I think I’ve made my love for the Rocky franchise pretty clear through the years that we’ve all been blogmates, so it shouldn’t come as any surprise to you that I watched the newest addition, Creed, in theatres on the opening weekend. It was magical. I cheered, I loled, I wept openly. Before you start to panic, I’m going to keep this post spoiler-free because I want every single one of you to watch this movie. You can read ahead safe in the knowledge that all of Creed‘s secrets await you in the cinema.
I firmly believe that the Rocky movies are Hollywood’s best kept secret. They have an undeserved reputation for being terrible piece-of-garbage joke movies, when in reality they show a nuanced, beautiful story about a simple man struggling to carve out a place for himself in the world. The first movie beat out Apocalypse Now for the Best Picture Oscar and led to Roger Ebert predicting that Stallone would be the next Marlon Brando. Which… close enough, I guess. The most wonderful thing about these movies, though, is how god damned uplifting they are. You watch a Rocky movie and you feel like you can take on the world. They make me want to run marathons and organize my Tupperware drawer. I have used Rocky to cheer up friends after break ups and it works. Every. Single. Time.
Creed manages to work really well as a stand-alone film. If you don’t love yourself enough to watch the rest of the franchise, you’d be just fine watching Creed on its own. Rocky’s presence in the movie is along the lines of any other mentor in movie history, and it could have just as easily been made with Joe Frazier or George Foreman. Which is not to say that there aren’t call backs to the first 6 films, but that you don’t need to be a Rocky aficionado to enjoy it.
But, for my love of Rocky, I’m going to start from the beginning. If you don’t want to read spoilers about a 40 year old franchise that was last updated 10 years ago, you can skip ahead.
This is easily the best of the lot. If I had to watch one movie for the rest of my life, Rocky would definitely be on the short list. The story is deeply touching and genuine, and Rocky Balboa himself is probably one of the most sincere characters ever written, at least in Rockies 1 and Balboa (6). Rocky begins his journey as a good man in a bad situation.
The movie is split about 50/50 between Rocky’s rise as a boxer and his courtship of Adrian, a painfully shy and bookish woman who works in a pet shop. Rocky invents lame jokes every night and comes by the shop every evening to tell them to her. Despite the date rape-y start to their relationship (it was the 70s), the courtship is sweet and equal in a really refreshing way and I could watch 700 more movies about it.
In what will be a running theme for the franchise, the World Heavyweight Champion’s opponent gets injured and he is forced to find a new challenger for the title. The problem is that Apollo Creed is too good and nobody can or will fight him. He decides the only thing to do is to give an unknown a shot at the title, and picks a Philly southpaw called the Italian Stallion in honour of Christopher Columbus. At first Rocky turns him down. He really isn’t a contender and he’s afraid that he’ll be embarrassed, but Apollo’s team manages to get him on board with some rousing speeches about the land of opportunity.
Rocky plans on training himself, but is finally convinced by the gruff owner of his local boxing gym, Mickey. It’s an incredible scene. I assume this is the scene that led Ebert to predict such great things, and Stallone has not come within 100 miles of it again in his 40 years in Hollywood.
Rocky invents the training montage, beats up some beef, drinks some raw eggs, and climbs some stairs. There are a lot of subplots concerning Rocky’s relationships with various people in his life, but for brevity’s sake I’ll stick with the fight.
Apollo Creed views this match entirely as a promotional opportunity. He is the best fighter in the world, but he hasn’t trained as hard as Rocky and he hasn’t taken the time to learn Rocky’s fighting style. He shows up to the fight dressed as Uncle Sam and showboats around the ring.
For his part, Rocky has no illusions about this fight. He doesn’t think he can win, and he isn’t entering the ring with that intention. Nobody has lasted more than 12 rounds with Creed before, and all Rocky wants is to go the distance. To everyone’s surprise, he gives Creed a run for his money and not only lasts all 15 rounds, but leaves the judges with a split decision, meaning at least one believed him to have won the fight. In the end the decision goes to Creed, but Rocky’s victory was really with himself. He conquered self-doubt and the doubts of others and proved that he really does have something to offer.
(Can we talk for a second about Stallone’s face in this poster? The face of a beautiful woman with a slightly crooked mouth? A face that could belong to literally anybody in the world except Sylvester Stallone?)
Rockies 2 through 5 can be summed up much more easily. They lack the subtlety and the subplots that made the first movie great, and the focus more on the fights and the training montages.
Adrian has convinced Rocky to give up boxing because she worries for his safety after the horrific beating he took in the first film, which left him briefly hospitalized. He tries his hand at sponsorships and commercials, but is a horrible actor. They burn through his winnings and find themselves out of money with a baby on the way. Adrian goes back to working at the pet shop and Rocky takes a job at the meat packing plant he used to punch beef in.
For his part, Creed has been facing a lot of backlash over the previous fight. Lots of people felt that Rocky had been the real winner and that Creed hadn’t won fairly. Others felt that he had gone easy on Rocky to make the fight more interesting. At the end of the first fight, Rocky and Creed agreed that there won’t be a rematch, but Creed lets his ego get the better of him and challenges Rocky to another fight. Again, Rocky doesn’t want to. He’s trying to make an honest living and Adrian doesn’t want him to fight.
To make a long post slightly less long, Rocky agrees. Adrian faces some complications with her pregnancy and falls into a coma after giving birth. Mickey does his best, but Rocky is obviously distracted by Adrian’s coma. When she resurfaces, she has had some kind of coma-epiphany and now wants Rocky to fight. Cue another training montage, longer but less exciting than the first. This time around, Rocky catches chickens and runs behind a van. This time around, Rocky wins the fight.
