Rocky: An Odyssey in Six Parts

Movie Reviewer Confession Time: I have never watched the Rocky films. I know, I know–timeless classics, I always hear. But it simply isn’t a classic if it can’t stand that test of time. I’ve always disliked Sylvester Stallone and his films, especially when instead of Rocky I’ve got Raging Bull to look forward to. However, I recently accepted the MoviefiedNYC Challenge of watching all six Rocky films ahead of the release of Creed this November (literally how are they not done?). Is Rocky the classic everyone says it is?

Rocky I (1976) – “F*** You, Stallone

2013-12-21-rocky1976sylvesterstallone1920x1200WallpaperHDI expected a roaring boxing rampage, but instead find a slow baked, half risen cinematic soufflé. And like a soufflé, there is a notable absence of a great protagonist in the centre of it all. The film, as many already know, is about the apparent rise of an unknown boxer (Rocky), as the world champion (Apollo Creed, Carl Weathers) selects him for a fight after his opponent drops out. Rocky, the lucky participant, is known for his ability to take hits, and moonlights as the muscle for a local loan-shark. The films problems begin and end with him: a downright two-dimensional, ignorant-yet-content bully who intimidates not only women but also the clients of his loan-shark. And what is most hilarious is how he is forgiven these brutalities as “he didn’t break anyone’s thumbs”–way to go Rocky. He is neither a villain nor a flawed-yet-redeemable protagonist, sitting inside a lukewarm medium that leaves you wanting more. His relationship with boxing is one that suits a bored character like himself: there is no passion in his sport, only a lifelong perseverance against the tide. While this might make an interesting angle for a film, with no background of Rocky it falls flat, as we are told time and time again that life simply isn’t fair to Rocky. Poor Rocky. Poor helpless Rocky. And my sympathies for him run out right when I need to turn on the subtitles so I can hear what the hell is going on. I’m not entirely sure if these issues lie with the character or with Stallone himself, but I am sure of one thing: I have never wanted to shut off a movie more in my life.

Rocky ! Shire
Talia Shire as Adrienne

And don’t even get me started on Adrienne (Talia Shire): this drippy, submissive blank canvas of a women is so obviously written by a man. A character dulled to her own desires, and who contently provides vacuous emotional support and frequent reinforcement so the protagonist can achieve his dreams–apparently I’ve been womaning wrong all these years. Rocky’s essential rape of her (that the director portrays as her enjoying) while she begs him to stop, really does not sit well with a modern audience. The whole “I know you want it” approach to women is pretty sickening (take note, Robin Thicke), and reinforces the notion that Rocky is entitled, frustrated and feels totally inferior. Between Paulie, Adrienne’s brother, pimping Adrienne out to Rocky and then ridiculing her for not longer being a virgin (“you’re busted”), and Rocky raping her and them then being in a relationship, it is difficult to discern if this portrayal lies at the fault of the director or the writer.

But, yes, I still proceeded with the film. And the last 40 minutes for me really changed it. After an hour and a half of half-lit character development (if you can call it that), Rocky and Adrienne seem to find a relationship balance, and in fact he seems to empower her to stand up to her ass-hat of a brother. But where this whole ‘rags-to-riches” story fails for me is the absolute lack of work on Rocky’s part to engage Apollo Creed. Things in this film happen to Rocky, rather than by his own design. He finds motivation so late in the film; long after Creed has essentially picked him name out of a hat to fight with him. Both the characters and the plot are orchestrated without a grand design–things in this film simply happen, and you watch the credits roll feeling relatively unchanged, and cheated out of what should have been a much better film. So f*** you, Stallone.

