Creed II (2018, Steven Caple Jr)

Creed II

A series of reviews looking at Sylvester Stallone’s two most famous characters, Rocky Balboa and John Rambo, film by film…

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Adonis Creed climbs to the top of the boxing world, but then is challenged by the son of the man who killed his father…

What does Stallone do? He co-wrote the script and plays Rocky Balboa for an eighth time. Sly was 29 years old when he wrote the original Rocky and he’s now in his early 70s: this character has been a lifelong project… When we rejoin the story a few years after the events of the previous movie, Rocky – grey-haired after his cancer battle – is still the trainer of boxer Adonis Creed. The two men part ways, however, when Adonis is offered the chance to fight Viktor Drago – the son of the boxer who killed Adonis’s father during an exhibition fight in 1985. Rocky advises against it, saying Adonis has everything to lose while Viktor has nothing to lose, but Adonis ignores him and promptly comes off second best in the bout. Lonely Rocky is reduced to watching the fight on television in the restaurant he’s been running for the last three films, then is shunned when he tries to visit Adonis in the hospital. Later, after a rapprochement, Rocky takes the younger man into the desert to train for a second bout with Drago…

Other main characters:
* Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren) has had a bad 33 years since he was defeated by Rocky (as seen in Rocky IV). His wife left him to raise their son alone, and the Russian people sneer at him because he lost a fight that was intended as Soviet propaganda. When he sees that the son of his former foe Apollo Creed is now a champion boxer himself, Ivan flies to Philadelphia and seeks out Rocky. He wants Adonis to fight his son, Viktor… Lundgren barely speaks in the film, which is probably for the best.
* Viktor Drago (Florian ‘Big Nasty’ Munteanu) is a bruiser of a heavyweight. When not beating people to a pulp in the ring, he works in a loading yard. He has the upper hand during his first fight with Adonis, but is disqualified for hitting his opponent when down.
* Adonis’s girlfriend, Bianca Taylor (Tessa Thompson, very good), is now suffering from hearing loss and wears a hearing aid. She says her time is running out; she knows she will eventually become fully deaf. After Adonis proposes and they get engaged, the pair leave Philly for LA and have a daughter together, who has to undergo tests to see if she’s inherited her mother’s heading issues.
* Early in the film, Adonis Creed (Michael B Jordan) becomes world heavyweight boxing champion and can hardly believe it. Then he learns that Russian boxer Viktor Drago – the son of the man who killed Adonis’s father during a fight in Moscow in 1985 – wants a shot at the title. Adonis can’t resist the temptation, seeing it as a way of exorcising some ghosts: ‘I can’t let that slide,’ he tells Rocky, who refuses to train him for the event. However, during the resulting fight, Adonis is badly beaten up and knocked unconscious; he only retains his belt on a technicality. He then faces a long recovery period – and pressure to fight Viktor again. At least he makes amends with Rocky, just in time for Rocky to accompany Adonis to the hospital to attend the birth of his daughter. He then gears up for a rematch with Viktor Drago, which takes place in Moscow and is a brutal brawl with both men struggling to stay upright.
* Buddy Marcelle (Russell Hornsby) is the promoter who puts on the first Drago/Creed showdown. He goes public with the challenge before speaking to Adonis, then later offers a hollow apology for the theatrical tactic: ‘That’s just what the sport has become.’
* Mary Anne Creed (Phylicia Rashad) – Adonis’s stepmother, in effect – is pleased to see him and Bianca when they arrive in LA. She even correctly guesses that Bianca is pregnant. But she’s furious that Adonis has decided to fight Drago. She fears he’ll end up like his father.
* Ludmilla Drago (Brigitte Nielsen) is Viktor’s mother. She appears at a posh dinner Ivan and Viktor attend, but the latter is angry with her because she abandoned him and his father years previously. It’s a rather pointless cameo.

Key scene: When they arrive in America, Ivan and Viktor visit the steps outside the Philadelphia Museum of Art – a key location that has featured in several Rocky movies. It’s always been a symbol of Rocky Balboa’s success: he ran up the steps while training for title fights in the 1970s, then a statue was put there to commemorate him winning the championship. Now, however, these two outsiders have come to scope the place out: they’re ready to invade Rocky’s world, to knock him and his protégé off their perch.

Review: One of the successes of Creed II is the way the backstory (ie, the events of Rocky IV) feels like backstory rather than fan-pleasing continuity. We only glimpse occasional clips of the 1985 footage, so the events are mostly talked about, and in that context they’re always meaningful for the characters. For example, the fact Rocky could have – indeed, should have – thrown in the towel during Apollo Creed’s fight with Ivan Drago creates conflict 33 years later between Adonis and Rocky. There’s a weight to what’s going on and that makes the film engaging. It’s generally well directed, in fact: drama scenes sock home; there’s a good central cast; it’s occasionally funny and often tender. All this helps distract us from how stunningly predictable the storyline is and how the middle third grows so slow it begins to test your patience.

