Welcome back gang. Got an interesting week for y’all. In preparation for the upcoming Creed, I went back to the Rocky franchise and watched all of them in the week. That’s 6 movies. So there’s not much else to write about. I got away to see a new release, which you can check out at the bottom of this post. But the majority of this post is gonna be an essay about the Rocky franchise. To see where I place each entry in the franchise, look in later in the week to see my rankings of them. So this week is gonna be different. For now, enjoy a massive piece on the series. See ya guys later.
When I was a young boy growing up in a large Italian family in Brooklyn, I was basically a passive participant in the movies I was shown. I had no real choice, cause I didn’t know what was out there. I just trusted my family with what was good for me. There was one series out there that has been apart of my life since the earliest days, and it’s one that has reached many a man in his life. Thanks to the many marathons that play on TV and the periodical revival of the franchise, it’s been around and effecting people for 40 years. That series was Rocky, and it was/still is a particularly important part of my life.
One of the biggest reasons I love Rocky is a similar reason as to why I love Bruce Springsteen. Both are very blue collar movies that follow around beaten down “losers” with crushed dreams trying to keep the hope alive. Bruce songs follow regular Americans with modest goals.And the first Rocky movie is a more fantastical version of a Bruce song, since Bruce songs don’t tend to focus on world class fighters getting a fairy tale story thrust upon them. But the heart of it is similar, since the goal in the first movie is not to win. Rocky doesn’t have any pretense about his chances of winning. Lose has permeated his life so massively that he can’t even imagine winning. All he wants to do is go the distance, prove he isn’t a bum and that’s it. It’s an idea that any regular schnook can relate to. We may dream about becoming rich or famous, being the best at what we do. But realistically, we would just be content with proving ourselves and getting the respect we crave while finding love in the arms of someone who can truly understand you.
Even as a young kid, I recognized that not all of the sequels where like that first movie. I couldn’t put it to words like I can now, but the differences are staggering. And even as a kid, I knew that I liked all of them except for 5. 5 was the only one that really bored me as a kid. Now I can understand what it was going for, but still not like it too much. But what I didn’t get as a kid was the idea of how the series works as a decades long autobiographical series for Sylvester Stallone and how each movie can not only pinpoint the time period it was made in, but where Stallone was in his career.
Stallone gets a lot of flack for being a mindless action movie star, no real artistry to his work and a lack of any intelligence. If you look at his work in the 80s/90s, that’s easy to argue. And I won’t argue against it. But when you remember that he wrote the first Rocky and wrote/directed the sequels (minus Rocky 5), you might think twice about his talent. And when you realize that every movie he was involved in during the height of his fame was pretty much rewritten by him to tackle stuff he was interested in, that becomes even more a push back against him being mindless. That’s not to say he’s making high art everytime. But unlike Schwarzenneger or Van Damme or the like, Stallone was creatively in charge pretty much every step of the way, even when he wasn’t the director. Hell, he was so unhappy with the original cut of First Blood, he wanted to buy the movie and never release it because it was too long and focused too much on him. Thanks to his instinct to cut himself out of the majority of the movie, a classic was born. But none of them chart the progress of Stallone’s career like the Rocky series.
When the first Rocky came out, Stallone was a nobody. He had been acting in small roles before hand, but he was very much a struggling actor. So he hunkered down and decided it was up to him to make his career, not to wait for anyone else to hand it to him. So he crafted Rocky, the story of a club fighter given a chance to make a name for himself. Stallone is no boxer, but the basic idea of a man trying to do what he loves but is stuck, given the chance to prove himself at the biggest stage is clearly a semi autobiographical element to the movie. Now, if that was the only movie made or the other movies in the series were just clear cut copies of the first, a case for Stallone’s life bleeding into the art wouldn’t be quite strong. But looking at Rocky II shows some clear evidence that this series/character was like therapy for Stallone.
After the success of Rocky, winning a ton of awards and being a big hit with the world, Stallone was on top of the world. He thought he had made it. But the work he did immediately after it was not very successful. Many would think that he became the big after Rocky, but that’s not quite true. F.I.S.T. and Paradise Alley were not successes for him. Despite winning the big show, Stallone was seemingly forgotten. The past was the past and Rocky alone wouldn’t keep people interested in his work. So he decided to craft another Rocky movie. This time out, Rocky was a big success and very popular following his fight with Creed. Endorsement deals are coming in and the people are very much into the man. But as time moves on, the legendary fight fades from peoples memory and Rocky has to make it in blue collar work, no one giving him any handouts due to his past glory. The only way he can do it is to go back and fight Creed in a much demanded rematch. And he does so, after some major personal setbacks. When that fight happens, Rocky wins the belt and is now a major player. Doesn’t that sound exactly like Stallone’s life filtered through a boxing story? Right down to going back to a past glory to succeed again by fighting Creed, Stallone had to go back to that story to succeed again. And succeed he did.
After the success of Rocky II, Stallone still wasn’t at the top of the world like he would be. That would come, but only after making Rocky III. Stallone was a bit more successful after Rocky II, feeling a little more flush in his career. But it seemed like he was coasting. The two movies he did in the interim weren’t written by him (Nighthawks and Escape To Victory). They were successes but they didn’t kill it like the two Rocky flicks. He was very famous though and his life changed immensely. When making Rocky III, he wanted to put some of that into the movie. So the movie is much brighter and less gritty in it’s aesthetics, focuses on Rocky having gotten comfortable in his championship reign, and the need for Rocky to have to reclaim his hunger to hit the top again. And this movie is very different then the first two, so seeing that his life changes had made that so makes the movie very interesting. He lost that hunger, that past desire to make something of himself because he had. And Rocky, in the defeat at the hands of Clubber Lang, has to do so himself.
