|'For the first hour of his film, Avildsen's focus is entirely on building Rocky as a good man doing what he can to make his way in life, but who lacks any focus on where that life is going'.|
Alongside the release of Creed, marking the first new big screen appearance in a decade of Rocky Balboa, arguably Sylvester Stallone's defining role, 2016 also marks the fortieth anniversary of the release of the first film in the eponymous boxer's franchise. What better excuse, therefore, to revisit the first six episodes of the Italian Stallion's cinematic story?
In contrast to the later entries in the series, 1976's series opener Rocky feels very much like a character-driven drama first and a sports film a firm second. Director John G. Avildsen bookends his film with a pair of boxing matches which deftly demonstrate how life has changed for Rocky (Stallone) over the course of the narrative. But for the first hour of his film, Avildsen's focus - and that of Stallone pulling double duty as screenwriter - is entirely on building Rocky as a good man doing what he can to make his way in life, but who lacks any focus on where that life is going. It's a decision which pays dividends not just for this film, but also for those that follow the original. The other key focus - that of Rocky's burgeoning relationship with Adrian (Talia Shire) - is constantly endearing, with Stallone and Shire sharing a sweet and authentic chemistry.
The second hour of Rocky is where Avildsen brings boxing into the plot more prominently, using the excellent work of the opening hour to pitch Rocky as a believable yet incredibly fortunate underdog who it's impossible not to root for. The training montages that the Rocky franchise became known for begin here, and the final fight is expertly shot and choreographed. These features are much more understated than they would later become, but arguably feel all the better for it; a sentiment which can satisfyingly be applied to Avildsen's film as a whole.
The missteps here are minor, but are enough to hold Rocky back from a perfect score. Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) is considerably underdeveloped, something that would be rectified later on, but that here takes something away from the closing Creed vs. Balboa bout. There are also scenes where Paulie (Burt Young) simply feels too unpleasant, to the point where it's hard to see why Rocky would continue his friendship with him, but this too is an issue which the franchise would fine tune during the sequels.
Picking up moments after the end of the first film, Rocky II feels in many ways like the concluding chapter of the story started in Rocky. The sequel again feels divided into two distinct halves, with the continual development of Rocky, his life and his relationship with Adrian the clear focus for the first hour. Whilst Stallone - taking over as director from Avildsen as well as returning as writer and star - closely emulates the structure of the first film, there's enough development and original ideas here to ensure Rocky II never really feels like a pointless retread. Bringing the main character back down to earth after his moment in the spotlight is a risk and could easily have felt contrived, but in fact plays out with authenticity as both Rocky and the audience become further convinced that the fighter's fifteen minutes really are up.
It's during the second hour of Rocky II that we start to get a glimpse of the bombastic spectacles that the later entries would become. Stallone's script becomes more and more weighed down with syrupy emotion, and his direction cranks up the romanticised, overly sentimental tone as the film heads towards its pugilistic pinnacle. Thankfully, Rocky's rematch with Apollo Creed doesn't disappoint, delivering a climax as gripping as their fight in the first film with a conclusion even more dramatic and fulfilling. Whilst Stallone's first sequel ultimately ends up a film of the same calibre as the original, where Rocky feels like a potentially outstanding film held back by a few key weaknesses, Rocky II is by contrast a very good film elevated by its strongest features.
Rocky III is undoubtedly the point where Stallone decided to take the franchise into a notably different direction. With Rocky transitioning from down-to-earth underdog to celebrated world champion, the film loses much of the authenticity seen throughout the first film, and to a lesser extent the second, in favour of a less complex, more commercial style. It's a shift perhaps best summed up through Rocky's charity exhibition match early on against pro-wrestler Thunderlips (Hulk Hogan, essentially playing his '80s WWF persona). New antagonist Clubber Lang (Mr. T) is essentially a cartoon villain, striking in appearance and stature but lacking anything beneath the surface. Listening to Mr. T reel off soundbites is entertaining to a point, but it's no replacement for a properly developed character.
Despite this deviation tone and style, Rocky III has enough to make it an entertaining watch. The death of Mickey Goldmill (Burgess Meredith) is heavily signposted from early on, but nonetheless packs emotional weight thanks to the strong performances from both Meredith and Stallone. The continued development of Apollo Creed is also pleasing to watch. From Apollo's thinly written origins in Rocky that were developed to a point in Rocky II, Weathers takes the character into fresh and interesting territory here. Whilst some of the "bromance" seen between Rocky and Apollo may feel a little on the nose, by the closing scenes the relationship between the two resonates just as genuinely as that shared between Rocky and Mickey. Rocky III may be a clear step down for the series as a whole, but that doesn't stop it from being both a worthwhile and enjoyable continuation of the Rocky saga.