Seven broken ribs out of 10

 

Creed (2015, Ryan Coogler)

Creed

A series of reviews looking at Sylvester Stallone’s two most famous characters, Rocky Balboa and John Rambo, film by film…

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

The illegitimate son of Apollo Creed asks for Rocky’s help in training to be a professional boxer…

What does Stallone do? For the first time with a movie featuring the character of Rocky Balboa, its star didn’t work on the script. He didn’t direct either, but takes a producing credit. Playing the Italian Stallion for a seventh time, Stallone is pretty impressive in this film; the performance reminds you that, for all the clichés about his slurring and mumbling, he’s not talentless. He was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Creed, and it’s easy to see why… Rocky is now the same age his mentor Mickey was in the first movie and is still running the restaurant he had in 2006’s Rocky Balboa. One day, a young man comes to visit him and reveals he’s the son of Rocky’s old foe/friend Apollo Creed. Adonis is an aspiring boxer and wants Rocky to train him. Rock resists, but is then swayed by the younger man’s hunger and spirit. He trains Adonis at Mickey’s old gym from the previous movies and the sequences neatly echo Rocky’s old regimes. But then Rocky collapses suddenly, and the doctors discover he has non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. At first, he refuses treatment because he doesn’t have much to live for – his wife has died, his best friend Paulie has died, his son has moved to Canada – but Adonis manages to talk him round. The bond between the two men grows stronger: it’s father/surrogate son, mentor/pupil, friend/friend. The two then prepare for Adonis’s big shot: a fight against the world champion…

Other main characters:
* We first meet Adonis Johnson as an 11-year-old in a juvenile detention centre. Having recently lost his mother, he’s angry and fights with the other boys a lot. He then learns that his biological father was champion boxer Apollo Creed, who died before Adonis was born. Eighteen years later, and now played by Michael B Jordan, he’s got a boring office job in LA but is also earning cash from boxing in Mexico. Unable to ignore his paternal heritage, he quits his job and moves to Philadelphia to seek out his father’s old pal Rocky Balboa. Rocky agrees to train him, and even becomes his landlord. After Rocky falls ill, their relationship becomes moving: Adonis looks after the older man; Rocky encourages and supports him. They then fly to England for a title fight with champion boxer ‘Pretty’ Ricky Conlan, which takes place at football stadium Goodison Park in Liverpool… Jordan is terrific as Adonis, taking a character with anger issues and daddy issues and either too much or too little confidence and making him someone real and sympathetic.
* In 1998, Mary Anne Creed (Phylicia Rashad) seeks out Adonis and tells him he’s the son of her late husband – the famous boxer Apollo Creed. She offers the troubled lad a home, and – in an 18-year period skipped over by the movie – they begin to see each other as mother and son.
* ‘Pretty’ Ricky Conlan (real-life boxer Tony Bellew) is an Everton-supporting fighter from Merseyside and is the current world light heavyweight champion. His reign is due to come to an end because of an upcoming prison sentence. So when he reads in the local newspaper, the Liverpool Echo, that an American upstart called Adonis Johnson is actually the son of the revered Apollo Creed, he wants him to be his final challenger.
* Bianca (Tessa Thompson) is Adonis’s neighbour when he moves into an apartment in Philly. She’s a reasonably successful singer and musician – in fact, Adonis only meets her because he bangs on her door to complain about the loud music. They soon become involved romantically. She’s not happy, however, when the news breaks that Adonis is Apollo’s son. He’d been keeping it under wraps, wanting to prove himself rather than rely on a surname, but she feels betrayed. Thankfully she gets over it.
* Tommy Holiday (Graham McTavish, who Stallone had worked with on 2008’s Rambo) is Conlan’s manager. He flies to Pennsylvania to pitch a Conlan/Adonis fight to Rocky, which would no doubt earn everyone involved a huge amount of cash. His one big condition? Adonis needs to adopt the Creed surname. Adonis reluctantly agrees.

Key scene: Adonis’s first bout under Rocky’s tutelage is against a Philly brawler called Leo Sporino (Gabriel Rosado). Before he enters the ring, there’s the comedy beat of Adonis having to have his taped-up gloves cut off because he needs to take a last-minute shit. Then the entire fight is filmed in one, fluid Steadicam shot that lasts for an astonishing 260 seconds. Beautifully choregraphed, lit and played, it’s the kind of baroque cinema that would have us all swooning if Scorsese or Tarantino had made it. (The next scene has an exhausted Adonis falling asleep on the sofa while watching Skyfall.)

Review: There’s a lovely clash going on here, between Adonis (young, gifted and black, full of attitude and hunger) and Rocky (in his 60s, white, sedate, whimsical and a rather lonely older man who doesn’t understand how the Cloud works). On the face of it, the two characters have nothing in common save for their connections to a man who’s been dead since 1987. And yet, thanks to good, solid writing and two really good performances, there’s a largely unspoken yet intensely strong bond between them. Rather than the kind of schmaltz sloshed all over the similar storyline in Rocky V, Creed makes you care about the characters. The storyline doesn’t rewrite the Marquess of Queensberry rulebook – it’s not far off a remake of the original Rocky from 1976 – but the film punches above its weight. A fine continuation of the Rocky series.

