The Rocky Series
Rocky (November 24/06)
While there's little doubt that Rocky has earned its place in the pantheon of celebrated sports movies, it's just as clear that the film hasn't aged all that well in the years since its 1976 release. With its extremely deliberate pace and emphasis on elements an unmistakably '70s nature, Rocky is undoubtedly a product of its time - and yet there's simply no denying the film's overall effectiveness, particularly with regard to Sylvester Stallone's strong, surprisingly textured performance. The bare bones storyline follows Stallone's Rocky as he enlists the help of grizzled trainer Mickey (Burgess Meredith) and loyal friend Paulie (Burt Young) to prepare for a fight with reigning champ Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers); there's also a subplot revolving around Rocky's efforts to woo a shy pet shop employee named Adrian (Talia Shire). Directed by John G. Avildsen and written by Stallone, Rocky is often more effective as an understated character study than as a rousing sports movie - particularly as Stallone initially emphasizes his character's meager existence. It's not until about the halfway mark that the film starts to adopt the sort of elements that viewers have come to associate with this series - ie a training montage set to Bill Conti's indelible score - and it's obvious that it's because of such moments that Rocky is considered a minor classic (it doesn't hurt, of course, that the climactic bout remains genuinely exciting and suspenseful).
Less a sequel than a complete remake, Rocky II picks up where the first one left off and follows Rocky (played by screenwriter Sylvester Stallone) as he - in an effort to placate his new wife, Adrian (Talia Shire) - attempts to make a living without using his fists. It's an undertaking that proves to be fruitless, and it's not long before the Italian Stallion is prepping for a high-profile rematch against old foe Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers). Rocky II is undoubtedly a solid movie, but the problem is it's pretty much the same movie as the original - particularly in terms of its storyline, which is virtually a note-for-note replica of its predecessor's. And while the series has never exactly thrived on innovation - each installment essentially follows the structure laid down by the first one - Rocky II can't help but come off as the most needless installment of the bunch (the climactic fight, however, is just as effective as one might've imagined).
Of all the Rocky sequels, Rocky III - buoyed by Mr. T's portrayal of the entertainingly nasty Clubber Lang - is probably the most effective of the bunch, though there's certainly no denying that the film is almost entirely lacking in unexpected plot developments. As the film opens, Rocky (Sylvester Stallone) has clearly let success go to his head - as evidenced by his various endorsement deals and rampant spending (a palatial estate, cars, fur coats, etc) - and now boxes only safe opponents. But after a humiliating bout with Clubber, Rocky enlists the help of old foe Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) and begins a grueling training regimen. Written and directed by Stallone, Rocky III admittedly features a far more melodramatic bent than any of its predecessors, particularly as Rocky is forced to re-examine his priorities (culminating with a long sequence in which loyal wife Adrian confronts him on the beach). That being said, there's little doubt that Mr. T remains one of Rocky's most fearsome adversaries - their final battle is as brutal and compelling as any in the series (if not more so) - and the air of slickness proffered by Stallone ultimately proves impossible to resist.
Though generally considered a superior sequel by fans, Rocky IV suffers from a vibe of superfluousness that's exacerbated by the inclusion of distinctly dated elements and a record number of musical montages (there's even one consisting almost entirely of clips from previous installments). This time around, Rocky (Sylvester Stallone) is forced back into the ring after a deadly newcomer (Dolph Lundgren's Ivan Drago) kills Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) during what was supposed to be a friendly exhibition match. It becomes clear fairly early on that there's simply not enough plot within Rocky IV to comfortably sustain a 91 minute running time (hence the aforementioned montages), and although Lundgren is quite effective as the ultra-sinister baddie ("I must break you!"), Stallone's far-from-subtle screenplay ultimately does more damage than good (something that's particularly noticeable in the film's strangely jingoistic conclusion). Still, the Rocky/Drago matchup remains one of the most effective within the series (it's hard to go wrong with a bout based entirely on revenge).
Much-maligned but sporadically effective, Rocky V opens almost immediately after the events of its predecessor and finds Sylvester Stallone's Rocky Balboa forced to retire as a result of the brain damage sustained during his fight with Ivan Drago. And as if that wasn't bad enough, Rocky's fortune has been almost entirely wiped out due to Paulie's (Burt Young) incompetence - forcing the Italian Stallion and his family to move back to the streets of Philadelphia. The bulk of the movie follows Rocky's efforts to train a promising up-and-comer named Tommy Gunn (Tommy Morrison), an endeavor that backfires when Tommy signs with the sleazy, Don King-esque promoter George Washington Duke (Richard Gant). Rocky V is easily the most uneven of all the Rocky sequels, as screenwriter Stallone places the emphasis on several overly melodramatic subplots (the whole Rocky's-son-feels-neglected storyline is undoubtedly an ideal example of this). That said, there's plenty here worth embracing - including the return of Burgess Meredith's Mickey, who pops up in a surprisingly touching flashback - and one can't help but admire Stallone's decision to almost completely eschew the series' well-established formula in favor of a far more melancholic vibe. And although the movie does start to peter out in its second half, there's certainly no denying the effectiveness of the brutal street fight that closes the film.
The Rocky saga comes to a close with this subdued yet effective (and affecting) entry, with the low-key narrative detailing Rocky Balboa's (Sylvester Stallone) post-boxing existence and, eventually, his decision to step into the ring one last time. Filmmaker Stallone, working from his own screenplay, devotes much of Rocky Balboa's opening hour to the title character's melancholic exploits, as the iconic figure, though still a celebrity within his Philadelphia environs, is grieving the death of his beloved Adrian and, as well, unable to form a concrete bond with his twentysomething son (Milo Ventimiglia's Robert). The sober, character-study atmosphere is generally far more compelling than one might've anticipated, and although the narrative occasionally moves a little more deliberately than necessary, Stallone does a nice job of peppering the proceedings with unexpectedly heartwrenching moments and interludes (eg Rocky's inability to move past Adrian's death dismays Burt Young's Paulie). It's clear that the film improves substantially once it arrives at around the one-hour mark, with the inclusion of a riveting confrontation between Rocky and Robert paving the way for a third act that is, not surprisingly, centered almost entirely around a climactic fight. (There's little doubt, too, that the requisite training montage provides the movie with a burst of energy that carries it through to the bittersweet conclusion.) And although Stallone's emphasis on low-rent, HD-level visuals, coupled with camerawork that's often aggressively flashy, drains some of the excitement from the pivotal brawl, Rocky Balboa has nevertheless established itself as a strong capper to an admittedly uneven series - with Stallone's consistently engrossing work standing as an ongoing highlight within the saga.