, Shire, Burt Young, Carl Weathers, and Burgess Meredith, and like the first film, it roots all its action in relatively quiet, mature character material. Watching Rocky become a husband and a father is moving, even if it reaches a certain soap opera register with Adrian’s coma before the fight. It takes the question seriously of why Rocky, after fulfilling his personal goal in the first film, would get back in the ring with Apollo, and their rematch, while one of the more cartoony fights in the series – the two fighters nearly knocking each other out and both struggling to get back up by the count of 10 is the most anime-esque thing that happens in this series before Michael B. Jordan took the reins with Creed III – is undeniably satisfying.
But all told, Rocky II simply feels less essential than what came before or after: In its personal drama, it is a paler simulacrum of the unvarnished emotional immediacy of the first film, and in its sports action, it lacks the higher-octane enthusiasm and Saturday-morning cheese of the third and fourth entries. It is neither fish nor fowl, a film released right on the cusp of the 1980s, and torn in both directions between the sensibilities of the decade that was ending and the one about to begin. It is the film where you can feel the internal strain in this series between a personal statement and a big commercial ‘product’ the strongest, because this is the pivot point that allowed Rocky to become a ‘franchise.’
In Rocky III, that transformation is complete. There is no ‘winning through losing’ here – what losses are incurred are merely preludes to bigger, grander victories in the future. Rocky Balboa is now rich, and famous, and beloved, by his family and by the world, with his home town of Philadelphia even erecting a statue in his honor. The character has achieved all the things he would never have dared to dream of in the original Rocky; in social status if not personality, he is unrecognizable from the down-on-his-luck everyman we met in 1976.
The film, too, is substantially different in character, no longer a quiet, intimate character drama with some boxing at the end, but a shorter, quicker sports-film-cum-action-movie complete with guest stars (Hulk Hogan), a cartoon villain (Mr. T’s Clubber Lang), and a #1 hit single (Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger”). If the original Rocky was an archetypal 70s movie, the only reason Rocky III isn’t the archetypal 80s flick is because its successor, Rocky IV, may be the most 80s movie of them all.
Rocky III is, in short, big, dumb, and loud – but it’s also fun, somewhat irresistibly so, and putting aside the sociopolitical implications of how much Rocky transformed in six short years, it is one of the most skillful examples of 80s action melodrama. I actually gained a new appreciation for Rocky III when Sean Chapman and I revisited Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises for The Weekly Stuff Podcast. That is a film with much higher ambitions than Rocky III, of course, but it is also one with infinitely more problems; amongst them is Nolan’s inability to deepen or dynamize the rivalry between Batman and Bane over the course of the film. In their first fight, Batman comes at him awkwardly – all elbows and heavy, easily avoidable swings, as is Nolan’s peculiar wont in these scenes – and loses horribly; in their second, climactic fight, Batman comes at Bane basically the same way, but punches the villain a bit harder, with a few blows to the mask, and because of this, he wins. Nothing in their respective character dynamics really changes at all, and Batman doesn’t do any kind of special training, or noticeably change his fighting style and strategy. He just punches harder now, and that’s the extent of the effort Nolan puts into selling us on this come-from-behind rematch.
Rocky III gets this right, and spectacularly so. Rocky loses his first bout with Clubber Lang because of his own limitations, as a person and a boxer, and then spends the rest of the movie changing through his enemies-to-friends relationship with Apollo Creed (one of my favorite movie tropes, done wonderfully here), and specific training to evolve and deepen his boxing repertoire. In the finale, he goes in with a real strategy that maximizes his strengths and exploits Clubber’s weaknesses.
This is, to be clear, storytelling 101, all very basic stuff, marrying character, plot, and action to progress the character on a clearly motivated journey. Yet it is, as evinced by failures like The Dark Knight Rises, something plenty of movies today mess up, our marketplace of overcrowded action and superhero movies often forgetting the basics of clean, good, direct storytelling that satisfies an audience. Rocky III is your basic meat and potatoes, and if you’re going in expecting gourmet filet mignon, that might be underwhelming; but when you’re served a plate of reheated leftovers dug out of a nearby dumpster, that meat and potatoes suddenly seems a lot more appetizing.
That’s Rocky III in a nutshell. It is not Stallone’s finest hour as a director – I’d say that’s either 2006’s Rocky Balboa or 2008’s Rambo – but it’s absolutely the peak of Stallone as populist movie star multi-hyphenate, the guy with a good finger on the pulse of what audiences will cheer. If this film won Best Picture against Network or Taxi Driver, it would, of course, be patently ridiculous, and the fact that Rocky went from there to here so quickly perhaps vindicates those who think the 1976 Oscars called it wrong. But while the original Rocky is the only one of these first three films I love, I like Rocky III an awful lot on its own 80s cartoon wavelength, and I find the development of the series overall absolutely fascinating in how it reflects American pop culture in this critical, devastating period of political transition.
NEXT WEEK: We’ll take a look at 1985’s Rocky IV, specifically by examining the changes made for Stallone’s 2021 Director’s Cut, Rocky vs Drago.
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