Read Part One here. Let’s dive right in with the rest of the list…
4. Rocky II (1979)
I was one year old when this was released and part of me hates it that I didn’t get to experience the hype of knowing this movie was coming after what a rousing success the original was.
Regardless, it’s hard to imagine that throngs of people walked out of the theater 39 years ago disappointed in what they saw. No, it doesn’t surpass the original. But it compliments the original in a way the other movies didn’t: by perfectly maintaining the Rocky persona from the first one and by showing us how Rocky and Adrian grew together and established a foundation for their exceptional marriage. (Rocky proposing at the zoo after Gazzo’s driver talked smack to him about it in the first one is a wonderful touch. I”ll never be able to say enough about how extraordinary a writer Stallone was in the big arcs and in the details and nuances.)
Before the last two movies were made, Rocky fans could pretty well be divided into two groups. While everyone hated 5, there were those who preferred 1 and 2 and those who preferred 3 and 4. There really is a stark transformation between the two pairs of movies. In the latter two, Rocky became (to quote Mick in III) “civilized”; Adrian became outspoken. Before that, you had two meek people in very meek circumstances. In Part 2 they are figuring each other out as newlyweds in the midst of the normal array of trials that life throws at you. From financial issues, to getting laid off, to pregnancy scares, we get to see the Balboas as real characters. We all can relate to something that happens in the first two acts of this film. To me the strength of the first two movies is the character building and then they used the rest of the series to take chances with character changes and with plot direction.
And not to be overlooked is that Mick’s best moment to me in the series is the speech he gives Rocky in the chapel when Rocky is consumed by Adrian’s hospitalization. The way he affirms him in his unique Mick way is special, and it is this speech that Rocky goes back to in V when he’s on the ground while fighting Tommy. Then we get the Adrian “Win” quote and it feels like the fight is just a footnote after the rollercoaster of emotion this movie takes us on.
But the fight is spectacular and emotionally consuming. That cannot be overstated. I have almost never seen any of my brothers cry, but I know of one of them who tears up pretty good at the end of this movie.
The truth? I seen you beat that man like I ain’t never seen no man get beat before. And the man kept coming after you. Now we don’t need that kind of man in our lives.
–Tony, trying to talk Apollo out of the rematch
You know I was wondering, what do you think you’re doing the next 40 or 50 years?
–Rocky, proposing to Adrian
“I just wanna say one thing…Yo Adrian, I did it!”
3. Creed (2015)
There is no doubt that even though this isn’t Stallone’s brainchild this is a Rocky movie and continues the story. Just with a necessary new focus.
And what a Rocky chapter it turned out to be. I was pumped about this movie but as I’ve heard mega fans of different franchises express numerous times in anticipation of sequels, prequels, reboots and the like, I was extremely cautious. This could’ve been a disaster. It was the opposite. I give Coogler all the credit in the world for bringing this franchise into the modern era in a way that 69-year old Stallone knew he could not, but doing it without losing what made the Rocky story so special. Explicit and obscure references to the prior films are all over the script and scenery (including “Gonna Fly Now” and chasing the chicken). Even the heart of Philly is at the story’s core.
My favorite thing about this movie is the balance of screen time between Rocky and Adonis. Neither upstages the other and that is exactly how it should be. Rocky is the star of these films. Stallone created this timeless, inspirational world centered around the greatest character of all time. But Donnie is getting the torch passed to him in a fascinating story about Apollo’s illegitimate child figuring out who he is as a fighter and as a person. Michael B. Jordan is a sensational actor, whom I gush about quite often. Either man dominating the fore would have made for a lesser movie. They are in tandem, not in competition.
