Directors: John G. Avildsen, Sylvester Stallone
Screenwriter: Sylvester Stallone
By Roderick Heath
Rocky’s genesis and success is deeply entwined with the story enacted in the movie series it birthed, and a fundamental aspect of its mystique and popularity. Sylvester Stallone, born in Hell’s Kitchen in 1946, had suffered from partial paralysis in his face from a difficult birth, a debilitation he patiently tried to entirely erase as he became an actor. Stallone’s peculiarly dichotomous image had roots in his background, with his mother founding a gym for women in the mid-1950s and powerfully influencing her son’s celebration of physical prowess, even as Stallone proved himself no dunce in attending the University of Miami. His early acting days were harsh, and raw desperation drove him to appear in the porn film The Party at Kitty and Stud’s (1970). Stallone recovered to find scattered but eye-catching jobs in films like Bananas (1970), The Prisoner of Second Avenue, Death Race 2000, and Farewell, My Lovely (all 1975), usually as tough guys and thugs. Tired of being relegated to such meathead roles, Stallone resolved to write himself a leading part. He found his theme when he watched heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali defend his title against the white journeyman Chuck Wepner, who surprised many by lasting 15 rounds against the great master.
Inspired, Stallone wrote a script, taking the basic premise of an unrated contender taking on a terrifying champion, and cobbling together bits of popular boxing lore, encompassing figures like Jim Braddock, Rocky Marciano, and particularly Rocky Graziano, whose autobiography Somebody Up There Likes Me had provided Paul Newman with his own breakthrough starring vehicle in 1956. He also knew his old movies about boxers and fighters along the lines of The Champ, Flesh (both 1932), Kid Galahad (1937), Golden Boy (1939), and Gentleman Jim (1942). Stallone’s script was initially, relatively muted with the original ending having Rocky throw his fight after deciding he didn’t really like boxing. But as the production moved along, and Stallone’s do-or-die project became a more tangible proposition, it evolved into a hymn to the ideals of persistence and hardiness in the face of adversity. In the mid-1970s film milieu, that kind of old-fashioned sentiment was unfashionable, but Stallone proved he was in the same place as the mass audience. As the Bicentennial rolled around in the immediate post-Watergate hangover, the hunger for something thrilling and affirmatory proved rife. Stallone’s script was good enough to gain a lot of studio interest as a possible vehicle for an established star, but Stallone insisted he play the role. Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff, producers attached to United Artists, were able to take risks on movies they made provided the costs were kept restrained, and they gave Stallone his shot on a $1 million budget.
For a director, they turned to John G. Avildsen, who had served a sturdy apprenticeship as an assistant director before becoming a director in his own right and was best known up to that point for Joe (1970) and Save The Tiger (1973), quintessential works of the early decade as restrained and moody character portraits contending with the battered American psyche of the time. Save The Tiger had even netted a Best Actor Oscar for Jack Lemmon. Avildsen proved perfectly in tune with what Stallone’s script offered, able to apply a potent sense of verisimilitude and muted realism to a story that ultimately offered crowd-pleasing pleasures. Rewards were immediate: the film was a huge hit, and pitched against flagship works of the American New Wave’s height like Taxi Driver, All The President’s Men, and Network at the Oscars, Rocky emerged the victor. Stallone was vaulted to popular stardom. In the immediate wake he evinced warning signs of hubristic self-confidence in directing, writing, starring, and singing in the vanity vehicle Paradise Alley (1978), badly denting his standing even as he was just getting going. Stallone decided to make Rocky II, again directing as well as starring and writing. This proved another huge hit and cemented him as the biggest star of the next decade, particularly once he gained his other signature role as John Rambo. To date there have been eight films featuring Rocky Balboa as a character, and all of them are worthwhile to some degree, but it’s the first four films that constitute the most fiercely beloved portion of the series.
