Film Reviews

“Rocky Five...Thousand”: American Mediocrity in Film

I’m not ashamed to admit that I have never seen any Rocky film all the way through, and what little memory I had of the films were Mr. T’s fight with Rocky, Hulk Hogan’s fight with Rocky, and Drago punching various inanimate objects. Everything else is essentially a blur. I do remember a program back in the 90’s running the Rocky title across the screen with that tremendous theme song, but I never saw anything after that. Rocky was for my cinema loving soul, a joke. A ‘Yo, Adrian’ answered with a ‘Pity tha Foo,” “Yo, Stallion,” or “I must break you.” I know there was a lot of pigeon holing with Stallone: many in the audience were not keen on translating the ghetto personality on screen with the clever young man underneath: the screenwriter, the director, the producer. Ultimately, Sylvester Stallone’s success came to bite him in the ass. He had a long draught in the 90’s when it seemed independent cinema, which he started in, seemed to shut him out. His comeback has largely been a result of his embracing the hypermasculinity of the past (The Expendables, etc.). It is strange that such an actor who was so recognized for his talent early on and in my opinion should have received an Oscar for his role in Copland in the 90’s, has such a low reputation. When my son wanted to see Creed II I reluctantly recommended we watch all the Rockys and started ordering them through Netflix DVD, of which I am a proud member. The following is my quick rundown of the franchise.

Rocky (1976) is an almost independent film by John Avildsen not known for anything before Rocky but well known for notable hits after that including the offbeat cult comedy Neighbors (1981) all the Karate Kids, Lean on Me (1989), Rocky V (1990) and the biggest surprise of all 8 Seconds (1994). So he is capable, but he doesn’t really stand out. What does stand out is Stallone’s screenwriting and acting chops and how they change over the films. Rocky is so chock full of ‘Yo, Adrian’s’ that it boggles the mind. This is coupled with scenes that make you recognize what a great actor Stallone is, but why he or Avildsen thought it would be a good idea to include is also beyond me. Foremost in my mind is the scene where effectively he is talking to himself for five minutes in his apartment. We get that he is lonely. We get that he has a dream. We get that he is Italian. This is not an uncommon set piece. Gillian Anderson did the same thing in her first episode of The Fall, she just didn’t yammer on like an idiot for the entire time. Effectively Rocky is full of these types of scenes, and other elements that underline the cheapness of it all. The plot of the film is ostensibly this: Apollo Creed, the heavyweight champion of professional boxing, challenges a street fighter so low on the ladder that no one expects him to make it to the end of round one. To everyone’s surprise, the champion slacks on his training and the street fighter with the dream throws himself into a tough regimen that doesn’t win him the fight, but wins him the respect of the boxing world. To emphasize the difference the training is making in Rocky, there are endless montages of him walking down a street, then running down a street. First no one is there to greet him. Then there are multitudes. First he is unable to make it to the top of the stairs at the impressive Philadelphia Museum of Art, then later he is able to make the leap in a single bound. The montages are effective, but lazy. They do the job, but Avildsen does not even bother to move the camera much less dress Stallone in a different outfit to make us think perhaps these two shots were not performed on the same day. Same with the butcher’s chiller. Same with Paulie’s apartment. Same with almost every setting. We know the economics of film demand you shoot out of continuity. I expect that. I also expect not to tell by the finished project that that is indeed what the crew is doing. It pulls you out of the film when you can figure out the magic. Zemeckis is perhaps the ultimate master of this, but that’s a different essay.  The whole movie, in fact the whole series, is marked with economical if unexciting photography, despite the director. The camera barely moves, which is fine, but what it is looking at when still is simply not exciting. The boxing matches were noteworthy at the time and I understand it was the first time a crew actually worked out the steps a boxing match would take before they filmed it - in contrast to previous films in which they just filmed a fight and cut it together after the fact. In this day and age it is easy to criticize the choreography. I won’t do that, but I don’t particularly find the matches as a whole very exciting.

The other thing that bothers me is the off putting romance of Adrian and the seeming squirrel like nature of her existence. Adrian is definitely sheltered, shy, and unused to courting or communication. This I can buy easily due to the beautiful Talia Shire who stands on her own talent despite being a sister of Francis Ford Coppola. But the super awkward kiss followed by Adrian’s lack of lines is disconcerting. I am however, heartened by the official poster which has Rocky holding Adrian’s hand. It might as well be “Rocky and Adrian.”