Eight toughest opponents you’re ever going to have to face out of 10

Next: Creed II

Rocky Balboa (2006, Sylvester Stallone)

RockyBalboa

A series of reviews looking at Sylvester Stallone’s two most famous characters, Rocky Balboa and John Rambo, film by film…

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Now a widower in his late 50s, Rocky is tempted to get back into the ring for an exhibition bout with the current world champion…

What does Stallone do? After 16 years away, Rocky Balboa returned – and Sylvester Stallone returned to play him, write the script and direct the film. The actor hadn’t been happy with Rocky V, so wanted to tie the series off in a more appropriate way… When we check back in with Rocky, he’s a lonely, grieving widower (Adrian has died of ‘woman cancer’). After a day commemorating his wife’s passing in which he trawls round his old haunts and remembers events from previous Rocky films, he bumps into a woman he knew when she was a child 30 years earlier. Marie is now a single mother and works in a bar; they strike up a touching friendship of mutual support, and Rocky also acts as a mentor to her wayward son. Meanwhile, a TV show debates whether Rocky in his prime would have beaten the current world champ, Mason Dixon, and this gets Rocky thinking. When Mason’s agent suggests a non-title fight – from which everyone would earn a boatload – Rocky agrees and gets to training seriously. (He’s seemingly got over the debilitating brain damage he was diagnosed with in Rocky V.) When the two get into the ring at a glitzy, showbiz event at a Las Vegas hotel, Rocky knows he can’t win on speed or skill, so his tactic is to try brut force. Mason floors him a couple of times, but Rocky holds in there. He loses a split decision (the judges are 2-1), but walks away with his head held high… Across six films, Stallone has progressed from a kind of cut-price Robert De Niro to a middle-aged Joey Tribbiani. But here he’s recaptured the knockabout charm that typified the early movies.

Other main characters:
* Mason ‘The Line’ Dixon (Antonio Tarver) is the undisputed world heavyweight boxing champion, but is unpopular with public and press alike because it’s believed he’s won his belts by defeating no-hopers. Then an ESPN-style panel show discusses whether he could beat a 1980s Rocky Balboa, and a computer simulation reckons Rocky would win. Mason is angered by these slights, but his people just see dollar signs and plot to tempt Rocky out of his long retirement for a money-spinning exhibition fight… While still a bit cocky, Mason isn’t an arrogant, unfeeling thug like Rocky III’s Clubber Lang – before the fight, he assures Rocky that he won’t be trying to hurt him unnecessarily.
* Paulie Pennino (Burt Young) now works at a packing plant. He gets laid off just as Rocky is gearing up to fight Mason, so conveniently has lots of spare time to join his support team.
* Rocky’s son, Robert Balboa (Milo Ventimiglia), is now a grown-up with the kind of big-business job that means he hangs out with yuppies. He’s a bit embarrassed by his father (‘You throw a big shadow,’ he says) and is far from encouraging when Rocky says he’s going to fight again – he fears his dad will be humiliated and this will lead to endless teasing from his pals. Rocky, not unreasonably and not unkindly, tells him he’s being an arse; he needs to stop caring what morons think and just live his life. Robert eventually comes round to the idea so much that he joins Rocky’s support team.
* Marie (Geraldine Hughes) appeared in the first Rocky movie as a local teenage girl who Rocky protectively walked home one night and told to quit smoking and get her act together. Now she’s a bar-worker in her 40s with a son called Steps (short for Stephenson). When the manager at the restaurant Rocky owns takes maternity leave, he offers the job to Marie. She lacks confidence but Rock talks her round (the pair really are two downtrodden peas in a pod). She repays her pal’s belief in her when she gives him a pep-talk and encourages him to fight Mason… Hughes plays the role really well, treating the film like a low-budget drama rather than a Hollywood franchise film. Rocky and Marie’s poignant relationship – no sex, refreshingly; just a quiet understanding – is the highlight of the movie. (In 1976’s Rocky, Marie was played by Jodi Letizia.)
* Adrian Balboa (Talia Shire) appears in flashback clips from previous films when Rocky remembers his late wife.

Key scene: This half-decent film has a serious blight. It’s really ugly to look at. It offends a cineaste’s sensibilities. Dialogue scenes are shot harshly and coldly – they look cheap, to be honest – while the bizarre decision has been made to present Rocky and Dixon’s fight as if it were coverage on a pay-TV channel. (At least to begin with: it then goes all hyper-edited and tricksy.) The video look, too-fluid camerawork and chintzy lighting do nothing for the story or for the film as a whole. A shame.

Review: We’re back to the earthy tone of the original Rocky, and genuinely so this time. Rocky Balboa feels authentic and confident in a way that the ersatz and artificial Rocky V never managed. (That film felt like what it was: millionaires playing at being poor.) Rocky may get stopped by the public wanting selfies, but he’s a faded star, past his prime. At his restaurant, he acts as host and trots out practised anecdotes about his glory days to customers who hardly seem enthralled. So it’s a plausible storyline when the carrot of a big-time bout with Mason Dixon is dangled in front of him. It’s not, it must be said, the most gripping drama. Mason is a vastly underdeveloped character and his sections of the film lack any real tension or interest. (He and Rocky barely meet outside the ring, let alone develop the kind of connection Rocky had with previous opponents Apollo, Lang and Drago.) But there’s an undeniable sweetness, especially when concerned with Marie and Rocky’s relationship.