Even in physical terms Stallone was a contradiction, his large limpid eyes and long, equine nose in his youth like an Italian princeling out of a renaissance portrait, jammed onto a stevedore’s frame. Rocky and Rambo became almost diametrically distinct yet closely joined concepts defining Stallone’s screen persona, the genial, covertly ferocious man rooted in community and the angry but stoic outsider, connected only by their gifts for mayhem, and embodying oddly complex and contradictory ways of conceiving patriotism. Rocky is carefully deployed as a figure out of a very specific enclave, the working-class Italian neighbourhoods of Philadelphia. Robert ‘Rocky’ Balboa is introduced on a telling note in the opening scene of his first film, fighting Spider Rico (Pedro Lovell), with Avildsen’s camera zooming back from a painted Jesus icon on the grimy venue wall to encompass the fighters in the ring below, immediately establishing a semi-ironic affinity: boxers bleed for the crowd’s sins, serving the function of sublimating and wielding the pent-up aggression of the fans and very occasionally rewarded by becoming a true faith. Rocky seems almost lackadaisical in the bout until Rico delivers a gash to his scalp that infuriates Rocky, and he pounds his opponent into the mat. From the start Rocky is characterised as a man whose real potency remains latent but impossible to repress once incited, an essentialised rendition of the self-image of a vast number of men.
Pushing 30, Rocky’s problem isn’t that he lacked talent but seems to have missed the kind of kinetically exploited anger and will that fuels champions, as well as facing a general prejudice against left-handed “southpaw” boxers. Although he’s well-known and liked around town, Rocky has become a figure of familiarity to the point where his latest victory is met with the most casual interest. Even Rocky’s nominal trainer, gym owner and elderly former pug Mickey Goldmill (Burgess Meredith), is so unenthused by him now that despite his victory he strips him of his locker, a humiliation Rocky can scarcely be bothered protesting, Rocky makes his living working as a standover man for loan shark Tony Gazzo (Joe Spinell), but is such a soft touch he lets men he’s supposed to rough up go with partial payments. Rocky maintains a shambolic friendship with the rotund and resentful meat packer Paulie Pennino (Burt Young), and tries to charm Paulie’s painfully shy younger sister Adrian (Talia Shire), who works in a pet store and sold Rocky his beloved turtles. As Rocky and Adrian stumble towards a relationship, Rocky receives a life-changing offer out of the blue, made by fight promoter Miles Jergens (Thayer David) on behalf of the heavyweight champion Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers). Desperate for an opponent after other contenders scurry for the woodwork and seeing the chance for a great publicity coup, Creed wants to take on a Philadelphia fighter as an exercise in Bicentennial showmanship, and chooses Rocky strictly for his great nickname, “Italian Stallion.”
“Sounds like a monster movie,” Creed chuckles as the sound of the match-up, and certainly by the time the fourth and fifth instalments in the franchise rolled around many a wag felt sooner or later Rocky would take on Godzilla. But Rocky’s largely low-key, even ambling pace in its first two-thirds is matched to a stringent realism, and even the finale’s note of triumph is restrained by technical failure. Part of Stallone’s cunning lay in how carefully he rooted the drama in a sense of characters who prove much larger than they seem, battling those who generally prove much less awesome than they appear. Avildsen’s camera, with the great Bill Butler as DP, surveys grimy surrounds in that classic blotchy, moody 1970s colour. Paulie is Rocky if he lacked even a singular talent, used to feeling his flesh and spirit sag amidst the hanging meat carcasses, just as childlike as Rocky in some ways but with barbs, often verbally abusive to Adrian and erupting in shows of frustrated aggression. Adrian is deeply repressed and makes a bond with Rocky, as she compares the advice he often received, to work on his body because his mind was no good, to the opposite advice her own mother gave to her. The characters are adrift in a blue-collar environment that’s portrayed both in a harshly gritty fashion, filled with litter and crumbling infrastructure and patches of snow on wasteground, replete with seedy arenas for building and wasting flesh, and also extremely romantic, where everyone knows everybody and close-harmony singers hang about on street corners.
