The first movie – Rocky (1976) – remains a masterpiece, and is one of the best sporting movies ever made.
Rocky II (1979) avoids the mistake a lot of sequels make in rehashing the events of its predecessor. Even though the story is based around a championship rematch, Rocky, as a person, continues to grow. He marries, he becomes a father, he has to deal with financial responsibilities – this is not the same oblivious loanshark enforcer he was in the first movie.
Rocky III (1982) touches upon a good idea – what happens when you get to the top? But it’s one fight and/or training montage after another. Then there are plot points that bug me.
Mickey (Burgess Meredith) tells Rocky that his (ten) title defences were hand-picked to protect him – in my opinion, this cheapens the Rocky character. So he had two good fights (both against Apollo) and that was it? Couldn’t it have just been the last few title defenses? And/or couldn’t Stallone let himself go and become an overweight, sluggish, complacent Rocky Balboa so we could see that he’d lost his hunger, rather than being told he was shielded through his championship reign?
The other thing is Rocky III condenses Rocky and Rocky II: training montage, championship bout, training montage, and rematch. Given Rocky loses to Clubber Lang (Mr. T) in the middle of the movie, it leaves no question as to what’ll happen in the rematch. Rocky II mitigates this expectation dilemma by increasing the stakes around Rocky: his loss of employment, the financial pressures, his damaged eye, and the difficulty around the birth of his son. Rocky III has only enough time to make it about Rocky losing his nerve.
I’ve always thought Rocky III would’ve played better had the first bout against Clubber been called off due to Mickey’s heart attack, and following Mickey’s death Rocky grew despondent until rallied by Apollo (Carl Weathers) and, more importantly, Adrian (Talia Shire). Clubber could win the title in the interim, and Rocky would have to win it back despite doubts that he could do it without Mickey, that he could rediscover the hunger that made him champion, and he could wind back the clock on his age (questioned here, but which becomes irrelevant onwards).
Rocky IV (1985) is the typical revenge plot that drove a lot of 1980s action movies. You can almost hear the voiceover: “They killed his partner …”
While the fights in the franchise have always been unrealistic, they reach a new level here. Because Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren) punches so hard, he kills Apollo within two rounds. Rocky withstands the same barrage for fifteen rounds just because he’s determined. He has no tactics other than to keep coming at Drago.
I do have to point out that I love Rocky III and Rocky IV. They’re beautifully made. That antagonists are awesome. The fight scenes are gorgeously choreographed and tell their own story. But they feel more like action movies than sporting movies. And, as sequels tend to do, they’re always upping the action set pieces at the expense of slowing down and meaningfully advancing the characters (which Rocky II does so well).
Rocky Balboa (2006) is well-intentioned, but also feels unnecessary. In many ways, it’s a rehash of the original, because Rocky is again fighting for a form of self-respect. Marie (Geraldine Hughes) – the character he walks home in Rocky (although there, she was played by Jodi Letizia) – just plays Adrian Lite. (Interestingly, in a deleted scene from Rocky V, the character turns out to be homeless, rather than the struggling single mother she is here.)
What Rocky III, Rocky IV, and Rocky Balboa also share in common is that an important supporting character dies: Mickey, Apollo, and then (off-screen) Adrian. Those deaths leave vacuums in Rocky’s life that he has to deal with if he’s to move forward.
Rocky returns from his fight against Drago in Russia to find that Paulie (Burt Young) had signed a power of attorney over to Rocky’s accountant.
The accountant has embezzled Rocky’s fortune, mortgaged Rocky’s house, and failed to pay Rocky’s taxes for six years, investing the money in real estate deals that went bad. Rocky has to auction everything he owns to pay off his debt.
Now this premise sets up the stakes – Rocky’s lost everything. Paulie kept the old house in Philadelphia under his name, and Mickey’s gym – Mighty Mick’s Gym – was willed to Rocky’s son. So we have callbacks to Rocky’s life before success.
His lawyer explains that given the investigation into the accountant, Rocky’s criminal past will emerge, including cases of assault, which’ll scare off employers who might consider hiring him to do commercials. Adrian comments those charges are from a long time ago, but the lawyer moves on to suggest Rocky should have a couple of fights to solve his financial issues.