Seven heavy-duty, cast-iron, pile-drivin’ punches that will have to hurt so much they’ll rattle his ancestors out of 10

Next: Rambo

Rocky V (1990, John G Avildsen)

RockyV

A series of reviews looking at Sylvester Stallone’s two most famous characters, Rocky Balboa and John Rambo, film by film…

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Now retired, Rocky Balboa acts as mentor to a promising young boxer – but his commitment to the cause leads to a rift in his family…

What does Stallone do? He wrote the script and plays Rocky Balboa again. (Five movies in and the actor’s soppy shtick is starting to grate now.) But for the first time with a Rocky sequel he didn’t direct. As this was intended as the final film in the series, original director John G Avildsen returned, having spent most of the intervening 14 years making Karate Kid movies… Soon after the events of Rocky IV, Rocky Balboa is welcomed back to the US by excited journalists who are proud that he beat a Soviet boxer in his own back gulag. But the bonhomie falls away when the Balboas lose all of their money and are forced to move into meagre housing in urban Philadelphia. Needing cash, the now-retired Rocky considers fighting his replacement as world champion, a young guy called Union Cane, but is then diagnosed with cavum septum pellucidum (in other words: irreversible brain damage). So instead he takes over running his old boxing gym, and then encounters a promising young boxer called Tommy Gunn. The two quickly develop a bond, with Tommy even living in the Balboas’ basement (much to the chagrin of Rocky’s son, Robert, who feels ignored). But then Tommy is tempted away by a flamboyant boxing promoter, who promises him riches if he fights Cane. As the public turns against him for abandoning his old trainer, the riled and petulant Tommy feels the need to beat Rocky in a fight – and the two men end up brawling in the street… During filming the plan had been that Rocky would die at the end of his scrap with Tommy, but then Stallone changed his mind and the character lived to fight another day (in 16 years’ time, as it turned out).

Other main characters:
* Adrian Balboa (Talia Shire) insists that her husband has retired after his bruising battle with Ivan Drago in the last film – even when Rocky is tempted by a huge payday if he gets back into the ring.
* Robert ‘Rocky’ Balboa (Sage Stallone) has magically aged a few years during the weeks his father spent in Russia – he now appears to be about 12. When the family move into inner-city Philly, he starts at a new school but is soon bullied. (You know, in that way that sons of world heavyweight boxing champions are often picked on…) As Rocky becomes more and more distracted with training Tommy, Robert is beaten up and feels isolated and alone. He wants to learn how to fight but his dad is too busy to teach him.
* Pauline Peninno (Burt Young) has mucked things up in a big way. He naively signed away the family’s power of attorney to a crooked accountant, who has now wiped out all their wealth. (Does this make sense? Since when did layabout Paulie have that kind of authority?) Rocky and Adrian’s only remaining asset – thankfully, because it keeps the plot going – is the old gym once owned by Rocky’s mentor Mickey Goldmill. Characteristically, Paulie shows little remorse for his fuck-up. He also moots moving to Miami to work as a gigolo.
* The flamboyant, loud and arrogant George Washington Duke (Richard Gant) styles himself as a promoter extraordinaire, and is pretty obviously based on boxing impresario Don King. He wants Rocky to fight one of his young clients, a guy called Union Cane (Michael Williams, a real-life boxer giving a truly dreadful performance). But Rocky resists the idea, so Duke hounds him in the media and in person then later turns his attentions to Rocky’s new protégé.
* The late Mickey Goldmill (Burgess Meredith) appears in some newly filmed flashbacks. Set during the timeframe of Rocky II, and featuring Mickey giving pep talks to Rocky, the scenes are so heavy-handed they very nearly rip through the screen and flop onto the floor.
* Tommy ‘the Machine’ Gunn (Tommy Morrison) is a boxing hopeful from Oklahoma who introduces himself to Rocky on the street and wants him to be his trainer. A walking collection of muscles with a mullet on top, Tommy is a savage brawler who impresses Balboa enough that the older man takes him in, shows him the ropes, encourages him… However, Tommy’s head is then turned by the flashy Duke (and his cleavage-on-legs moll). Morrison gives a pretty flat performance of a one–note character.

Key scene: When Tommy gets a chance to fight world champion Union Cane, Rocky watches the bout on television – and he throws or ducks every punch along with his friend. When a victorious Tommy then gives a speech, he says he wants to thank one man in particular and Rocky’s chest puffs out in pride… only for Tommy to say he owes everything to Duke.

Review: If this lacklustre film is about anything, it’s about fatherhood. At one point, Rocky says that having his son was like being born again; it gave him a second chance. Rocky himself has lost his own father figure (trainer Mickey, who died in Rocky III) and is now attempting to take on the role of a parental mentor. However, the person who he should be focusing on – his son, Robert – gets ignored because Rocky has acquired a surrogate in the form of Tommy. (All of this has an extra level to it: Robert is played by Sylvester Stallone’s real-life son.) But the choice of storyline has an odd emotional effect. Rocky is the film’s lead character and yet is behaving so appallingly – being such a poor father – that we don’t have any sympathy for him. Tommy, meanwhile, is soon revealed to be a selfish chancer. Robert should be the one we root for, and it’s actually not a bad performance from 13-year-old Sage Stallone, but he gets relatively little screen time. It constantly feels like the movie, not just Rocky, is distracted. Elsewhere, the clunky plot that strips the Balboas of their wealth overnight is pretty laughable. The high times of the previous sequels (flashy cars, mansions, robot butlers) has gone, and now Rocky and co are back in a working-class ghetto. (‘This neighbourhood’s coming down with tooth decay,’ says Paulie.) Director John Avildsen is going for the kind of stark realism he used in the original movie, but it now comes off as artificial. Rocky might start wearing his old hat, old locations might get reused, old scenes echoed. But it’s all undercut by a cast who are either coasting or not good enough, a hip-hop-flavoured score that feels out of place, and lots of soft Hollywood lighting. Then the finale is just risible. Tommy goads Rocky into brawling on a Philadelphia street and the resulting fight is shot with tricksy frame rates, irritating editing and the kind of staging you usually only see in music videos. Rocky wins and everyone around him acts like a 45-year-old man beating up the world heavyweight boxing champion in the gutter is a perfectly reasonable thing to happen.