This movie marks the start of a subplot that I’ve invented, whereby the baby isn’t actually Rocky’s son. When discussing what to name him, Adrian says “We should name him after the father,” and he is only ever referred to as “Junior” for the next few movies. Eventually someone refers to him as “Robert.” I suppose its possible that Rocky is a diminutive of Robert, but it’s also possible that this entire series is avoiding the fact that they survived the lean years via prostitution. Adrian’s a babe. It could happen.
The third movie follows the same formula as the first two, but in this one Rocky is the Creed and Mr T is the Rocky. Rocky has been undisputed World Heavyweight Champion for quite some time now, and Philadelphia commemorates its favourite son with a statue. Rocky lives in a mansion, wears fancy pantsed suits, and inexplicably is now great at commercials. His jawline is more defined, and we find out that Mickey has been ensuring that he only fights boxers he’s guaranteed to win against. Rocky hasn’t faced a challenge since Creed. He participates mostly in promotional pre-MMA matches against men like Hulk Hogan. Rocky 2 is a step down, but Rocky 3 is where the franchise begins to veer into straight comedy.
Mr T is a young, thirsty boxer. He stalks Rocky, sexually harasses Adrian, calls Rocky a bum at press conferences. Eventually Rocky finds out from Mickey that his fights have been as good as fixed, and agrees to fight Mr T. Rocky’s regular gym is swarmed by reporters and he needs to train somewhere more private, which brings him to Apollo Creed. This time they train on a beach in tiny shorts with lots of close up, slow motion upper thigh shots, and are thisclose to making out by the end.
Mickey pushes himself too hard, and his death cuts poor Burgess Meredith out of the franchise. Rocky wins this fight, and we see that he has flown just close enough to the sun and, having seen the cost of his pride, will never punch below his class again. Rocky and Creed end the film with a third match just between the two of them, whose outcome isn’t disclosed until Creed.
Rocky 4 takes place in an alternate universe where the Soviets possessed superior technology and the Americans were the down-on-their luck everyman. Creed agrees to come out of retirement to fight a Russian Superman named Ivan Drago, with Rocky in his corner as his coach. Rocky fails to throw in the towel when it’s clear that Creed is being beat to a pulp, and Creed dies in the ring. This alternate universe we’ve moved to also allows people who murder someone in a boxing ring to leave the country as heroes, so Drago happily returns to the USSR amid great fanfare.
Rocky agrees to a match in the Soviet Union in order to avenge Creed’s death. This training montage sees Drago hooked up to advanced machines while Rocky drags logs through the snow with a beard. Sidebar, at the gym I always prefer free weights to the machines because it makes me feel like Rocky while I glare at all the Dragos using their leg presses and ab rollers.
Rocky wins the admiration of the Russians and somehow manages to also win a fight against a genetically modified superhuman who can kill people with a single punch and has twice his reach.
This is the Rocky we’d all like to forget. Rocky gets kicked out of his mansion and loses everything after his finance manager disappears with all of his money and leaves him wallowing in debt. Rocky has lost his boxing license due to health issues caused by the Drago fight. He moves Adrian and her illegitimate child back to their old neighbourhood in Philly, where he meets a young fighter named Tommy Gunn who wants to be trained. Rocky neglects Adrian’s child to train this young man, while poor young Robert Junior tries hard to get his attention. I’m going to skip over basically everything because this movie is so terrible that I’ve decided it’s non-canon. The film ends with a street fight between Rocky and his young protege,which Rocky wins, and Robert Junior learns how to throw a punch.
The second last film takes us back to Rocky’s roots. If I were to rank Rocky movies, as though I haven’t already done so a hundred times, I would place Rocky Balboa ahead of all of the numbered Rockies. It was the second best Rocky movie until Creed came out, and it’s taken Rocky in a really interesting direction.
Adrian died of cancer some years ago, and Robert Junior has distanced himself from Rocky as much as possible. Rocky owns a restaurant called Adrian’s where he regales diners with tales of his fights. Although he is surrounded by people all of the time, Rocky is a deeply lonely man. He visits Adrian’s grave every day and tries desperately to connect to Junior.
A sports network shows a computer generated match between Rocky and the current champion which Rocky wins. The current champ is enraged, and Rocky agrees to a publicity match. He’s an old man now and obviously can’t hold his own against a young guy with no legitimate contenders. Since we ignore the 5th movie, we don’t need to deal with the lifetime health-based boxing license ban for Rocky, and he manages to get his license re-approved. Rocky teams up with Creed’s former trainer, and in real life Stallone get busted for steroid use. He is huge in this movie. Huge and veiny. It’s pretty gross, but the movie itself stands up.
Rocky loses the fight in the end, but like the first movie it’s by split decision. Rocky has won a victory again, although he lost the fight. The movie ends with another visit to Adrian’s grave and I cry like a baby. The fight is an excuse in this case, but much like the first film it isn’t the point. Rocky Balboa really marks a return to the character-driven plot that made the first movie so great. Rocky is old and sad. He’s the gentle dummy of the first movie again, rather than the showboating slick guy we saw in the numbered sequels.
As a reward for sticking with me through 2500 words about a franchise starring a puffy faced clown actor, here’s a collection of every training montage from Rockies 1 through Balboa.