Nineteen thoughts I had during my first ever viewing of Rocky:rocky1 A

  1. Daaaaaaym Stallone was a spycee meat-a-bol back then
  2. Where are all these acapella homeless people coming from?
  3. I have very little trouble believing this is Stallone’s first role
  5. Is everyone in this movie chewing gum?
  6. Did they hire the entire f****** zoo for this movie?
  7. Wow, I mean that jacket though.
  8. Oh my god this poor sister is being pimped out by her brother.
  9. Oooooh look we get a close-up lucky us.
  10. Oh my god this film simply does not stand up to today’s female audience. she is literally asking him to stop undressing her and he continues this is awful
  12. I’m gonna kiss you and you can kiss me back if you want to, but if you don’t want to you don’t have to. But I’m gonna kiss you anyway” Um no Rocky that’s rape and it’s a felony
  13. Oh great, now they’re dating
  14. I greatly identify with Rocky climbing up those stairs…the first time
  15. Is every other line in this film is “I don’t know”?
  16. This dog has quickly become my favorite character in this whole movie.
  17. I literally just had to turn on the subtitles because the accents are truly too much
  18. Wait, who won?

Rocky II (1979) – F*** Me, Stallone

Rocky IISo I’m tucked in bed. I’ve got my tea, I’ve got my digestives, and I’m ready for Rocky II. After the first one, I am ready. R-E-A-D-Y. Ready for two hours of checking my phone while watching, of wishing time would move faster, and willing for the film to end. What I am not prepared for, however, is the epic cinematic masterpiece that is Rocky II. Frankly, it’s the movie Rocky I should have been. And here’s why.

Once you get passed the whole “they said there would be no rematch but there’s a rematch” thing, Rocky II quickly becomes the film that calls out our boxing protagonist for his endurance over work: that his determination has carried further than his talent ever could. And Apollo does in fact call him out on it. The film follows both Rocky and Apollo (Carl Weathers) as they prepare for the rematch; following the fight of the first film i.e. it takes place literally an hour after the events of the first film ended. The attention he gets after the initial fight is overwhelming, and Rocky announces he won’t be fighting again after Adrienne makes him promise to never do it again (something he seems to do a lot). He is reduced to doing some stupid commercials (cue Stallone in a caveman costume) and eventually the heavily pregnant Adrienne is forced to return to the pet shop. After she hemorrhages her pregnancy and falls into a coma, Rocky is unable to move, to eat, or to leave her side. And this for me is the crux of it all: the pitfalls of fame, the disillusions we all have of success, and what becomes finally apparent (and was totally absent from the first film) is his love for Adrienne. They are both stoic and unemotional – except with each other. And when she comes out of the coma, and tells him to win, Rocky, for the first time, is actually working for someone, rather than a something. And that just warms my cold dead heart.

Apollo is also fleshed out, where his wounded pride is pinned against Rocky’s determination to prove himself in the sport, and to wipe the floor with Creed. It is more than masculine competition: they are both fighting for their families. I like that Apollo Creed calls him out on not working for the win because Rocky becomes self aware, and this film documents his evolution like the first one should have. His relationships have more depth (thanks to Stallone’s directing), and the final fight is a fantastic piece of cinema. In the first film, the fight is convoluted, and in watching it I was frequently lost, even unsure who won the bloody thing. But the climax of Rocky II places more emphasis on the passage of time, on corner moments with his trainer, with Adrienne’s reactions watching at home. Technically speaking, it’s just brilliant. The camera mimics Rocky’s injuries and becomes more and more surrealist, and the slow motion (thank god they finally cracked it out) is just great. But the real directing tour de force is Apollo’s mockery of Rocky in the ring: they really hate each other, and Apollo is so hurt, so wounded, and frankly so outraged that an untrained clumsy oaf like Rocky could have come close to taking his title. Their relationship isn’t just hate, but hurt. They hurt each other, and this battle for them is how they are supposed to heal.

Rocky II is made with more purpose, and has more of a sting than its predecessor. It seems pretty clear that young Stallone viewed the first one, and saw a couple of things he could have done better–and did.

