Episode VII

I know you’ve all be waiting for me to weigh in with an opinion about the new reboot of a long-standing film series that dates all the way back to the ‘70s. Indeed, it’s had a tremendously long, storied run, lighting up the box office for decades, and remains one of those pop-culture touchstones everybody knows and loves (either overtly or secretly, with some justifiable measure of both pride and shame). Beyond the original beloved trilogy, some of the later entries in the series have been panned with good reason. There was, however, a marked improvement in the last one to come out before the current offering, giving people hope that there might be life left in the old warhorse yet. So the question stands: now that we have a brand new blockbuster that closely mirrors the story and structure of the heralded original film, is it any good? Is it worth moving forward with another two, three or dozen sequels? Can the next generation of characters carry the brand name? Is the magic back?

I am, of course, talking about Creed, the seventh and latest part of the Rocky saga.

What else could I possibly be discussing?

Oh.

That.

Yeah, whatever, I saw that one too. Meh. If you want another opinion, pro or con, the internet is full of them. I don’t care enough to add to the noise.

So I spent bits of December rewatching every single Rocky film. Here’s a spoiler-laden recap of the series. If you haven’t seen any Rocky movies, you might want to give them a look before some idiot blogger blows any surprises for you.

Rocky (1976, Dir: John Avildsen)

The classic best-picture-winning original is grungy in a way that only exists in 1970s cinema. Small-time bum boxer (and leg-breaker for a loan shark) Rocky Balboa leads a pretty shitty life on the poverty-stricken streets of Philadelphia. His fondest wish is for his lowlife buddy, Paulie, to hook him up with Adrian, Paulie’s nerdy sister. But then, because this is America, land of opportunity, the heavyweight champion of the world, Apollo Creed, decides to give a random local boxer a shot at the title in honour of the coming bicentennial celebrations. Rocky gets picked, sight unseen, out of a directory of Philly fighters. What’s meant to be an easy victory for the champ turns into a real fight when Rocky seizes this opportunity to redeem himself after squandering his best years on sleazy matches and petty criminality. He pairs up with ancient boxing-gym owner Mickey and trains hard for the bout. Reality eventually catches up with Rocky, and he confides in Adrian that he knows he can’t win against the champ. His strategy switches to a heroic effort to last all fifteen rounds against the punishing blows of Apollo. Rocky goes the distance and loses to a split decision, knowing what he’s won – self-respect and Adrian’s love – is more important than the championship.

Rocky II (1979, Dir. Sylvester Stallone)

The oft-neglected Rocky II is actually a strong entry in the series that (sort of) remakes the original and changes the ending. Immediately following the events of the first fight, demands for a rematch abound, even though Rocky wants to get out of boxing. He marries Adrian, has a son with her, and lives the high life on the cash and endorsement deals that spring from his sudden fame. But it doesn’t last. The money quickly runs out because Rocky is a dummy who buys a lot of shit he doesn’t need. The endorsements fizzle because Rocky can’t read the cue cards for a simple TV commercial. Accepting the new challenge promises to put Rocky back in the black, but there’s more trouble when Adrian falls into a coma after a difficult birth. With the Apollo rematch pending, Rocky neglects his training to be by her side. When she finally wakes up and instructs him to win, Rocky returns to his training with renewed vigour. The climactic fight is every bit as brutal as the last one, ending in the final round when both men fall to the canvas. Rocky narrowly manages to get to his feet first, winning the title by default.

Rocky II is a unique sequel in that it perfectly understands where Rocky (having gone from the 1976 Best Picture Oscar to viable franchise) stands in the current pop culture lexicon. Everything that was well received in the original is back in spades, with much more emphasis on invigorating training sequences and the epic boxing match (both of which were surprisingly short-changed in the original). There are also many self-aware one-liners and asides that are funny and nicely underplayed – my favourite being when one reporter asks Rocky if he’s suffered any brain damage. “Not that I can see,” Rocky mumbles with genuine sincerity.