Much of Rocky feels in close accord with Avildsen’s work on Save The Tiger, following around a character in near-picaresque encounters as he faces with sullen apprehension a moment in his life he experiences as pivotal even as it just seems to involve more of the same, the stern spiritual economics of persistence and taking punishment. The only real signal we’re not just watching something along the lines of early ‘70s bummers like J.W. Coop (1972) is at the outset as the title sweeps across the screen, Gone with the Wind-style, with Bill Conti’s instantly rousing trumpet fanfare resounding, clearly declaring we’re not just watching some bum roaming around Philly but setting the scene for an Olympian contest. Part of what makes the film work is how carefully Avildsen mediates the transition from the passive to the active as embodied by Rocky. The Rocky films would become beloved and mocked equally for their training montages, but Avildsen builds very slowly to such a point, first portraying Rocky’s early exercise efforts in laborious detail, scoffing down a glass full of raw eggs and heading out for jogs on frigid mornings. When Paulie first ushers Rocky into the abattoir and the boxer realises the potential for training by punching the meat carcasses, it comes with a sense of ponderous, punishing violence, Rocky’s knuckles left bloody and raw even as he works up the force to crack the ribs of the carcasses. A TV news crew shoots Rocky doing this, and Apollo’s canny trainer ‘Duke’ Evers (Tony Burton) watches with some apprehensive attention, but can’t attract Apollo’s interest.
The ingenuity of Rocky as a character was in fusing his raw corporeal strength and fighting grit to a personality that’s eternally innocent, a goombah who knows what he is and yet constantly struggles to transcend it. A memorable vignette early in the first film sees Rocky trying to give a straight talk to a neighbourhood girl, Marie (Jodi Letizia), who hangs out with the rough local urchins. Rocky tries to illustrate the way reputations supplant actual people, until Marie tells him, “Screw you, creepo!”, and Rocky wanders away laughingly accosting himself with the insult. His attempts to strike a spark with Adrian nonetheless revolve around his rambling persistence, leading to a first date Paulie manipulates them into making. Gentle character comedy – Rocky gently pleads at Adrian’s bedroom door for her to consider coming out with him after she retreats in shock when Paulie springs the date on her, only for her to emerge entirely prepped for a night out – blends with a portrayal of tentative connection and finally painfully revealed need as Rocky bribes a Zamboni driver to let Adrian skate in an empty rink, before inviting Adrian into his shabby apartment. Adrian hesitates at the threshold before entering and almost dashes again as Rocky desperately appeals for her to stay, before the final melting clinch. Gloriously well-observed and trenchant as a distinctly unidyllic romance that is of course actually ideal, Rocky and Adrian’s coming together is also the subtle cue for other transformations about to spur Rocky towards greater things.
As a character and conception, Rocky is a brilliantly definite creation standing in contrast to an irritating tendency in more recent heroic tales to make protagonists as blank and broadly worthy as possible. He’s offered as an example of a truism, that truly physically strong and imposing men often project a gentle persona. Rocky swiftly becomes as familiar as a friend in his traits and actions and reactions, his background and situation tangible, his specific mannerisms, his habits of talking around challenges and provocations and deflating verbal aggression and projection of earnest geniality that so strikingly contrasts the pith he unleashes in the ring. And yet he easily becomes an emblematic archetype. He’s there on screen readily accepting identification with anyone, anyone who’s been bullied or outcast, down and out, felt their potential waste and their souls wrung out, knowing they have the stuff to go the distance and only requiring one true chance. Rocky is again close to a secular Jesus in that regard, taking all the pops on the chin for us. Even in the most recent series entries, Creed (2015) and Creed II (2018), revolving around Rocky’s acting as trainer to Apollo’s illegitimate son Adonis (Michael B. Jordan), Rocky still dominates despite not being at the centre of the story because of what is by now the almost reflexive skill Stallone wields in inhabiting such a well-defined character, where the younger man is more defined by the things the filmmakers don’t want him to be.
That’s especially frustrating as Apollo as inhabited by Weathers made for a surprisingly strong character too, one whose similarities to Rocky, and his differences, are totemic throughout the first four films. Many sports films negate opponents or present them as ripe assholes, and indeed that’s a direction the third and fourth episodes would readily turn in. Rocky’s grounding in the mid-‘70s zeitgeist also invoked some cultural animosities as well, with it all too easy to see Rocky as a great white hope thrown up against the juggernaut of black pride and power that Ali so forcefully identified with even whilst nimbly retaining his media star stature. Stallone quietly and cleverly deflates that sort of reading even if her perhaps still benefited from it, as he portrays Rocky watching Creed on TV in a bar. Apollo is gifted with a similar talent for media performance to Ali, and the bar owner grouchily and racially berates him as a clown, to Rocky’s offence: Rocky knows very well how good a boxer Apollo is, and offers him unqualified respect that’s oblivious to other issues. Clearly intended as an avatar for Ali, Apollo is nonetheless a rather different creature, apolitical and driven more by intense pride and ego and lacking any clear sense of communal grounding beyond his awareness that such clannishness can be financially exploited to make the match lucrative, envisioning himself as more an entrepreneur of sport than a rough-and-tumble warrior.