Twenty thoughts I had while watching Rocky II:

Rocky II a

  1. Oh wow they just gave me the movie version of “previously on Rocky”
  2. Worst proposal ever
  4. Post-rape Adrienne and Rocky is pretty cute
  5. I smell manly too
  6. Is he drunk?
  7. The eighties were a magical place for fashion
  9. How has he not gotten fat after 6 months of not fighting? I should try the Rocky diet
  11. It’s nice to know Sylvester Stallone is also an ugly crier–a true man of the people.
  12. I thought they had a baby? Where is this baby?
  13. Nothing says I love you like an ABAB rhyme scheme
  16. “Rocky Jr” are you fucking kidding me
  17. That baby is clearly seeing Trump’s wig specialist
  18. Do these kids/townspeople not have jobs or go to school?
  19. Fuck me! This is so much better than the first. Stallone, you stay behind that camera

Rocky III (1982) – F*** Apollo, Stallone

Rocky III posterRocky III–I am pumped people. I haven’t been this invested in a character since Kady Harren became a plastic and dethroned Regina George. Following the events from the last movie, Rocky, haven beaten Apollo in the rematch and that they are now BFF’s forevah (seriously I ship it–I SHIP IT PEOPLE), gets lazy. Rich and lazy. Between him appearing on the Muppets and having his workouts include a live DJ, he is half the athlete we saw previously. Insert Mr T, an angry, hungry and determined boxer who threatens Rocky’s title, and who takes it with ease after Rocky gets too cocky and fails to train. While the villain in this film is strictly two dimensional, this film adds layers upon layers of depth to its protagonist–like an onion, a film onion! –and to Apollo, who we get to see a warmer, more driven side than we’ve seen before. Basically, it’s an awesome sequel to the second film and we can all just go on pretending like the first film doesn’t exist.

Something I find very interesting about this sequel is how aware it is of its own structure. It begins from us seeing Rocky happy–what we wanted for him from the first film. He has a stable family, adores his wife, and has more money than God. It is the easiest time of his life–and yet, we dislike this Rocky. Happy Rocky is not the Rocky we love. Rocky the man didn’t end when the last movie did–and it doesn’t feel like a sequel for sequels sake. It is a very well crafted, intentional illustration of the man after the triumph. Content, fat, and coasting by: this makes for a satisfied character, but not a satisfying one. And the drive that has pushed Rocky through the first few films, that kept him standing and taking the hits beyond comprehension, is gone. And damn, we are pissed. So Mr. T does us a favour and absolutely kicks Rocky into the next world, ripping him down from his pedestal. The loss is made even more shocking to Rocky as Mickey, his coach and mentor whose warnings he did not head, dies suddenly in the locker room after the fight. Rocky is left completely alone, and Apollo reaches out to push Rocky back into a place of emotional discomfort to win the title back for Mickey.

Rocky III Mr. TI don’t necessarily think Mickey needed to die right then–it’s a bit telenovela-style for me–but it certainly sets up Rocky as we have never seen him before, and gives space in the film for Apollo to step in and become the mentor. And it isn’t blindly done: their previous competitive conflict remains, as Apollo criticises Rocky, and pushes him past his limits. But a solid friendship emerges that is wholly believable and really fulfilling: there is a particular oily beach frolic that comes to mind. And obviously Rocky goes on to win, with Apollo in his corner.

Rocky III comes from a place of conflict with us wanting Rocky to be happy, and for him to succeed. Rocky has never been happy before, and like a tortured artist uses it to push him past his point–to validate his fragile masculinity. And happy Rocky is content to not have this drive, so the Rocky in the third film must find strength from a place of positivity and support, rather than his prickly, lonesome “I’ve-got-nothing-to-lose” negative attitude. Because in this film he has a helluva lot to lose–and does lose it. But, as the Rocky we know as love, he gets it all back, and more.

Ten thoughts I had while watching Rocky III:

Rocky III (Weathers)

  1. Previously on Rocky . . .
  2. “IS THAT MR. T?” ©
  3. Rocky goes on the Muppets.
  4. Hulk Hogan, that’s where my pants went.
  5. The high school band is playing the Rocky theme song
    IN THE MOVIE – fuck diegetic logic.
  6. Damn Stallone is a fine director.
  7. Who wears short shorts? Rocky WEARS SHORT SHORTS!
  8. There was a large part of the budget of this film for body oil.
  9. Grown men in crop tops: the eighties were a magical time.
  10. Rocky and Apollo Frolick On The Beach: A Love Story.

