First of all, I just want to say that this entry may not make a whole lot of sense if you haven’t seen at least Rocky, Rocky II, and Rocky Balboa. Also, since I know at least one person actually liked my Greek stuff, I want to apologize, but I’ve been getting a bit burnt out lately and don’t have grad school to prep for like I thought I would, and while I may work on my New Testament translation a bit, I’m not actually doing much hardcore classical Greek for myself at the moment.

Recently, I went on a Rocky rampage: I rewatched the movies from start to finish (not all in one sitting, of course). Rocky I hadn’t seen since every Rocky movie came on TV when Rocky V came out in 1990, and I’d never before actually seen Rocky V beginning to end. I’ve seen Rocky II plenty of times, and Rocky III a few as well, as those seem to be the ones that keep winding up on TV, and I did watch Rocky IV at some point, while this was my first time seeing Rocky Balboa.

I’m not going to do a detailed review; that’s been done to death by people far better than me. However, I do want to point out a few things, and I’ll probably get a bit more in-depth for the sixth and final movie. First of all, I don’t like the fact that Rocky II is the most-broadcast of the bunch. In my opinion, until 2005 the Rocky films’ numbers were equal to their place if one were to rank them by quality. Rocky is an incredible movie, laying out all of the characters’ flaws and good points, showing their interaction beautifully. Rocky and Adrian constitute one of the great romances of history, a far better example of eternal love than Romeo and Juliet (if you disagree with me, watch the movie and pay attention when you read the play). So what if Rocky doesn’t win in the end? He goes the distance, which is all that he ever wanted to do, and which is still stretching the boundaries of believability for anyone who knows anything about boxing. He shows the world that he’s not a nobody, he wins his city’s heart, and not only does he get the girl, but he truly loves and is loved, far beyond the usual formulaic “gets the girl.”

Rocky II is by no means a bad movie. The themes remain poignant, all of the characters are fleshed out more thoroughly (I actually liked Apollo more in II than III; possibly my favorite line of the film is “Man, I won, but I didn’t beat him!”), and the plot is both believable and well-acted. However, along with more Hollywood experience, Sylvester Stallone brings a little more Hollywood style to the table. Rocky’s conflict with Micky, Paulie becoming a collector for Tony Gazzo, Apollo’s face-heel turn in demanding a rematch, Rocky losing all of his money, and Adrian’s pregnancy complications: All of these are believable, add drama, and make for a great story, but I can’t help but find it all a little clichéd, like we’re watching the characters true reactions to trauma, but that trauma was added from the outside to add drama. Paulie becoming a collector especially; Rocky spent much of the first movie trying not to let Paulie get into the collection business, then just turns around and gets him a job with loanshark Tony Gazzo with no problems in the sequel. And, while the reason for this movie’s continued popularity probably has something to do with the fact that Rocky wins the final match (and the admittedly unbeatable line of “Yo, Adrian! I did it!”), I actually preferred Rocky’s near-tie loss in the first movie, as it shows that winning the match isn’t the same as winning your honor.

Rocky III and Rocky IV are considered the “bad” Rocky movies, and in comparison with the previous two I have to agree. III is a little over the top at times, and there’s no way Clubber Lang could have gotten as far as he did on pure punching power without getting rope-a-doped at least once or twice along the way; that spotless record is just ridiculous to any boxing fan, especially considering how well Rocky demonstrated that very strategy’s effectiveness against him at the end of the movie. Apollo’s death in IV is far more thoroughly staged than the drama I was complaining about in the second movie, the Soviets are universally melodramatically evil, or at least uncaring, the crowd’s sudden siding with Rocky at the end is not even remotely believable, and the robot Rocky gets Paulie is pure schlock. However, compare these movies to others you consider bad. Rocky III is a great comeback story, about how a champion isn’t quite as good as he thought and gets taken down by someone who has the muscle to back up his reputation, but is bad for the sport. The former champ has to take a good hard look at his career and how he himself has been treating the sport, and although he hits rock bottom, he manages to haul himself up by the bootstraps (with the help of his wife, in a scene that makes you think, “What happened to the mousy girl in the first movie? Oh, right, years of being married to a forceful personality like Rocky and raising a kid. Go Adrian!”) and come back stronger than ever. Although IV is a bit stupider in general, you still have fairly realistic drama being served up (and a great concept: the Soviet Union had forbidden their heavyweight boxers from competing professionally, so with the increased worldly freedom under Gorbachev boxing was actually a great place for a new aspect of the conflict to explode), and while the patriotic message is incredibly sappy, it’s still a good one.