Talia Shire can sell anything, and her character is so different than the vibrant if also oppressed Connie Corleone, it really makes me wonder why she isn’t in more films. She acts the pants off everyone else in this film. The other star of the film is Burt Young, still stage acting today, who unfortunately has created an image in our cinematic mind of a misogynist Archie Bunker type as Adrian’s uncle. In this form he is stereotyped much like Stallone, and it’s a shame. I think if more directors challenged him he would be one of the greats. Lastly, I was completely and utterly blown away by the tour de force that is Carl Weathers. Weathers was not an actor, I was informed by my brother, but a pro football player (Wikipedia says he played for the Raiders in 1970), but as you see him first wear a three piece suit and then boxing trunks, I was amazed at how he disappeared into both with such ease. When I was a kid, I was struck by such a sight. A black man has business smarts, was financially savvy, and could kick some Italian ass. This was my only memory of Apollo Creed. It must have meant a thousand times more to kids growing up in Harlem or Roxbury. Creed famously wore American Flag boxers into the ring. As a kid this made complete sense. As I grew more educated about the African American mindset in the 1970’s, I find this patriotism not necessarily shocking (African Americans have always served this nation with honor) but I did find it in stark contrast to the treatment blacks suffered in the years during the success of the films. We live in times now when it is fashionable to kneel during the flag. In fact, you can sell products doing this, but in the 70’s blacks felt recent abuse from the American government: Their uneven drafting in the Vietnam War, the slow enforcement of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the disclosure of the Tuskegee Experiment - every single one representing ten more reasons why a black man would not want to wear an American flag proudly in a ring.  But not Apollo Creed. It was as if Apollo was proud of his flag in spite of the obvious prejudice he undoubtedly experienced, and that was something to admire. The finale in which (Spoilers) Rocky loses was real and sold the reality of the situation. It also solidified Rocky’s skill at endurance as opposed to strength. Creed was stronger than Rocky, no doubt, but he could not last. The fact that the fight did not end in a Knockout was a credit to the screenwriting. A KO would have been lazy.

Rocky II was a fucking disaster. I don’t mean to say that it was a horrible movie. It wasn’t. But it was a disaster in the sense that it did absolutely fucking nothing to add to the first movie. By the first hour, my son asked me if we were rewatching the first movie. The only difference was Rocky was driving a TransAm and living in a house instead of an economy flat. Having spent his money, Rocky is now forced to fight Apollo in a rematch not to prove that he still has the chops (that’s why Apollo wants the rematch) but rather because bills have piled up and financially he is in dire straits. This honesty was refreshing, but it was really not that dissimilar to the first film. Even the rematch seemed like I was rewatching the finale, which was played back at the beginning of II. This happens so often in the series that it makes me think they are reusing footage only to take up screen time. All the Rockys are under two hours. Some are close to 1:45. Everything else was practically the same. The montages, especially. The more normal than normal camera work. As a character, Rocky developed only marginally. Stallone must have been inundated with ‘Yo Adrian’ jokes. There’s only about seven in this film and one of them is the repeat from the first film’s finale. Still, at one every seven minutes it seems like a lot. Rocky is uneducated, but he’s not a dunce. He knows the difference between right and wrong and he knows when he’s taking a risk and making a mistake (remember he starts out as a small time enforcer for the Philadelphia mob - I wonder if he ever took a fall for cash). In this fashion, Rocky gains experience over the films, but never grows a brain overnight. That’s a smart and deliberate choice on the part of Stallone.

The only reason to watch Rocky III is Mr. T. The man is so saturated with hypermasculinity, my son openly mocked him much like he fell out of his chair laughing when Stallone sharpened his knife in Rambo: First Blood, Part II. Pity tha fool who don’t go on YouTube and watch Mr. T’s greatest hits. Here, T plays a fighter who came to prominence much like Rocky and wants the title, which Rocky took from Apollo at the end of II. Rocky has no sense of what it takes to keep the title, so he makes the same mistake Apollo made in the first film. So in a sense we’re watching a different version of the first film. The plot is so symmetrical it’s unreal. Rocky is beaten in the beginning and wants a rematch which T’s character gives him because he is so arrogant he doesn’t think the Italian Stallion can best him. As for the training, Apollo takes Rocky under his wing in the ghettos of Los Angeles where we see the same exact problems in the cinematography and continuity of the first two films replay as if those problems were never recognized. Apollo and Rocky running on the beach. Apollo wins (which feels right. In my mind, Rocky never could beat Apollo). Later, after having a moment with Adrian in which somehow Rocky finds motivation (a true head shaking moment) Rocky then beats Apollo. Same race, same time of day, same camera placement. They probably shot one take each and were done in fifteen minutes. This is efficient movie making but really makes you think only the minimum was spent for my ticket. No fan wants to feel that.

