The Series Project: Rocky (Part 2)

Ring in 2013 with one of the craziest sports movies ever made... and two other boxing movies as well.

Witney Seiboldby Witney Seibold

Welcome back, my dear readers, to the second week of my all-American coverage of the all-American Rocky movies here in the one and only Series Project on CraveOnline. These two weeks have been a sweaty, grunting endeavor as I have been watching more boxing than I am ordinarily accustomed to. The Rocky movies are inspiring, but they go through a three-film slump wherein the series takes a break from the underdog notions from the first film, and Rocky himself turns into a bizarre all-American folk hero.

There's been a lot of wet, stinky testosterone over all these movies, and the Rocky series has been seen (as I indicated last week) as something of an exemplar of American male machismo. Perhaps the Rocky movies will be given the star treatment by Ariel Schudson's Myth of Macho articles. They would make good fodder.

Last week, as you may recall, I covered the first three of the Rocky movies, and declared the bizarre conspicuous consumption of the third film (as well as the appearance of Hulk Hogan) to be antithetical to the grittiness of the 1976 Rocky. But hang tight, buckaroos, as we'll find that Rocky IV is the weirdest in the series and features one of the scariest characters in any sports movie, and no, it isn't Dolph Lundgren. I feel like the series troughs around this point.

But rather than beat around the bush, I'll dive right in this week, and give you my cautious coverage of Bonkers Manor. Let us enter…

Rocky IV (dir. Sylvester Stallone, 1985)

So, Stallone’s direction is just as graceless as before, but now we have a protracted Cold War metaphor to slog through. And Dolph Lundgren. And Brigitte Nielsen. And James Brown. And an effing robot named Sico.

Yes. I said robot. I know that the robot has been given all kinds of grief over the years, and it was one of the elements of Rocky IV that had audiences up in arms back in 1985, but, viewing it through the filter of many years and professional critical rigor, I can state for sure that the robot is still really goofy and stupid and even a little disturbing. In interviews Stallone even tried to justify his inclusion of the robot; he knew it was dumb. He said he saw a butler robot at a party, thought it was kinda neat, and thought that Rocky should have one. Fair’s fair.

So Rocky has returned from his fight with Clubber Lang, and his playful bout with Apollo Creed. All is well. Some time has passed. Rocky is still rich, and still that bland, benevolent version of himself. His son is now played by Rocky Krakoff (real name), and lives in spoiled rich kid splendor. Imagine being that kid. You go to a nice school and then come home to a mansion, peopled by servants who must take care of you at a moment’s notice (I suspect that it was the Balboa maid, Rose Mary Campos, who took care of Rocky, Jr. while Rocky left the country), and you even have a robot friend. Land sakes. The film opens with Paulie’s birthday party, and the presentation of the robot. Paulie seems as disgusted with the robot as the audience. Rocky insists it’s cool. He may as well be trying to convince everyone.

Oh those Russians. Those horrible Commie bastards have a plan to discredit America. With boxing. Flimsy plan, but I guess I’m still there. The Russian government has sent over a huge, mute, Aryan type named Ivan Drago (Lundgren). Apollo Creed. Clubber Lang. Ivan Drago. Don’t you love the names in these movies? Drago is the product of years of careful doping, and has spent the better part of the last decade training on brand new Soviet technical marvels that can measure the strength of his punch, and build up his muscles. The idea is that Soviets can scientifically produce, artificially, the world’s best fighter. This is a conceit that may seem more in place in a kung-fu actioner than a sports movie. Rocky, despite his wealth, is portrayed as a meat-and-potatoes, all-American-type boy, and his homemade training will do just fine for him.

Drago wants to fight Rocky, but it’s Apollo Creed who steps up to the plate for this one. Creed, since the last movie, has been bitten by the boxing bug once again, and has given up on his halcyon dream of retirement. Carl Weathers manages to convince us that he actually does want to fight again, although all the credibility will be destroyed by the way Creed chooses to enter the ring. The Apollo Creed entrance scene is one to rival the Thunderlips scene from Rocky III as one of the oddest and most overblown in the series. He is lowered from the ceiling on top of a giant bull’s head, while James Brown himself sings “Living in America,” perhaps one of his tackiest songs. The entrance takes a good long time.