Rocky IV – F*** Stallone

Rocky III cOne look at the poster for this movie tells me all I need to know about Rocky IV–that basically it’s Rocky III with more money and a sexy Russian. And you know what? I’m not that far off. But, ultimately, Stallone somewhat successfully makes boxing political, and if anything he reduces the famous Cold War Standoff to a mockery of hyper-masculinity, and the Soviets aren’t the punch line–we are.

Reiterating a point I made in the earlier reviews, the reason I am loving this series so much is the way each character is continued from their roles in the previous film, and their faults become their triumphs, and most importantly, vice versa. Apollo, in the third film, becomes a mature and wise mentor to Rocky, whilst retaining his initial hot-headedness and ego. What Rocky IV does so well, is show that when circumstances change, people change. Apollo goes from his supporting role to rejecting the very notion that he comes second to anyone. His discontent at his ‘fading masculinity’ –illustrated by his inability to fight–as he ages pushes him to revert back into the same determined, happy-go-lucky boxer who often underestimates his opponent. What cost him his fight with Rocky, costs him his life with Ivan Drogo (Dolph Lundgren).

And therein lies my biggest issue with Rocky IV: Stallone’s fecking acting. Rocky as a written character is the shit–I mean really, I think its brilliant. But somehow in this film Stallone lost the plot. When Apollo died, I stopped breathing. Apollo’s death should have brought forth a far more visceral reaction in Rocky that left him numb. But Stallone’s numb is my comatose. Stallone keeps the same look on his face for the entire second act, and when he declares his match with the Russian as “not for Apollo,” I’m left feeling a little let down. Hell, I’m a lot let down. Having Rocky aggressively lift wheelbarrows of hay does not equal emotional complication. But it’s a total “man’s mans” way of dealing with grief, I hear you say! Rocky just isn’t that expressive! Well, nay-sayer, Apollo’s death serves as a narrative rather than emotional device, which in any other film would be impossible to separate. But when I react more than the character in the bloody film, something ain’t right.

Rocky IV a
Dolph Lundgren

BUT, BUT, but, the saving grace of this film for me was the seeming depth behind the USA vs. the USSR competition. The Soviet’s are equally disgusted by the sheer egotistical nature of both Rocky and Apollo, and the absolute decadence with which they conduct their lives. Their inability to take the Soviets seriously with a presumed notion of superiority is grounds for their loss of both ego and life. Rocky is again “too happy” with his life and assumes too much about a culture he doesn’t understand, and loses someone as a result. He must get “hungry” again (in this way it is basically the third movie all over again) by going to Russia, immersing himself as both a man and a boxer, and fight to reclaim the title (not literally, more as a international metaphor). It is basically the showdown the Soviets and the Yanks never had–which is cinematically pretty awesome. Also, the characterisation of Dolph Lungren as an unthinking Adonis to a man under immense pressure from his government and his wife (with whom he shares a haircut) is really very good, and it’s hard to know who to root for in the final blows. Its probably one of the more personal fights I have seen him win.

So at this point in the movie, acting has been a let down, but the roaring political message of differences is keeping me there. There are lots of larger metaphors as well–modernism versus sheer human intuition, the individual versus the group, etc. And THEN–Stallone undoes it all. He tips the hat in Rocky’s direction from the beginning (he is our protagonist after all) but the final speech–which for you viewers at home with crappy internet access is essentially “everyone can change” –undoes the albeit already thinly veiled metaphor. Rocky has now “proven” that capitalism is better than communism, and the Russians now have his “permission” to change to their ways. And while he is probably right (says the girl from NYU), it would have been more effective, and more complex, to just leave it the hell alone. But of course, even the Russians are cheering for Rocky by the end–because we all know Rocky transcends deep political wounds! Huzzah! Someone clearly didn’t tell Stallone the golden rule of filmmaking: “show don’t tell.”