Even the most pitiful movie of the series, Rocky V, is pretty good for a bad movie. Yeah, the injury seems a bit contrived (Rocky Balboa was going to retcon it to a misdiagnosed concussion that was never rechecked because they didn’t really have the money to keep going to doctors, and he wasn’t planning on boxing anymore anyway, but the scene explaining that was deemed to slow down the movie, so they just decided it was easier to say Rocky V had never happened), and yeah Rocky’s son is badly written (as rebellious kids so often are), and yeah Rocky acts more like an idiot here than you might expect, and yeah the boxing promoter is way over the top, but let’s be reasonable here: people get scared of injuries; they don’t know how to deal with them. That’s why they go to doctors. The kid is badly written, but the story arc is still perfectly reasonable and dramatic. Boxing promoters really are over the top. And (here’s the kicker) Rocky really is an idiot. He’s generally in situations where he shines through, like giving simple wisdom, speaking in general philosophical terms, or boxing, but Rocky has only average intelligence at best, and his education is severely lacking in some areas, including parenting. As he points out in this very movie, he never really had a father. He treats his son like an adult friend to some extent, someone who can take care of himself while Rocky does what he feels he needs to, and whom he can spend time with when the current task is done. That’s a horrible way to treat a kid (hence Rocky Jr.’s rebelliousness), but a perfectly legitimate way to treat just about any other close loved one when you’re in as bad a spot as Rocky was in this movie. Plus it’s great to see a boxer belt one of those annoying promoters.

And now on to Rocky Balboa. This last installment has so many things going for it. It reflects the current world of boxing very well, even implying their relative financial downturn (though not blaming it on the rise in popularity of alternate fighting venues such as MMA and UFC). The story is beautiful, that of an old man trying to deal with the loss of both the sport around which he built his livelihood and the wife around whom he built his life. Although some people say that it seems as if Rocky V never happened, at least many of the events therein are referenced, including the “home team” slogan Rocky uses with his son and the fact that he’s living in the lower-class sections of Philadelphia once more. Re-entering boxing is the only way Rocky can think of to keep life worth living at this point, but, in spite of the exhibition fight with the current heavyweight champion, he knows better than to think he can truly be a contender anymore. He just wants to keep his hand in, lest he slow down so completely that life really is no longer worth living.

This movie returns to many of the themes of the first film. The fight is an exhibition match once more (technically the first movie was about a professional match, but it was treated largely as an exhibition, and it was not a title bout; yes, champions can fight without putting their title on the line, which is what I got the impression happened in Rocky), and Rocky spends much of the film trying to help those around him, just as he did in the first movie. This is likely meant at least partly as a direct reference, to put you in a frame of mind to recall when he walked Marie home while lecturing her on proper behavior, but it also is just part of Rocky’s personality: when he was nothing but a thug, he helped people out with advice; when he was rich, he gave to charity; and when he got old, he gave people the benefit of his experience and accumulated reputation.

There’s a lot of Philadelphia in this movie as well. The old neighborhoods are all over the place, and the lower-class sections are largely unchanged from 1976. Rocky directly references Independence Hall when arguing for his boxing license (just as he jumped a park bench in front of it in the first movie), and his restaurant reminds me of eating in Philly a time or two myself. (Incidentally, in the scene where his son gets angry at living in Rocky’s shadow, Rocky is wearing a Dempsey shirt; former heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey opened a restaurant popularly known as Dempsey’s in New York City after he retired from boxing, where he hired the best cooks he could find and told old boxing stories to fans all night, just like Rocky; Dempsey’s, which my father said was a great restaurant back in the day, was likely Stallone’s inspiration for Adrian’s.) And Steps’ mulatto background is a way to reference the fact that race doesn’t matter when you’re stuck in the bad part of town: black and white are both just struggling to survive. (I don’t read too much into his father running off; I consider it more of a man thing than a black thing.)