It takes only one round, but Drago punches Creed so hard that he dies. Yes, the film kills off Apollo Creed. It’s sad that such an interesting character with such a good arc, and portrayed by such a good actor, has to be killed of in such a cartoonish film. This means that Rocky’s only recourse is to challenge Drago to a rematch, this time in Russia, to show that AMERICA IS THE BEST, and to get revenge. Adrian does the requisite hand-wringing, and Rocky explains to Rocky, Jr. that he has to leave the country. Rocky moves into a snowy cabin out in the Russian woods and begins training himself. For some reason, Paulie comes along, as does Creed’s old friend, Duke (Tony Burton), who has actually appeared in all of the films to date, but hasn’t been given much to do until this one.

From there, there’s just the string of training montages. Drago is seen in steamy, digitally-lit technolabs, sitting in vicious-looking robotic Nautilus machines, while Rocky spends his time in the mountains, learning to run through deep snow, scramble up rocks, and carry bundles of wood. Here’s that real-vs.-technology theme cropping up again.

Oh yeah. Brigitte Nielsen’s in this thing. She plays Drago’s wife, Ludmilla, who speaks for him at press conferences (Drago’s only line of dialogue is “I must break you.”), and smirks in self-satisfaction when she sees her husband wailing away on punching bags, and lifting heavy objects. There is no love or eroticism between these two. Why not? Because Commies don’t love the way we normal people do.

Adrian eventually also flies to Russia to support Rocky, leaving Rocky, Jr. in the hands of Sico. Or the maid. Take your pick.

The fight is loud and spectacular. Rocky and Drago wail on each other. I’ve not been to many boxing matches, but I’m pretty sure the boxers’ faces look like they do like in these movies: they end up resembling the wrong end of a bowl of oatmeal. The boxing choreography is pretty good, though, and all of the fights, for however dismissive I am in this article, are actually exciting to watch. Stallone himself choreographed all the fights in all the movies, and he did a good job.

Of course Rocky wins. He then gives a ham-fisted and dumb speech about peace and togetherness to all the Russians. America is about equality. Now that’s I’ve beaten you in a metaphorical war, we can finally get along. I suppose Rocky is supposed to be kind of an idiot, but this speech shows that he may be more damaged than we think. It’s a sappy, melodramatic ending to weird-ass entry in an increasingly ridiculous series.

The next film at least tries to save some face.

Rocky V (dir. John G. Avildsen, 1990)

It’s been five years since the last Rocky movie, but Rocky V seems to take place immediately after the events of part IV. It also tries desperately (with mixed results) to recreate the feel of the first film. Indeed, after the critical panning that part IV received, Stallone stepped down from directing, and brought John G. Avildsen back.

Rocky V was a big box office flop, and it was panned even more harshly than part IV. This baffles me a little. True, part V is nothing to scream about, but it’s a sight better than the weird, everyman victory, conspicuous consumption crap from parts II-IV. I guess audiences wanted the crowdpleaser.

So at the outset of Rocky V, we learn a few disturbing things: For one, Rocky, having been punched in the head a little too often, is now suffering from mild brain damage, which causes him to put his outfit back on from Rocky, and start behaving a little more like is old, goofy, kind-hearted self. The scenes where Rocky behaves like himself from 14 years previous are entertaining, and it gives the rest of the cast a chance to give concerned glances about Rocky’s health. I imagine this is a drama that most boxers and their families have to go through. We also learn that Rocky’s money has been mismanaged by a scheming accountant (whom we never meet), and he has to sell the robot and all his belongings, and move back into his old Philly neighborhood. Here we go, trying to get that old feeling back by putting us back on the streets.

Adrian now works back in the pet shop. Mickey willed the old gym to Rocky (we see Burgess Meredith in flashbacks), and Rocky wants to open it again. It’ll be like old times. Adrian doesn’t seem to mind the hard work, but Rocky, Jr., accustomed to the rich lifestyle, hates having to live in an apartment, resents his public school, and hates his father with an alarmingly strong vitriol. Rocky, Jr. is played by Stallone’s real-life son Sage Stallone, who was 13 at the time of shooting.

A friend of mine was friends with Sage Stallone, and I have been asked to go easy on him. I don’t know why; Sage Stallone does a perfectly fine job of acting, and, while not as good as some other notable child stars, fares a lot better than the bland, non-actors of his peer group. Nepotism put him in the role, but he was at least directed well, and really comes across as a real-life 13-year-old. I will not say a word about the really, really gay earring he wears in the movie. Sage Stallone died earlier this year, and his father, and my friend, and many others were crushed by how unexpected his death was. Rocky V may not be the greatest movie, but Sage was very sweet in it.

