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Photo: The Rocky Franchise
The ‘Rocky’ franchise is one that has stood the test of time, and done so magnificently. The first ‘Rocky’ came out all the way back in 1975, and 45 years later, we’ve had five sequels, a spinoff movie series, and even a musical. Despite the incredible success and blockbuster power that the series has, It’s easy to see why it’s so popular: A down-on-his-luck boxer uses grit and determination to rise out of the working class and become a boxing legend. It also kick-started Sylvester Stallone’s career and led to him becoming a household name. But despite being written off as just your average sports movies, there’s more to them than that. Filled with grounded performances and nuance that will resonate with any viewer, each film in the series has its own story worth talking about. So with all that being said, let’s jump into one of Cinema’s most iconic franchises.
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The Rocky Franchise:
This is the movie that started it all. ‘Rocky’ never set out to be the legendary boxing movie that it ended up becoming, but with an impeccable script and a star-making performance from Stallone, it’s no wonder why ‘Rocky’ did so well. This underdog story is about an amateur fighter from Philly taking on the world heavyweight champion won over the hearts of audiences everywhere. The story follows Rocky Balboa training for and fighting Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers), who wants to fight a local contender in Philly during the Bicentennial in 1975. As he trains for the fight, the mental stress of the fight begins to weigh on him heavily.
But ‘Rocky’ is more than just your average boxing movie. Our titular protagonist elevates this film to something more. Rocky Balboa embodies that working-class hero, someone that represents the common person. All he wants is to prove himself, to show that he can “go the distance”, and that’s as inspiring a message as any. ‘Rocky’ proves that it doesn’t matter whether you win or lose as long as you put your heart into it, and cemented this boxer as the perfect representation of the City of Brotherly Love.
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‘Rocky II’ (1979)
‘Rocky II’ continues the underdog story from the first film and does it in a pretty compelling fashion. After winning the fight against Rocky but taking a hit to his reputation, Apollo Creed challenges him to a rematch. Rocky refuses, but after some financial and family problems, agrees to take the fight. This leads to a legendary rematch between the two on Thanksgiving 1976, for Apollo to regain his honor and Rocky to prove that their previous match was more than just a fluke.
The film is an impressive sequel to the first, expanding on Rocky’s character and providing what feels like a definitive conclusion to the first film. The final rematch at the end of Balboa vs. Creed is the best fight in the entire series, in my opinion. But even without the fighting, ‘Rocky II’ is effective in its willingness to dive deeper into our main character’s psyche. He finds himself at a crossroads whenever Adrian, his now-wife, wants him to stop fighting, even though fighting is the only thing he feels competent at. His conflict with Adrian is what’s important here, and their connection drives the emotional aspect of the film that feels like a worthy sequel.
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‘Rocky III’ (1982)
This film shows Rocky at his most prideful as well as his weakest. ‘Rocky III’ takes this loveable meathead of a boxer and carries us through the lowest and highest point of his career at the time. After the events of ‘Rocky II’, where he finally defeats Apollo Creed in a last-second knockout, Rocky’s enjoying the limelight and success that comes with being the heavyweight champion. He defends his title multiple times and relishes in his success. As he prepares to retire, a new, hungrier fighter named Clubber Lang (played by Mr. T.) challenges him and eventually upsets him in the ring. With Rocky down on his luck, his old enemy turned friend Apollo Creed decides to intervene and train him how to win against Lang and become “hungry” again.
While one of the weaker entries in the franchise, it’s still a solid movie. Clubber Lang is a great antagonist and it makes things interesting to see Rocky knocked down a peg by another fighter. He also experiences the loss of his longtime trainer and mentor, Mickey (Burgess Meredith), and all of this puts Rocky in a bad place mentally that we don’t often see from the fighter. His fight against Lang at the end is an enjoyable match and ‘Rocky III’ marks the beginning of the Apollo-Rocky friendship that shapes our protagonist throughout the rest of the series.
‘Rocky IV’ (1985)
If there’s any movie in the series that’s as widely loved as it is mocked, it’s without a doubt ‘Rocky IV’. Coming out in the mid-1980s in the midst of the Cold War, this film completely capitalizes on the blockbuster mania of the time and brings the franchise to its most exaggerated with Rocky duking it out with his most iconic villain: Ivan Drago.