Four butts in the buckets, asses in the seats, out of 10

Next: Rocky Balboa

Rocky IV (1985, Sylvester Stallone)

RockyIV

A series of reviews looking at Sylvester Stallone’s two most famous characters, Rocky Balboa and John Rambo, film by film…

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

The Soviet Union’s best boxer turns professional, leading to a showdown with Rocky Balboa…

What does Stallone do? He wrote the script, directed the film, and starred for a fourth time as Rocky Balboa. After the death of his friend Apollo Creed, Rocky resolves to take on the man who killed him in the ring: a giant Russian boxer called Ivan Drago. Ultimately Rocky defeats him in an oddly oomph-free fight in Moscow, then gives a cringe-making speech to the watching world about the current acrimony between the US and the Soviet Union: ‘In here, there were two guys killing each other… but I guess that’s better than 20 million.’

Other main characters:
* Rocky’s wife, Adrian Balboa (Talia Shire), doesn’t go with him to Russia for the fight. Then she does. They must have been paying Talia Shire a lot of money to keep turning up in these films.
* Robert ‘Rocky’ Balboa Jr (Rocky Krakoff) is now about nine years old. He also stays behind when his dad flies off to Russia, but later cheers him on while watching the fight on TV.
* Paulie Pennino (Burt Young) is still loafing, still moaning, still earning a wage from Rocky for no discernible reason. He has a birthday in this film, so – and this really is one of the most bizarre moments in all of 1980s cinema – is given a robot butler as a present. A fucking robot butler. Paulie later reprograms it with a sexy female voice, then the film wisely turns its attentions elsewhere. (As easy as it is to scoff, as I’ve just proved, there was actually a sweet reason for robot’s inclusion: it had been designed a few years earlier to assist autistic children with communications skills and Stallone’s son Seargeoh, then about eight, is autistic.)
* When Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) learns that young Soviet boxer Ivan Drago wants to turn pro and fight an American, he steps up to the rope – partly through pride, partly through patriotism. Rocky advises against it, given that Apollo has been retired for a few years, but then agrees to be his corner man. The quickly arranged exhibition bout starts out as razzmatazzy as they come: James Brown sings a song, showgirls flounce about, the ring is part of an elaborate stage set. Creed then begins the fight well, but when Drago lets loose he absolutely pummels the older man. Creed is knocked out in the second round and dies in the ring… Rocky is distraught. Drago shows no remorse.
* Captain Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren) wears his military uniform to his first press conference in the States, and is flanked by stern Soviet handlers. A world amateur boxing champion, he’s a man of very few words – just 46 in the whole movie – and when he does speak he says things like ‘You will lose’ and ‘I will break you.’ His support team emphasise their technological approach to training – screens, readouts, statistics, white-coated boffins – while he himself seems to be completely devoid of emotion. While Apollo is lying unconscious on the mat, his leg twitching unnervingly, Drago tells a reporter: ‘If he dies, he dies.’ (The quality of Lundgren’s performance can be illuminated by the following anecdote. A couple of years after Rocky IV had come out, Sylvester Stallone visited the set of kids film Masters of the Universe. He turned to a friend who was working on the movie, pointed at its star Dolph Lungren, and said, ‘You gave that guy lines?!’)
* Ludmilla Drago (Brigitte Nielsen, who married Stallone in December 1985) is Ivan’s wife and de facto spokesperson. She’s a former Olympic swimming champion.
* James Brown plays himself.
* Tony ‘Duke’ Evans (Tony Burton) used to be Apollo’s trainer, and was more or less a background character in the first three Rocky films. Here he joins Rocky’s entourage and offers some fatherly guidance.

Key scene: After Apollo’s death, Rocky drives his sportscar around at night while reminiscing about the events of the series so far – we see clips as he broods on past events and the scene is scored by Robert Tepper’s soft-rock hit No Easy Way Out. It’s basically a fully-fledged music video just dropped inelegantly into the middle of a Hollywood film! And it’s far from the only montage in Rocky IV. The movie hits peak montage as Rocky trains at a remote cabin in the Russian wilderness. Two sequences – separated by a short drama scene involving Adrian – amount to *seven and a half minutes* of screentime. They contrast Rocky’s snowbound slog with Drago’s high-tech and well-funded preparation, and the film editors have great fun match-cutting images of the two men doing similar things in very different surroundings.

