“His Whole Life was a million to one shot!”
I love the Rocky series. There, I've said it - I've come clean. I love them so much that I even forgive Stallone for giving us films like Oscar and Get Carter. Rocky is my Star Wars - as a kid growing up, it gave me my most powerful cinematic experiences, gave me a few lessons about life and ultimately motivated me to make something better of myself - so for all that I thank Mr.Stallone (and just ask that the newly resurrected Rocky VI project doesn't push even my loyalty too far!).
As a fan I'd already replaced my worn out cassettes with the original Rocky Anthology box-set from 2001 so what does this new Ultimate Edition give us then? Well, most importantly in my opinion, it includes improved sound and visuals for each of the 5 movies. The previous version only had Dolby Digital 5.1 on Rockys I,III and IV. There are now also some further extras but more on those later. So, ladies and gentlemen....”Let's get ready to R-U-M-B-L-E!!!”
Rocky is the undeniable jewel in this boxset, winning 3 Oscars and becoming a cultural reference and cinematic classic. Relative newcomer Sylvester Stallone wrote the screenplay and fought for his right to play Rocky rather than see it go to other, bigger names of the time such as Ryan O'Neal or Burt Reynolds. Like so many iconic characters, it is hard to imagine Rocky without the lopsided puppy-dog face of Stallone and as he went on to become one of the biggest movie stars of all time I guess the decision to use him in this role was a wise one!
Unlike most of the sequels, this movie isn't primarily a boxing film - yes, the noble art is completely entwined in the story but what made it stand out were the fantastic performances by most of the cast. Stallone grabs the headlines as Rocky, the downbeat street brawler working as a heavy for a local loan-shark, but the supporting cast are just as good. Talia Shire plays Adrian, the shy, retiring pet-shop worker with real sensitivity and the budding romance between her and Rocky provide some genuinely tender moments. Burt Young steals many scenes as Adrians depressed, alcoholic brother Paulie. His intentions are mostly honourable but he's usually either too drunk or stupid to show them properly and most of his scenes involve some emotional fireworks! Then there is the father figure, Rocky's trainer Mickey, again brought to life so perfectly by Burgess Meredith - can you imagine anyone else shouting and growling at Stallone to “Get up! You sonofabitch!”. So, like any good fairytale, those are the good guys, but who is the villain of the piece? Well, as much as people deride Stallone for his Rocky films, there is usually an element of truth in either the story or the characters. In Rocky and Rocky II we have Apollo Creed who is so obviously inspired by Muhammed Ali. In Rocky III Stallone was getting psychic as Clubber Laing could have been written with Mike Tyson in mind. In Rocky IV Stallone highlighted the problems of drugs in sport (oh and did his bit to bring an end to the Cold War as well ) and in Rocky V he showed the problems with parasitic managers such as Don King with the character of George Washington Duke. So in this movie Apollo Creed, again played to perfection by Carl Weathers is the reigning heavyweight champion - a showman and true entertainer - and is looking for his next opponent. Creed is looking for something different to draw in the crowds and comes across the details of journeyman bum, Rocky Balboa. His eye for a show latches on to Balboa's nickname “The Italian Stallion” and so he puts the wheels in motion to set up the fight, thinking that it will generate plenty of media interest but ultimately not provide too stern a test for the champion. Unfortunately for Mr.Creed, Rocky has “the eye of the Tiger” and sees this opportunity as his way to take him and Adrian away from their mundane grind on the streets of Philadelphia. While Creed relaxes in his mansion, Rocky is training using everything at his disposal, including the classic scene where he tenderises meat carcasses by using them as punch bags.
The film follows Rocky and the characters that make up his world as he prepares for and ultimately fights Apollo Creed. It is a clash of styles, cultures and worlds with Creed being the athletic, elegant, arrogant and wealthy perfectionist much like Ali and Rocky, the clumsy, downbeat brawler (again similar in style to his namesake Rocky Marciano). What Rocky lacked in class and ability, he made up for in strength and desire - Creed's lack of preparation and the fact that he underestimated Rocky's ability to take punishment sees the fight go all the way...
”There's one thing I want you to do for me.... win!”