Their chemistry lights up the big screen. The moment where Donnie shows up to Rocky’s restaurant and knows things about him and Apollo is one of those awesome entertainment moments where the first time I watched I stopped breathing I was so captivated. The theater could have been on fire and I would have not noticed. The contrast in Adonis as the young, modern, west coast professional and Rocky as the middle-class inner-city old man (highlighted by Adonis explaining to a bewildered Rocky that his workout regime was in the “Cloud”) is hilarious. And they’re becoming fast family and showing the world exactly what synergy is does my Rocky fan heart good. There is nothing they could have done to make this film more relevant to past and current generations. Coogler built a beautiful bridge with this work.
Lastly I add that in a game vs. Portland in 1992 (the year he retired) Larry Bird went off on National TV for 49 points, 14 rebounds, 12 assists in 54 minutes and on 19-35 shooting, including a clutch, off-balance three that sent the game into overtime. While playing on a destroyed back, a bum thigh and a messed up Achilles. THAT was Stallone in this movie. In the twilight of his career, he gives a throwback performance for the ages. Since 1976 this man has been bringing the emotion, making me as a guy feel deeply. I don’t know that he has ever been better.
Adonis: I can train at your house.
Rocky: No, I don’t know. Nobody’s been to my house in a long time. You might not be comfortable there.
Adonis: What? You walk around naked?
Rocky: You better not walk around naked either!
“Women weaken legs.”
–Rocky, recalling Mick
“You can’t learn anything while you’re talking. That’s a fact of life. As long as you’re talking, you’re not listening.”
2. Rocky III (1982)
If you asked me which of these films I would most want to watch, I would say IV or the original. Or maybe Creed. But if we are ranking them based more on merit than a feeling, I have to say this is the second best Rocky movie.
The reasons are legion. Mr. T gave the performance of his life as the volatile, trash-talking Chicago brawler, Clubber Lang, who was different enough from Apollo simply in how scary he was. Mick’s death was a poignant punch in the stomach, complete with Rocky’s immediate meltdown and subsequent introspective reaction to it, as the “Mick” music plays behind him. Star Wars and The Sixth Sense may have the best plot twists of all time, but Apollo becoming Rocky’s manager has to be up there right behind them. The series excelled at keeping Rocky the underdog, which is hard to do with a man who was on top so often. Watching Rocky get manhandled by the toughest of 80s icons while his manager was dying got the job done. It’s just a superbly written, cast, and executed movie.
Not only was Apollo’s return a stunning development, the story arc of him helping Rocky to get his edge back before the rematch with Clubber really deepened the emotional impact of the movie. By taking him to his old training stomping grounds in L.A., the whole tone of the movie is altered. The Rocky series has race and cultural differences all over it (every single ring fight is between two different ethnicities), but it never ever was about that. This is as close as they came to shouting, “Hey everybody! Apollo is black! Rocky is white!” And it was not superfluous at all. What Apollo did was genius and it worked. It wasn’t preachy in the slightest but it did remind me that we can learn from people and cultures who are different than us. Rocky had to change to beat Clubber. Apollo facilitated it.
As stated above, Adrian was much more understated in the first two movies than in the next three. She disagreed with Rocky in Part 2, but she didn’t really argue with him. This movie debuted Argumentative Adrian. And it was magnificent. Every movie from this one until V featured a Rocky-Adrian face-off that I honestly want for my real-life marriage. The scene on the beach where she gets him to admit that he’s scared is brutally honest, raw and transparent. The cards were on the table. In his words, she breaks him down. All to help him, which it does. It’s one of the two or three best scenes in all seven movies to me.
And let us never forget that this movie started and ended with the greatest sports inspirational song of all time in “Eye of the Tiger” AND gave us a whole scene cameo of Hulk Hogan. Those two things are major bonus points.
(And we won’t get into the awkward beach hug.)
“I’m afraid! Alright! You wanna hear me say it?!? You wanna break me down?…For the first time in my life, I’m afraid.”
“I’m afraid, too.”
