It didn’t start as a Rocky marathon… I was only supposed to watch the first two but then I found myself so wrapped up in the story of the Italian Stallion that I had to carry on. Well I say that, in actuality, it was my wife watching them for the first time who was obviously baying for blood so much that she couldn’t turn them off. And so it came to pass that I watched Rocky I, II, III and IV back to back. Here is what I learnt:
1. Later entries in the franchise have diluted the quality so much that it is difficult to recall just how good the inaugural Rocky film is. Stallone is genuinely brilliant in the titular role and the supporting characters are so well drawn that it feels like you have known Paulie, Adrian and Mickey all your life by the half way point. In terms of building a world that feels lived in and real, Rocky is right up there with Star Wars or Lord of the Rings. It’s that good.
2. The first Rocky film benefits from being the most serious, the most straight, and the most gritty. Truly silly moments are few and far between in the classic underdog story and this is further strengthened by the fact that Rocky doesn’t actually win at the end. I had also forgotten just how good the dialogue is. Sylvester Stallone is sometimes dismissed as an everyday action movie actor. Let’s not forget that he wrote every instalment in the Rocky franchise and also directed most of them.
3. The first montage of many takes place in Rocky and it is beautiful. It is difficult to think of another series of films that has used music so successfully. Bill Conti’s epic song ‘Gonna Fly Now’ is just as much a part of the franchise as Butkus and Apollo Creed’s tiny shorts. I would love to see a montage of me watching all the montages in Rocky. It would be very similar to those in the film just with more dipping sauce for my endless bags of Doritos.
4. Rocky II is probably my favourite. Creed is Rocky’s best opponent and their end fight is the best battle with both fighters slogging it out come the final round. The moment where Apollo is counted out always has me on the edge of my seat but there were other scenes that grabbed me this time round as well. I had totally forgotten about Adrian’s coma for example. As ever, there are many touching scenes, not least when Adrian tells Rocky to go out and win after previously being upset about Rocky fighting again. Adrian is a wonderfully supportive wife, even after Rocky gets all rapey with her in the first film. Seriously, watch it again, it’s weird…
5. Rocky III is where things start to get a bit strange. From Hulk Hogan’s preposterous cameo as Thunderlips to Mr T pitying fools. To be fair to T, Clubber Lang is a dangerous and terrifying fighter and while he isn’t as nuanced as Apollo Creed, he is just as entertaining. Rocky III contains the saddest part of the whole franchise for me in the death of Mickey. Burgess Meredith is absolutely golden throughout all three films in which he appears. Breathing life into what can be a cliched character on the page. In terms of popular culture and influence, Mickey has been with me from the beginning. None of the films would be anywhere near as successful without him.
6. Apollo Creed steps into Mickeys shoes beautifully for the rest of Rocky III however. Carl Weathers and Stallone share a great chemistry and produce another memorable montage. The least said about Paulie describing the African American boxers in Creed’s gym as ‘coloureds’ the better though. You know that Paulie would definitely be voting Trump if he was still around…
7. Rocky IV is a strange one. It was my favourite when I was a kid but it is so bizarre to watch again now. It opens with an actual robot bringing Paulie a birthday cake while the most 80s film score ever plays in the background and it only becomes odder from there. Creeds fight and eventual death at the hands of Ivan Drago is the first real misstep in the series. While it does pack an emotional wallop, it comes after Creed has been cavorting around with James Brown and just generally being a jackass. The death of Mickey was handled so well in Rocky III that Creeds death left me feeling a little short changed. It is also a little off that he isn’t mentioned at the end when Rocky is thanking everyone for helping him end the cold war. Which brings us to…
8. The ending. Jeeeesus. In Rocky I and II, Stallone made his character come to life from sheer power of will. It is hard to separate Stallone’s story with Balboa’s in the first film. Both underdogs who were given a shot and became champs. By the end of Rocky IV however, the character has just become daft. The whole infamous ‘we can all change’ speech is legendary for how ludicrous it is and it sounds even more weird 30 years on. This was the beginning of the end for the franchise with Rocky V being the final nail in the coffin. Rocky IV also has no Mickey, not much Creed and not as much Adrian or Paulie and large sections that are basically music videos with no dialogue. It is a shame that Stallone crafted such a wonderful cast of characters only to marginalize them in Rocky IV.
9. You don’t really think of Rocky as a romantic story but it is. Adrian and Rocky’s love is as pure as any seen on film without a hint of infidelity or mistrust. Talia Shire is understated but brilliant throughout the franchise. She doesn’t have loads to do but in her big scenes she is as inspirational as anybody. Just as with Burgess Meredith and Mickey, Rocky wouldn’t be Rocky without Talia Shire and Adrian.
10. The last film marathon I did was with my wife and my friend Sned. We watched all the Lord of the Rings film on a glorious summers day in 2016. If anyone reading this has ever talked about doing something similar with their friends then I urge you to do so. Sned tragically passed away earlier this year and while I wish he could have been with us for the Rocky marathon (which I know he would have loved), I’m really glad I was able to share the LOTR day with him. Sleep well Sned. Love you.