One running theme of the series would become the problem of not simply achieving but avoiding the pitfalls of success. Apollo, as offered in the first two films, is not vilified but certainly embodies those pitfalls, stung to repeatedly try to swat the small Italian fly but failing to comprehend the danger lurking in a rival driven by naked hunger and spirit. Apollo’s fancy gyms and parade of sparring partners prove of less worth than the gritty, almost primal techniques Rocky and Mickey favour. Apollo’s great project in the first film is to exalt himself in the guise of patriotic celebration. He dresses up as George Washington crossing the Delaware as he enters the arena for the bout against Rocky. Apollo’s self-identification with America – he even wears stars-and-stripes shorts in the ring – carries schismatic import. His spectacle can be seen as black mockery of and subsuming of white patriotism in sectarian triumphalism, and at the same time a kind of democratic parable warning that the essence of American life is the underdog, not the fat-cat, and that regard the wheel’s always in spin as to who holds what role. Rocky IV would later signal that Apollo’s patriotic fervour isn’t facetious but rather entirely earnest, and his felling at the hands of the hulking Russian Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren) is offered as a vivid metaphor for the bloodied American nose of Korea and Vietnam.
It’s tempting to read the schism between Rocky and Apollo as Stallone wrestling with his own nature and contradictions, the canny, driven, conservative, self-made self-promoter and the struggling, belittled outsider, the arch professional and the man unsure of his place in the cultural firmament. Apollo’s slow transition from Rocky’s great foe to his pal and mentor and then finally as spurring martyr is an essential aspect of the classic quartet. The climactic bout of the first film sees Apollo shocked when Rocky knocks him down for the first time in his career, turning it from a lark to a proper fight, and soon the two men are delivering savage blows, Rocky cracking Apollo’s ribs and Apollo breaking Rocky’s proudly hawkish nose. The rematch, which sees Rocky finally, properly besting Apollo, still only comes by a thin margin after they knock each-other down and Rocky gets to his feet quicker. When Apollo steps up to train Rocky in Rocky III, he ushers Rocky out of the homey precincts of Philly to the even grittier climes of black Los Angeles, at last spotlighting the place Apollo clawed his way out of, and furthering a kind of cultural exchange in a tale of interracial cooperation, even as the uneasy Paulie makes such witticisms as, “You can’t train him liked a colored fighter, he ain’t got no rhythm.”
The closeness of Rocky and Apollo in prowess and talent is underlined again at the end of Rocky II as Rocky wins by the narrowest of margins, as the two men knock each-other to the ground and Rocky is able to get to his feet. The motif of their close-matched machismo is finally brought to a comedic head at the very end of the third film as they arrange a secret bout far away from media purely to satisfy themselves as to who’s the best, the film fading out on a freeze-frame of the two launching mirroring punches at each-other. Rocky’s eventual amity with Apollo contrasts his fractious relationship with Paulie, who browbeats his sister and wields a baseball bat around the living room in unleashing his toxic mixture of rage and envy aimed at others but really conveying his own self-loathing. Mickey as a character, and Meredith’s scenery-chewing bravura in the part, was one of Stallone’s plainest attempts to recapture old Hollywood flavour: the gruff and grizzled old-timer played by one, armed with folkloric traditions and disdain for hype, resplendent in wool cap and coming armed with theatrically worn hearing aid.
As with Rocky’s friendship with Paulie, sharp undercurrents of anger and frustration define Rocky’s ultimately paternal relationship with Mickey, who answers when Rocky finally snaps and demands to know why Mickey rides him so much, that Rocky had real promise but never capitalised on it. Mickey nonetheless tracks him down to his apartment after learning of the arranged fight and offering to share his wisdom, cueing a scene of pathos as Mickey digs out ancient, yellowed newspaper cuttings recounting his great bouts in a distant past, whilst Rocky, still smouldering in resentment for the old man, ignores him and then chases him out of the building with his bellows, his frustration finally released, before finally dashing out to catch Mickey and agreeing to the partnership. Mickey’s death in Rocky III comes shortly after he reveals to Rocky he’s tried to keep him away from truly dangerous opponents, an act blending aspects of care and treachery, as it only put off the moment when Rocky would have to truly test his champion standing and deepest resources of courage.