Anyway, Rocky wants to stay in boxing, but the only person giving him an opportunity is an obnoxious promoter named George Washington Duke, played by Richard Gant, and clearly modeled after Don King. Rocky will have none of his flashiness. This is a point in boxing history where we’ve seen Mike Tyson, and we’ve seen the real Don King, and we know how bloated and dangerous the sport has become. Stallone is clearly making an easy commentary. Rocky’s way back into boxing comes in the form of the lunkhead local Tommy “The Machine” Gunn (real-life boxer Tommy Morrison). Rocky will train Tommy.

The bulk of the film is devoted to Rocky training Tommy, and while Tommy is seen (in a montage) fighting in huge arenas (like Caesar’s Palace) really, really quickly, it’s still stated that Tommy is nowhere near where the pros are, and only Rocky can bring him there. Tommy is tempted on the other side by the money of Duke and the breasts of Delia Sheppard. Rocky, Jr. is meanwhile having trouble in school, and is growing increasingly distant from his father. We see the fatherhood metaphor at work. A rich, distant father who spends more time working on his personal projects, than caring for his moneyed, real-life son? Hmm… Maybe a comment on what was going on in 1989?

Anyway, Tommy eventually does turn to the dark side, and the final fight, in a twist on the films’ usual formula, takes place on a Philly street with bare fists. Tommy keeps saying he is better than Rocky, and Rocky no longer needs to beat him in a ring; he just wails on the guy. And that’s the climax of the film. A streetfight for honor. Thinking about it, it seems that Rocky V would have been taken more seriously if it weren’t a Rocky film. Duke also gets punched. Heck, we wanted to see that arrogant jerk get his. So Stallone gave it to us. Very nice.

Like I said, Rocky V bombed, and Stallone swore he would never make another one. I appreciate his attempted return to credibility; I prefer Rocky V over Rocky IV, as it finally dispensed with the melodrama that made the series so popular, and tried to recapture the first-film magic that inspired it all. It didn’t succeed, but the attempt was well worth the effort.

And was Stallone as good as his word? Well, no…

Rocky Balboa (dir. Sylvester Stallone, 2006)

Stallone is back in the director’s chair. Wiser and more tactful. Still not great, but decidedly better.

Sporting has changed. The old-timey way of announcing sports (The Howard Cosell/Chick Hearn era) has long-since ended. The world is now populated by thinner, younger athletes, who are paid more and respected less. They all have horrid, open vices. And the sporting programs are all about CGI, and talking street. What’s more, the Cold War, up-with-America stuff that infected most of the Rocky movies has mutated into an untrusting, Bush, Jr. era of quagmire wartime death and despair. This is where we find Rocky Balboa. Like Police Academy: Mission to Moscow before it, we wonder why we need to visit this old way of looking at things (other than nostalgia).

Luckily, Rocky Balboa is a very serious film with the same grimy photography as Rocky, and the same casual, real life pace. This is not an underdog sport movie anymore. This is a life parable. Thank goodness. Can you imagine what a pro-America, up-with-military manly actioner made by Sylvester Stallone would have looked like these days? Oh wait. It would have looked like The Expendables. Or The Expendables 2.

Rocky is still living in his old Philly neighborhood, and now owns a restaurant named Adrian’s (complete with the tacky LeRoy Neiman paintings from Rocky III). Adrian died of cancer in the interim. Paulie lost his job at the meat-packing plant, and fell pretty hard off the wagon. Rocky’s son, now going by Robert (and played by Milo Ventimiglia) is trying to get an office job, and is attempting to distance himself from his famous name. Life is calm and gray and a touch melancholy for Rocky. He has no real friends, other than the old ones he used to hang with. Rocky is staring down the current of old age, and the timeless oblivion of oncoming death.

Frankly… thank goodness. Since Rocky Balboa is such a good film.

Rocky also begins having a flirtatious relationship with a girl named Marie (Geraldine Hudges). Marie appeared in the first Rocky as a mouthy 12-year-old. She’s now grown up, has an illegitimate teenage son, and is barely making ends meet. Rocky, being the calm guy that he is, has no instinct but to help her.