Now some stories will have some sort of incongruity that needs to be be acknowledged for the narrative to move forward, otherwise it becomes the elephant in the room with the audience.
In Superman (1978), a street pimp (Bo Rucker) exclaims upon seeing Superman (Christopher Reeve), “That’s a bad outfit! Whooooo!!!” This is Superman’s first appearance. The film is acknowledging that, yes, the costume is a bit silly. By getting the pimp to acknowledge it, we – the film and the audience – don’t have to pretend it’s not silly. Let’s move on.
In Looper (2012), Old Joe (Bruce Willis) and Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) – they’re the same person at different ages – acknowledge the existence of time paradoxes, but then dismiss them. It’s their way of saying to the audience, Yes, we’re thinking what you’re thinking – but don’t worry about it. It’s a big cheat.
Rocky V does the same thing. Adrian voices what we’re all thinking: Really? Those charges are fourteen years old. Do they really matter? Especially when you consider the opening montage to Rocky III shows Rocky happily doing commercials. Would anybody care about Rocky’s past now?
Adrian’s query fools the audience into thinking that we’re all on the same page and that the elephant’s gone because it was acknowledged. It’s not, because she’s never answered. The filmmakers just threw a shoddy cover over the elephant. Like Looper, it’s a cheat.
Given Rocky is a beloved sporting figure, the criminal charges are old, and Rocky’s already done lots of commercials, it’s hard to believe he wouldn’t be offered more, or a sponsorship deal, or even some cushy commentary gig. I think it’s even the sort of situation where the pubic would be sympathetic and mail him some money to help him out.
This is the biggest plotting weakness in the story, if not the franchise.
But it’s used to block one of the the solutions Rocky could’ve pursued.
With that eliminated, he has to consider boxing. But an examination reveals he has brain damage, so he won’t be able to get a boxing license. (In Rocky Balboa, the brain damage is ret-conned to “mild” and likened to long-term concussion – despite this condition, boxers can still get boxing licenses).
So what are his options?
Losing the Plot
Rocky was meant to die at the end of Rocky V following the street fight with Tommy Gunn (real-life boxer Tommy Morrison, who – as a young boxer – was once considered the equivalent of Mike Tyson). The whole movie – with the brain trauma, the flash backs, and the physical symptoms – is meant to lead to Rocky’s death, but the plot was pulled from the story at the last minute.
In the original script, Adrian was pregnant with a girl. Following the street fight with Tommy, the following exchange occurred:
A POLICEMAN SPEAKS: “The ambulance is a minute away.”
ADRIAN: “When you get to the hospital, you’ll be all right.”
ROCKY: “My hands are cold.”
ADRIAN (she takes his hands): “I’ll warm them. Whatever you want.’”
ROCKY: “I don’t want the kid (son Rocky Jr.) to see me like this.”
ADRIAN: “He won’t.’”
ROCKY: “Adrian, you’re the only thing I ever loved. I only want us to be happy, y’know?’”
ADRIAN (pregnant with a girl): “I know. When you get better we’ll go away for a rest. Get ready for the baby.”
ROCKY: “I can’t wait to see my daughter. It’s gonna be great.”
Rocky’s hand slackens in Adrian’s grip and his body slips into motionless repose. His eyes close, leaving his face sublimely peaceful.
ADRIAN: “Rocky?? Rocky?? Oh God, don’t go, Rocky. Please, Oh God don’t take him! I love you! Don’t leave me!”
An ambulance arrives and paramedics force their way through the crowd.
PARAMEDIC: “We’re ready, Mrs. Balboa. We’ll take him now.”
ADRIAN (softly): “You’ll never take him.”
The scene fades and dissolves through the image of Adrian cradling Rocky’s head and fades in on the museum steps. Adrian stands beside the massive bronze statue of Rocky. Below her is a large gathering of press and friends.
ADRIAN: “Rocky Balboa passed away early this morning. With my husband went a man who proved you don’t have to be born great to achieve greatness. From his humble beginnings, he became a symbol for many that life doesn’t make the man. The man makes the life. As long as there are people willing to meet the challenges of life and not surrender until their dreams become realities, the world will always have their Rockys.”
(She looks at the statue)
“I’ll always love you.”