Rocky’s shot at success is nonetheless closely entwined in narrative and character progression with his relationship with Adrian, one arming him and inspiring him with fresh potency for the other, and the first film’s iconic ending as Rocky and Adrian embrace in obliviousness to the bout’s technical outcome. Shire was perfectly cast as the apparently mousy woman who proves Rocky’s equal when she finally unleashes on Paulie and remains, despite interludes of fear, her mate’s rock-solid supporter. Another matchless aspect of the film’s power was Bill Conti’s score, with Rocky’s fanfare resembling Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man,” and the driving theme “Gonna Fly Now,” a rather oddball piece of film music in fusing big orchestral sweep matched to choral vocals and touches of pop, soul, and rock, a multigeneric stew that perfectly articulates the film’s celebration of American alchemy. As the moment of the fight approaches, Rocky’s renewed verve and fight-ready prowess breaks into clear ground, dynamically illustrated in one of the most famous, copied, and lampooned sequences in cinema, as Avildsen depicts Rocky pushing his body to new heights in a montage of exercises, climaxing in him running through the streets on a cold Philadelphia morning, past smoke-billowing factories and railway lines and along streets piled with garbage, the lean and fluid intensity of Rocky’s refashioned body contrasting the blight all about him.
There’s a touch of genius in the way this sequence converts the film’s driving ideas into thrilling visual statements. Rocky jogging with bricks in hand with the rising sun behind as Bill Conti’s heroic fanfare rings out suggest the birth of new tidings. Avildsen films Stallone running along the waterfront, a sailing ship moored in the background as if mindful of an immigrant nation’s seaborne past, Rocky suddenly picking up speed as if the further he goes the more power he becomes, before making his iconic dash up the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum. Variations on this sequence would inevitably recur in most of the subsequent films. One difference between the first iteration of this scene and the later ones however is the aspect of sarcasm in Rocky’s postures of triumph as he reaches the summit and dances before the dawn, Stallone deftly showing even in such an unimpeachably inspiring moment that Rocky knows very well he’s still just one lone man play-acting his triumph. The most joyous and effective variation comes in Rocky II where Rocky this time is pursued through the streets by a horde of young fans cheering him as he makes his dash, the lone warrior now folk hero.
The climactic bout of Rocky is no elegant ballet of technique but instead an intense slugfest Rocky forces Apollo to participate in, a dialogue not just of duelling personalities but ways of comprehending life through action, taking cues less from Ali’s match with Wepner or event the near-mystical artistry of the Rumble in the Jungle than his notoriously grim brawls with Ken Norton and Joe Frazier. Apollo still wins the first fight by a split decision, but it’s Rocky who emerges as the hero. Rocky II takes off immediately after the first film as Rocky and Apollo are both rushed to hospital to recover, where Rocky asks Apollo if he gave him his best and Apollo replies that he did. Rocky enjoys the fruits of his success but spends his purse quickly and unwisely, and because of damage to one of his eyes he doesn’t want to fight again. Rocky is soon reduced to working in the same meat plant as Paulie, whilst Adrian goes back to the pet shop despite being heavily pregnant. Paulie prospers in taking over Rocky’s old beat as Gazzo’s debt collector, and buys Rocky’s beloved sports car off him after Rocky gets sacked from the plant. Apollo, increasingly stung by a general belief Rocky really won the fight, decides to goad his foe back into the ring, provocations both Rocky and Mickey eventually feel are too cruel to ignore.
