The Series Project: Rocky (Part 1)

The Series Project is gonna fly now with an anlysis of all six Rocky movies, and all the blood, sweat, and tears therein. 

Witney Seiboldby Witney Seibold

Welcome back, my dear readers, to the most recent installment of The Series Project here on CraveOnline. Over the last year, as you may have noticed, CraveOnline has been publishing a series of articles called The Myth of Macho, authored by Ariel Schudson, who takes an analytic view of our cinematic exemplars of manliness (Arnold Schwarzenegger, Lee Marvin, the Death Wish movies), and deconstructs them a bit. In the spirit of sweaty, muscled manliness, The Series Project will be deconstructing (or at least whinging about) all six of Sylvester Stallone's famous boxing movies. It's time, dear friends, for Rocky.

As Sylvester Stallone‘s recent Expendables films put into stark relief, the action films of the 1980s were loaded with over-muscled, ‘roided-out angry badasses who would charge into alien territory, usually with armfuls of guns and explosives, grunting patriotic slogans, and shooting all the bad guys. You have your Rambo. You have your Commando, or Predator. You have your Delta Force. Most could even argue that Top Gun comes from that Reagan-era, Freedom-Fighter mindset. I examined this in a recent article on so-called Badass Cinema. The '80s were a sweaty, bullet-filled time for action heroes like Stallone.

It’s odd, then, that Stallone’s own hangdog character Rocky Balboa from his famous Rocky series of movies feels so close to those contra-ites listed above. Rocky is seen as a working-class Philly nobody who overcomes adversity to win a series of high-profile boxing matches, and earn not only the love of his beloved wife, but the affection of the entire world, not to mention untold riches. But, at the same time (and this is mostly due to the rather ridiculous Rocky IV), he is seen as an American soldier of sorts; Rocky Balboa is an ambassador of American whoop-ass. He is essentially a Horatio Alger type who represents America as a world power.

The first Rocky movie was an enormous hit, winning the Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Editing in 1976. Stallone, Talia Shire, Burt Young, and Burgess Meredith were also all nominated for their acting, and Stallone also earned a nod for his screenplay. Sequels were unneeded (as is usually the case), but were made anyway. The series stretched through the 1980s, ending with Rocky V in 1990. Then in 2006, the series was revitalized for one final chapter for Rocky, but the sixth film felt more like a fraudulent moneygrab than anything substantial. The films all star Sylvester Stallone, were all written by Stallone, and most of them were directed by Stallone. It’s actually rare that a long-running film series (as seen in my other Series Project essays) features the same actors and characters throughout. Even the L.E.T.H.A.L. Ladies switch characters. In that regard, the Rocky movies have some of the best multi-film continuity of any film series (the wild shifts in character notwithstanding).

Each film starts with Rocky in some sort of dire social or romantic strait, and each film builds up to a big fight with some new horrible opponent, seen as an unstoppable menace. Each of the sequels begins with a flashback to the climax of the previous film. I don’t think I’m giving too much away to say that Rocky wins most of the fights in each of the films’ climaxes. The dynamic is very simple, and the rules are decidedly uncomplicated.

I, once again your stalwart critic, sat and watched every last one of these films in a few days time, and now humbly offer my following impressions on the Rocky movies. In the first week of The Series Project, I will cover the first three of the movies, and next week (the first week of 2013), I will cover the remaining three. Let's get started with a classic…

Rocky (dir. John G. Avildsen, 1976)

Written by Stallone, and directed by: John G. Avildsen, who also directed Lean on Me (1989) and the first three Karate Kid movies. With those, and with his Rocky entries, Avildsen is largely responsible for creating the modern pop idiom of the Sports Movie Structure.

The first Rocky joins our hero, Rocky Balboa (Stallone) as a working-class shlump living just above the poverty line in Philadelphia. He dreams of being a professional boxer, and still trains every day, but he’s already 30, and admits to himself that he’s likely past his prime. Despite this, he still begs for help from Mickey (Meredith), the cantankerous and craggy septuagenarian owner of the local boxing gym. Mickey sees potential in Rocky (so named after Rocky Marciano), but refuses him help because, well, Rocky is kind of a dummy.

