Why Rocky Rules pt. 2
When last we spoke, I made the bold claim that the Rocky series is the most impressive franchise in film history. I talked through the Academy Award-winning original installment as well as the critically-acclaimed first sequel, but conceded that one great movie and then a pretty darn good follow-up doesn’t live up to the superlative I ascribed.
Here’s where it gets interesting.In 1982, three years after the release of “Rocky II,” “Rocky III” hit theaters. However, the third installment of the franchise marked a significant departure from its two predecessors.
In “Rocky III,” no longer was our hero a hard-luck pug living in relative obscurity on the streets of Philadelphia; Rocky and his family (wife Adrian and son Rocky Jr.) now live in a mansion complete with lavish furnishings and ritzy new clothes. The Rocky-Adrian love story of the prior films takes a backseat to the action here as the couple is happily wed with child and no real dramatic tension to speak of. The bulk of what drives the story is Rocky attempting to overcome the sort of malaise that has come with his new privileged lifestyle and prove that he can still best a colorful new opponent in brash and aggressive newcomer Clubber Lang, played by Mr. T in the performance that made him a pop culture icon.
“Rocky III” is still an excellent movie-truth be told, it may be my favorite of the lot-but in a much different way that than “Rocky” or “Rocky II.” Though there is meat to the story of Rocky having to remember his roots and not give in to the temptations of fame and fortune in order to stay relevant, most people remember this one more for the excellent boxing sequences, the spectacle of Hulk Hogan taking on Stallone in a wrestler vs boxer exhibition, or Mr. T’s scene-stealing tour de force.
To put it more simply: I doubt at any time the people responsible for “Rocky III” thought they were crafting an Academy Award winner.
But “Rocky III” grossed over $125,000,000 domestically, eclipsing “Rocky II” big time. Beyond that, you’d be hard-pressed to find a critic who panned the flick, as it’s a thoroughly entertaining piece of business; but at the same time, nobody was outraged when it went unnoticed come Oscar time, which at first glance seems a tad curious considering this was a franchise only two movies removed from the big win.
Like clockwork, three years later in 1985 came “Rocky IV,” and if you’re the average movie-going fan, this is the reason you may not have known “Rocky” won an Oscar.
When most people think of Rocky Balboa, it’s framed by the image most commonly associated with this fourth installment: Sylvester Stallone draped the in the American flag, thrusting a fist towards the heavens. At over $127,000,000, “Rocky IV” made more money domestically than any other film in the franchise; worldwide, it grossed upwards of $300,000,000. More than any other Rocky movie, this is the one the man (or woman) on the street remembers.
And yet if you ask most hardcore Rocky fans, they have great fondness for “Rocky IV,” but also consider it something of a guilty pleasure.
If “Rocky” was a work of pure art and each subsequent film moved a bit further away from that kernel, “Rocky IV” is where Stallone and company shed all pretense of producing work for critical acclaim and went for the blockbuster (with great success, it should be noted). This movie recast Rocky Balboa once and for all from street fighter getting one last lucky break to international super hero representing all that is good about America, democracy, and so on.
The antagonist of “Rocky IV” is Ivan Drago, a granite-faced Russian behemoth fueled more by chemical enhancements than good-ol’ fashioned training and brought menacingly to life by Dolph Lundgren in his breakout performance. Drago comes to America in order to prove Russia’s dominance and ends up straight up murdering Rocky’s old foe-turned-friend Apollo Creed in an exhibition match, leading our hero to seek vengeance. The death of Creed is a portent of how over-the-top “Rocky IV” ultimately becomes, with the movie by the end truly becoming a microcosm of the Cold War with the respective fighters standing for what is good or bad about their respective nations (from the American perspective, of course).
Adrian, a focal point of the early films, is reduced to a few token scenes of yelling at Rocky about how Drago is too dangerous in this one, again clearly delineating the shift from heartfelt love story to action blockbuster; the trademark training montage that began with Rocky chasing chickens and running stairs in prior installments crescendos to him growing a bushy beard and carrying logs on his back in the Soviet tundra here. The climactic battle between Drago and Balboa feels as if nothing less than the fate of the free world itself is on the line; indeed a Mikhail Gorbachev stand-in watches on from the audience and gradually becomes a fan of Rocky-and thus America-as he witnesses his dogged determination.
Now I should make something clear right about now: It may seem like I just spent two or three paragraphs mocking this movie, but don’t get me wrong, I love “Rocky IV,” and obviously so do a lot of other folks. However, if you view “Rocky” and “Rocky IV” side-by-side (or at least back-to-back, as the other way would probably be more than a bit confusing), I contend you’d be a bit puzzled at how point B was reached from point A.
“Rocky” was a bonafide gem of a film from the standpoint of the art of movie-making. “Rocky IV” was a no-question blockbuster that has inspired intense cheers and devoted emotion from a sizable demographic for over two decades now. While the latter movie came nowhere near winning any awards and had some scenes and scenarios that make you have to chuckle when considering their credibility, it also touches a nerve deep down inside that gives you goosebumps along your arms makes you want to chant for Rocky right alongside the Russian crowd he improbably wins over.
If you can put “Rocky” alongside “The Godfather” or “Rain Man,” “Rocky IV” can hold its own with “The Karate Kid,” “Armageddon” or even “Iron Man” in terms of being a feel-good popcorn delight.
That both movies came from the same framework mythology and not far apart from one another is the franchise’s incredible accomplishment. In the final chapter of my little essay, I’ll touch more on this, briefly cover Rocky’s final fall and redemption, and once and for all assert my claim that this is the greatest series of films ever made.
To be continued…
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