The “Rocky” Series: A beginner’s guide (part II)

Rocky II (1979)

The second film begins with perhaps my least favorite opening to any movie, ever. The attentive viewer will remember that at the end of Rocky, with the fight over and done, Apollo and Rocky grab each other and exchange words: “Ain’t gonna be no rematch…” — “Don’t want one!” So there! The mighty foes have come to an agreement of sportsmanship. But there “wasn’t gonna be no rematch” back before Stallone (and the studio) had the idea for a sequel. So, naturally, Rocky II begins exactly where the first left off – Rocky and Apollo are being transferred to their post-fight hospital and, wouldn’t you know it, Apollo demands a rematch. Wait… didn’t he just (?)… never mind. I appreciate the attempts that Hair and Makeup make to reconcile the leap in story time (a few hours) with the actual passage of three years. Paulie looks noticeably thinner (did he suddenly discover healthy eating and weight training on the drive over?) and Adrian’s hair has undergone a noticeable transformation. Little details like these have never been a strong suit of the Rocky franchise, but the opening of the film puts a sour taste in your mouth. It feels like watching an imitation of the first movie you just thoroughly enjoyed. It feels cheap, fake, misleading. So the movie has an uphill battle, trying to regain your trust. It feels like a rehash.

In Rocky II, we see Rocky endure the pitfalls of his newfound celebrity status. People capitalize on his inexperience, his stardom (which they assume will be a flash in the pan), and he has a hard time turning his fame into immediate financial success. Oh sure, there’s gold watches and flashy cars to be bought – but those never last, do they? It’s easy to imagine where Stallone’s inspiration for this story came from, in the wake of Rocky. There’s no doubt that the bright lights were a bit too bright for the new star. His followup film to Rocky was the forgotten (and embarrassingly-titled) F.I.S.T., which did garner good reviews. But his first attempt at directing was a misfire called Paradise Alley, a pro-wrestling movie. The film was negatively reviewed by critics who thought it was like Rocky, but… worse. Nevertheless, Stallone campaigned to be allowed to direct Rocky II and got the job. His inexperience is telling in scenes where a more deft, subtle hand would prove beneficial. Apollo’s character is mishandled, and he is reduced to something of a caricature.

There are moments of the quieter, sweeter type – like Rocky’s proposal of marriage to Adrian in the snow-covered Philadelphia zoo. Others, like the whole storyline with Adrian’s coma, subsequent hospitalization, and miraculous recovery, are what start to give the series its silliness. The “coma” debacle comes from a storytelling necessity. Rocky, in his failure to capitalize on his newfound fame, has just been laid off from a meat-packing plant job Paulie got for him. A very pregnant Adrian has to go back to work at the pet store, lifting heavy things – it’s not a good idea. She falls. Rocky feels guilty for putting Adrian in this compromising situation. We get the point of the dramatic twists-and-turns. Stallone is telling us that Rocky is a failure who has squandered all his good fortune and, once again, has to get back up and fight. Rocky is his own villain in Rocky II.

The second film ends with Rocky having a wife, baby, and finally getting a victory over Creed. The details of the fight are dramatic (and overdone; just watch the barrage of haymakers they throw during the fight) but we finally end the film where we always hoped Rocky would be: Heavyweight Champion of the World. This is where Rocky enters his Golden Age, his reign at the top of the sport. And this is where the franchise shifts from a quiet, personal drama to an action series. Rocky II isn’t great because it’s a transitional film. It doesn’t belong to the gritty ’70s genre, but neither is it a blown-out ’80s film. It’s just cheesy, but not enjoyably so. Regrettably, it is an essential part of the story. And it is still a Rocky movie; it’s cool seeing Rocky have to deal with money, buying a house, having a kid – it’s not terrible by any means. It doesn’t stink, even if they do literally attempt to recreate the iconic “Rocky steps” scene. Don’t skip it; just know the best is in the past, and there’s better yet to come.

Rocky III (1982)

If Rocky II was Stallone & Co.’s effort to keep Rocky grounded, to maintain a thematic consistency with the first film, to try and hold on to that ’70s grit which gives Rocky its charm – then Rocky III is a full-blown change of course. Subtlety and nuance are thrown to the wind, and Rocky enters his ’80s action-star phase. The film features not one – not two – but three full fights, including a charity fight against pro wrestler Thunderlips (played by the equally ridiculous Hulk Hogan). The fight is an utter farce – Rocky, enjoying his success as Heavyweight Champion, has gotten soft – has lost his edge for competition. A real great fighter would never allow such an embarrassment. He’s lost the “eye of the tiger.”