So in short, I think I have found the precise moment when the Rocky films peaked. I do have to say that while Rocky IV was less complex than the former films, it was no less enjoyable. At the end of the day, Stallone takes boxing to a political level and doesn’t altogether fail. And he can film the shit out of a boxing montage.

Ten Thoughts I had during Rocky IV:


  1. Daaaaaaym that’s a big Russian. Lucky Grace Jones.
  2. Russians don’t just run around in military garb!
  3. Drago and his wife has the same haircut
  5. Sylvester Stallone is worse than George RR Martin, why must he kill everyone I love?
  6. Jesus this is a long montage – I mean I get it, I was here for the other movies! I don’t need a recap. 
  7. Ovaries exploding
  8. Rocky is the height of Drago’s nipples
  9. That moment when you know they had to use a crane to help Stallone lift Drago . . .
  10. Fuckin’ wreck him, Rock!

Rocky V – Only in America

Rocky V posterSo we are back where we started after Rocky 1, on my phone, dreading the next hour and 30 minutes. For in this film, Rocky’s own journey is starting to mimic mine: we’ve peaked and here comes the sudden reversal of fortune. Rocky V follows the protagonist as Paulie, his misogynistic, bum of a brother-in-law gives their accountant power of attorney while Rocky is in Russia fighting Ivan Drogo. Their possessions, endorsements, and house are all seized, and they are forced to return to the neighbourhood they initially escaped from. There is a lot going on in this film – but is it worth it?

First things first: I liked this movie. Hell, I even loved it. It was a really nice end to the series and quite frankly I’m dreading Rocky VI. This film really brings the entire series full circle, where the family is forced to return to their origins changed people, and understand that their fortune and success have alienated them from their people. But Rocky is really the character who is forced to confront his past, in many ways: through his literal surroundings of his origins, and also through the manifestation of Tommy Gunn (Tommy Morrison), representative of a younger, hungrier fighter who Rocky can live vicariously through. The artful triangle between Rocky’s now teenage son, his surrogate boxer Tommy whom he now coaches and develops a close bond, and Rocky himself is brilliant cinema–and when he gives Tommy, and not his own son his medallion from Mickey, we realise that Rocky has become jaded over time. He prioritises the thrill of the fight, or the thrill of watching Tommy fight, over the love of his family. And his relationship with his son suffers (more in Rocky VI). Money and misogyny as a normalised part of their relationship (Rocky feeling like a failure for being unable to provide the lifestyle his son has become accustomed to) highlights the differences between father and son, and how economic mobility can alienate you not only from the past but also from your future and your legacy. And the bloody dialogue here is killer (see: “He makes you feel like you’re winning, but you’re losing us”).

Now the theme of fighting has certainly changed here, both for Rocky and for us as an audience. His investment in his fighting is not longer an investment for his family, and evolves to a purely selfish pursuit, totally unmotivated by economic security. The most important scene for this is where he watches his disloyal protégée win the title fight and get booed in the stadium. But we don’t watch Tommy Gunn in the fight–we watch Rocky. And as a film sequence I have never seen anything like it. We watch him be hungry, to gasp and gape and the TV while his family surround him, disappointed and alarmed at his obsession. He cheers, licks his lips, and begins to rapidly punch the punch bag next to him. With each of Tommy’s blows he matches one. He craves to be in the spotlight again but being a fight is all he has ever known, and there is a totally absence of motivation for him and for a brief period he is content to live through Tommy. But, as Adrienne puts it, “he aint you, he hardly ever was”. So when Tommy blames Rocky for his apparent failure despite winning the title and challenges him to fight after striking Paulie, it reignites in Rocky the pursuit of the fight, because he now has something to defend. And it is perhaps the biggest lesson of the Rocky films, to learn that he never was a fighter, but a defender.

And I must say–that finale fight though! It ends right where it started–on the street for Rocky. Brilliantly filmed, significantly grittier than we have seen in the ring, and it really hammers home the themes of the work. I loved this Rocky because it reminded me so much of the second film–a Rocky neither up nor down but somewhere in between, trying to find something to fight for. And that’s just hows I likes mah Rockeh.

