ROCKY: 1976, BUDGET: $1,100,000 (estimated), GROSS: $117,235,247
ROCKY II: 1979, BUDGET: $7,000,000 (est.), GROSS: $85,182,160
ROCKY III: 1982, BUDGET: $17,000,000 (est.), GROSS: $124,146,897
ROCKY IV: 1985, BUDGET: $30,000,000 (est.), GROSS: $127,873,716
ROCKY V: 1990, BUDGET: $42,000,000 (est.), GROSS: $40,123,474
ROCKY BALBOA: 2006, BUDGET: $24,000,000 (est.), GROSS: $70,261,813
WRITER: all films written by Sylvester Stallone
DIRECTOR: John G. Avildsen (Rocky, Rocky V), Sylvester Stallone (Rocky II, III, IV, Rocky Balboa)
LET US BEGIN
up until a few months ago i could have only said with certainty that, of the six rocky films, i had seen the first (Rocky) and the last (Rocky Balboa). as for the four in the middle, i knew i had seen at least one of them and probably parts of others. but i couldn't be sure what i had actually watched and what i thought i knew because of how those films have engrained their way into popular culture and been made reference to by many people i have known over the years. so, that being said, i came across the entire collection in a well-priced box set a little while back and decided it was time to watch all of them in order. and that is what i did...
but where to begin? rather than just discussing each film separately i feel that the series needs to be discussed as a whole. because it really is one complete story told in six parts. and, although some of those parts are a whole lot better than others, they all play their role in the Rocky saga. but lets start with the best of the six parts. Rocky
released in 1976, it was the first in the series and is the only academy award winning film of the bunch. now, whether it deserved to win that year, given the competition, is another story. but, it can't be denied that this is a great film and shouldn't be diminished because of how bad some of the sequels were, or because it has almost become a template for so many, much lesser, movies that have followed over the last three decades.
ONE COMPLETE STORY
the first indication of how attached all these films are to each other comes right when the second film begins. Rocky II begins right where the last film left off. (the films begin with the last scene of the previous film in order to set things up - like on tv when they do a "previously on..." recap). and this is how each of the next movies start also - except for the sixth film, Rocky Balboa.
what i really appreciated about the rocky story is the character arc over the course of all six parts. looking at each film on its own doesn't really do justice to the story and character stallone created here. there is a real growth to rocky over the course of the six films. he becomes champion, he loses the title, he deals with fame and money and heartbreaking loss and brain injury and coming to terms with getting older.... and stallone as an actor really does shine here.
say what you will about his acting abilities outside of the Rocky films, but rocky balboa is one character that he nailed. maybe because he felt so close to the character because he brought so many personal elements to it and the films (especially the first one which, like rocky's title fight, was like his big - and probably - last chance). but whatever the reason, the development of the character and even some of the subtle changes throughout the films are wonderful. he is a real person and stallone encompassed him brilliantly. it isn't all good though...
like i said before, i don't want this to be a discussion/recap of each film individually, but Rocky IV bares mentioning as not just the worst of the Rocky movies, but as an outright really bad film!
for those of you who don't remember (or have tried to forget) Rocky IV is the "cold War Rocky" as i like to call it. it is the one where he fights ivan drago the russian. the film begins with an american boxing glove and a russian boxing glove colliding into each other and exploding (and that is maybe the most subtle symbolism/moment in the film). and don't forget the end of the film where rocky - through his determination and his will not to get knocked out by the more powerful drago, actually wins over the tough russian crowd and knocks drago out. and if that isn't bad enough, he gives a final "why can't we all just get along" type speech and earns a round of applause from everyone - even the serious and tough government officials. just writing about it is making me laugh/cringe!
STALLONE WRITER AND DIRECTOR
stallone wrote all six films and he took over as director after the first one and directed the rest of the films save for the fifth. and what is interesting to see if you watch all the films back-to-back like i did, is stallone's growth as a director...
earlier, i made a little joke about the lack of subtlety in the opening sequence of Rocky IV (and the entire film in general). however, that can be said about much of stallones film making throughout the series. the films are very obvious - which is in interesting contrast to the rocky character that stallone created. while he is a big character there is also some genuine subtlety and nuance to his journey over the course of the series...
it almost feels like stallone's real interest was the rocky character and his evolution and journey and that the stories and situations around him were just a means to an end. at least for the middle films (which all came out three to five years apart). the first one stallone didn't direct and had obviously spent the most time writing and thinking about. it was his baby. his last chance - and it shows in how complete and great the movie is.
the next four movies all came out over the next 14 years (Rocky was released in 1976 and Rocky V came out in 1990). it then took 16 years (2006) before he made Rocky Balboa. and again, this time with the material and thinking about the character and himself later in his life made for another really good movie (the second best of the saga).
AN HISTORICAL THOUGHT
i hadn't thought about it till just now, but it is interesting to notice that the two best films in the series (the first and last film) are the ones where rocky doesn't win the fight at the end. which opens up a whole other conversation about when the films were made.
the first one came out in the 70s when auteur film makers ruled (coppola, scorsese, friedkin, lumet) and broke many of the standard rules of story, endings, film making, etc... look at the ambiguity at the end of The French Connection. does anyone really win at the end of Apocalypse Now? etc...
then came the 80s and the tone of america and of films changed. the cold war was heating up again. and after the recession of the early 80s, it was "morning again in america" to quote ronald reagan's 1984 campaign slogan. greed was good, america was strong and the "good guys" were heros and they always won. no matter the odds (look at the rambo movies, the chuck norris films...). ROCKY II thru V were released between 1979 and 1990.
then with the late 90s and 2000s we have entered what i see as a melange - excuse my french - period of film making with film makers working with and against conventions and long held ideas. and it is here that we get Rocky Balboa in 2006 going back to its roots and having rocky lose the fight, but emerge victorious by just going the distance.
it is as though in breaking with the classic hollywood formula of the victorious hero (that stallone had relied on for Rocky II, III, IV and to a certain degree V) stallone found a deeper truth of character and story.
you can visualize the complete Rocky saga as a "V". the first film is one of high points of the "V". Rocky II isn't as good (therefore going down one side of the "V"). Rocky III is worse than the second and the fourth film - the worst of the series - is the bottom point of the "V" (you get the idea: Rocky V is better than the fourth and Rocky Balboa is the other high-water mark of the series).
watching all six films in a row over a short period of time did two things...
1: it had the effect of making the problems with the films more obvious: if you wait three or fours years between movies you might not remember that the last film followed the exact same underdog, train hard, montage, win fight formula as the one you are watching. and some of the obvious/hit-you-over-the-head dialogue and script devices might have been forgotten from the last movie.
2: it made it much more obvious what was so great about the series: If you had seen the films in the theatre when they were released it would have been 30 years from Rocky to Rocky Balboa. with that much time passing you are probably not going to notice how well rocky develops as a character or the arc he takes throughout the saga. watching them spread out makes each film much more of an individual entity and the over reaching story of this man that stallone is telling, probably can't be appreciated in the same way.