Enter Clubber Lang (Mr. T), the young, hungry challenger eager to wipe that smile off Rocky’s face. He publicly challenges Rocky at his own statue unveiling ceremony, and Clubber suggests that Adrian should stop by his apartment – see what a “real man” is. Rocky can’t stand for this. He agrees to a fight. He doesn’t know what he just signed up for.

The following sequence is some of Stallone’s best work as a director. We have two contrasting training sequences, inter-cutting. Rocky’s training is lackadaisical, with him always taking opportunities to sign autographs and take pictures with fans. A nervous Mickey looks on, disgusted by Rocky’s lack of focus. We also see Clubber Lang pounding the crap out of a bag in a dingy apartment somewhere – the dude is getting shredded, getting ready to make a name for himself. We all know what happens next. After all – at this point, there’s still plenty of running time for two more fights.

Before the first fight, Clubber and his people get into an altercation with Rocky’s entourage. Clubber, enraged, shoves Mickey, whose old heart just can’t take it. He has a heart attack. Adrian stays behind with Mickey as Rocky goes out and proceeds to get walloped by Clubber. Knockout, second round. Clubber Lang is the Heavyweight Champion of the World. Post-fight, Mickey asks Rocky, with his dying breath, how the fight went. The emotions are real. Rocky can’t bring himself to tell Mickey he lost. Great acting in this scene from Stallone, by the way. He’s always good at crying and mumbling sad things. But Rocky needs to regain focus. We can’t let Clubber get away with it that easy. We know Rocky has it in him to take Clubber down. He killed Mickey. But who… who will train him? How can he get back the “eye of the tiger?”

Thankfully, at his lowest point, Rocky is saved by one of the great villain-turned-heroes in all of cinema history: Apollo Creed, the cocky, overconfident foe of Rocky’s past, cannot… no, will not… watch his old adversary crash and burn in this pathetic fashion. Apollo takes Rocky under his wing, and provides him with a change of scenery he desperately needs. He flies Rocky and Adrian out to Los Angeles (Paulie always manages to tag along in these situations, for some reason) and trains Rocky in his old gym. The dramatic beats at the end of the movie are epic. We see Rocky gradually regaining his form, until he is out-sprinting Apollo on the beach. They embrace, splashing each other in the surf. If people ever wonder where the overt homo-eroticism of ’80s action movies (namely Top Gun) was born – I submit this as the case for Rocky III. The emotions are real, and… the bromance is real. Sidenote: while I do dislike the term bromance, it is exactly right for this situation. We haven’t seen Rocky get this steamy with Adrian – ever. Rocky and Apollo are the perfect enemies-turned-friends, because they have always respected each other on a fundamental level. It’s an awesome thing to watch. And with the, once again, iconic Rocky soundtrack behind it – we are all ready to see Rocky take Clubber’s arrogant ass down.

We also need to take a second to talk about Stallone’s physique. In Rocky, he was jacked in the way a ’70s football player was jacked. His training was rudimentary compared to today’s standards. He looked great, don’t get me wrong, but no more shredded than you’d expect from an average action movie star of today. But by Rocky III, it’s a noticeably different story. He was drinking 25 cups of coffee a day on set. He had to direct the movie, rewrite scenes, act, and train for the fights. His body in the movie is… is… well, see for yourself. He has muscles I didn’t even know could exist. And he’s not inflated or bloated, like a bodybuilder. With a shirt on, he just looks like an in-shape guy. But his body in III really is something to behold. It’s impressive, and might be an indicator of the vanity of a top-of-his-game action star. But if you could look like that, why wouldn’t you?

Well, I should spoil it for you. Of course, Rocky beats Clubber. Of course, Rocky regains his Heavyweight title. All is well in the boxing world. And we’ve added an important member to the Rocky entourage – Apollo Creed, who will have major significance for the rest of the franchise. This is my second-favorite Rocky movie. It’s so simple, the dramatic beats are so obvious and over-the-top, but it’s actually a really good story about getting lazy when you’re at the top of your game, about the fragility of power. It can be taken away at any moment, if you let your guard down.

Read about Rocky IV and Rocky V in Part 3.

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