Rocky III (1982, Dir: Sylvester Stallone)

After Mickey sets him up with a series of relatively easy victories to defend his new title, Rocky faces a real challenge in the form of young, hungry and mean fighter, Clubber Lang (Mr. T exploding into the public consciousness in his film debut). Mickey tries to protect him from this fierce new opponent but Rocky insists on fighting him in the name of pride. Rocky’s training for the match proves to be a bust when he spends too much time soaking up public adulation and the trappings of fame and fortune. Mickey falls ill the night of the fight after a locker room altercation with Lang, leaving Rocky shaken before entering the ring. Suffering a quick and decisive defeat, Rocky returns backstage only to watch his mentor slip away and die before help can arrive.

Utterly depressed, Rocky wallows in failure until Apollo Creed comes back into his life and offers to train him for a rematch against the villainous Lang. After relocating to the mean streets of L.A., and receiving a head-clearing pep talk from Adrian, Rocky regains his spirit as a hungry street fighter once again and returns to the ring long enough to satisfyingly beat the tar out of Clubber Lang and win back the title.

Following the grittiness of the 70s films, the first Rocky of the 80s suddenly looks very slick. The training and fighting scenes hit a new level of indulgence that goes past satisfying the audience and into pandering territory. But, undeniably, it works. Rocky III stands among the most crowd-pleasing of the franchise, although it’s impossible to ignore that the first hints of genuine stupidity (beyond Rocky’s own dumb-guy persona) are beginning to slip into the series. The scene with Hulk Hogan as Thunderlips is very silly and suffers greatly from its reluctance to admit professional wrestling is all pretend stagecraft – probably for fear of disillusioning many in the gullible target audience.

The original plan was to end the series as a solid trilogy. But this is Hollywood. And a sure moneymaker must always be squeezed dry.

Rocky IV (1985, Dir: Sylvester Stallone)

Russian superman, Ivan Drago, is the latest, greatest athlete created by evil cheating commie science technology. An exhibition match is arranged in Las Vegas to show off his superior boxing ability. Rocky is the proposed adversary, but Apollo Creed is the one to accept the initial challenge and promptly gets beaten to death in the ring. Rocky blames himself for not throwing in the towel and ending the fight earlier. After the obligatory weepy funeral scene, Rocky agrees to fight the Russian champ in Moscow, despite Adrian’s worried insistence, “You can’t win!”

After lots and lots of training footage (Drago in a high-tech gym-lab, Rocky at a remote woodsy cabin for contrast) the two meet in the ring. The dirty reds boo Rocky until the plucky American keeps coming at their inhuman steroid monster despite being knocked down numerous times. Winning over the crowd, Rocky also wins the fight, showing Drago that the “A” in “U.S.A.” is for asskicking. His final warm-hearted cold-war speech assures the Russian people that it’s better to watch two guys killing each other in the ring than twenty million in a nuclear war.

Rocky IV is the shortest Rocky film, which is nice, because it’s also the worst. Utterly stupid from start to finish, it’s still an entertaining piece of Reagan-era propaganda. I’d be much more forgiving of it if it weren’t for Paulie’s robot girlfriend. No, seriously, the disgusting meat-packer slob Paulie gets a robot girlfriend in this one. As if the rest of the film weren’t enough of a terrible comic strip.

Rocky V (1990, Dir: John Avildsen)

Much maligned, Rocky V is panned as the worst of the series. It isn’t. Rocky IV is far worse. Rocky V, weak as it is, benefits enormously from its attempt to return the series to some semblance of reality. After Paulie gives power of attorney to a crooked accountant during their trip to Russia (damn you, Paulie!) the Balboas come back to find their hard-won riches stripped away. With debt and back-taxes piling up, they have to sell the mansion and all their stuff and return to a humble existence in the old neighbourhood of shitsville Philly. After years of head shots, Rocky has suffered too much brain trauma to get certified to fight anymore. He quits boxing and runs Mickey’s old gym as his new career.