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At the start of ‘Rocky IV’, Rocky himself is living a good life. He’s friends with Apollo Creed, he’s won back his heavyweight title, and everything seems to be going well. That is, until a new, unstoppable fighter named Ivan Drago appears from the Soviet Union on a mission to fight this Philadelphia legend. Rocky, having been humbled from the previous film, is hesitant to fight him, until Apollo takes up the offer and fights the mad Russian before dying in the ring. Balboa travels to Russia and trains in the frigid weather of Siberia, in what is one of the most hardcore training montages in the franchise’s history. Despite Drago (played by Dolph Lundgren in his career-defining role) using all the technology and medicine available to make himself the unbeatable opponent, even he can’t defeat Rocky and his never ending ability to take punches. Rocky wins in a dramatic fashion, with the Cold War symbolism being very prominent at the end. This film has often been described in a humorous manner as “Rocky defeats Communism”, and while it’s only a joke, it’s definitely an accurate description.
‘Rocky V’ (1990)
‘Rocky V’ is a film that’s interesting on paper but might not have been executed in the best way. Considered the worst in the franchise by many, it follows the aftermath of his fight with Ivan Drago in ‘Rocky IV’, where he is forced to retire from boxing after being diagnosed with brain damage. Losing all of his fortune from a corrupt accountant, Rocky and his family move back into his old neighborhood in Philly as he reopens the gym where he first trained at with Mickey. Despite being retired from the sport, he finds himself getting more and more involved with boxing as he befriends and mentors an up-and-coming boxer by the name of Tommy Gunn (played by boxer Tommy Morrison).
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This sequel is intriguing for the fact that it shows Rocky attempting to get past his boxing life and move on, even if he can’t quite do it. It’s the first and only movie in the franchise that doesn’t end in a boxing match, but rather a street fight between Rocky and Tommy. There’s even some family drama as Rocky’s son, Robert, feels neglected by his dad and falls in with the wrong crowd. Despite these interesting ideas, ‘Rocky V’ doesn’t really execute them well and the film feels lost. The street fight at the end doesn’t have the same emotional intensity or impact that the other fights in the series do, and the ending doesn’t feel deserved. But even with all this, it’s still a ‘Rocky’ movie that tries something different, and that’s respectable.
‘Rocky Balboa’ (2006)
The last film in the franchise before the ‘Creed’ films, ‘Rocky Balboa’ is a film that’s underrated compared to the other sequels. It takes place 20 years after the last film, where Rocky is in a vulnerable state. Adrian has passed and he runs a restaurant in the city in her name, where he tells boxing stories to the guests. His now-adult son, Robert (played by the one and only Milo Ventimiglia) is distant from his father, despite Rocky’s attempts to reconnect. Everything changes for the boxer when ESPN publishes a simulated match between Balboa and the current champion, Mason “The Line” Dixon, he decides to renew his license and fight Dixon to prove himself again.
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‘Rocky Balboa’ is special for doing a lot of what ‘Rocky V’ did, but executed correctly. The family drama with his son here feels more real and is even capitalized with what is a spectacular monologue from Stallone about what life is really all about. Despite it being somewhat unrealistic for a man in his 60s to be fighting competently against a champion boxer, the story hits enough emotional beats that it’s excusable, and it connects perfectly with the original ‘Rocky’ movie in a multitude of ways. ‘Rocky Balboa’ is a great bookend to the franchise (at least the films based around Balboa as the main protagonist) and a severely underrated boxing movie.
By Ben Ross
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Ben Ross is a writer at Hollywood Insider. He loves watching films and finding the message behind the art. With a love for movies and television, his goal is to understand as much as he can about anything he watches, and engage with readers about different topics related to the industry. He aims to find work that sheds a light on issues not really talked about and showcase it, feeling that it is important to understand the truth. Together with his readers, he hopes to celebrate beautiful stories in film and explore topics that are worth discussing – a value that defines Hollywood Insider.