#Feature: Climbing up those steps – Growing old with the Rocky franchise
We are still in spoiler alert territory still I guess but in the final scene of Creed, the latest film in the indestructible Rocky series, Michael B. Johnson’s Adonis Creed helps an older, sickly but still quite proud Rocky up the 72 steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Rocky jokes about them adding a step each time he climbs them and insists on taking the final steps himself. We are a long way from the triumphant run up the steps of earlier films. Here the goal is simple: get to the top and enjoy the view.
But Rocky doesn’t age in a vacuum. Anyone who has followed the series from its beginning in 1976 to Creed in 2015 will feel the sense of time passing (and with news of Stallone completing a script for a sequel to Creed it will continue apace). This franchise has run my entire life (I was born in 1975) and your age would have probably defined how you discovered the films. My experience of Rocky and Rocky II were in friends homes who were lucky enough to have a Video Recorder (yes, tapes kids). A borrowed video recorder from an uncle going on holidays in the mid 80s meant a rush to the video shop to get Rocky III and Rocky IV. The 15 year old me appalled by the betrayal of Rocky V (gloomy, where is the climactic showdown?). I had just slipped past 30 when I watched his wonderful return in Rocky Balboa in 2006, mature enough to appreciate the great fighter returning if not quite old enough to appreciate the legacy. Creed was simply a slack jawed 40 year old me stunned by how good a reboot of a long established franchise could be.
So this aging, over the hill, amateur critic decided to get back into the ring with the entire series for one last showdown. How do the early Rocky films stand up to modern tendency to scrutinise the politics of an older era? And more importantly just how good are they? So let us ring the bell and begin.
Memory is a tricky thing. Rocky is a film that is very different when cloaked in nostalgia than it is when coming to it with fresh eyes. My rose tinted view (I hadn’t seen in many years) was a classic underdog story, with chippy kids running through the streets, inspirational with a wonderful soft-focus love story and a happy ending for Rocky. This is not the case. And radically so. Looking at now (all squalid streets and sad lives) it feels deserving of a place in the new Hollywood canon of the 1970s. It is grimy, down on its heel look at yes, an underdog but this dog has been beaten down. Add in Micky (the grizzly Burgess Meredith) who hollers at Rocky at every opportunity means that life is not going well. But an unexpected chance at love with the iconic ADRIAN (Talia Shire doing a lot with a little) drives Rocky to better himself. But this relationship begins with a fearful Adrian and a somewhat forceful Rocky (through our modern lens this wouldn’t fly today). Similarly Adrian has to contend with an abusive brother Paulie (Burt Young). If there is a fairytale at the end it is Rocky hearing I love you from Adrian and not the result of the fight. He loses to Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers), but it is incidental to Rocky who barely hears the announcement. Rocky is a film that feels lived in, with Stallone nailing the beginnings of an extraordinary character through great acting and writing. But this is no fresh faced kid. Rocky is a somewhat beaten character even at the beginning of the series. Rewatch and feel that grit. Rocky is one of the great 1970s films.
Rocky II (1979)
All great boxing matches eventual get a rematch and so it is that Rocky gets a sequel. While in some ways a re-run of the first film with a different outcome there is plenty here to love. Sylvester Stallone acting wooden as Rocky ‘acts’ in a terrible commercial provided proper laughs. The drama when it come is of the ‘melo’ kind and worth waiting for. Adrian faints while pregnant and falls into a coma. On awakening Adrian (a little tear may form, it is that kind of film) we hear that one word that makes the spine tingle: win. In the end there is a fitting climax fight that is pretty damned great. That is, right up to the hysterically unlikely winning moment, though at that point it has clubbed you into submission. A decent sequel and a box office hit which certified that it would not be the last we would see of Rocky.
Rocky III (1982)
There is a lot to ponder in Rocky III. A strange and brash sequel that seems at odds with the first two (just wait until IV for more) it has both Hulk Hogan AND Mr. T. It is also a brutal film, harsh on characters we have we have grown to love but occasionally quite sweet with an unexpected budding romance between Rocky and Apollo. Mr. T is ferocious as Clubber Lang, hungry and hostile. We even get some minor political subtext as it touches upon Rocky’s fear when confronted with a perceived sexually aggressive black male (this is also the era of Nancy Regan sitting on Mr. T’s lap in the White House). Lang is fury personified and Mickey knows Rocky can’t win as he is. In a heartbreaking moment Rocky lets on that he beat Lang for a dying Mickey in a scene of quiet shame. There is also a genuinely weird prologue with Paulie staggering around drunk in an arcade and smashing up a Rocky arcade game. Anger is threaded through the DNA of this film with even the exhibition fight against Thunderlips (Hogan) becoming increasingly violent. Rocky III is an unusual entry in the series, louder and more abrasive than what came before. Could the series go any bigger? Well…
Rocky IV (1985)
This is an odd entry. It has the unenviable position of being perhaps my favourite Rocky film and also the worst film of the series. It feels like it is made of up almost entirely of montages. But Drago is a formidable opponent with a superhuman size and strength and ‘Arnie in Terminator’ levels of words. The final fight is wondrous nonsense with Rocky defeating both Drago and indeed Communism. This is staggering stuff really and it is as great a Saturday night film as you could hope for. Stallone is again on writing duties but he was obviously not getting paid by the word on this one. The contrasting training techniques are a joy to behold during the (many) montages with Rocky going back to nature and Drago going ultra-modern with both machines and steroids. Lundgren is a great opponent, filling the screen and fulfilling the criteria of being seemingly unbeatable. Calling Rocky IV the worst of the series is not the insult it appears to be. If nothing else it takes me back to time where my teenage self needed little more than this final fight in my life.