Rocky tries to rebuild his relationship with his disappointed son, but gets distracted by an ambitious young fighter named Tommy Gunn who is determined to get Rocky to train him. Under Rocky’s tutelage, Gunn quickly rises in the ranks. A title shot is in the cards, but an obnoxious boxing promotor (obviously based on Don King) seduces Gunn away from Rocky and fast-tracks him to the championship. Although Rocky wishes him well, Gunn remains unhappy when reporters continue to think of him as Rocky’s puppet who only defeated a “paper champ” – the one who inherited the title after Rocky retired undefeated.

At the promotor’s insistence, Tommy Gunn returns to Rocky’s neighbourhood to challenge the aging boxer to a fight. After punching out Paulie, Gunn gets the fight he wants – but it’s a street fight, with no money to be had for the pugilists or the promoter. The two men go at each other bare knuckles, with all the cheap shots you might expect outside of a regulation ring with no referee. Although Rocky ends up flat on the pavement at one point, a hallucination of Mickey encouraging him to go one more round gets him back on his feet long enough to beat Tommy into submission. For good measure, Rocky punches out the corrupt promotor, despite threats of a lawsuit. Rocky, after all, has no money left to be sued for.

Even Stallone hates this film, but the ire is misplaced. It’s nowhere near the quality of the original trilogy, but it’s not a particularly bad movie if you care about the characters and want to keep following their misadventures. More importantly, it’s a first step back towards the Rocky series that had heart, was grounded, and had its brain-damaged head screwed on straight. It was the promise of better things to come.

Rocky Balboa (2006, Dir: Sylvester Stallone)

For years, everyone thought Rocky V was the final nail in the Rocky coffin. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, Sylvester Stallone announced he was working on yet another Rocky movie (this one without a numeral in the title). Rocky Balboa went on to be the most surprising film of 2006. It had every right to be absolutely terrible and turned out to be shockingly good.

Since the previous film, Rocky’s finances have recovered enough for him to buy a small restaurant and name it “Adrian’s” after his late wife. Yes, Adrian has since died of cancer. The fact that Talia Shire doesn’t return as Adrian, the love-interest and heart of the Rocky series, should have been a fatal blow to the franchise. Instead it becomes the film’s greatest strength. Her presence is felt more here than it was in any of the previous few films. Rocky is lost without her, and that fact elevates the story rather than diminishes it. Paulie, of course, persists like the cockroach he is, and remains, for better or worse, in Rocky’s corner.

Running his restaurant day to day, Rocky is living in the past, sharing his old boxing stories with disinterested customers and coming to realize that the world has passed him by. Meanwhile, ESPN runs a computer simulation of how a boxing match between the current champ, Mason Dixon, and Rocky in his prime might turn out. When the computer suggests Rocky would win by knock-out, Dixon’s ego is bruised, and there’s talk of a high-profile exhibition bout. Rocky decides he wants to do it, despite being way over the hill. Training for the fight provides the excuse for him to reconcile with his son, who joins Team Rocky.

What’s supposed to be a just-for-shits-and-giggles bit of theatre with an old man dancing around the ring with a young man gets serious when Dixon discovers Rocky is fighting for real. The body blows are hard, and while the fight never turns into a brutal, bloody grudge match like those of Rocky’s youth, it’s genuine enough for the new champ to learn a thing or two from the old champ. After going the distance one last time, Rocky leaves the ring to the ovation of the crowd, not even waiting for the academic split decision that declares Dixon the winner. One final, sentimental visit to Adrian’s grave and Rocky literally fades away into the background, promising the end of the Rocky series once and for all. Except it wasn’t.

