Boxing has always been a natural for the movies. A fighter’s preparation to enter the ring for singular combat with a worthy adverasary is the closest thing the sporting world provides to the mythological archetype of the Hero’s Journey.
No films have been more closely associated with the sport than the Rocky Franchise. Rocky I saved Sylvestor Stallone for destitute obscurity, making him a superstar, earning him an Oscar and eventually even getting him enshrined in the International Boxing Hall of Fame in Canastota, NY as a Non-Participant.
Earlier this week, the trailer for Creed was released. This is a spin-off from the franchise more than an official sequel, but why quibble over words? It’s got Stallone back on screen, playing Rocky Balboa one more time, serving as a trainer and mentor to the son of Apollo Creed, his old friend and rival. Few boxings fans will want to miss this movie and even if it is terrible, those of us who grew up in the 1980s will still probably enjoy it.
In honor of the trailer’s release, I am going to present my own ranking of the six existing Rocky movies.
1. Rocky I I actually think the first Rocky movie gets underrated, due to the fact that it is the primary influence on an entire genre of sports movies about plucky underdogs, and most of them are just terrible. But the first Rocky film was a gritty, realistic portrayal of a guy struggling with loneliness and poor self esteem to take advantage of the lottery ticket opportunity life has suddenly handed to him. It’s not Raging Bull, but if the sequels hadn’t ended up becoming ubiquitous, cable television staples, and the final memory of Rocky had been him embracing Adrian with a battered face, after losing by brutal split decision, it would be still be regarded as an all time classic and would likely enjoy higher critical acclaim.
2. Rocky II This movie also provides moments of great dramatic story telling, as Rocky attempts to adjust to life after boxing. Even as he has suddenly become an overnight hero to the country, Rocky stumbles over failure every day attempting to get a legitimate job. Soon he has blown all of the money he made fighting Creed and just can’t pass up on the pay day that the rematch promises. At first his wife Adrian is furious that Rocky is going back for one more fight. Then she falls into a coma while pregnant. Rocky and Micky stand vigil in the local Catholic parish. Adrian comes out of the coma and the first thing she does is tell Rocky to win. Rocky goes back and trains like a maniac, providing another classic Rocky training montage. Rocky beats Apollo in an embarrassingly absurd ending.
3. Rocky Balboa(“Rocky VI”) Once you get beyond the ridiculous conceit of a man in his early 60s going 10 rounds of “exhibition” with the heavyweight champion of the world, this really a very good movie. Stallone’s portrayal of the lion in winter is completely convincing. I love the early scenes in the movie where we see Rocky’s daily life of quietly mourning for the deseased Adrian, waking up early to bang out a set of pull ups and get the best produce at the market and then comping Spider Rico for life in his resturaunt. As an aging, retired amateur grappler and hobbyist boxer, I enjoyed the training montages and seeing how Stallone continues to represent as a fitness icon.
4. Rocky III Mr. T’s performance as Clubber Lang partly steal the show in this film, but that is appropriate for building him up as a Sonny Liston type of villain. Rocky suffers the only knockout of his career and Micky dies tragically. In a twist borrowed straight from professional wrestling, Apollo steps in to train Rocky and brings him back out to his old hood in L.A., so Rocky can get back “The Eye of the Tiger.” Rocky trains down to a lean, 190 pounds and uses speed, endless conditioning, a granite chin and an iron will to absorb a tremendous beating from Lang, enducing him into punching himself out, which allows him to finally knockout a physically exhausted and psychologically broken Lang. It’s like Ali’s “Rope-a-Dope” on George Foreman, except that instead of slipping and deflecting punches and shifting away to perfectly minimize the damage from the blows, like Ali did, Rocky just sticks his face in front of the punches.
5. Rocky IV This chapter in the Rocky fable does contain the best soundtrack, and Apollo Creed’s walkout to the ring with James Brown is one of the greatest moments in the history of the franchise. It also has the best training montages, as Rocky goes old school in the Siberian wilderness. But the Cold War storyline fully descends the Rocky universe into campy cartoon land. It’s a fact they didn’t even try to hide. Just consider the butler robot.
6. Rocky VI I’ll be honest, I almost left this one off. I don’t even like to remember that it exists. The movie picks up directly after Rocky’s triumph over Drago. Somehow, the idiot brother-in-law Paulie has been entrusted to have the ability to sign-over all of Rocky’s money to an unscrupulous financial advisor, who is somehow able to escape to a foreign country and avoid extradition after stealing EVERYTHING from one of the world’s most beloved athletic heroes. Beyond that idiotic plot line, the movie ends with one of the least realistic marathon street fights in film history. Numerous shots of Stallone and real-life heavyweight champion Tommy Morrison establish that Stallone is clearly a true middleweight or light heavyweight.