Way late review: Rocky

This entry is part 1 of 6 in the series Rocky: The Undisputed Collection

I’ve seen Rocky so many times now it’s hard to separate the memories of watching it from the film itself. It’s gotten so bad that I often think scenes from the next two movies were in the original.

The best sports movies are often less about the sport and more about the men and women involved. Rocky is no exception. No doubt, the final match between the underdog Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) and the cocky heavy weight champ, Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers), is emotionally charged like no other. That bout is also a giant step forward for filming boxing, as it was the first to use what became the steadicam. But to focus on that big showdown is to miss that Rocky is really a character study.

The glamorous life of boxing is not so glamorous as we watch Rocky barely get by. He boxes in small events that earn him little money. He works as an enforcer for a loan shark. He loses his locker at the local boxing gym, as the owner, Mick (Burgess Meredith), is not interested in supporting an athlete who seems content with wasting his potential. The highlight of his day is visiting the pet store where he enjoys checking in on the animals and his friend’s sister, Adrian (Talia Shire). That friend is like no other. Paulie (Burt Young) is an alcoholic who sees himself as the king of his world. He treats everyone around him in anger. Not satisfied with ruining his own life, he goes out of his way to put down his sister and everyone close to him any chance he gets.

The first two thirds of Rocky are filled with a certain sadness. There are laughs mixed in but they come at the expense of characters who seem destined for dead ends. Regardless, there is a kindness in Rocky and others that keeps hope alive. That hope ends up coming in the form of an invite for Rocky to take on the current heavyweight champ, Apollo Creed. The champ is having a hard time finding an interesting opponent. He keeps destroying the competition. He figures he needs to do something different that will capture the imagination of boxing fans so he finds Rocky, an unknown fighter in Philly who has the irresistible nickname, The Italian Stallion.

The transformation of Rocky from the smoking, drinking, seldom motivated individual to the lean and mean boxer is always inspiring. The soundtrack and montage of Rocky training endlessly can take credit for that. With that said, it’s easy to overlook the fact that Rocky is not ready to the win fight. He spends the night before looking at the ring, wondering what he’s got himself into. As he enters the fight he has less the look of a man ready to upset the champ and more the look of one who is about to take the beating of a lifetime. Even in its most emotional moments, the movie tempers those emotions with reality. The ending, as emotionally charged as it is, maintains that reality. And that may be why Rocky is one of the all time great sports movies. We love our sports heros and we love them even more when they have flaws (just like us) and overcome them, even when it means not obtaining the ultimate fairy tale ending.


This post is part of my Way late reviews. Read more reviews here.

Way late review: Rocky II

This entry is part 2 of 6 in the series Rocky: The Undisputed Collection

After the surprising success of Rocky, there had to be a second – if only for business reasons. Beyond the financials, one could argue that there was a decent reason for Rocky II to be made. Rocky and Apollo Creed left their first match in much doubt. It would be easy to believe that Creed would want a rematch and that Rocky would welcome the challenge.

Rocky II finds Rocky Balboa in different circumstances than the original. He came close to beating the champ. That alone has earned him some money. The prospects of cashing in on that success in terms of commercials, endorsements, etc. look promising. Rocky goes from a down and out boxer to skies the limit after one bout. This makes for an an interesting look at the development of our favorite underdog boxer. He’s not rich but it seems he might soon be. He’s not a champ but the odds seem to be swinging in his favor. He has the woman he loves and marries her. He has no shortage of people offering him a chance to invest or be invested in. Yet Rocky struggles to make sense of it all.

The first signs of trouble are the way the Italian Stallion goes on a spending spree, purchasing all sorts of high priced items he previously could only dream of. Not a problem. Rocky will fund all this through commercials. One problem. He’s been hit in the head a few too many times and is barely able to read a few simple lines. Before long we see Rocky stressing financially. To add to the pressure, he discovers Adrian is pregnant. Oh, and he’s retired from boxing. The doctor says he risks losing sight in one of his eyes if he continues fighting. That is all Adrian needs to hear. She’s staunchly against Rocky fighting again. The risks are too high. She believes this so much so that she goes back to work at the pet store part time to help pay the bills. Rocky eventually finds himself work at Mick’s gym. He goes from challenging the champ to changing spit buckets in no time at all.

Apollo Creed is as bombastic as ever. He wants another fight with Balboa. There is too much talk of Creed not winning the last fight. An ego like Creed’s cannot withstand this kind of assault. Creed puts out a media campaign calling Rocky a chicken. He does everything he can to embarrass Rocky back into the ring. After further thought and further provoking, Rocky takes the challenge, though it’s against Adrian’s wishes.

