I recently made my way through all six Rocky films. Yes, even Rocky V. But which films were actually worth it?
I can’t entirely say why I decided to watch all the Rocky films. Possibly because they’re available to stream, so it didn’t cost me anything but time to watch them. Possibly because I wanted something that spanned both truly great cinema, truly awful cinema, 80’s bombastic trash and even early 21st century hopeful revivals.
Maybe it had something to do with the fact that there’s yet another Rocky movie due out soon, Creed
I feel compelled to point out that I didn’t watch them because I’m a fan of boxing in any real way at all. Yes, I’m notably something of a Pro Wrestling fan, but that’s theatre with the trappings of violence; ideally in a Pro Wrestling match the appearance of mighty combat takes place, but nobody actually gets hurt so they can do it hundreds of times a year, whereas in boxing, the objective is genuine incapacitation. There’s something about that which doesn’t sit well with me personally, although of course your position may vary from mine. That’s cool. What I was watching wasn’t boxing-as-a-sport, but boxing-as-a-drama, anyway.
In any case, over the course of a couple of weeks — Rocky films should not be attempted in any kind of marathon setting — I made my way through all of them, taking a few mental notes along the way.
But across six films that span thirty years (leaving Creed aside) how do you rank them?
Obviously any list like this is somewhat subjective. Except for first and last, because there’s no way at all that I’m wrong about those. Just no way, and I will brook no argument about that.
So without further delay…
Can there be any doubt? Can there be any argument?
No, there cannot. It’s the one that won Academy Awards, and while time has perhaps not been kind to 70s fashion, Rocky still stands up beautifully as a piece of film, largely because while boxing (a sport I have no particular love for) is the frame of the story, the core of it lies in the characters and lives it presents. It’s an exceptional piece of drama, and, I think, the finest film that Sylvester Stallone has ever appeared in.*
Rocky IV (1985)
Oh, I’m going to go there. Why would I say that Rocky IV is the second best in the series when it’s so ridiculously bombastic and cheesy?
Precisely because it’s so ridiculously bombastic and cheesy, and it’s such a product of its time. Where other movies in the sequence try for either recreating the gritty realism of the first film, or just start to delve into the 80s cheesefests that Stallone was so busy making at the time, but in Rocky IV, the concept is taken to a glorious, rather silly excess. Training up snow-filled mountains in deepest darkest Russia. Cheating evil Commies that would make Boris Badenov feel silly. The whole opening Apollo Creed bout. Somehow, the cheese melts together gloriously to make it all work.
Rocky Balboa (2006)
The middle order of the Rocky films was the one thing that caused me the most difficulty while I was pondering watching them, because while I very much had first and worst in very distinct places, there are both good and bad aspects to the middle films that had them flicking around in my own personal preference spaces. It was only when I sat down to watch Rocky Balboa that it firmed its way into third place. I realise that while it is flawed in some aspects, it’s a much better series finale than Rocky V. Plus, it has that speech about how winning is done, which again somehow crosses the “so bad it’s good” line with aplomb.
Rocky II (1979)
Rocky II is a decent little film, and I’d probably place it a little higher were it not so particularly close in tone, style and of course plot, to Rocky, which it’s very much a “Hollywood” sequel to. As such, I just don’t find it all that engaging, so while I could rewatch Rocky any number of times, Rocky II just leaves me cold. That doesn’t make it a bad film to speak of, but I can’t quite place it in the top three as a result.
Rocky III (1982)
A little trivia for you: Rocky III was the first Rocky film I ever saw, although time has dimmed the memory of which of my youthful friends suggested we watch it. I do recall being rather obsessed with Clubber Lang at the time, and not having seen previous films, I had little idea as to how formulaic the series would become. Mr T’s Lang has cheesy charisma, but Rocky III really doesn’t stand up all that well on later watching, especially in regards to the way the climactic fight plays out. It was, I’ll admit, a very close run thing between II and II as to which would take fourth place. Ask me again tomorrow, and I might just have switched them around. I actually wanted to place Rocky III a little higher, and then I watched it, and its flaws were just a little too glaring to make it entirely work in the way that Rocky IV does.
Rocky V (1990)
Could there be any doubt? No. As stated upfront, while I do think there’s wriggle room for debate when it comes to the middle order, there’s no doubt that Rocky V just doesn’t work. The Don King parody doesn’t work. Stallone’s acting doesn’t work. Tommy Gunn just doesn’t work (and it’s rather sad if you look up what happened to Tommy Morrison). Even the cameo by Mike Tyson doesn’t work. Rocky V isn’t even particularly long, but it feels like you’re sitting through a lot of dreck waiting for something good to happen — and then it never does. Rocky V is a sloppy piece of work, and one that apparently even Stallone isn’t too fond of.
You know what Rocky V needed?
*Demolition Man is a guilty pleasure as well, but it’s no Rocky.