Here’s a detail that is is often forgotten about Rocky: Rocky spends his days working as a shakedown man for a local gangster; he’s sent into construction sites and other undesirable areas looking for people who owe to the Mob. The idea is that he’s supposed to rough ‘em up a bit, but Rocky is such a good-natured fellow that he usually just has a stern talk with them.

Rocky really is a good guy. He’s too dumb to be conniving or rude. He’s not smart enough to have immodest ambitions. Every dream he has, he knows is attainable. He’s smart enough to use his boxer’s physique to threaten people, but he’s not mean enough to use it. This makes Rocky come across as kind of sweet, and purely altruistic. For a film made in the 1970s, which was a decade in America film peppered with dark, ambivalent, and sometimes outright violently depressing characters, it was probably refreshing to see a leading man who was supposed to be vulnerable and soft-hearted. Finally, audiences must have felt at the time, here’s a character who doesn’t commit murder, comment on the souring of the social bonds, or make allusions to Vietnam. He just makes cute, lunkheaded, but clear-sighted observations about the world around him. “If you guys could sing and dance, I wouldn’t have to fight,” Rocky says to his pet fish and turtles.

Rocky’s biggest ambition is to win the heart of Adrian Pennino (Shire), the ultra-mousy shy girl who works at the local pet shop. She’s so quiet and hardworking that she hardly speaks, and some of the locals think she’s mentally challenged. “Take her to the zoo. Retards love the zoo” is a wonderfully classless piece of dialogue. Adrian is also constantly being belittled by her boss, and picked on by her older brother Paulie (Young). Burt Young really is terrific in the role of Paulie, making him seem like a mook, but one who is real and relatable, and not merely archetypal or villainous.

Rocky takes Adrian on a date, where they ice skate in a closed skating rink. The world of Rocky is a refreshingly rundown one. All the sets and locations are brown and crumbling, and the city is dirty and cracked. This is no comic metropolis, nor is it an over-exaggerated Skid Row cartoon. This is, essentially, what the slums of Philly looked like in the 1970s. I can’t say for sure the accuracy of the locations, but it felt like Avildsen went out of his way to use real ones.

After their skating date, Rocky asks Adrian back to his place. Rocky clearly wants to have sex with her and Adrian knows what he wants. But Rocky is such a sweet guy, and we know that he honestly likes Adrian. Adrian is weary of being hurt, but appreciates the attention. When they kiss inside his apartment, it’s one of the more romantic moments of the decade’s cinema: they embrace, kiss, and, out of relief and release, they merely collapse to the floor, holding each other, finally saved from their desperate loneliness. It’s moments like this that I’ll remember Rocky for, and not for any of the boxing stuff.

Oh, there’s a scant plot in this film too; it’s odd how plot-free a lot of these Rocky movies are. The world heavyweight boxing champion, a man named Apollo Creed (the wonderfully blustery Carl Weathers), has had enough of being the best, fighting only east challengers, and decides to reach into the vast store of local nobodies to give them exposure, and prove that he's not afraid of anyone. By chance, of course, he selects Rocky Balboa, based on his nickname, "The Italian Stallion." Incidentally, the softcore X-rated film that Stallone once starred in (Party at Kitty and Stud’s, 1970) was retitled The Italian Stallion after Rocky became popular.

Rocky soon finds himself at the center of a media blitz surrounding the fight. Apollo is chatty and arrogant about how he’ll win. Rocky is lunkheadedly modest, approaching his fame less with ego, and more with a childish “Look, ma! I’m on TV!” attitude. He works out by jogging through town, and trying to run up the stairs of the Philadelphia museum of art. This scene became so famous that a Rocky Balboa statue was erected on the stairs in the mid 1980s. More on that statue next week. Rocky also beats up sides of beef.

Eventually Mickey comes around as well. It is revealed that Mickey needs a charge just as badly as Rocky needs a trainer. Mickey, you see, is staring down the gullet of his own mortality, and needs to prove, just like Rocky, that he can make good. Paulie eventually becomes Rocky’s manager, as he is a shrewd businessman who runs a meat packing plant. Paulie will, in future films, prove to be a less-than-stellar manager.

