|'On paper, Rocky IV is the point where the series should have jumped not just one, but several sharks'.|
If Rocky III presents the point at which Sylvester Stallone took the franchise on its first real step away from character-driven drama to dip his toe into a more cartoonish action movie approach, then Rocky IV is where the writer and director undeniably plunged impetuously into the deep end of this style. By the fourth instalment of the Rocky series, Stallone is a world away from the low-key cinema where his story of a likeable underdog began.
Just as the Bond franchise's use of the Soviet Union as perpetual antagonists was beginning to peter out, Stallone not only leaps onto the Cold War bandwagon for his story, but grabs the steering wheel and pushes the pedal to the metal. If Rocky III's Clubber Lang is a cartoon villain, then Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren) is straight out of a video game - the Rocky franchise's answer to M. Bison from Street Fighter II. Lundgren's hefty chiselled stature and monotone Russian accent is clearly aiming to make the same impact as Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Terminator a year earlier, succeeding to a point but never achieving the same iconic feel.
The 1980s will forever be remembered for its unmistakeable approach to mainstream filmmaking, and Rocky IV is perhaps the ultimate '80s movie, encapsulating everything that's both good and bad about the decade's cinematic legacy. Along with the Russian baddies, we have copious amounts of computer technology to show how "advanced" Drago's training regime is, a soundtrack that's basically heartland rock on loop, and the most unnecessary robot in film history.
The final third of the film is essentially a series of montages - two training, one reminiscing - leading to the closing bout between Rocky (Stallone) and Drago, which continues the franchise's ability to conclude each chapter on a gripping and well-executed spectacle. On paper, Rocky IV is the point where the series should have jumped not just one, but several sharks. And yet, the whole thing is carried off with such gusto by Stallone and his cast that it's hard not to get caught up in the continuously resolute spirit of the film. Rocky IV is in many ways a mess, but what an enjoyable mess it turns out to be, as well as being the most financially successful entry in the entire series to date.
In hindsight, the fourth film feels in terms of both narrative and popular reception like the point at which Stallone should have drawn the Rocky saga to a close. He didn't, of course, and Rocky V is where the franchise's luck runs out. Whilst never on the same form as when making Rocky, there is a clear attempt by returning director John G. Avildsen to recapture the original film's spirit throughout Rocky V whilst also moving away from the plot formula used in the previous two films in the saga. However, although Avildsen tries, none of his efforts work the way he hopes.
What we end up with is a film that spends half the time mawkishly reminding you of the first film - which in turn emphasises how inferior Rocky V is in comparison - and the other half getting tangled up in soap opera style drama and disputes between Rocky and either his son Rocky Jr. (Sage Stallone) or his boxing protégé Tommy Gunn (Tommy Morrison). Whilst the manner in which the Balboa family's fortunes take a sudden downward turn in the opening act feels both underdeveloped and contrived, the idea of Rocky becoming a trainer and manager in contrast comes across as a natural progression for the character. Frustratingly, however, as Tommy is an immediately disagreeable presence who only becomes more unsympathetic as the film progresses, the concept is never able to get off the ground.
Stallone's writing feels considerably more uneven throughout the film than in any of his previous four screenplays, but perhaps his gravest error is in the film's conclusion, which trades the now traditional boxing match pitting Rocky against his latest formidable opponent for a cheesy and unimpressive street fight. In the end, whilst there are pleasing moments within Rocky V here and there, Stallone and Avildsen ultimately make too many mistakes to rescue matters.
Bringing the franchise into the 21st Century, Rocky Balboa offered the Rocky saga a chance to end on a higher note than Rocky V had ultimately provided some sixteen years earlier. On balance, the sixth film achieves this goal by the slenderest of margins, but is laden with so many problems of its own that the argument as to which is the superior film feels moot. Rocky Balboa emerges as the most forgettable chapter in the book of Rocky; a story that feels like it doesn't need to be told, related in a manner that brings nothing new to the table. In short, Everything that the sixth film offers has been done at least once before more successfully earlier on in the franchise.
Whilst Rocky V's Tommy Gunn was unlikeable, at least he stirred up some form of emotion. In contrast, Rocky Balboa's Mason Dixon (Antonio Tarver) is a character who fails to provoke any reaction whatsoever. Despite a couple of early scenes that offer some promise, Mason remains one dimensional and utterly generic throughout, rendering the third act exhibition match between him and Rocky devoid of the satisfaction delivered from previous finales.
Elsewhere, Rocky Balboa adopts an unsatisfying gloomy tone for much of the first half. Rocky spends the opening act wallowing in the past, particularly the passing of his wife Adrian (Talia Shire), whose death prior to the events of the film sadly feels like the inevitable final step in her becoming increasingly sidelined within the franchise. Rocky's estranged relationship with his now adult son (Milo Ventimiglia) feels like a repeat of Rocky V's unsuccessful first attempt at such a storyline, and is resolved just as quickly and unconvincingly. The companionship between Rocky and Marie (Geraldine Hughes), first seen as a young girl walked home by the boxer in the original film, is somewhat more satisfying, but stalls in the third act when Stallone - back in the director's chair once again - fumbles over whether to make it romantic or not.
Much of Rocky Balboa's best moments come from its nods to the franchise's beginnings; Rocky regaling the diners in his restaurant with stories from his career is a particularly nice touch. There are also a few strong scenes dotted throughout that will catch you by surprise occasionally. But Stallone is ultimately far too focused on narrowly reminiscing about the franchise's past, rather than extending the story of his most famous character into new and different areas. Initial reports, as well as Stallone's Academy Award nomination for his return performance as Rocky, thankfully suggest that Creed will offer some genuine hope of that finally happening.