Rocky II sees Stallone nudging the material into a zone where what was previously earnest, convincing, and low-key began to give way to shtick and formula, and trying many a broad ploy to make Rocky seem even more likeable and straightforwardly good. The former standover man is now playing with kids in the street and begging for blessings from the old Italian local priest. What would soon become the ritualised killing-off of familiar, beloved characters for the requisite emotional juice was presaged when Adrian falls into a coma when there are complications with her pregnancy, intensifying Rocky’s unease in returning to fighting. This climaxes in a happily corny hair-on-your-neck moment when, after awakening and with their son Robert Jnr safely born, Adrian asks one thing of Rocky: “Win.” The second match-up of Apollo and Rocky proves a radically different affair as Mickey has trained Rocky to fight in right-hand style in order to protect his eye, only to unleash his pulverising left hooks in the last round to finally claim victory. The climactic bouts in the first three sequels have a similar shape as Rocky absorbs intense punishment much as he and his loved-ones feared, only for Rocky to gain strength as his foes cannot keep him down, and soon he’s actively taunting them with their failure and luring them into self-destructive overreach.
Rocky made Stallone but to a certain extent proved a millstone for Avildsen, who was changed forever from a maker of artful character studies to a director constantly tapped for his ability to make rah-rah narratives work, in subsequent efforts like three Karate Kid films, Lean on Me (1989), The Power of One (1992), and Eight Seconds (1994). Avildsen only returned to Rocky for 1990’s lumpy, if perhaps undervalued Rocky V, which more or less took the series full circle. Rocky II clearly saw Stallone claiming full auteur status in the series, and meditating on his breakthrough success and folk heroic standing, and the difficulties negotiating with it. Rocky’s fast ascent and equally quick descent mimic Stallone’s immediate experience, and the film sustains the honest emotional tone of the first film by feeling palpably rueful in this regard, as well as asking the right questions about how a guy like Rocky would sustain himself after such a life twist. Stallone portrays Rocky attempting to earn money through appearing in commercials but failing because he’s a poor reader and can’t work off cue cards, which feels like a pointed dramatic translation of Stallone’s own difficulties in being taken seriously as an actor after overcoming his facial tic. Despite being a relatively green director Stallone proved himself entirely capable of mimicking and augmenting Avildsen’s style, although the film has an odd, slouchy pace at points.
Rocky III and IV are by contrast tighter, flashier bits of filmmaking, almost to a fault, with Stallone knowing well that the essentials of the characters are now so locked down he doesn’t need to waste too much time reiterating them. If the first Rocky is the “good” movie in terms of its modest and substantial intensity, then Rocky III is the highpoint of the series as pop entertainment, the most emblematic and purely enjoyable, for several reasons. Before he got a bit too montage-happy on Rocky IV, Stallone here grasped the way Avildsen’s montage work could condense story: like its heroes, once the breaks into clear ground, it can just get on with things in the most kinetic and visually fluid fashion. One vital new flourish was the Chicago rock band Survivor’s gleefully cheesy, thumping anthem “Eye of the Tiger,” played over an opening montage showing Rocky’s successful defences of his title, interspersed with vignettes showing Rocky evolving into a slick and confident media player, now even readily making credit card commercials. Another was casting former bodyguard Lawrence ‘Mr. T’ Tureaud as the fearsome new contender, ‘Clubber’ Lang, a verbally aggressive and ferociously physical boxer.
If Apollo represented a depoliticised, well-scrubbed take on Ali’s popular image, Lang seems more like a compendium of the less charitable caricatures of Ali, actively contemptuous of opponents and wrapping his colossal ego and resentment in coded racial agitation: “This country wants to keep me down,” he declares in picking a fight with Rocky, “They don’t want a man like me to have the title!” He also sharply contrasts both Rocky and Apollo like the embodiment of their own dark sides. Where both of them have more or less defeated the aspects of their fighting drive, like anger over their roots and experiences of classism and racism, Lang weaponises both as part of his annihilating persona. Rocky is doubly spurred because Mickey keels over and dies from a heart attack amidst the convulsive tension and furore before Rocky takes on the feral contender, long in the offing but finally provoked by Lang’s behaviour, and he then loses his match-up with Lang partly because of his worry for Mickey as well as from losing his edge. Apollo steps into the breach to train Rocky, taking him to Los Angeles to learn in the environs that made Apollo. This time around, Stallone’s personal metaphors highlight his awareness that stretching out the series risked turning it cartoonish – not that that stopped him – as Rocky is first glimpsed battling giant wrestler Thunderlips (Terry ‘Hulk Hogan’ Bollea). The rest of the film’s angst over whether Rocky really still deserves champion presages Stallone’s efforts to try and prove himself a lasting star beyond the character, and his difficulty in finding good vehicles beyond Rocky and Rambo would dog him long after.