Rocky begins training with Mick, who agrees to train Rocky only after the taunts by Creed became too much for even Mick to ignore. Previously, Mick was in agreement with the doctor, it was too risky for Rocky to keep fighting. We’re all set for a montage of training set to the inspirational music but instead something else happens. Rocky is distracted. He seems unmotivated. Adrian’s lack of support is weighing heavily on him. Never fear, Paulie is here! Ah yes, our favorite creep/funny man Paulie. He figures out that it’s his sister causing trouble. He’ll set her straight.

After Paulie shouts Adrian down, she goes into early labor. Rocky is a proud father of a baby boy but discovers that Adrian is in a coma. He is crushed. Training is set aside and instead he stays by his wife’s side. It’s during this time that we’re reminded that Rocky is often as much about the love between this unlikely couple as it is about Rocky the boxer.

The coma is an added plot device. The original lacked this type of device which is used to increase the drama. While not unbelievable, this twist is a sign of things to come in the films that follow and it’s not a good sign. But I’ll save that for reviews of the next few movies in the series.

Adrian awakes from her coma. She seems to have had time to think about Rocky returning to fighting because some of her first thoughts are to tell Rocky to go win the fight. Say no more. Rocky is back on track. Triumphant training montage kicks in for real this time. It is eerily similar to the original montage except things are ratcheted up a notch. The final scene of Rocky running up the stairs is there and this time half of Philly’s kids follow and cheer in triumph at the top. Again, a sign of things to come in future instalments.

The big battle in the ring is not unlike the first. Rocky may be the worst fighter to ever enter the ring. If he blocks a punch to the head it will be his first. Regardless, we cheer for our hero to take the punches and punch back even harder. In the end we get what we hoped for in the first. But one can’t help but wonder what another round of success, even bigger this time around, will do to the newly crowned champ. He didn’t exactly excel with the last opportunity, which is maybe why Rocky II sets up its sequel even better than the original did for it.


This post is part of my Way late reviews. Read more reviews here.

Way late review: Rocky III

This entry is part 3 of 6 in the series Rocky: The Undisputed Collection

Rocky is the champ. He’s defending his belt since beating Apollo Creed. He lives in a giant house, owns numerous sports cars, looks better than ever. Top of the world for Balboa in Rocky III. Yet lingering in the background is an angry fellow with long feather earrings. Mr T? No (well, kind of). B. A. Baracus? No. Clubber Lang? Ding, ding.

Rocky III is all about taking things to another level. Mr. T…errr…Clubber Lang is one rung on that ladder. Another rung is the death of Mick, the most memorable voice of all time. And, not to be out done, Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) makes a return, but this time as friend not foe. Best of all is the introduction of a great new catch phrase and song, Eye of the Tiger.

Despite the blatant attempts to heighten the drama and stay relevant with the times, Rocky III is still an entertaining flick. Mr. T does play a great way over the top villain. Mick’s death isn’t exactly unexpected (the guy looks and sounds about 128 years old) and adds some tender moments. And Apollo Creed’s new found friendship with Rocky is a nice touch.

Rocky (Sylvester Stallone) seems to have learned his lessons from the previous round of his life. He’s successful in and out of the ring. In fact, he has little left to prove. That is until Clubber Lang belittles Rocky. Rocky accepts Clubber’s challenge to a fight. Mick is not on board with this decision. He confesses to Rocky that he’s been protecting the champ by setting up fights that he knew Rocky could win. Mick argues it was to protect Rocky. After receiving this bit of news Rocky is devastated and more than ever wants to prove that he can defend his belt against tough competition. Eventually Mick caves and Rocky enters the fight with Clubber Lang. Things go very wrong for Rocky and Mick. Rocky gets pummeled and Mick dies. Rocky is crushed by the loss of his trainer, mentor, and friend.

Apollo Creed enters the scene. He wants to help Rocky get revenge in the ring with Clubber Lang. Creed offers to be Rocky’s trainer. Rocky’s heart is not in it. The breakthrough needs to come. We have to have a triumphant training montage set to music. WE HAVE TO HAVE THE MONTAGE! Phew. It finally comes and the final bout goes down as one might expect.

In between all that plot is a sense of humor, a sense of camaraderie between Balboa and Creed, and a continued blossoming of Adrian (Talia Shire) as she breaks further out of her shell. All in all, it’s a good movie. The film doesn’t completely capitalize on the setup its predecessor left it with, but it also doesn’t lose its heart.