Pluses for Rocky III are rare. Seeing Mr. T is always a treat. But when do we stop laughing with the character and start laughing at him? Mr. T was a famous pro-wrestler and his in-ring persona closely aligned with the film version that didn’t respect the history of the sport, the icons of the sport, or even the black trail blazers who came before him. But as impressive as Mr. T is, he doesn’t come anywhere near Carl Weathers on a bad day. At the end of II Rocky and Apollo are slathered in baby oil, and Apollo is aptly named here. He looks like a Greek God. Stallone is hunched over like a longshoreman. Which I suppose makes sense, too. III also opens with the ending of II, which is endearing but when you watch them in a row repetitive. I’m further convinced they’re just trying to take up screen time with something.

The most striking image of the films in my youth is Drago, the committed Communist, the superior specimen, the drugged out, brainwashed punishing machine. I try to convey to my son now what it was like to grow up in the Cold War. We knew as fact that World War III was going to happen in our lives. That it would kill most of us. That the Soviets were inherently our enemy. Although we were raised to believe in the exceptionalism of the American Experience and the American Dream, none of us thought we would win in any type of head to head with the Communists. Red Dawn (1984), Fail Safe (1964), By Dawn’s Early Light (1990), Wargames (1983), The Day After (1983), and Dr. Strangelove (1964) had taught us that. Drago represents this idea of Soviet superiority. The idea, therefore, that Rocky could go ten rounds with something like that does play into Rocky’s talent for endurance in the ring, but becomes absurd in the larger picture. Apollo Creed couldn’t last three rounds against this...Thing. Rocky should have lost against Drago. But then, we should have lost against the Soviets….

The most amazing thing about Rocky IV, and the most amazing thing in all the Rocky films, is Apollo’s death at the hands of Drago. Carl Weathers comes to the fore, pushes his character further than most, and is utterly convincing as the consummate professional who realizes he is in too deep, but just can’t bring himself to the shame of quitting. Apollo takes Drago’s punishing hits as if I were taking them from even a novice. Because I’m a pussy. Apollo’s panicked reaction to realizing his plight and his too late strategy of running away from the Killer Commie completely sell his unfortunate demise. It’s this character sacrifice that not only shows Stallone’s excellent storytelling skill, but sets up Ryan Coogler and Michael B. Jordan’s successful Creed run, to which I will return. Unfortunately, once Apollo is gone, the detractions start coming fast and hard; for this film, and for the series.

The negatives in this film are astounding. All the usual problems are there. Repeat footage. Uninspiring camera work. The repeat montage issue is skirted due to the fact that Rocky is apparently training in Siberia, but other things just don’t make sense. Communists don’t drive Mercedes, they drive Lladas. There’s no way in hell with Paulie’s criminal record he would ever be allowed a Soviet Visa. Rocky’s speech at the end ‘we’re better but we need to get along’ is pure shite. The stand in for Gorbachev (and the rest of the Politburo for that matter) is sickening, Drago’s “I fight for me” is meant to convey how Drago starts to turn against his masters, which completely betrays the idea of the film as a whole. If Rocky defeats an individualist, he is defeating nothing more than another boxer in another ring. If he defeats a communist, he is defeating an idea. That’s what I signed on for after I saw the stars and stripes against the hammer and sickle. I didn’t sign on for a communist to suddenly discover himself as an independent athlete. That’s a different movie.

Up until now, the series has been unfortunately mediocre with a few items of interest but nothing that didn’t showcase some other element that cancelled out the advantages. Rockys I through IV weren't’ bad. They just weren't good. But Rocky V sucked, and there’s no way around it. First we open with the standard repeat of the finale from the previous film. Then we find Rocky basically can’t fight anymore due to medical reasons. Then an accountant steals all their money and they have to move in with Pauley. Rocky opens Mickey’s gym which was willed to his kid and for some reason the montage that shows this was never developed or cut out. It was a lost opportunity. The idea of the gym becoming a success that was able to keep the Balboa’s fed was another bone that could have been thrown. Adrian goes back to work at the pet store. It would be more interesting if we had ever returned there after that thirty second clip. No follow up. The plot, that an up and coming boxer incredulously named Tommy “The Machine” Gunn (I know….I just...I know) becomes Rocky’s ungrateful protege who later is impatient with his manager’s patience, is undermined by a Don King big shot promoter who poaches the Gunn (see what I did there?) and turns him against his mentor. The finale, in which a Rocky who is medically unfit for the ring takes on Tommy in a bare knuckle street brawl is just as unoriginal as the rest of the film. Like all previous Rockys, the ideas are not bad, nor even the settings or story. Instead the narrative is beset by uninteresting dialogue, absolutely horrible acting by everyone but fucking horrible by the real boxer Tommy Morrison playing Gunn, and a complete lack of a visual style. These deficits mean side stories such as Rocky’s son trying to adjust to the inner city of Philadelphia are never truly fleshed out. Shire, who has more lines here than in all the previous Rockys combined, shows she's the finest actor on screen closely followed by Young. Unfortunately this film, as all the previous films, suffer from the same deficit: an above board director. Stallone’s talent at paying attention to story and character doesn't fully pay off because neither he or Avildson, who directed the first and fifth films, show any real charisma other than a few fast dolly shots.