Rocky V (1990)
Rocky V is the outlier, the black sheep of the entire series. I had one friend who perversely told me it was the best Rocky film. Watched once, dismissed as terrible and ignored since, even the rewatch was put off for over a week as suddenly more important movies/TV shows needed to be caught up on immediately. Young me has decided that this much maligned sequel was trash and older me was whispering that maybe it could be quietly skipped. But how much trust could I actually put in young me though? Reluctantly it was put on and to paraphrase John Cusack in High Fidelity ‘I think my gut has shit for brains’. I was kind of stunned by my reaction to it. It seemed to be set at the memory of the crumbling end of an American dream which had long since departed. Indeed memories are all that is left, family, wealth and status lost along the way. An encounter with a young boxer called Tommy Gunn provides an opportunity to go back to where it all began. And this is the point. 14 years after the original Rocky we are nearing the end. But as Mickey says (appearing in flashbacks) to Rocky ‘just one more round’. Ghosts are never far away. A grim brawl in the street as the big fight seems fitting. For the first time as an audience we were genuinely afraid that this superhero was very much mortal. He lived on but would never be the same again. Worth revisiting if like me your younger self had dismissed out of hand. This looked like the end. And for many years it was.
Rocky Balboa (2006)
The scarcely believable triumphant return 16 years after Rocky V. The main plot point regarding virtual fights with great boxers and the paucity of good challengers makes it just about plausible that an aging Stallone can clamour back into the ring for one last time. Rocky Balboa mirrors the original film with Rocky a more humble figure and with no real expectation of winning. Ostensibly this is a film about grief and aging. Rocky is a lot older and mourning the death of Adrian. His restaurant is poignantly named after her. There are two minor characters from the original film here, Marie, the girl on the street he gave advice to and Spider Rico his first opponent. Rocky eventually rages against the dying of the light. What we get is blunt force trauma. Stallone, very aware that his best days are behind both himself and Rocky, mines this for all its worth in Rocky Balboa. There are terrific call backs throughout the film, reminders of just how long we have hung around, grown old with and truly loved this character. The direction is assured, the writing smart, the central performance wonderful. If this was the last time we would ever see this lovable lumbering beast, it would be a graceful and fitting end. Alas…
Not just a reinvigoration of a great character for a sequel, Creed somehow also manages to begin afresh, challenging fans of the series to come with them on a new journey. The illegitimate son of Apollo Creed, Adonis (the brilliant Michael B. Jordan) becomes centre stage in a film that just feels right. If you are going to do this and risk it all you’d better have something to offer. Stallone very wisely gives the brilliantly talented director Coogler and Jordan room to expand and mirror the Rocky story. But crucially we get very smart writing (Coogler also on writing duties) that taps into the legacy of the original two films whilst feeling like a new beginning. It is incredibly well acted, very moving (‘if I fight, you fight’) and the fight scenes are superb. Add in the terrific Tessa Thompson as Bianca who isn’t just there to hang around to support Adonis and gets a proper arc in the film. Even at the end as Rocky and Adonis amble up the steps this feels like a beginning. The view from the top is indeed great, this most wonderful series in very safe hands.
Rocky is the great American franchise about the great American dream. Dragging yourself up to fight again seems to epitomise a certain American ideal. If Rocky and Rocky II are about trying to become a hero (it takes him two tries to win) for all of the people who love you then Rocky III and Rocky IV are increasingly about becoming a superhero. We know logically that the fight in Rocky IV didn’t end Communism, but it is hard to completely dismiss that it didn’t play a part. This was the 1980s after all, your country needed you, Rocky. Rocky V and Rocky Balboa seem now very reflective. What do you do with your life if all you have left are the ghosts of the people you have loved? Do you fade away (or die as the original plan for Rocky V had been) or do you fight one last time? In Rocky Balboa we are back where it all began. Going the distance is enough. The verdict unimportant. But wait, that most American of stories, the unlikely comeback is still within reach. A chance to reinvent yourself with another generation and fight on. With Creed Stallone was smart enough to know that you should exit the centre stage, that in the ring at least you should leave the fighting to someone else. Outside the ring is another matter. If you are of an age this increasingly sad and knowing series is very moving. We all lose people, we all try to fight on.
The Rocky films are the greatest American drama film series there has been on screen. More importantly they are probably one of the few that doesn’t have lasers or monsters in them. The Before Trilogy, spanning 18 years, is the only other one that comes to mind. The Rocky series (franchise seems to commercial a word somehow) could conceivably go on for my whole life time. This older and more reflective me is very much okay with this idea.
Roll on Creed 2 and the return of Drago!
And because film writing demands a list these days here are my Rocky films ranked. This list (like all lists) can be safely ignored if that suits. I love them all dearly regardless of how much I rate them individually.