Review: While Rocky IV was in preproduction, President Ronald Reagan won a second term in the White House and Mikhail Gorbachev became the new leader of the Soviet Union. Soon after filming wrapped, the USSR announced a moratorium on testing nuclear weapons but the US refused to follow suit. Then on the very day Rocky IV was having its LA premiere, Reagan and Gorbachev met for the first time at a summit in Geneva. The Cold War was hot news in 1985, and Rocky IV uses boxing as a metaphor for the clash between the two superpowers. In the American corner is Rocky Balboa, the meritocratic yet passionate individual, free and frank and funny. In the Soviet corner is Ivan Drago, the cold, unholy product of a totalitarian state, driven and determined and detached. It’s not subtle. Neither are all the other 1980s concerns squeezed into this film: the brash showbiz, the crass commercialisation, the technology fetish, the cheesy FM rock, the Miami Vice suits… It’s also a quick film – rushed, to be honest – and is directed with an overreliance on close-ups, press conferences and montages (so many montages!). Take it too seriously and the whole enterprise will flop to the mat. But its silliness and total commitment mean you end up punch-drunk and quite enjoying it.

Seven lies and false propaganda to support this antagonistic and violent government out of 10

Next: Rambo III

Rocky III (1982, Sylvester Stallone)

RockyIII

A series of reviews looking at Sylvester Stallone’s two most famous characters, Rocky Balboa and John Rambo, film by film…

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Now the world champion, Rocky Balboa faces a threat from a young new fighter…

What does Stallone do? Sly wrote the script, directed the film, and obviously reprised the role of Rocky Balboa. A few years after the events of Rocky II, our lead character is now world heavyweight boxing champ. We see a quickly cut montage of him easily beating various challengers in the ring, becoming a major celebrity (even appearing on The Muppet Show – the footage comes from when Stallone was in an episode for real), meeting presidents and raising a family. However, his world come crashing down when he loses his title to a young upstart from Chicago. Down and out, and having also lost his father figure, Rocky resolves to win the rematch… This film maybe sees Stallone’s acting talent stretched a bit thin. It’s a pretty docile performance and lacks the charm of the first two movies. Nevertheless, Rocky remains a compelling character because he’s a nice guy – unlike other famous boxer characters. He’s not a violent, quick-to-temper thug like Raging Bull’s Jake LaMotta, neither does he carry the anguish of On the Waterfront’s Terry Malloy. And that makes us root for him even more.

Other main characters:
* Up-and-coming boxer Clubber Lang (Mr T) watches on as Rocky fights a string of no-hopers. When the Italian Stallion then announces his retirement at a public event, Lang steps forward, confronts his rival and demands a shot at the championship. Affronted by the younger man’s arrogance and brashness, Rocky has little choice but to agree. Clubber wins the bout easily – his punches sound like shotgun blasts, his arms look like pneumatic pistons – which sets up the second half of the film as Rocky works towards a redemptive rematch… More a force of nature than an actor, Mr T plays Clubber with a snarling, fuck-you attitude at all times. And yes, at one point he says, ‘I pity the fool.’ This film is where the catchphrase comes from.
* Paulie Pennino (Burt Young) has not benefitted from his brother-in-law’s success; as the story begins, he’s still a bitter dullard stuck in a Mean Streets-style life. When he lashes out drunkenly and breaks a Rocky-branded pinball machine, Rock has to bail him out of jail. Rocky then agrees to give him a job, which involves Paulie standing around for the rest of the movie and doing a lot of moaning.
* Early on, Rocky takes part in an exhibition fight against Thunderlips, the reigning world wrestling champion played by real-life wrestler Hulk Hogan. Given all the razzmatazz and the fact the event is for charity, Rocky assumes it’s going to be a faux fight – a bit of fun for the punters – but Thunderlips then attacks him for real, forcing Rocky to respond in kind. Balboa wins eventually, and to his credit Thunderlips’s aggression drops instantly: it *was* just an act.
* Mickey Goldmill (Burgess Meredith) is still Rocky’s trainer, but suffers from severe chest pains a couple of times. When Rocky says he’ll take on Lang, Mickey doesn’t want anything to do with it because he reckons Rocky can’t win. Lang has the hunger that Rocky has long since lost (and, admits Mickey, Rocky has been fighting handpicked below-par boxers since film two). Rocky soon talks him round into helping, but just before the fight with Lang, Mickey has a heart attack. Soon after Rocky loses his championship belt, Mick dies in the locker room. (In the storytelling handbook, this is called the lowest ebb.)
* At Rocky’s first bout with Clubber, former champion Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) is ringside doing media work – and he takes an instant dislike to the disrespectful Lang. So after Rocky’s defeat and Mickey’s death, Apollo offers to train his old foe for the rematch. He takes Rocky to a rundown gym in LA, away from all the hype in Philadelphia, but Rocky struggles with Apollo’s techniques.
* Adrian Balboa (Talia Shire) mostly stays in the background of her husband’s story. Her only big moment is a scene on a Californian beach where she and Rocky spell out the subtext to each other: ‘You gotta [fight Lang] for the right reasons – not for the guilt over Mickey, not for the people, not for the title, not for the money or me. But for you.’
* The Balboas’ son, Rocky Jnr (Ian Fried), looks to be about six years old now, which kinda makes sense when you consider that Rocky II (1979) was only set a few months after Rocky (1976).

Key scene: By this point in the series, training montages have become as much a part of the idiom as Stallone’s slurred delivery and fights with a thousand punches per round. Rocky III contains more than one. The best, which comes directly before Rocky and Lang’s rematch, is a whopping 205 seconds of Rocky running on beaches, hitting punching bags, sparring with Apollo and learning how to be nimble on his feet.