Rocky is a boxer, though, and this is a boxing movie, so let’s talk about the plot: the current heavyweight champion, Mason “The Line” Dixon (real-life boxer Antonio Tarver) is a good fighter, but is maligned in the boxing community for not being as tough as some of the old-school boxers. ESPN makes a CGI fight between Rocky Balboa (from 1976), and Mason today, and sees who would win. The cartoon posits that Rocky would have won, and that boxing in general is not what it used to be. This gets Philly all abuzz, and actually has some people approaching Rocky about actually fighting Mason Dixon (gotta love these boxing names).

Stallone was 59 when he shot Rocky Balboa, and Rocky is about the same age. While 59 is still adulthood, it’s typically very old for a boxer, and the thought of the 59-year-old Stallone once again doing the underdog story is kind of tiresome. Luckily, the screenplay and direction are savvy enough to show how inglorious the fight is, and how little it’s about ego and guts and might, and more about proving to the world that you’re still here, dammit.

Yes, eventually Rocky, to prove that he still has it, agrees to the fight. He knows he doesn’t have a chance. No one thinks he does. But he makes the correct choice to train seriously. He doesn’t have the speed, and he doesn’t have the stamina. He can’t punch rapidly, and he take take as many punches as he used to (the brain damage from Rocky V is never discussed; I guess it healed, just like the blind eye in Rocky II). He can, however, still hit really hard.

Duke trains Rocky, and the fight is arranged. The film is perfectly aware that a 59-year-old man in a boxing ring would be an unusual sight, and Stallone is careful not to make himself heroic or melodramatic. The fight is not about victory. It’s about ability.

Indeed, the fight goes down as planned, and Rocky, in a refreshing twist, doesn’t win. Just like in Rocky, he is voted out in a split decision. While the judges are tallying votes, though, Rocky merely leaves the arena, proving to himself, well, he ain’t no bum. He could still do it. He is still an important link in the chain of boxing history. He didn’t want to win, and he didn’t.

There was an alternate ending written where he did win, and gave a hammy speech, but that was the wrong way to go. For the theatrical version, the loss ending was used, and it gives the film the bulk of its emotional resonance.

In an era where so many remakes and sequels are merely cynical cashgrabs from greedy studios eager to bank on the geek-and-nostalgia dollar, it was nice to see that Stallone resurrected his stymied character to give him a better ending than he had before. The series ended with a whimper, and then came back for a small, modest bang.

Series Overview

Seriously. Look at this image again...

Starting with an iconic American classic, the “Rocky” movies are actually better remembered for their pro-America attitudes as presented by the lesser, mediocre sequels than anything from the first film. The video boxes and film posters for the Rocky movies all feature American flags, so Stallone was clearly trying to change Rocky from an iconic 1970s role he was known for playing and writing, into a 1980s Horatio Alger-type, who used his hard work and physical strength to earn fame and fortune. It was a jejune dream of adolescent power and jingoistic nationalism. The Rocky movies could never be made again: they are very clearly a product of their time and place.

But this pro-American message seems shrouded in the sheer, overpowering silliness of most of the films, most notably parts III and IV; I think I’ll remember the Rocky films less as essayic propaganda, and more as lightweight, formulaic sports movies starring some good actors and a legitimate Hollywood icon.

I’m kind of ambivalent about Stallone. At times, I respect and admire his career arc, and his undeniable ability to entertain. He has made some great movies, and is a better actor than he typically gets credit for. At other times, though, I see him as an overrated businessman who still can’t act incredibly well, and, between his Rocky movies and his Rambo movies, was one of the chief supporters of a dangerous breed of shallow American patriotism.

Part one was clearly the best of the series. Part II, for all the vitriol I lumped upon it last week, is actually a watchable film, and part VI is a fine return to form. The other three are the slump of the series, and are about as disposable/brainbusting as they get credit for.

As I said before, though, the series is strangely coherent for a six-film run. All of the films were written by Stallone, and, between the six, there were only two directors. The cast was the same throughout (except for the rotating Rocky Jr’s), and Bill Conti’s excellent score floats about through all the Rockys. this makes for a series of films that, despite swinging wildly in tone and theme, feel far more of a part than a lot of long-running film series. This is the way to go. Keep the same screenwriter, and your films will feel better as a whole.

See part one for sure. And six, if you’re passionate. If you’re a completist like me, I only warn you to steel yourself for parts III and IV.