Can you believe that Sylvester Stallone is currently a frontrunner to win an Oscar, roll that thought around in your head and then try to remember when we still thought that was impossible? Not only that, but it’s for a role that he first played forty years ago, and six other times as well. Has that ever happened in Oscar history before? It’s not rhetorical I honestly don’t know, I can’t be bothered to research it, I assume it is. But regardless, this seems like the ideal opportunity to look back on those six previous efforts, to revisit the epic saga of the Italian Stallion.
In 1976 ‘Rocky’ hit theatres and was not the smash hit it is regarded as today. While many credible reviewers praised the film, several were dismissive of it. After reviewing it as impartially as I can, I’m still in the former side of the argument. ‘Rocky’ is the definitive underdog story, and even though it made training montages and boxing ring showdowns famous, I’m always surprised by the amount of humanity and warmth within Stallone’s script, how it chooses to focus so primarily on the intimate moments rather than big spectacle. One tiny aspect of the film that continues to stun me to this day (and seems to perfectly personify my earlier remark) is the last few seconds, where the actual announcement of who wins the boxing match is almost shoved aside in favour of Adrian’s declaration of love, it’s barely audible and rather abrupt, almost anticlimactic. That is so significant because ultimately it sums up why ‘Rocky’ works so brilliantly, Balboa only loses in the literal sense of the word. He has triumphed as a person more than anyone could triumph as a fighter.
Though we may think of Stallone’s Oscar contention as laughable, when you re-watch that first ‘Rocky’ it suddenly becomes incredibly plausible. He brings such a mystical quality to the role, embodying a sense of durability, but also vulnerability. Some went as far to say that he was reminiscent of a young Marlon Brando, but he carries an almost larger than life quality to him, it allows the prospect of Rocky undertaking this challenge to be more believable and it makes it all the more poignant when he opens up emotionally. Then there’s the factor of just how uplifting the movie is, and one can never underestimate that quality in a movie.
So rather surprisingly, ‘Rocky’ went on to win Best Picture at the Oscars that year (which I’m fine with) as well as Best Director (which I may take issue with as John Avildsen’s directing was rather uninspired and nearly downplays the emotions of certain scenes, especially in comparison to Scorsese’s ‘Taxi Driver’ and Lumet’s ‘Network’ that were also nominated). The only major player who didn’t bag an award was Sly himself, who received two nominations for writing and acting, but neither resulted in a win.
So it’s little wonder that he chose the helm the next instalment ‘Rocky 2’. At the very least it retains that sense of the underdog, rarely making its title character too powerful and even in the final round it seeks to establish how Rocky himself still has a lot to prove to the eyes of the world. On the one hand I can’t help but think it undoes a little bit of what the first one did, in the sense that winning never really mattered, what counted was that Rocky went into the ring with everything he had, and left with so much more, ‘Rocky 2’ meanwhile takes that concept but inject a literal win at the end and ultimately the end result is something quite familiar, if not equally well made.
‘Rocky 3’ retains those essential qualities yet again in many respects. Credit to this series for realising very quickly that once Rocky becomes more than an underdog going into that final fight, then he’s already lost as far as the audience is concerned. So it places Rocky on a pedestal only to knock him off of it in rather spectacular fashion. The problem comes from the fact that so many of these elements sound fine on paper, but are turned up to the maximum amount of 1980s nostalgia with multiple montages, Eye of the Tiger, Mr T and Hulk Hogan. So in retrospect, it’s essentially another re-tread with some differing elements that mean it lacks the humble nature of that first film.
Can you believe we’re only halfway through? ‘Rocky4’ is perhaps the epitome of 1980s nostalgia. On the one hand it once again retraces the steps of the last film (first fight, mentor dies, sad Rocky, training montage, final fight, rousing speech, end) but once again shifts the elements enough to keep you interested. The film really feels like it brushes over too many potential emotional scenes like Apollo’s death, and then Rocky choosing to fight the monster that is Ivan Drago, the prospect of being used as a political tool more than a fighter, the list goes on. Talk about not overpowering Rocky, by the end of the film he literally ends the Cold War (here’s hoping that Stallone’s Oscar acceptance speech brings about world peace).
‘Rocky 5’ is where things get ridiculous … more so …. again. It made the classic mistake of messing with the established formula to an extent where it was almost unrecognisable as a ‘Rocky’ movie. It also isn’t that uplifting, so instead you just end up with the ridiculous 1980s clichés, except they’re a decade late by this point. The whole film is odd in its structure as it feels as if meatier sections are over in a minute, and moments that should have been over in seconds are still going several minutes later (how long does it take for Rocky’s kid to deal with bullies). There seems to be a strange build up towards killing Rocky, with his injuries and the ironic nature of his own creation being the cause of it (I’m not saying I wanted Rocky to die, especially in retrospect) but then they don’t follow through with it, and without any dramatic punch you’re left with a rather hollow conclusion, in which Rocky, despite being retired from boxing and engaging in a street brawl with a young boxer in his prime, is still the best and acknowledges that, the end.
It also feels ridiculously unnecessary. At least the other all develop the story, so if you wanted to catch up for ‘Creed’, Part 1 is the origin, Part 2 establishes his victory, Part 3 is his friendship with Apollo, Part 4 highlights Apollo’s death, but what about 5?
That is probably the main motivation behind ‘Rocky Balboa’. It may be slightly implausible that anyone would want to stage a match with a sixty year old boxer, but frankly who cares? It gave Stallone an opportunity to bow out the character of Rocky as the central character of the film. ‘Creed’ may revive him but only as the supporting role, as the star of the show, this is ‘Rocky’s’ last bow. It also gets a lot of my respect for focussing much less on spectacle and using the fighting as a secondary feature to the emotion. Sometimes it verges on being more of a homage than a singular film, but I can forgive it, mostly.
So can ‘Creed’ continue this legacy, foe better or worse?