Review: The song Eye of the Tiger by Survivor is heard a few times in this movie, but it’s not just a catchy bit of soft rock to keep us entertained and flog the soundtrack album. Its title phrase becomes a mantra given to Rocky during prep for the rematch – ‘Eye of the tiger, Rock,’ calls out Apollo. ‘Eye of the tiger!’ – while the tune’s lyrics tie in directly to the film’s theme of celebrity. ‘You trade your passion for glory,’ counsels lead singer Dave Bickler. ‘Don’t lose your grip on the dreams of the past/You must fight just to keep them alive.’ Rocky III has several scenes that reflect this idea – while Rocky appears on TV and gets a taste of the showbiz word of pro-wrestling, his fame and money are making him soft. His training sessions for the first fight with Clubber are glitzy, open-to-the-public events with bunting and a house band. Clubber, meanwhile, trains hard and wins. Away from this thematic thread, there’s nothing much new to the Rocky format: it’s the third movie in a row with the same basic structure and a very similar finale. But it’s passable fun.

Six has-beens messin’ in my corner out of 10

Next: First Blood

Rocky II (1979, Sylvester Stallone)

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A series of reviews looking at Sylvester Stallone’s two most famous characters, Rocky Balboa and John Rambo, film by film…

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Boxer Rocky Balboa is forced to get back into the ring for a rematch with the world heavyweight champion…

What does Stallone do? After the success of the first Rocky film – a huge profit, good reviews, an Oscar win – Sylvester Stallone was in a prime negotiating position when it came to the sequel. So as well as again writing the script and playing the lead character, he also took over directing duties. (Rocky director John G Avildsen was busy working on Saturday Night Fever. Coincidentally, Stallone later directed that film’s sequel, Stayin’ Alive.) Sly had only made one film previously, a now largely forgotten wrestling movie called Paradise Alley, but he does a decent job here. For the most part, Rocky II is no-nonsense, well told and engaging – if familiar and predictable… As the story begins, Rocky Balboa has surgery after his battering boxing bout at the end of the previous movie (he says he doesn’t want to end up with a nose like his trainer Mickey’s). He may have lost the fight on points, but he came out of it with pride and has decided to retire. At first, thanks to his new high profile, he has the cash to flash on coats, watches, a car and a house, but Stallone generates sympathy from us when Rocky later fails as a minor celebrity and struggles to find work. The actor is oddly likeable and there’s a dignity in his performance. When Rocky’s finances get grim, he’s forced to consider fighting Apollo again…

Other main characters:
* After a recap of the first film’s climactic boxing bout, we rejoin the story later that same night. The victorious Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) approaches Rocky in the hospital and, embarrassed that his amateur opponent lasted the distance, demands a rematch. But while the world heavyweight champion is puffed-up and adversarial for the watching journalists, behind closed doors he’s downbeat and becomes obsessed with proving that he can knock Rocky off his feet. So he continues to taunt his rival in the media, urging him to fight again…
* Rocky’s girlfriend, Adrian (Talia Shire), doesn’t want him to get back in the ring so is pleased when he retires. They get wed and soon have a child on the way. But she’s worried about how quickly he’s going through the $37,000 he earned from his title bout, then later goes into labour prematurely. The baby is fine, but Adrian falls into a coma for a while. (This section sees the film at its soppiest.) After recovering, she doesn’t attend her husband’s rematch with Apollo on doctor’s orders. (In reality the actress was busy on another film.)
* Paulie Pennino (Burt Young) is still a bit of a prick. When he thinks his sister is failing in her matrimonial duties, he suggests that Rocky break her teeth. (Rocky replies that he likes Adrian’s teeth where they are.) Paulie also asks Rocky to sort him out a strong-arm job, which he does – so as Rocky’s fortunes fall, Paulie’s actually rise and he’s able to buy his brother-in-law’s sportscar from him.
* Mickey Goldmill (Burgess Meredith) now has a hearing aid to further emphasise how old, grizzled and world-beaten he is, and initially says no when Rocky asks him to be his trainer again. In a touching, low-key scene, Mick demonstrates that Rocky’s damaged eyesight is a liability. ‘You got the heart but you ain’t got the tools no more,’ the mentor says. But later, Mickey sees Apollo being arrogant on TV and comes round to the idea of a rematch: ‘I think we oughta knock his block off!’ His plan (which was actually cooked up because Stallone had injured his left arm before filming) is to train Rocky to fight right-handed, holding his southpaw power in reserve for later in the bout.

Key scene: During his attempt to make a living off his newfound fame, Rocky is persuaded to film some TV ads for Beast aftershave. The set-up has him dressed first as a caveman in a cage, then as a sketch-show version of himself with a fake-looking appliance for a boxing bruise. The director is an angry, rude, little man who has no patience for the fact that Rocky can neither act nor sight-read off the cue cards (or dummy cards, as they insensitively get called). As a storytelling tool, the sequence is the gear that shifts Rocky from laidback retirement to the realisation that boxing is his only viable way of supporting his family.