This post is part of my Way late reviews. Read more reviews here.

Way late review: Rocky IV

This entry is part 4 of 6 in the series Rocky: The Undisputed Collection

Some might say there was no need for Rocky IV to be made. Maybe. But remember, America needed Rocky IV to be made. The WORLD needed Rocky IV to be made. The US was in the midst of a cold war with the Soviet Union. Without Rocky there to remind us that good triumphs evil, nature defeats man made anything, and we can all change for the better, where might the world be today? A nuclear winter, that’s where. And we all have Rocky IV to thank for saving us from that doomsday.

There are so many things to not love about the fourth installment in the series. There is the robot Paulie receives for his birthday. Then there is James Brown and a circus of performers giving the intro to the exhibition fight between Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) and Drago (Dolph Lundgren). Speaking of Drago – there’s him. He’s oiled up more than any boxer ever displayed in a Rocky film. He has about four lines in the entire movie and one could argue (strongly) they were four too many. Possibly the most dreadful part of Rocky IV comes in between Creed’s funeral and Rocky’s match with Drago – a long montage of clips from the past three films. It’s one of the laziest maneuvers a film can make.

With that said, Rocky IV is not a bad movie. It’s so over the top it’s fun. The setup of the USA vs the Soviet Union capitalizes on that particular moment in history. The spectacular display of Soviet technology in Drago’s training contrasted with Rocky’s training in nature is hard to beat. This isn’t even mentioning the introduction of a song, Hearts on Fire, that is nowhere near as good as Eye of the Tiger, but combine it with a surreal montage of Rocky using nature as his Nautilus machine and it’s unbeatable.

It’s highly doubtful I could ever argue that the good in Rocky IV outweighs the bad. Who am I kidding? Much of what I consider “good” in the movie is often quite bad. It’s so bad it’s good. Rocky IV is one of those movies. It takes itself super serious and yet it makes me smile every time I see it. Rocky IV is like Rocky III but on steroids, which is perfectly fitting.


This post is part of my Way late reviews. Read more reviews here.

Way late review: Rocky V

This entry is part 5 of 6 in the series Rocky: The Undisputed Collection

If Rocky IV needed to be made to save the world, as I so eloquently argued in my review, then Rocky V needs to be unmade, if not to save the world then to save some dignity for the Rocky franchise.

There is so much wrong with Rocky V. I learned recently that Sylvester Stallone had wanted his iconic character to die in this one. The studio fought him on it and won. Looking back, I have to believe Stallone is relieved he didn’t finish off the Italian Stallion in what turned out to be an awful movie.

From the start there are serious problems with the film. We’re supposed to be in a timeline that is just after the big match in the Soviet Union. Rocky returns home and his kid looks twice as old as he was when Rocky left. I’m not a mathematician, doctor, nor scientist but I’m pretty sure a few months away from home (maximum) will not cause a child to grow and age by multiple years. Also, I’m almost positive the Balboas return to a different home in Rocky V than the one they left on their trip from in the previous movie. Everything is off kilter from the start.

In addition to the miraculously aged kid, we get some new, terrible characters. There is Duke, a boxing promoter who I think is supposed to be Don King. He comes out early and annoys us with his boisterous talk during Rocky’s first press conference back in the US. Not content to annoy us only at the beginning, we get Duke all throughout, managing to irritate with the mere sound of his voice. By the end he had ramped up his antics to the point where I swore his teeth were going to pop out of his mouth as he over emoted every syllable. Not to be outdone, real life boxer, Tommy Morrison (Tommy “Machine” Gunn) does his best to steal the show with his mullet and dreadful acting. In the last scenes of the movie it’s as if there was a competition to see who could out scream the other – Duke or Tommy Gunn. In that competition there is no winner but there is definitely a loser – us, the viewers.

Back to the kid, Rocky Jr, played by Stallone’s real life son, Sage Stallone. Had it not been for the stiff competition from Duke and Tommy Gunn, Rocky’s son would win the award for most annoying performance. When a film goes out of its way to suspend the audience’s disbelief in order to introduces a kid who is suddenly much older than the previous one, that kid better give an awesome performance. Instead of awesome we get well below average. The character development of the son is such that we should feel empathy. Instead all we feel is an urge to hone our boxing skills on the whiny adolescent.