If you look at Stallone’s credits from 1991 to 2006, you would be wrong to suggest that he did not work or that he wasn't popular. I saw almost all of his major hits in the theatre, although if you ask me now I could not tell you why. Oscar, Cliffhanger, Demolition Man, The Specialist, Judge Dredd, Assassins, and Daylight, are the bottom of the barrel when it comes to Hollywood storytelling. It does not mean these films were not popular. With the exception of Oscar, I remember these theatres being crowded. But it does convey an artist in trouble. Outside the Rocky and Rambo franchises, what, exactly, will Stallone be known for?

The answer should be Copland, full stop. I argued then, and will argue until the end of time, that Stallone deserved not only the Academy Award for best acting for that year (1997) but that decade. Possibly the last quarter century. Unfortunately he followed up a role that no one remembers him for a bunch of films that no one saw or remembers him for - not even a decent Get Carter remake. What to do except bring Rocky Balboa in 2006 followed by Rambo in 2008. Those in turn led to The Expendables, which might as well be extensions of Rambo, and interest in taking Rocky in different directions. Rocky Balboa is was the greatest Rocky film to date, helmed by Stallone himself (also as the writer again) and this time shot with someone who knew his way around a camera. I don’t know who shot the first five Rockys, and I don’t care. Even if Steven Soderbergh operated the camera himself, I would describe the cinematography as complete shit. Rocky Balboa was shot by Clarke Mathis, a man whose checkered history included lots of TV, three movies, and then lots of TV (one of this other ‘films’ is the disastrous Eddie Murphy vehicle Norbit). However, if you are going to brag about one film you shot, Rocky Balboa isn’t a bad one to go by. I was floored at the difference between this and the other Rocky films. It was night and day, and it really conveys the power of having someone behind the camera who understands style. I don’t know anything about Mathis, but I know he did Rocky Balboa, and for the first time I was impressed. Even Burt Young looked great. Rocky Balboa was also the first time fights were shot as if they were filmed for HBO Pay Per View and this certainly brought a lot of realism to the event. Balboa also brought a touching side to Rocky that was missing in previous films. Having lost Adrian to Ovarian Cancer (“Woman Cancer” as Rocky identifies it) Rocky opens a restaurant named after his wife and tells boxing stories as an aging and some would say pathetic second rate celebrity. Rocky has no shame. He will do whatever it takes to survive. The idea that he never got back on top really struck a chord. He lived with being poor. He stayed in East Philly. He sent his son to college. That was it. His nagging spirit, though, the one that told him he still has something left in him, that he wasn’t a has-been, drives him to the ring for one last round that will set him up for the rest of his life so he won’t think he was forced to early retirement. Rocky loses twelve rounds, but no one thought he’d last one, so his legacy is secured. He bows out spiritually on top and not having to worry about retirement. That’s more than what we started with. So to me, the franchise takes a turn here. I’ll never own this film, but I will say it’s the first one that didn’t disappoint me.

Which brings us the the hammer that is Creed. Mind you that i did not see Creed until after I saw Black Panther, so my introduction to Ryan Coogler’s work was a rather ambitious 100 million dollar film celebrating not just a breakthrough diverse cast but a story intricately woven into a larger universe. I like Black Panther, and I understand it’s cultural and financial importance, I just don’t think it’s an awesome film, and I think it ranks towards the bottom of Marvel production near Iron Man II and the Hulk (neither of which are ‘bad’ movies but they are not the stellar jaw droppers that Iron Man and Doctor Strange are. The style and substance Coogler does have, however, is immediately on display in Creed, and it floored me. In the ten years after Rocky Balboa, the champ is still running the restaurant, but Apollo Creed’s illegitimate son Adonis (ha, got you there) is an up and coming boxer that Rocky (successfully this time) takes under his wing. The direction therefore is the direction Rocky V was moving towards but never got there, and where people thought Rocky Balboa was going, but wound up going someplace else. Altogether these were good choices in the creative process, and a credit to Stallone to switch gears after four very predictable films.