Review: Don’t you miss film sequels that begin with a lengthy reprise of the previous instalment? The second and third Karate Kid films give you a handy refresher of the story so far; Halloween 5 replays a cliffhanger to show you what *really* happened; while Back to the Future Part II actually refilmed the previous movie’s ending because a major role had been recast. It’s a shame this device has gone out of fashion, presumably because home video and download have made films so much easier to see more than once. Anyway, Rocky II’s recap reminds us that the Italian Stallion went the distance with – but lost on points to – world champion boxer Apollo Creed. We’re then into the new stuff… which is a conventional story made entertaining by a half-decent cast. After 80 minutes, a Bill Conti-scored training montage, which is a mini-masterpiece of rousing emotion, drives us into a final act where Rocky takes on Apollo for a second time. The fight features a ludicrous and unrealistic amount of punches, then an arch, slo-mo climax as both fighters fall to the mat at same time. But it’s difficult not to get swept up in the moment as Rocky beats the count and wins the championship…

Seven condominiums (I never use ’em) out of 10

Next: Rocky III

Rocky (1976, John G Avildsen)

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A series of reviews looking at Sylvester Stallone’s two most famous characters, Rocky Balboa and John Rambo, film by film…

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Small-time boxer Rocky Balboa is offered the chance to take on the world champion…

What does Stallone do? Wanting to give his career a kick-start, struggling actor Sylvester Stallone wrote a script inspired by a no-hoper boxer who nearly lasted the distance with Muhammad Ali in March 1975. Selling the project to United Artists, he insisted that he play the lead role himself and this was the start of Stallone the movie star. Nevertheless, his persona in this film is quieter and far more downtrodden than he later became; it’s actually a decent job of acting. Rocky Balboa (aka the Italian Stallion) is a young guy from Philadelphia, scraping a living from fighting in poorly paid boxing bouts and carrying out strongarm work for a puffed-up gangster. Crucially, he’s not an out-and-out crook – early on, we see him defy his boss and *not* break someone’s thumb. We also feel for Rocky when he’s given just $40 for a bruising fight or when he loses his locker at the local gym or when he sweetly flirts with a woman he fancies. He’s a nice guy, if rough round the edges. The character is then offered the chance of a lifetime: to fight the world heavyweight champion in a title bout. (Unbeknownst to Rocky, the champ has picked him from obscurity simply because he likes his nickname.)

Other main characters:
* Rocky’s love interest, Adrianna ‘Adrian’ Pennino, is played by Talia Shire (then most notable for her role in The Godfather series). When we meet her, she’s a meek, nervous, glasses-wearing singleton in a cardi who works at a pet shop. Rocky flirts with her and their slow-burn, underplayed romance takes up a big section of the movie’s middle third.
* Mickey Goldmill (Burgess Meredith) runs Rocky’s local gym and has a 50-year career in boxing. He’s rude and mean towards Rocky – but we eventually realise it’s down to frustration. Mickey thinks Rocky has the talent to be successful but wastes his time working for a loan shark. When Rocky is offered a chance to fight the world champion, the gravelly-voiced and lopsided-faced Mickey offers to be his manager/trainer. He’s one of the great mentors in cinema, and Meredith brings plenty of soul to the part.
* Paulie Pennino (Burt Young) is Rocky’s pal and Adrian’s brother. A drunk and a dullard, he tries matchmaking Rocky with Adrian because she’s nearly 30 and he worries about her ending up alone.
* World heavyweight boxing champion Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) – a charismatic, verbose character fairly obviously based on Muhammad Ali – is preparing for a boxing bout to celebrate America’s bicentennial. But his opponent pulls out due to injury, so Apollo hits upon the PR-friendly idea of taking on a local unknown instead. Weathers is terrific, taking a thinly written character who doesn’t get much screentime and giving him so much pizzazz.

Key scene: The title bout, as Rocky goes 15 rounds with Apollo. There’s a remorseless volley of punches, sweat flying everywhere, the macabre moment when Rocky needs to have his bruised eyelid sliced open, and the euphoric ending that pulls an amazing trick of giving our lead character an emotional win despite him losing the fight on points. After the final bell, as Rocky calls out for his girlfriend – ‘Adrian! Adrian!’ – he doesn’t even listen to the result being announced. It was never about winning. Creed was just too good. It was about *not falling down*.

Review: At the Academy Awards ceremony on 28 March 1977, Rocky beat All the President’s Men, Network and Taxi Driver to the Best Picture Oscar – that’s some company, and to be honest it’s difficult to argue that the conventional Rocky deserved the win. The narrative structure of a lowly hero who overcomes obstacles is as old as the hills and has a familiar Hollywood chime. But perhaps what appealed to the Academy voters the most was the grimy, cynical sense of realism. This story takes place in a cold, inner-city, working-class world of litter-strewn streets and flaking wallpaper and money problems. It’s shot in real locations and is not lit very prettily. Aside from the pointedly flashy Carl Weathers, the film is also stocked with characterful and ‘unattractive’ faces. All this makes the slightly implausible story – an unknown being given a shot at the big time – feel like something that could actually happen, while the script and Stallone’s unshowy performance really make you root for Rocky. Then once we enter the training scenes and especially the climactic bout, Bill Conti’s incidental music becomes more and more stirring and rousing and anthemic and you’re throwing and ducking every punch. It’s melodramatic, but you can’t take your eyes off it.

Eight raw eggs out of 10

Next time: Rocky II