Rocky and Apollo eventually do fight, but merely fighting the fight is the victory, and it doesn’t matter who wins. The fight is long and brutal, and both Rocky and Apollo beat each other’s faces into mashed pulps. Rocky needs his eye socket sliced open to drain the blood. Ew. Eventually, the fight is brought to a split decision after the final round, and Apollo is made the winner. That Rocky didn’t win is kind of the point. He was able to go the distance, and that's all that matters. He proved to himself that he didn’t need to win to be a champion. He had the love of Adrian, and he got a bunch of money. Go Rocky.

Rocky is a great film, and is considered by many to be an American classic. It’s a subtle and good-natured film about desperate and lonely and none-too-bright but essentially good people who find small pieces of salvation along their journey.

For the people who wanted a more crowd-pleasing and graceless version of Rocky, well, Stallone returned in 1979 with…

Rocky II (dir. Sylvester Stallone, 1979)

This time written AND directed by Stallone. He didn’t write the film’s score, but his brother Frank did sing a few numbers.

The long string of Rocky sequels kind of take the edge away from the first film. We know that he’s eventually going to win bigger and bigger fights, and become a more and more important man. That seems counterintuitive in the face of the first film’s low-fi humility. But whatever. Somehow, Rocky has become an American hero in the minds of the masses, and we need to see a film in which he wins the big fight at the end, which seems like the only thing that Rocky II was set up to do.

So Rocky II, like all the Rocky sequels, starts with a flashback to the big fight from the first film. A distressing amount of time is devoted to footage from Rocky. By my count, the first 7 ½ minutes of Rocky II is stock footage. Already the film feels like padding. Anyway, we cut to the scene immediately following the fight, with the two fighters being interviewed in the locker room. Rocky is happy to be done with the fighting for good. Creed, on the other hand, although he was declared the winner, feels that he didn’t do well enough, and wants to have a rematch as soon as possible. Rocky says no, and decides to use his winnings to marry Adrian.

Yes, in a rather quick montage, Rocky proposes to and marries Adrian. He quickly uses his winnings from the fight to go downtown and buy a hot little sports car, a glitzy jacket with a tiger embroidered on the back, and a fur for Adrian. And diamonds. He also buys a pet dog for himself. The dog was played by Stallone’s real-life pet at the time Butkus. Call me kooky, but it seems to me, with the character established the way the it was in Rocky, it seems to me that Rocky would not be the type who secretly had fantasies of sports cars and houses and opulent things. Rocky struck me as a guy who was happy to live where he was, only to be more comfortable doing it. Adrian, indeed, tries to talk him out of his spending spree, but he’ll hear nothing of it. She’s going to live like a queen. This is sweet, but it seems that this Rocky is a different Rocky from the one we met before.

Every single plot point in this film points towards the big fight at the end. Going in, we know how it’s going to end. This is not me being a snarky critic who is spitefully revealing the ending of a famous film. I’m just pointing out how cliched and predictable a screenplay this is. For instance, when we hear from his doctor that Rocky has done serious damage to his eye, and could lose his sight if he fights again, this is not foreshadowing to Rocky backing down from a boxing match. It just falsely inflates the drama.

I don’t want to come down too hard on Rocky II, mind you, as I did enjoy the film, and actually think it’s pretty well-made for a sports movie. I just didn’t appreciate the obvious sport movie drama after the naturalism and strength of character from the first film. I suppose this is a result of classic sequel fatigue, though. Take the same characters and hypercharge them.

Anyway, Rocky applies to other jobs to support Adrian (and his new-found spending habit), who doesn’t want him to fight anymore. He tries working s a TV pitchman, but is such a bad actor that he is fired. Make your jokes about Stallone playing a bad actor here. He tries getting a job in a bank, but his fame actually stands in the way. Eventually, his only recourse is to first take a job in Paulie’s meatpacking plant, and, when he’s laid off from that position, as a bucket boy in Mickey’s gym. Mickey has a great scene earlier in the film where he tells Rocky he can’t fight anymore, and proves it to him by slapping him in the face. Burgess Meredith has always been a hardworking and stalwart character actor, and I appreciate the scenes of this frail old man bullying boxers six times his weight.