Rocky II sets a trend that is followed in all of the remaining sequels of opening with the final scene from the previous movie. So here we see the end of the fight between Creed and Balboa
This time around, Balboa struggles with his new found fame and money, losing both just as quickly as they came. Creed on the other hand has his pride dented by suggestions from fans that he should have lost the first fight and embarks on a dirty-tricks campaign to get Balboa back in the ring so that he can set the record straight. Rocky's now wife, Adrian is against Rocky taking more punishment in the ring but after coming out of a coma during the birth of their first child, Adrian gives Rocky her blessing to fight and he reunites with Mickey to face Creed for a second time. The formula for the first movie is used once again, albeit this time the focus is more on the moments that stuck in peoples minds rather than the drama of the first instalment, so here we revisit the classic “training montage” complete with the stirring music by Bill Conti and Survivor's Eye of the Tiger and classic images such as Rocky running up the stairs in front of the town hall. The fight is equally as dramatic, once again providing more punches in one minute than most fights have in their entirety. All of the original cast return for this sequel and the only real difference is that this time Stallone directed as well as wrote the screenplay. Of all of the Rocky series, it is the one I have watched the least but I enjoyed revisiting it for this review.
”Thunderlips is here... In the flesh Baby!”
Putting the critical acclaim of Rocky to one side, Rocky III is many peoples favourite instalment. This movie deals with a phenomenon that many of us have wondered about when watching highly paid sports men under-achieve... how do you motivate someone who is a multi-millionaire and has achieved everything they originally set out to do? Rocky has successfully risen from the streets of Philadelphia to be the undefeated heavyweight champion of the world and is seeing off all-comers in his sleep. Unbeknownst to him, these fights have been handpicked by Mickey to ensure that Rocky wins comfortably. In the meantime, a menacing young talent, Clubber Laing (Mr.T), has been quietly working his way up the ranks, destroying anyone that steps into the ring with him. He has his sights set solely on Balboa's title.
Mickey knows that Laing has exactly what Rocky had when he first fought Creed - the Eye of the Tiger and he also knows that Rocky has lost this due to his life of luxury that the success has brought him. Rocky is doing everything but take serious fights - including taking a charity exhibition match against Wrestling's number 1, Thunderlips, played with great aplomb by Hulk Hogan. Laing taunts Rocky for a chance to prove himself and Rocky accepts despite having to talk an anxious Mickey into helping him one last time. Just like Creed in Rocky, Balboa doesn't take Laing seriously and his preparations for the fight resemble a circus more than a gym. This lack of preparation, plus the pre-match heart-attack of Mickey leave Balboa floundering and within minutes his whole world has collapsed around him. He enters a spiral of depression, blaming himself for the death of his best friend and his marriage becomes strained. At his lowest moment, an unlikely ally comes to his aid - Apollo Creed wants to see Laing brought down and as he can't do it himself, offers to train Rocky to beat him. This sets up an entertaining finale as Creed struggles to motivate Balboa but eventually helps him to get back in shape both mentally and physically for the fantastic final battle with Laing. Stallone knows how to conjure up excitement in his action scenes and although they have very little in common with real heavyweight boxing bouts, it certainly gets the emotions going on screen.
”I must break you!”
Rocky IV is as 80's as Wall St. or Top Gun. This was the first Rocky film that I'd actually been able to see at the cinema - I'll never forget it - it was an early showing and the cinema was packed with kids. For some reason everyone was so into it that whenever Drago threw a punch, everyone booed and whenever Rocky fought back, we all cheered. By the end of the fight, everyone was standing up and shouting “Rocky! Rocky!” as if we were actually there. That's probably why I like these films so much, but there's no denying that for those that like them, these movies really stir the emotions. Rocky IV this time expands the horizons of the previous movies somewhat - reflecting the cold-war mood of the time - it is the Russki's that are in for a damn good pasting. Before you groan, we should at least praise Stallone for Rocky's cheesy speech about “If I can change and if you can change, maybe everyone can change” at the end of the movie. Yes, it was about as subtle as a Drago uppercut but had it not been there, this movie would have just been another anti-Soviet movie.