Adonis, or Don’s, rise to fame over a desperate heavyweight boxer is punctuated by several positives that I found compelling. First and foremost, is Coogler’s direction. Clearly he is the visionary here, and in between his superstar Michael B. Jordan and an increasingly aging Stallone, he’s able to weave together a consistent image that, like Rocky Balboa, has style, but it far exceeds anything we have seen before in the series. This film is slick. It moves like no other Rocky film has moved. Time flies by. At 2:13 it is also the longest Rocky, so timing is everything. Don’s second fight at the midway mark against a more seasoned opponent in a professional match is mindblowing. Even though there are some sleight of hands there appears to be no cut from the dressing room through two rounds of boxing. The camera is literally over Jordan’s shoulder and follows him through every struggle in the ring. The match was incredible in terms of the ingenuity used to show it. This was far away from the distantiated fights from the first film and even the wide pull back shots of the second and third. It was ten times as good as the finale of Rocky Balboa. My son and I were so impressed with it, we watched it again. If anything gets you out of your seat, it’s a director who puts his care into his product like Coogler does.

This is not to sell out other positives of the film. Coogler’s amazing cast flies high. Jordan himself, though impressive as Killmonger in Black Panther, absolutely slays as Adonis Creed. His inside and outside personas - how he acts with the door closed as opposed to how he acts with other people - is indicative of how we all are with ourselves in private. Tessa Thompson, who would gain notoriety as the ass kicking Valkyrie of Thor Ragnarok (2017) moves with a style and finesse on screen that makes it hard to believe she hasn’t been acting for forty years. She looks as natural onscreen as Meryl Streep or Kurt Russell. It’s nice to see Phylicia Rashad in anything these days. I grew up thinking she was my second Mom, so her as Don’s adopted mother fits with me well. In the end, though, it is Stallone’s true to form acting that sells Rocky as they guy Mighty Mick was thirty years ago. Stallone under someone else’s directing is putty in a better artist’s hands. There’s nothing wrong with saying other people elevate his art. The simple truth is, someone else should direct his screenplays and someone else should direct him. He’s proven that with Beverly Hills Cop, Copland, and Creed.

Proving this point further is Creed II, a remarkable film in many aspects that fails in the same grand manner as the rest of the franchise because of the subject matter. With Coogler passing in order to dominate the Marvel universe with the staggering milestone of Black Panther, Creed II is directed by Steven Caple, Jr. a television and short director who seems to be a diamond in the rough. I actually didn’t know Coogler didn’t direct Creed II until we went to the movie and then I forgot within twenty minutes that was the case. It is remarkably like the first Creed in every way and there’s nothing wrong with that or the casting (I was floored to see Dolph Lungren looking so good and Bridgett Nielsen at all being she is Stallone’s ex). The ability for the film to focus on the relationship between Adonis and Bianca is remarkable considering the plot is so focused on revenge: Creed for the murder of his father in the ring by Drago, and Drago’s of his defeat by Rocky. In the new era of asking how women fit in our lives, Bianca’s point of view is just as relevant as Adrian’s and a like Deadpool 2, a brave choice for writers and producers creating a sequel. The finale, Drago’s heart stopping dropping of the towel in order to save his son’s life, is topped just seconds later when he tells his son it is okay that he lost as long as he is alive. As a father, watching that with my son, I can tell you that was the most powerful moment in any Rocky movie. That made up for a series of strange scenes: everything shot at Apollo’s gym and the bizarre desert training montage that ruined hopes of another Siberian sequence a la Rocky IV.

Nothing however has changed in the course of the films. And this leads me to laugh even louder at the line in Spaceballs when the TV anchor announces a film review of “Rocky Five… Thousand.” They are all the same at the baseline, and they will never change. Through all of the films I am still struck with an underwhelming sense of audience. Although I didn’t necessarily hate the Rocky films, I didn’t necessarily like them, either. I do enjoy a good underdog story, but I found it hard given the limited story arcs and technical work behind the camera to get into the Rocky saga. In the end, it was about a dude who fights, and that’s about it. Try as they might to interject other plot lines; the friendship with Apollo, the death of the Mighty Mick, the disappointment of Tommy, it completely fails to elevate any of the films, including Creed, to something higher. Creed II was the best shot by far, but not enough to balance the films out. They are all mediocre, despite the talent behind and in front of the camera, because they are all just about some dude who fights. In the end the ongoing trials of a boxer, however impressive the storytelling is, is just not that interesting.