Ten thoughts I had while watching Rocky . . . um, what number is this? Oh, VI:

Rocky V a

  1. How you dooiinnn?
  2. If my son drew his teacher naked, I would be asking a helluva lot more
  3. Father and Son Bond over misogyny
  5. Oooh I’ve missed the casual misogyny of the ’90s
  6. I like my movie montages like I like my men: rich with foreshadowing and riddled with daddy issues.
  7. Does this kid go to a school or a zoo?
  8. Stallone in a turtleneck is not the point of this scene but it’s all I’m thinking about
  9. All those beatings you took in the ring, I took them with you” GODDAMN IT MY HEART CANT TAKE THIS
  10. If this were the end of the franchise I would be one satisfied customer

 Rocky VI – The End 

Rocky VI dFeeling as good as I did after Rocky V, I just jumped into Rocky VI–because, to quote Sheldon Cooper, what is life without whimsy? But, like Sheldon, I will never trust myself again because frankly Rocky VI is a film we should all pretend doesn’t exist. In a magical land filled with unicorns and rainbows, the series ended with Rocky V and Adrienne was still alive. That’s right, Rocky VI is a life with Adrienne–and I’m pissed.

Rocky VI follows the boxer some twenty years after the events of Rocky V: where he is alienated from his son following his mothers death, runs a small Italian restaurant with Paulie, and lives alone. It’s the bleak future for Rocky we could have all foreseen but didn’t want to. The tone is also very very different: honestly, it’s a film I could see opening Sundance as a stand-alone feature: filled with slow-paced, blue-laced scenes where people moodily stare out of windows, it would fit right in. A living legend, he rises into prominence yet again when a computer-simulation of a fight between him and the current champion broadcasts on a sports channel and everyone becomes desperately interested in seeing it happen for real. Now, not only does the hilarious use of computer graphics feel a little too “hip” and 2000’s for me, but the whole film plays greatly upon the fact that Stallone is a walking artefact, totally alienated from the time in which he lives. And, not all too superficially, it seems as though Adrienne kept him connected to it all, and without her he is existing rather than living. And my pussy heart just can’t take it.

His relationship with his son (Milo Ventimiglia) has also suffered greatly: while there is a lot of love, his son can’t seem to escape his dad the boxer, and as a result pushes away his dad as a father. But as he begins to train again, and re-enter that world, it acts as a reconnecting forced both between them and Adrienne: they are a family united in memory. Boxing, it seems, was never about only him, but Adrienne, and beginning to train forces him to confront the anger he feels at her death, how much he misses her, and how boxing fills that bond between them. If you didn’t cry at “we did it, Adrienne!” then quite frankly I have nothing to say to you and the black hole where your heart should be.

Rocky VI a

But now onto the problems. Rocky felt like a dud—very little build up, and while the final showdown was brilliant the villain was almost as bad as Christoph

Waltz in Spectre: a total lacklustre, in short. He is the most generic “youth” cinema has ever produced: of little character worth, development, ignorant and arrogant, and uninterested in the world around him. He is basically a millennial dramatized and villainised. The “love interest” (purposefully in quotation marks) is the same: a young girl Rocky used to walk home in the first movie. The Rocky series certainly doesn’t win anything for “Positive Female Representation Award.” The odd relationship she has with his wife and her memory–encouraging Rocky to remember her and love her–works in theory but leaves us feeling pretty confused about this sexual tension/friendship between two people three generations apart. And the age gap is frankly vomitous–he makes Polanski look like a saint.

Ending with the previous instalment would have been a smart move from Stallone and his team. Life without Adrienne is sad, and his subsequent final fight just becomes unbelievable. For the first time since the film started, I actually have a hard time believing Rocky can last that long in the ring. As a sixty year old fighting a man in his prime, it simply doesn’t make sense. But do I care? Never. I live for Rocky in that ring. And the cyclical nature of the series is really hit home in this instalment (perhaps too much?) as the fight ends the same way with a split decision, proving that Rocky can, after all he has been through, go the distance.

—Lottie Abrahams

Thoughts I had while watching Rocky VI:

Rocky VI

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