Rocky III’s narrative proper opens with Stallone tracking a drunk and dispirited Paulie around the old neighbourhood, getting himself jailed for smashing a pinball machine with Rocky’s face on it. Rocky comes to bail him out and after insulting and trying to punch him Paulie finally asks him point-blank for a job, and Rocky readily agrees. This vignette has a box-ticking aspect to it but also carries a sharp sense of the way success radically changes relationships and also how it can make great life problems much less complex, and so even as the series becomes more crowd-pleasing and fantastical it retains a sense of how personality and sociology combine. Stallone’s wonderfully slick style on Rocky III verges occasionally on self-satire, particularly as Rocky and Apollo train together with lots of long, luscious close-ups of their heaving muscles and emphasis on their friendly rivalry that it borders on soft-core interracial homoeroticism, reaching an apogee when Rocky finally beats Apollo in a footrace and in celebration splash about together in the surf. Given that Rocky and Adrian’s relationship has by this time become fixed in stone, their relationship is much less vivid and central, although Adrian is given a crucial speech as she helps Rocky leave behind his lingering guilt and fear and again lends him new velocity.
In Rocky III the climactic bout isn’t one about the fighting spirit of great boxers but a quest to slay a particularly vicious dragon. Rocky this time unwaveringly returns Lang’s gorgonizing stare, and after taking and shrugging off a few of Lang’s most lethal blows Rocky expertly turns his foe’s size and ferocity against him by revealing new staying power as well as refined strength and nimbleness, and then pounding him to pieces. In Rocky IV, Rocky’s resurgence and evolution are complete, now a rich and widely loved man, slicker in speech and confident in the world with Adrian and young Robert at his side. It’s Apollo who’s facing frustration in retirement that finds an outlet when Drago, visiting the US with his smug Soviet apparatchik manager Nicolai Koloff (Michael Pataki) and his wife Ludmilla (Brigitte Nielsen), provokes his patriotic pride. Apollo arranges a match-up against Drago, although the Soviets want to fight Rocky, only for Apollo to receive a fatal beating from the Russian hulk. Determined to avenge his friend and take up the symbolic contest, Rocky agrees to head to the USSR to fight Drago despite Adrian’s certainty he’ll end up like Apollo, taking Duke with him and this time training in the harsh Russian landscape.
With Rocky IV Stallone leaned into the notion that his kind of resurgent Hollywood blockbuster was a weapon in endgame Cold War cultural contest, something many critics and commentators saw as inherent in the re-emergence of morally straightforward and expensive B movies as the Reagan era ascended. Rambo: First Blood Part II (1984) had already explicitly revised Stallone’s other alter ego from outcast warrior at odds with his own society, rooted in the waning Vietnam-age angst, to avenging angel settling old scores with arrogant external enemies, underlining and even perhaps helping to author a shifted zeitgeist. Rocky, as Stallone’s more conscientious persona, tackled the same idea more generously. Rocky IV is perhaps the film most emblematic of a popular concept of a 1980s movie, replete with music video-like montage inserts that provide visual emotional shorthand, complete with one in which Rocky drives his car at night whilst conjuring up demonic visions of a strobe-lit Drago. Rocky is reborn as a yuppie who buys a pet robot for Paulie, and now turns his attention from domestic struggle to geopolitical forums. Now Rocky’s fighting pith needs blood sacrifice to bring it to the boil.