In another piece of melodramatic horror, Adrian becomes pregnant, gives birth, and goes into a coma. Now Rocky is out of money, and needs to pay for a home, hospital bills, and regain his dignity as a fighter. He accepts Creed’s request for a rematch, and begins training with Mickey again. Rocky is seen catching a chicken. I understand chickens are sometimes hard to catch, but the scenes with the chicken are a mite silly. That’s another running theme throughout the Rocky movies: Rocky uses old-school, non-professional modes of physical fitness. No Nautilus machines here. He uses stairs, meat, and chickens. Later on in the series, he’ll use logs and snow.

Creed has a few scenes about how ashamed he is not to have beaten Rocky with ease. Creed seems underwritten in this film, and it’s a good thing that Carl Weathers is such a charismatic actor, or Creed would have vanished in the screenplay.

There’s a reply of the first film’s up-the-museum-stairs sequence, but this time, Rocky is followed by hundreds of local children, who are there, I suppose, to support him. How the children know his hardships is never made clear, but it’s a climactic moment in a crashingly obvious film. I suppose it’s fine that it’s in there. Plus, it gives us a chance to reuse the famous Bill Conti music and song “Gonna Fly Now” from the first movie.

Adrian wakes up from her coma, meets Rocky, Jr. (Seargeoh Stallone), and insists that Rocky fight Creed, not saying much about the fact that she just had a baby. Creed and Rocky fight, and Rocky wins. The last shot of the film is the mashed-faced Stallone hoisting the heavyweight belt above his head, shouting “Yo, Adrian! I did it!” He did it? He earned his keep? I question your dramatic motivations, Rocky II.

Like I said, I actually kind of liked Rocky II, and, as a feelgood summer film, it’s perfectly inoffensive. But it pales in comparison to Rocky.

From here. This will only get more ridiculous.

Rocky III (dir. Sylvester Stallone, 1982)

Written and directed by Stallone. Again, we see a flashback of the fight from the previous film, and we see Creed take the fall, and Rocky hoisting his new belt. Then, in a montage, we see Rocky growing wealthier and wealthier in various fights (I guess the threat of blindness is no longer a concern). He’s eventually the richest man in all of South Philly.

By Rocky III the character of Rocky has metamorphosed from a poor, sweetheart lunkhead into a rich, benevolent sage. The way he calmly approaches the world is practically Christ-like. He has retired from fighting (For good! Really!), and now spends his time in his new palatial mansion with Adrian, who wrings her hands a lot, and Rocky, Jr. (Ian Fried), who is a towheaded moppet of horrific cuteness. So Rocky has kind of landed at the top, and there’s no real reason to continue his story. He is heavyweight champion, he’s rich, he has everything he dreamed of (well, everything the Rocky II Rocky ever dreamed of), and Adrian is pleased as punch that he is no longer boxing.

The function of Adrian in this series is a thankless one. Adrian only appears throughout these films to look concerned for Rocky and to make him feel bad about wanting to or needing to box. In the first film, she came across as a real woman who was actually overcoming her shyness. By Rocky III, she is only an impediment to the plot, and serves the story with minor pieces of conflict that we know will be overcome by the end. It’s a pity that Talia Shire was pushed off to the side in such a way, as she is a talented actress, and created a fantastic portrayal of Adrian.

Early in Rocky III, we saw Rocky at a exposition match for charity, where he is forced to box against a gigantic wrestler named Thunderlips, and who is played by the iconic pro-wrestler Hulk Hogan. Thunderlips does not box, and actually bodyslams Rocky a few times. By 1982, the WWF was just exploding, and this pro-wrestling spectacle was about to hit the mainstream. I commend Stallone for being so prescient in his ability to predict pop culture trends, but the sight of Stallone, with his mookish hairdo and juiced-up body, smacking his fists into Hulk Hogan… well, it’s almost like a swirling pop-culture nightmare; a strange piece of 10-year-old-boy wish fulfillment. When we see the glitzy stupidity of this scene, we are reminded just how far we are from the lower-class naturalism of the first Rocky.

Another digression: It’s hard for me to root for Rocky to win his boxing matches, because boxing, in my eyes, isn’t much of a sport. I’m with comedian Dana Gould when it comes to boxing: if you’re going to put two guys in a ring and have them do nothing more than beat the crap out of each other, why not throw up up a bit? Why not have Mike Tyson fight his weight in wolverines?

