My review of Rocky might sound a taste ambivalent. If you missed it you can read it here. In the interest of time I condensed my thoughts on Rocky’s II and III into mini-reviews, and if you want to hear my thoughts on parts 4, 5, and 6 which don’t fall under the blog’s purview then head over to the blog’s Facebook (www.Facebook.com/JourneysinClassicFilm) or Twitter (@Journeys_Film) to read my thoughts starting next weekend.
The first Rocky focused on the training of a novice boxer into the heavyweight champion of the world, and parts II and III explore what happens once fame’s been achieved. Both movies balance the boxing with the character of Rocky Balboa himself, although part three stumbles with the addition of walking one-liner Mr. T. Part II provides more complex material and introspective dialogue in comparison to III, but the two work together to further the Rocky mythos, building upon the foundation of the first.
After beating Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers), Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) struggles to keep his growing family afloat. Afraid to step back into the ring for fear he’ll go blind due to an injury sustained during the Creed fight, Rocky can’t figure out how to make an honest living. At the same time Creed struggles with public opinion calling him a chicken and demanding he rematch Rocky.
Each sequel starts by recapping the events of the first, necessary before the rise of home video but a great time to get snacks if you’re binge watching. The opening glory of Rocky’s metaphorical triumph over Creed is nullified by the sound of sirens wafting through the Philadelphia night. The audience is aware that the optimistic ending of Rocky is gone, replaced by the brutal truth of reality. We awkwardly jump forward to Rocky proposing to girlfriend Adrian (Talia Shire) at the zoo. I was a taste confused as to why he would propose to Adrian at the zoo considering the first movie’s joke about “retards like the zoo.” I assumed it was meant as a joke but comes off as an insult.
The honesty of Rocky movies has always been the relationship between Adrian and Rocky, and that’s felt the most in Rocky II. Regardless of how famous he’s become, Rocky is still a loveable galoot with a corny joke at his disposal. He’s awed by everything in life, even the steps in his new house; “Nice steps!” However, Rocky needs to find a job and the movie shifts to explore how one person stays afloat when the fleeting taste of fame settles down. Rocky and Adrian struggle with Rocky taking dead-end jobs and Adrian working while pregnant. Speaking of, I appreciate the treatment of gender here. Rocky doesn’t want Adrian to work because she’s pregnant, but when Adrian asks to he doesn’t put up a fuss. In fact, when he asks to enter the ring again he reminds Adrian that he doesn’t want to take away her femininity, so she shouldn’t ask him to forsake his masculinity. It’s a taste trite, but surprising that Rocky isn’t a character who uses violence against women as proof of his tortured soul (an issue I had watching Raging Bull).
The sequel is as long as the first Rocky, clocking in a hair under two-hours, and the majority of the plot revolves around Rocky’s attempts to stay out of the ring. At the same time, Carl Weathers is given a meaty role as Apollo Creed, a champion who still can’t accept winning. If the first Rocky was about perseverance than Rocky II is about pride. Rocky takes pride in his win, his city, and his family, but it’s also his pride keeping him out of the ring and calling him back; Apollo believes he has to fight Rocky again in order to maintain the pride of his first win. Rocky’s return to training, and the legendary scene of him running with schoolchildren, doesn’t happen until over an hour in and from there the movie balances the training between Rocky and Apollo. The script gives the audience the ability to root for both men, upping the stakes of the final fight in a way different from the first one where Apollo Creed was more of a publicity hungry jerk.
I could talk quite a bit about Rocky II, definitely enough for a lengthy review. With all the exposition removed and the relationships solidified Rocky II is able to explore the aftermath of triumph, usually the point where the movie ends. Sylvester Stallone both wrote and directed Rocky II, providing more enjoyment and questions for me than Rocky itself.
Rocky and Rocky II act a subseries focusing on the battle between Rocky and Apollo Creed. Once that’s solved at the end of II, where is there to go? Rocky III acts as the finale of the original trilogy (Stallone planned to end at three movies only to return three years later for Rocky IV) and the beginning of a new series. Rocky III often feels repetitive with the appearance of a new, African-American, fighter and Rocky devolving into complacency only to be kicked into gear when something bad happens. There’s still enjoyment to be mined but it feels like spinning wheels.
Officially the heavyweight champion of the world, Rocky and Adrian are finally living the high life. Rocky continues to fight, but mostly for charity purposes. That all changes when an angry fighter named Clubber Lang (Mr. T) demands Rocky prove he truly deserves the title. As Rocky struggles to get back into fighting shape, he starts to fear his time as a fighter is over.
The reason why the original three movies work is because they chart the lifespan of a fighter. Boxers generally retire around the age of forty and Stallone, who also wrote and directed, was 36 at the time of release. Rocky is raising a young son, is financially secure, but he still fears everything could disappear. When Apollo Creed asks Rocky why they have to get old it’s a sad truth in a series unafraid to explore harsh realities. Rocky’s complacency is different than in part two. Now, there’s no true lack of financial instability outside of Rocky’s perception of it. It’s Adrian who pushes Rocky to admit he’s afraid of losing the glory, of discovering he was never truly great to begin with. Unfortunately, this moment is the only strong sequence between our couple. For all the praise I placed on Stallone’s naturalistic relationship, Rocky III isn’t interested in that. In this go-round, Adrian wanders around the edges of the movie. She isn’t even the sounding board for Rocky, stepping back in favor of Creed and Mickey (Burgess Meredith).
Rocky III is about endings, and it makes sense to kill of a prominent character. Meredith’s gruff mentor Mickey says goodbye in this film, and it’s a rather somber moment juxtaposed against Rocky’s crushing beatdown by Clubber. Mickey grows into a makeshift father for Rocky, and his death opens the floodgates for Rocky’s entrance into the great unknown. It’s subtlety is diminished, as is most of the quieter moments in Rocky III, by the overuse of slow-motion and freeze-framing. The introduction of Clubber Lang is further proof the 80’s washing machine blew up all over this film.
No disrespect to Mr. T, but this is the movie where all his worst one-liners and character traits were sharpened. Look at the humanization of Apollo Creed in all three films. He started out as the angry heavyweight champ before becoming a redemptive figure and eventual friend to Rocky. Clubber’s only trait is he’s angry and spiteful; he believes he’s the best and refuses to back down. There is a thought-provoking moment where Clubber refuses to prance around in front of the cameras, a scene you could juxtapose with Rocky’s jungle commercial in Rocky II (the racial differences in both scenes are worth an analysis), but other than that Mr. T is the snarling adversary Rocky must defeat. There’s no true tension other than fearing Rocky’s death.
Rocky III is where the series falls into repeating what’s worked. It’s a film content to rest on its laurels which is okay but not nearly as complex as the past installment. The original trilogy is worth a look, particularly Rocky II. I can’t say I’ll feel the same way after watching IV, V, and VI but at least the first three are worth it.
Want to win the Rocky Heavyweight Collection on Blu?: The fine folks at 20th Century Fox have offered up (1) one copy of the Rocky Heavyweight Collection on Blu-ray. To enter, leave a comment with your name, email address, and which installment of the Rocky series is your favorite. (If you already entered via my review of Rocky no need to reenter here and duplicate entries won’t count.) The contest is open to residents of the U.S. and Canada. The contest closes FEBRUARY 17TH.
Ronnie Rating for Rocky II:
Ronnie Rating for Rocky III:
A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.