This time around, we are introduced to the Adonis-like Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren). The Russian amateur heavyweight champion, trained by the Soviet Unions finest trainers using the latest state of the art equipment, backed by the Polit Bureau and pumped full of more steroids than Ben Johnson. This cyborg has the most powerful punch ever recorded and is on his way to America to turn professional and seek someone to use it on. Apollo Creed, always one for an occasion, has both his own and the National pride dented by the outrageous claims of Drago's management (including Stallone's soon to be wife of the time Brigitte Neilson). Creed, the showman wants a last shot at glory to put this Commie in his place and convinces Balboa to work his corner in an exhibition match. Drago unfortunately, hasn't read the script and disposes of Creed, quite literally, with the minimum of fuss, but an extreme amount of bother. Rocky loses another one of his loved ones and mentors and once again embarks on the lonely road of revenge. Unlike in Rocky III, this time Rocky doesn't need any help or encouragement and knows exactly what he's got to do and how he's going to do it. He sets off for Siberia with just Creed's trainer Tony and brother-in-law Paulie in tow and in stark contrast to Drago's hi-tech training methods, uses only what he finds around him to get himself prepared. There is a great training montage that contrasts each of Drago's specialist pieces of equipment with Rocky's homemade equivalent from chopping logs to running up a mountain side. Symbolically, Rocky has the mental strength to keep going longer than Drago, despite the latter having taken steroid injections.
Stallone was no spring chicken when he made Rocky IV, yet his physique was absolutely awesome - by the time both Rocky and Drago face each other in the ring, only the addition of Arnold Schwarzenegger as the Ref could have got any more muscles on screen!
”I see three of them out there” - “Hit the one in the middle!”
There is a fantastically over the top fight which eventually sees Rocky grind down the Russian champion, much to the disgust of a Gorbachev look-alike but as previously mentioned it all ends on a positive note as Rocky brings the Russian crowd to their feet with a positive speech about changing our views of each other. Cheesy or not, it was four years before the Berlin Wall came down so the views expressed in this movie weren't necessarily synonymous with the times and for that I think Stallone should be praised. Mind you, he probably undid any good work with his portrayal of Russians in Rambo 3 so perhaps he's not so diplomatic after all!
”Heart and fire! Heart and fire!”Rocky V leaves the 80's lavishness of the previous movies behind and this time takes the series back to its roots. John G. Avildsen, director of the first movie, returns to take the helm here and there are many intentional similarities between this and the first Rocky. Balboa, after his monumental fight with Drago is diagnosed with brain damage and loses his license to box. As if this wasn't bad enough, a previous lawyer has been caught fiddling his books and there is no way out other than to sell everything he has fought so hard to earn up till now. Undeterred he returns to his old stomping ground of Philadelphia with Adrian, Paulie and his son Rocky Jr (real life son Sage). He opens up Mickey's old gym and tries to make an honest, but simple living. At this point he is approached by a rough diamond by the name of Tommy Gunn (the then soon to be ex-heavyweight champ Tommy Morrison). Tommy Gunn reminds Rocky of himself and eventually he agrees to help Tommy out by being his manager. The emotional drama in this movie comes in the struggle between Rocky's own son for the attentions of his father and the ever increasing vicarious pleasure that Rocky is getting from seeing Tommy Gunn rising up through the ranks. To add a bit of spice to the mix, a Don King-type character (played excellently by Richard Gant) is harrying Balboa first to accept a fight with one of his own boxers and then when this fails, turns his attentions to Tommy Gunn. Duke uses all the tricks in the book to entice Tommy to sign up for his stable and despite warnings from Rocky, Tommy is dazzled by the hype that George Washington Duke lays before him. Soon he has the title, the women, cars and money that he dreamt of. Unfortunately for Rocky, Tommy doesn't heed his warning that Duke is a vampire trying to suck his boxers dry and even after Gunn's hollow victory, he still doesn't have the public or media's respect. Tommy realises that this is more important to him than the material gains he has made and understands that the quickest way to gain people's respect is to beat the “real” champion - Rocky himself.
Rocky refuses to be lured back into the ring so the final fight of the movie this time goes back to the streets where Rocky original plied his trade all those years ago. Tommy Gunn would have undoubtedly beaten Rocky in the ring but on the streets, with no holds barred, Rocky still had a few tricks (some dirty!) up his sleeve to put this young upstart in his place. The finale is cheese of the highest order, with most of the cast gathered round to witness the final battle - even the old Priest makes his usual blessing of his favourite pugilist. Rocky V is by no means a classic, but it is very watchable if you don't go into this expecting too much (and lets face it, if you've watched 1,II,III and IV before it, you should have no surprises about the content of these sequels). What each proceeding Rocky film loses in critical acclaim, it gains in high adrenalin action that stirs the blood. With the Rocky series, like the main character himself, what you see is what you get - it's good, clean adolescent fun.