Anyway, Rocky has become such a local hero that the city has decided to erect a nine-foot bronze statue of him at the top of the stars of the Philadelphia art museum. This was a real bronze statue, and Stallone offered to donate it to the museum after shooting had wrapped, only to have it rejected. The statue was moved across town to South Philly, where it lived in front of a sporting arena. It was moved back for the filming of Rocky V, and now lives at the base of the park where the museum is. Rocky was a great film and all, but that statue strikes me as decidedly tacky. In Rocky III it is unveiled, and all the characters call it a thing of beauty. Most of the audiences, I’m pretty certain, will chuckle at this scene.

At the statue unveiling, Rocky is called out by a young upstart in the audience. This is Clubber Lang, a cocky, trash-talking bully who demands that Rocky fight him. Clubber Lang is played by Mr. T. This was before Mr. T was on “The A-Team,” and was not yet a pop culture icon, so when we see him talkin’ smack and flexing his biceps and flaunting his tough-guy persona, one has to remember that he was not banking on an image. He was creating it for the first time. Mr. T actually lends a lot of real-life credence to the film. I never thought I would type the preceding sentence.

Anyway, Rocky chooses to fight Lang out of good sportsmanship, but is not so interested in actually winning. He’d rather spend his vast riches on fancy public gyms and ugly, ugly LeRoy Neiman paintings. Mickey is here too, and sees the indifference on Rocky’s face. He warns Rocky time and again that Clubber Lang is a legitimate killer, and will kill Rocky. Rocky brushes him off. Wouldn’t you know it, though, Clubber, in a backstage altercation, punches Mickey and kills him. Rocky also loses his match, and Lang becomes the heavyweight champion.

Here’s another way that Stallone was prescient in the annals of pop culture: Clubber Lang, with his criminal demeanor and steely resolve to commit violence in the ring almost resembles the public persona that Mike Tyson was to create for himself in the next few years when he rose through the boxing ranks. Most modern viewers will see the parallel.

Here’s the interesting part: When Rocky loses Mickey, we finally see him humbled. He was once humble, became sluggish, and is now determined and saddened again. It’s at this point where the disgraced Apollo Creed steps forward, and convinces Rocky to beat Lang in a rematch, showing that Creed is actually a good friend, and is willing to combine efforts with Rocky. Creed, in this regard, has the more interesting story than Rocky. He was willing to swallow his pride and train the man who defeated him. Creed will not box anymore, but he feels that he and Rocky can pool their resources, and take Lang down.

Yeah, they take Lang down. Big surprise. The final shot of the film is Rocky and Creed fighting in private, glad to be sparring with a friend.

One big plus of Rocky III is the inclusion of “Eye of the Tiger” by Survivor. It’s one of those bombastic tough-guy songs that can inspire anyone. It’s like the theme tune to “Mission: Impossible” or “Peter Gunn.” You play it over any film footage, and the scene becomes steelier and cooler.

Otherwise, Rocky III is a pretty ridiculous film. It’s got Hulk Hogan and Mr. T, it callously kills off a character, and it’s peppered with all kinds of glitzy, conspicuous consumption that reigned free during the Reagan administration. This reminds me: Paulie (Burt Young) was also in Rocky III, continuing, for unfathomed reasons, to be Rocky’s manager. He is seen hocking t-shirts and kicking a booze habit to help Rocky make money. Paulie has little to do, the poor dope. He’s just lost in the swirling vortex of silliness that is Rocky III.

But, o dear readers, we haven’t seen just how ridiculous these films can be yet. Indeed, next week, we'll see a bizarre vortex of crazy open before our very eyes with a trip to Russia, a robot butler, a near-android monster, an annoying teenage son, and Stallone trying to continue the Rockyschtick into his 60s. Be sure to join me for part two of The Series Project: Rocky

Witney Seibold is a featured contributor on the CraveOnline Film Channel and co-host of The B-Movies Podcast. You can read his weekly articles B-Movies ExtendedFree Film School and The Series Project, and follow him on Twitter at @WitneySeibold.