–Rocky and Adrian
–Clubber’s one-word prediction for the second fight
1. Rocky (1976)
Winner and still champ, the original Rocky is nearly impossible to dethrone. And it’s not just because it’s the genesis of the character and story. It’s because its story and character development reign supreme by any criteria. The Oscar nominations and wins speak for themselves. And seeing as how much Stallone had going against him to make and star in this movie, we know every accolade was earned.
After over 3,000 words in this two-part article, I probably have exhausted nearly all of the good adjectives English has to offer. But there is still one left: Greatest. That is what this movie is. To today’s culture, this movie is slow in developing. But to people like me who grew up with it and sometimes want it to “take me back,” we know just how special something slowly prepared can be.
That is this movie. It’s a simple story. A down-on-his-luck boxer, who proclaims himself a bum (a term that comes to mean something throughout the series), falls for a very shy girl he sees at a local business. They have an extremely awkward first date. But she comes to trust him. He in turn bares his soul to her in subtle but profound ways. If you are not paying attention you can easily miss how important it is when Rocky confesses to her that Apollo’s insults did bother him, after laughing them off in public. That is more significant than the boxing is to me, especially in the series beginning. Rocky and Adrian are just so lovable and humble. In a word, they are human. And what makes their relationship enthralling is that they fill each other’s gaps.1.
Rocky as the title character is as good as it gets. He is a tough guy from the streets with minimal education, but he’s not simplistic. He is a hero in the little things in life, like knowing people in the neighborhood, looking out for children and hobos, and simply not thinking he’s better than he is. He is the most unassuming person you can meet. Everything Rocky becomes later in the series is built on this foundation. And it’s perfect. You can even see how he comes full circle as Rocky in Balboa and Creed is much closer to this version than in III or IV (V is basically the transition back after they lose all of their possessions). It’s remarkably endearing. Far more than any actor in any other role, Sylvester Stallone is Rocky. There is no one in fiction to me like him. I can’t get enough of him. They could make 100 of these movies and if Rocky’s in it, I’m there on opening weekend.
The love story and central character development eventually cede to what the movie supposedly is about: the main character getting an unprecedented shot at the boxing title from the champ himself, flawlessly portrayed for four movies by Carl Weathers. Yet even before the fight, Rocky captivates us with his character. Very few images are as iconic to me in this series, among the two dozen that are, as Rocky pounding the frozen beef at Paulie’s job.
And then there is the defining moment in the whole series to me, just before the final fight. Rocky can’t sleep and he confesses to Adrian that he doesn’t care about winning as much as “going the distance”. Because no one had gone the distance with Creed. That is Rocky in a quote. It is no coincidence that in half of the movies that end with a ring fight, the main character does not win2. Because it’s not about winning. Rocky, even up to the Creed chapter, is about heart, about chin, about character-building and storytelling. The means will always be more important than the end. I’m not one to bash the current generation like a crotchety old man, but this is a timeless truth everyone needs to learn.
So that’s why it is number one. They have given us phenomenal subsequent chapters to this story. But ain’t nothing like the original. It can’t be replicated. And it can’t be beaten.
“Ah come on, Adrian, it’s true. I was nobody. But that don’t matter either, you know? ‘Cause I was thinkin’, it really don’t matter if I lose this fight… ‘Cause all I wanna do is go the distance. Nobody’s ever gone the distance with Creed, and if I can go that distance, you see, and that bell rings and I’m still standin’, I’m gonna know for the first time in my life, see, that I weren’t just another bum from the neighborhood.”
–Rocky to Adrian
Where’s your hat?
–Rocky’s first comment to Adrian after going the distance with Creed
I don’t see no crowd around you neither.
–Rocky to Paulie
“No, I think I invented it.”
–Rocky when interviewed about punching the freezer meat
“He don’t know it’s a show. He thinks it’s a fight.”
–Tony, to Apollo, after Rocky knocked him down in the first round
“I don’t know. She’s got gaps, I got gaps. Together we fill gaps.”
–Rocky about Adrian
Thoughts, reactions, complaints and comments are welcomed below!