The camera tilts up to the powerful statue and after a moment it dissolves into the same spot where years before an unknown fighter danced jubilantly and raised his hands in his victory over life. The scene freezes-on Rocky’s leap of triumph.
How much more powerful would this have been?
Credit to WBN – World Boxing News and their article Tommy Gunn killed Rocky Balboa in original Rocky V script for the duplication of this scene.
Every other Rocky movie follows the same formula: protagonist encounters antagonist, training, championship fight.
Stallone is a genius in ensuring Rocky is the underdog in every bout, even when he’s champion in two of the movies.
- In Rocky and Rocky II, Rocky faces a brilliant champion in Apollo Creed.
- In Rocky III, Rocky learns Mickey has been shielding him by hand-picking opponents he could beat, and that he has no hope against a “wrecking machine” (Mickey’s words) in Clubber Lang.
- By the time the second bout in Rocky III comes around, we’ve seen that Clubber has already crushed Rocky once. In the lead-up to the rematch, it’s highlighted that Rocky’s comeback is unlikely given his age.
- In Rocky IV, he faces a seven-foot-tall Russian who punched Apollo to death.
- In Rocky Balboa, Rocky is an older man (of unspecified age, although Stallone himself was 60) and fights the undefeated champion, Mason Dixon (Antonio Tarver, who was a real multiple light-heavyweight champion) – a champion who is obliterating the heavyweight division to the extent that people are losing interest in boxing.
This is a pivotal formula for sporting movies: the protagonist (or protagonist team) is always the underdog. That’s why we root for them – to prove you can triumph despite the odds.
But I like that Rocky V deviates from the formula. Leaving aside the unlikelihood of the poverty, Rocky evolves into a new role in his life – from boxer to trainer. In every other story, he is always just the boxer. Even in Rocky Balboa where he’s a restaurateur, he goes back to being a boxer battling the odds to win a fight.
Now, he trains Tommy Gunn, trying to instill his own values, and teaching him Mickey’s lessons. Tommy grows resentful that despite his success, Rocky’s profile overshadows him. The lure of fame and fortune seduces Tommy. Tommy calls into question Rocky’s capacity to manage.
Interwoven through this is Rocky’s regret about ending up back at the old neighbourhood, his brain damage, and his deteriorating relationship with his rebellious teenage son.
Rocky III, Rocky IV, and Rocky Balboa cannot happen unless those supporting characters in each movie die. They are the drivers. Remove those deaths, and Rocky’s life would unfold as it has been unfolding to that point.
Rocky V could still unfold even if you removed the death of his wealth. The story is more about Rocky learning value in what’s truly important to him: the people (his family) who are true to him. If Stallone hadn’t bankrupted Rocky, he could’ve sold another message: that money and material wealth don’t equal happiness.
Also, the master-apprentice story offers a new context, whereas all the other bouts are a variation on champion and challenger.
This is the one movie where Rocky isn’t the underdog. Tommy is a fine fighter, but still has a lot to learn. Rocky is repeatedly heralded as the true champion.
When the street fight erupts, Rocky easily puts Tommy down. Tommy then has to attack Rocky from behind to get the ascendancy. When Rocky comes back again, he knocks Tommy out.
Turning it into a street fight also removes the rules that would’ve stopped it had it been an official championship bout:
- Rocky knocks Tommy out – Rocky wins immediately
- Tommy attacks Rocky from behind – Tommy would’ve been disqualified
- Rocky begs off as he suffers debilitating flashbacks from his brain damage – the fight would’ve been stopped.
The fight can push boundaries that couldn’t occur in the ring.
With his family and the neighbourhood cheering him on, it can also deliver a unifying moment that’s only previously seen in Rocky, when he ignores the announcement of the split decision to call to Adrian. He doesn’t win a title. He doesn’t win whatever prize money would come with a championship bout. He doesn’t restore the status quo, as he does in Rocky III. He doesn’t end the Cold War. He doesn’t exorcise his grief. He reconnects with who he was.
Lastly, the street fight also introduces the greatest stakes of them all: life and death. It just doesn’t follow through on the original denouement that Rocky dies.
When Rocky wins and, in the next scene, shares a moment with his son at the top of the “Rocky steps” (of the Philadelphia Museum of Art), you’re left with the figurative “and they lived happily ever”, which is a nice place to leave the story.