Much like the titular fighter, this series should not have lasted as long as it did and been as successful as it’s been. Almost 40 years after the original Rocky came out and lit the world on fire, a new entry into the series is being released. But it’s not a Rocky movie. Set in the same world and featuring Stallone as Balboa, the new movie is focusing on Apollo Creed’s son entering the boxing world. Creed is Stallone handing the series off to a new generation and what better way to send Rocky off than to take a look back at the series that captured the minds of a generation or two. For more thoughts on the series, check in here for a personalized look at the movies on the whole.
Legit the only bad movie in the series. Or I should say the only one that is a chore to watch. You can see what Stallone is trying to do here. After the 80s excess of Rocky IV, he wanted to bring Rocky back to the streets. Make him hungry again, explore what it’s like for Rocky to lose his success and lose his ability to do what he loves. He even brings back original entry director John Avildsen to get back to that. But the execution is sorely lacking on all accounts. It feels very cheap and perfunctory. The character of Tommy Gunn isn’t interesting and is played with no charisma at all. The street fight at the end is just done so poorly and cheesily. Really very little in this movie works. Stallone doesn’t even have any chemistry with his own son in the role of Rocky Jr. It just doesn’t seem like much effort was put into it or just the wind was out of Stallone’s sails at this point. Which is a shame for the series to have (at the time) gone out with such a whimper.
This movie isn’t technically a good movie. The story is barely existent and the motivations are slim at best. Taking the revenge motivations of the 3rd movie and multiplying it ten fold, tying the cold war into it and you get a movie that doesn’t even resemble a Rocky movie. So much so that the Rocky Balboa that appears in this movie is not even Rocky Balboa. He’s a pretty smart guy who is out for revenge and nothing more, putting his life on the line for no other reason than his friend lost a fight he shouldn’t have taken. That isn’t Rocky Balboa. Rocky is a good natured guy who wouldn’t let such things motivate him. Yet, unlike the 5th entry, this movie is entertaining as hell. It’s pure mindless cinema, working as a feature length meme. There’s a reason it’s a very popular entry in the series. Rocky III would be the series’ foray into the 80s, but this is the one that would define 80s cinema for many. It’s quickly edited, basically a feature length montage with quick bursts of dialogue. The writing is barely existent (which Stallone admits to). The acting is serviceable but mainly focused on looking cool. It’s iconic but empty. Pure empty calories. But it’s very watchable, so it beats the 5th one.
It’s only due to the successes of the ones that rank higher than this that it’s placed so low in the series. Coming on the heels of the firsts breakout success, Stallone returned to the character of Rocky not on top of the world but a little beaten up. The work he did after Rocky didn’t connect. It wasn’t the immediate jump into the Stallone we know, as the King of the 80s. So Stallone worked that into the movie to tell a story where a guy who captured the world for a fleeting moment was lost yet again, who was unmoored and had to fight to stake his place in the world. This one feels very much akin to the original in tone and aesthetic, but feels a little too strained. It feels like there’s too much fat, Stallone struggling to keep the running time dense enough to connect like we did in the original. It’s a little too repetitive with the Job like failures and obstacles that Rocky must face, such as the almost comical coma Adrian falls into. It never reaches the highs of the original, but it comes close enough. But sadly it features lows, which the original masterpiece does not have. So it has to drop down this low, even if it features another great fight at the end and the marriage of Rocky and Adrian. It’s a worthy entry in the series, but one that would be bested.
The series took a hard right turn into the 80s with this entry, going very big and cartoonish. Instead of doing a down to earth character study, Stallone essentially crafts this like an action movie. The fight is about revenge and the movie is structured kinda like an action movie. Hell, the fights are more action movie esque. The punches are harder and the beatings taken are nastier. But all done with a broader edge. Yet it still feels like Rocky. Somehow, he kept it right within the franchise, finishing up a thematic idea he had set into motion in the first one. You can see it in Apollo in that first one, when you reach the top you lose some heart. Rocky has to good fortune to try to fight to get it back, going up against pure hatred in Clubber Lang. It’s all big and broad, but it’s entertaining as hell. And it gives us Eye of The Tiger, so it would all be worth it for that alone. Pure 80s cheese and one of the most entertaining from the time period.
It shouldn’t have worked. Returning to the series 16 years later as a man in his 60s, Stallone should not have been able to make the movie work. Yet somehow the man did and made a fantastic movie that lands within the same ballpark as that landmark original entry did all those years ago. Delving back into his real life yet again with this entry, Rocky is a man where life has passed him by and he only has his memories. And instead of going out forgotten and set to the side, Rocky is gonna fight for relevancy again. And holy shit does he do so. Gone are the cartoonish antics of the later sequels from the 80s. Whereas 5 tried and failed to go back to the low key, blue collar aesthetic of the original, this one succeeds in spades. Much like the original, if you don’t cry you’re a joyless cynical piece of donkey shit. Heartfelt, emotional, and thrilling, this is a true knockout punch that gave Stallone and his career a second wind. A real winner.
This is the movie that started it all, and there’s a reason why. This movie is a masterpiece of populist cinema, fitting right into that mid 70s mold of character study that entertains like crazy. Stallone makes his claim to fame and essentially buys his 40 year career with this picture. Not only was it a commercial success, but a massively successful critical darling that ended up doing big business at the Academy Awards. Telling the story of a southpaw club fighter given a shot at glory, Stallone mined his own life to help influence the tale. Not exactly a biopic by any stretch, but a movie that feels lived in thanks to the details Stallone peppers throughout. It’s a beautiful movie that really does focus on character, as Rocky isn’t even told about the shot at Apollo Creed until an hour into the movie. Hell, the fight takes up about 15 minutes of screen time. We dig in and really see these people as they are. From the good natured Rocky to the super shy Adrian to her asshole drunk brother Paulie to the grizzled old sumbitch trainer Mickey. Everyone is real by the end and it makes the payoff that much more emotional. You gotta cry at the end of this movie. An absolute masterpiece that lasts for generations, Stallone really went the distance with this one.