Drago is offered as the near-monstrous incarnation of a paranoid American concept of Soviet prowess, scrubbed of emotion and human frailty, trained with space-aged precision and liberal doses of steroids, his face festooned on huge Stalinesque propaganda banners: the übermensch as state project. Drago’s wife, with her hair short-cropped and blonde like his, suggests a slightly different model of cyborg. Clearly by this point the series had lost a great deal of touch with its initially earthy sensibility and had embraced a new, campy, high-style approach. And yet there’s still a strand of the old thoughtfulness, as Stallone alternates Drago and Rocky’s perspectives as fighters plunged into disorienting new arenas filled with dazzling lights and surrounded by forms of hoopla they don’t quite understand. Before his fight with Apollo, Drago is depicted as solitary and bewildered amidst the splashy pre-bout show featuring James Brown and Vegas showgirls, and Apollo prancing about dressed as Uncle Sam. Rocky by contrast stumbles out into an arena filled with booing Commies and the full spectacle of political import as a Gorbachev lookalike and other Presidium members settle to watch the presumed inevitable victory of their man. Stallone portrays the cold war antagonists as studies in clashing aesthetics, first signalled in the credits as two boxing bloes emblazoned with their national liveries collide and explode, and then reiterated, Americana seen as gaudy, flashy, vulgar, and lively, Soviet spirit as monumental, monolithic, and possibly more potent in its lack of such wooliness.
The contrast is illustrated most vividly as Stallone returns to the classic training montage but this time intercutting Rocky’s exertions with Drago’s. The Soviet man is ensconced in futuristic gyms and tested with machines as well as injections of mad-scientist drug cocktails, whilst Rocky gets down and dirty in the world of a Russian peasant, running along frozen roads, hefting about farm equipment, and finally dashing up mountain flanks to bellow out his foe’s name in vengeful intent. Stallone’s showmanship is at a height of glorious absurdity here, inflating the notion of real manliness as the product of toil rather than calculation to the nth degree. There’s also a ghost of topical commentary on the general suspicion that Eastern Bloc countries had been using performance enhancing drugs on athletes for years before sports organisations began actively stamping it out. Ultimately, though, Rocky IV’s method keeps it from being as deft as the third film as the montages pile up and the dramatics prove largely supernal and rote. Adrian quickly makes up with Rocky and lets him get back to his push-ups, and the death of Apollo, a singular galvanic figure in the franchise, is quickly left behind. It’s also rather tempting to see Rocky IV’s subtext as less political parable and more a portrayal of Stallone’s amused anxiety at Arnold Schwarzenegger’s recent emergence as a rival bemuscled action star: Drago is essentially a stand-in for the Terminator and Lundgren’s mock-Slavic drawl evokes Schwarzenegger’s accent.
Ironies abound around Rocky IV: as the shortest and most abidingly formulaic of the series, one that even commits the crime of omitting Conti’s key themes, it’s also perhaps the most fiercely loved for its hyperbolic purity. The basic notion driving the series, the relatively little guy taking on an intimidating enemy and finding it vulnerable, is pushed to its limit as Rocky gets into the ring with the towering Lundgren, who delivers his inimitable threat, “I must break you,” with haughty dispassion, and Rocky goes through his a-man’s-gotta-do paces with grim commitment. Rocky finally impresses the Russian audience so profoundly they start cheering for him, proving crowds everywhere love an underdog. This in turn so infuriates the frustrated Drago he finally exposes himself as a failure by both communist principles and sporting ones as he angrily tells the audience he fights for himself. Rocky finally flattens him and then delivers a conciliatory message, in his own inimitable fashion, based in the changes in his attitude to the crowd and vice versa mean that “everyone can change.”
It’s both absurd and entirely fitting that Rocky turns his big lug charm and intrinsic humanism to defusing political tensions and forging national outreach, with the fadeout on the image of Rocky literally wrapped in the American flag. The next four films in the Rocky-Creed saga would commit to reining in the pop-movie excess of Rocky IV to a more quotidian frame again, eventually seeing Rocky resettled as a fairly average Joe back in his old neighbourhood, after being nearly bankrupted by a corrupt accountant in Rocky V. Turning to training, the fifth film sees Rocky foster a young fighter who then betrays him, leading to a literal street fight between the two men Rocky manage to win. The middle-aged and widowed Rocky returned for a surprisingly good show of battling a champion in a gimmick bout in Rocky Balboa (2006), and even revisited the Drago legacy in Creed II with a newly shaded sense of generational suffering and anger. As a series the films have half-accidentally become something unusual, a portrait of a character and the actor playing him marching through the stages of life, steadily losing his loved-ones but gaining new ones as well. This fits well with Rocky’s symbolic cachet. But it’s hard not to wish the series, and life, could’ve ended with Rocky at his peak, the guy who always has one last pile-driving punch to aim at fate’s chin.