Creed (2015, Dir: Ryan Coogler)

Adonis is another young, hungry fighter, skipping off to box in Mexico, away from prying eyes. Unlike Rocky, he’s smart and affluent, with a high-paying desk job and a new promotion. Despite having every advantage, there’s something in him that wants to fight – needs to fight. Dissatisfied with his life, he quits and moves to Philadelphia, seeking out the legendary boxer, Rocky Balboa.

Looking up Rocky at his restaurant, Adrian’s, Adonis reveals that he’s Apollo Creed’s illegitimate son, and prevails on Rocky’s sentimentality for family and friends. At this point, all the supporting Rocky characters are dead, and even the son has moved away to Vancouver. A combination of loneliness and residual guilt over Apollo’s death leads Rocky to latch on to Adonis and agree to train him.

After his mainstream boxing debut, word gets out that Adonis is Apollo’s son, and suddenly all eyes are focused on Rocky’s new protégé. The current champ, facing forced retirement due to a pending jail term, seeks to set up a last spectacle fight and chooses Adonis as his opponent. The catch is, Adonis is expected to take his father’s name and call himself “Creed” for publicity purposes. At first, Adonis refuses, fixated on making his own name for himself. Eventually, however, he accepts the name as his rightful legacy and agrees to the terms.

While Adonis faces the fight of his life, Rocky faces a fight for his life. Diagnosed with cancer, Rocky refuses treatment after seeing how little good it did for Adrian. Adonis won’t let Rocky off the hook so easily, and encourages him to undergo chemotherapy with the words, “If I fight, you fight.” Rocky continues to train the young fighter, even through debilitating nausea and weakness. With the training and the cancer treatment complete, Rocky and Adonis fly overseas for the big fight. Adonis proves himself in the ring, going the distance just like Rocky once did and, again like his mentor, losing to a split decision. Having won his respect, the champ tells Adonis that he’s the future of their boxing division, and the promise of a Creed II is sealed by the critical acclaim and box office returns.

The Rocky series has been around for most of my life. I saw every one of them in the theatre during their original run (except Rocky V because, like everyone else, I’d stopped giving a shit when that one came out). Criticism that they’re schmaltzy and sentimental is well taken, but they’re proficiently engineered to push all the right buttons and consistently work, even at their lowest ebb. The last two restored my faith in the series going forward even though, each time over the last twenty-five years, I’ve been surprised somebody bothered to make yet another one.

Rocky has been the crown jewel of Stallone’s career. He’s made a lot of very bad movies and he knows it. Despite his need to stretch Rocky thin and relentlessly revisit the character, he’s done so with a degree of respect and tenderness that’s kept the movies from becoming a joke (even though Rocky has been the subject of many jokes ever since the days it won an Oscar over better pictures like Network and Taxi Driver). After desperately wanting him to leave it alone following the note-perfect closing shot of Rocky Balboa, I find myself actively hoping the series will continue in the wake of the success of Creed. It’s not that Creed is fantastic or surprising cinema. But it’s solid cinema – mainstream but low-key, exciting but not overplayed. It’s the sort of honest storytelling that’s willing to show its handsome new leading man, fit and trim, sexy and confident, get the nervous shits before a big fight. I like that. I want to see more of that. It rings truer than, for example, jedi warriors using magic and laser swords to save the universe in a less-engaging, less-grounded, unchallenging and safe Part Seven of a series that refuses to die.

Besides, let’s face it, at this point in history, there are more good Rocky movies than there are good Star Wars movies. That’s a fact. Deal with it.

The poster for Rocky 38 from Airplane II: The Sequel. It was a throwaway joke back in 1982, when there were only three Rocky films. Now it doesn’t seem beyond the realm of possibility. Expect James Bond and Star Wars to get there first, though.

The poster for Rocky 38 from Airplane II: The Sequel. It was a throwaway joke back in 1982, when there were only three Rocky films. Now it doesn’t seem beyond the realm of possibility. Expect James Bond and Star Wars to get there first, though.

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