In the end, this movie is, like most good stories, about people. Rocky must live without Adrian and with Robert; Robert must live with himself and his father’s fame; Mason Dixon proves to himself and his fans that he deserves the title, and isn’t just a placeholder until a decent challenger comes along; Marie and Steps learn that it’s okay to rely on someone else sometimes; and the interaction between all of these characters is far too complex for me to properly explore here, although it does lead me to my two last points:

At the end of the film. Mason wins the match by split decision (although considering how many times Rocky went down, I find it hard to believe that the decision would be split). This is both a mirror of the first movie (in which Rocky loses to Apollo Creed by split decision, thus prompting Apollo to demand a rematch because he didn’t feel he’d properly proven who was a better boxer) and a fitting end, as it shows that Rocky still has what it takes to go the distance and put up a good fight rather than just survive, and it shows that Mason Dixon truly deserves his title. Previously, fans had been in doubt because he kept going up against such weak opponents that he would win within three rounds by knockout constantly; now they had proof that not only could he go the distance, but he could do so with a slugger, and still win. There’s a lot going on in that one moment, but here’s the best part: Rocky almost misses the results. He thanks Mason for a good match, then leaves the ring and walks back towards the dressing rooms as the cards are read off in the background. He pauses to chat with the fans a bit, thus allowing time to hear all three cards, but he could just as easily not have. He turns his back on the results because he didn’t care about them. He just wanted a good fight. As in the first movie, all he wanted was to go the distance and show that he still had worth. That that’s all a man can ask of himself is the message of both movies, and it remains poignant 30 years after the first movie.

The other thing I really liked about this is that there isn’t really a romance. I was a little afraid that there would be one (afraid because Hollywood seems to require them, and this movie in my mind required a lack of one) when Rocky started talking with Marie and met her son, but in the end they’re both just more members of what is becoming his extended family. Rocky has his son Robert and brother in law Paulie, but he’s always had more: Micky was his father figure, and in the later movies Creed was like his brother and Duke (Apollo’s trainer, then Rocky’s after Apollo died, for anyone who didn’t remember) like his uncle.

This trend continues in Rocky Balboa, and if the pace is a little rapid, that’s because it’s the last movie, and therefore the last chance to show how Rocky takes care of his own, and those he takes care of become his own. Steps he treats like a favored nephew or perhaps an estranged son. Dixon becomes a colleague, someone who could have been a brother like Apollo had they been closer in age (perhaps even what he wishes Gunn could have been like back in Rocky V), and Marie he seems to treat like a sister. He never makes any romantic overtures, and anything you could interpret that way can also be interpreted as cheering up a friend whose life has been crappy lately. When he drives her home, a picture of Adrian is prominently displayed, clipped to his dashboard, and when she encourages him the night before the fight it is by giving him a picture of Adrian she had borrowed from his restaurant. I was a little leery of the scenes where she cheers and cringes from the crowd like Adrian in all of the previous movies, but then the flashbacks started, with Mickey’s face over Duke’s, and Adrian’s over Marie’s, and I saw those scenes as mere placeholders for the woman who should have been there. And later when the world snapped back into focus and the cameras were once again HBO’s (a lovely touch, the entire boxing scene was both filmed and edited like an actual Pay-Per-View boxing match) and they focused on Marie, Robert, Duke, Steps, and Paulie, it was like Rocky shed the past as Paulie had scolded him to do in the beginning: Mourn for Adrian, yes, keep her always in your heart, but life moves on, and so does life for Rocky with his new family, scattered though it might be throughout different walks of life, these are the people who love him, and who are still alive.

As I said before, this movie is about people, and about how they relate to each other, and it is a beautifully-woven tapestry. I applaud Stallone: he’s still got it, if he can create such a story of unity and interconnectedness around a sport as innately divisive as fighting.


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