I can see how the premise of Rocky V probably seemed reasonable on paper. Rocky has taken too many beatings. He is no longer medically eligible to fight in the ring. His accountant swindled him out of all his money. Rocky returns to his old neighborhood in Philly. His only refuge is that he still owns Mick’s gym which he reopens to start training younger boxers. While running the gym Rocky meets a young, raw boxer who reminds Rocky of himself in Tommy Gunn. Rocky takes Tommy under his wing and has him winning fights in no time. Tommy eventually gets full of himself and sells Rocky out for fame and fortune. Teacher and pupil become at odds with one another. Not a terrible outline. And yet the details destroy this movie.

There was promise in Rocky V. If done right, it should have been the last movie, nicely capping off the series. It wasn’t done right and thankfully Stallone got to do another film in an attempt to redeem what was once an Oscar winning force.


This post is part of my Way late reviews. Read more reviews here.

Way late review: Rocky Balboa

This entry is part 6 of 6 in the series Rocky: The Undisputed Collection

It only took about 16 years for Hollywood execs to burn Rocky V from their memories in order to allow Sylvester Stallone one last Rocky film – Rocky Balboa. Unfortunately for Stallone this meant he was just about 60 years old. As if making one last Rocky film wasn’t hard enough.

The boxing world has changed since our favorite underdog champion left the ring. Mason Dixon (Antonio Tarver) is destroying the competition. In fact, he’s destroying it with too much efficiency. Boxing fans and critics alike don’t think highly of Dixon. His attitude is beyond arrogant. There are claims that the young champ only enters fights he knows he can win. Everyone questions Dixon’s heart. No one seems to question his physical abilities.

Enter Rocky. Long retired from boxing we learn that he’s lost Adrian to cancer a few years earlier. Balboa is crushed by this loss but carries on with his life. He runs a restaurant named after his late wife. He also attempts to keep a relationship with his son, Robert (Milo Ventimiglia), who has grown up, has a job where he wears a suit to work everyday and resents being in his dad’s shadow. And, of course, Paulie (Burt Young) is still around with his cigars, drinking and sour yet somehow always entertaining attitude.

On the anniversary of Adrian’s death, Rocky stumbles into the old bar he would hang out at. There he meets Marie, or “Little Marie” as Rocky knew her in the first film. Little Marie was the young girl Rocky walked home in the first movie and was left at the girl’s doorstep with a “Screw you Creep-o!” Marie bar tends and Rocky strikes up a friendship with her. He becomes a father figure of sorts for her son, “Steps”. In previous films, Stallone would have used these new characters as plot devices. Instead of plot devices we get a feel for the genuine friendship Marie, her son and Rocky develop. And it’s clear that Rocky longs for friendship as he misses the love of his life and struggles to maintain a relationship with his only child.

In the midst of all this day-to-day getting on with life, there is an interest by the media in comparing Mason Dixon to boxers of the past. ESPN runs a special where boxing experts discuss how they think an in-prime Rocky would do against the current heavyweight champ. The verdict is deafening to Dixon. All but one expert feels that Rocky would win the bout. To make matters worse, a computer simulation of the fight shows Rocky crushing Dixon. This causes Dixon to seek advice from his old trainer, who was pushed out by Dixon’s entourage once Dixon became successful. It’s in this moment that we see a softer side of Dixon, which is maybe the only problem I had with the film. We see this humbled young man go to his mentor and seek honest advice. Dixon is almost too likeable in this scene, which makes his transformation back to the egotistical punk he becomes later hard to process.

All this talk of boxing and the glory days of boxing has Rocky itching to get back in the ring. Nothing big, just some local fights. The board doesn’t want to approve Rocky for readmission even though the former champ has cleared all the medical tests. After a passionate speech by Balboa the board concedes. It doesn’t take long for Dixon’s promoters to pick up on this news. They’re after a Rocky Balboa vs. Mason Dixon fight in Vegas. They convince both fighters it’s a good idea and the date for an exhibition in Vegas is set.

In probably one of the more emotionally honest moments since the original, Robert and Rocky have it out. All that pent up frustration from both of them in regards to their relationship (or lack thereof) is fair game, including a defiant Rocky pleading with his son to stop making excuses for why his life is the way it is. The message sinks in for Robert and he finds himself supporting his dad in training for the big fight.

Yes, there is the typical training montage. And then the fight is on. The current champ can’t stop talking trash. The cinematography of the fight scenes has never been better. It’s all believable even when taking into consideration Stallone’s age. The ending is satisfying. It’s a sweet farewell to a character we’ve seen battle both in and out of the ring over thirty years.

Somehow Stallone managed to pull off the biggest Rocky upset of all by making Rocky Balboa a very good movie. In fact, I would argue it is second only to the original. An amazing feat.


This post is part of my Way late reviews. See more reviews here.