The same year of Rocky III, First Blood was released and Stallone would finally reach the mega fame we all know him to have received in the 80s. No high would ever be higher for him. He did make a big bomb in Rhinestone, but his fame never wavered. Especially when, in the same year, he was gonna have Rambo: First Blood Part II and Rocky IV come out. And Rocky IV was the only movie in the series to not be created with a specific sense of autobiography to it, but it still bled into it. Stallone had so fallen away from his upbringing, had become so rich and famous and creatively untouchable on his projects that he was essentially a God. He could do what he pleased with no seeming consequence. And he had fallen so far away from that older Stallone, a true actor, and became an action meathead. That all came to bear in Rocky IV, which is basically an action movie with no emotional crux to it. Stallone had finally turned his self indulgence inward to the series that he himself was responsible for. The entire crux of the movie is simple vengeance. Stallone was going through the motions here and just forced an action movie premise into it. But it goes to show what a talent he is that he accidentally crafted a very iconically 80s movie with it, making it the highest grossing movie in the series.
After this, Stallone was still big but things were moving in the opposite direction. Slowly still, but the peak was reached and the trek started down the other side of the mountain. People seemed to be getting tired of the man and his over the top action movies. And in his defense, it seemed like he saw it. Some sense of awareness washed over him and he decided to make another Rocky movie, one that would get back to the roots. So Rocky V came out, and it was the least successful movie in the franchise. It still made money, but the audience had shrunk considerably in the 5 years between movies. The audience may have left after Rocky IV, feeling like it was a betrayal of the series, others may have just grown out of it. Felt tired by it. But the movie itself didn’t help matters, as it felt very much like a perfunctory movie. The energy and iconic nature of the series was gone. Stallone felt strained, and even original entry director John Avildsen couldn’t make things work again. It felt cheap and DTV. The ideas were there but executed so poorly that it felt even worse than IV, since it was ambitious but missed the mark. And that can be felt due to Stallone success. He was aware a change needed to be made and made the move to do so, but he was still too entrenched in his success to really make it work. It felt fake andhollow. His success effectively killed the series. But like that big lug at the center of this series, it came back from the brink of defeat for a (at the time) final success.
After Rocky V, things changed immensely for Stallone. An apathy had crept over his movies. Some made money but didn’t really connect in any meaningful way for the most part. Aside from a Cliffhanger or Demolition Man, his action output was instantly forgettable. And again, he saw it and tried to make another change by going full on actor with the movie Cop Land, gaining weight and fully immersing himself in a role. But it didn’t connect and it seems like he didn’t fully recover from that lack of success he felt from the role. By the time the 2000’s got started, his career was embarrassing. Artistically bankrupt and devoid of any entertainment, movies like Get Carter and Driven and Avenging Angelo were shallow attempts at capturing old glories. Stallone was down and out. He was living in the past. So 16 years after Rocky V, he decided to dust off the Balboa character and bring him back for one final fight.
Rocky Balboa is the most heartfelt and emotional entry in the series since the original. Stallone had lost all success, went through a lot in his life since Rocky V and had changed. So he mined his life again to craft the best Rocky story since the original to elevate it above a cheap sequel. Which is something everyone assumed it would be, but they were all wrong. Any worries about a 50 plus year old Stallone fighting again were unfounded. The movie was very much about age and past glories, feeling lost and unwanted in the world. Rocky has aged out of the thing he loves, only being around it by telling stories to the customers at the restaurant he owns. And the only thing he cared about outside of boxing, his wife Adrian, is dead. Rocky is truly alone and he needs to fight one more time to prove to himself and everyone else that he isn’t useless. It’s a truly amazing movie, something that shouldn’t work and works immensely.
Rocky Balboa regenerated Stallone’s career. He brought Rambo back, started a new franchise in The Expendables and makes old school action flicks with a dedication that was missing in the 90s/early 2000s. Not everything is a success that he tries hard at (Bullet To The Head). Sometimes he phones it in (Escape Plan). But he is back at it. And even when it seemed like he was gonna disappear again in his own success, Ryan Coogler came to him to work in the Rocky world. But this time out, Rocky is in the Mickey role in service to Apollo Creeds son. Word is it’s a masterful movie that should make everyone happy. I hope it is. Hopefully it kicks Stallone’s career in the ass yet again. I’d like to see, like some hope, that he gets a Best Supporting Actor nom. Because with Stallone, critical success is fleeting. He truly lets success get to his head and wreck everything. He’s a smart man, but sometimes disappears up his own ass. And that very much appears in the Rocky franchise. But it’s time that the series goes onto someone else’s shoulders. But even is Adonis Creed takes over, Rocky will never be gone. Rocky went the distance and we will always go back to see his journey. A journey that is more autobiographical than one would think.
The Night Before (November 20th, 2015)
Director: Jonathan Levine
Starring: Joseph Gordon Levitt, Seth Rogen, Anthony Mackie, and Lizzy Caplan
For more on this, click here.