Why Rocky Rules pt. 3
By 1990, Sylvester Stallone had really accomplished all he could have dreamed of with the Rocky movie franchise.
With the original “Rocky,” he wrote and starred in an Academy Award-winning film. With the first sequel, he created another critically-acclaimed work that proved his character had more than one story to tell. With “Rocky III” and “Rocky IV,” he changed the course of the series and pulled off two legitimate blockbusters that scored big at the box office and cemented further “The Italian Stallion” in pop culture and as an indelible piece of Americana.
“Rocky V” was a bit of a black mark on Stallone’s record. After suffering brain damage as a result of his fight with Drago in the fourth film, Rocky retires from boxing, but loses his fortune due to a crooked accountant. He is forced to move the family back to a more modest area of Philadelphia where Adrian and Paulie resume their old jobs at the pet shop and meat packing plant respectively, while Rocky takes over Mickey’s old gym and ends up as mentor to young Tommy Gunn, who wins his vacated World title. Tommy turns against his trainer out of resentment towards always being compared to him and the movie culminates in a street fight between the two. The other running subplot is Rocky having to repair his ruined relationship with his son after unwittingly neglecting him in favor of Tommy.
With “Rocky V,” it felt like Stallone was almost-and I’m purely speculating here-a bit ashamed at the two prior movies deviating so far from where the larger story had started, thus with a fairly heavy hand he attempted to guide the world of the Balboas back to their Oscar-worthy roots. It feels both forced and a retread, as there’s nothing for Rocky to accomplish he hadn’t already after becoming an unlikely World champion and more or less single-handedly ending the Cold War; the audience wasn’t interested in seeing the guy who got Gorbachev to stand up and applaud him training his protégé or bonding with his son (all due respect to Tommy Morrison, Tommy Gunn was also hardly in the same class as Apollo Creed, Clubber Lang or Ivan Drago when it came to proper foils).
The quality-or lack thereof-of “Rocky V” aside, it doesn’t in my eyes diminish the overall franchise which, as I’ve been touting, stands up alongside any other in movie history when held for comparison.
To begin with, again, “Rocky” won the Academy Award for Best Picture, a feat only 81 other films can lay claim to.
Beyond that, the immediate sequel to the original, “Rocky II,” succeeded in maintaining the standard set as far as establishing a lasting brand. It may not have pulled a “Godfather Part II” and repeated at the Oscars, but that’s a whole other accomplishment. Go over the list of Best Picture winners or even high quality films in general and try to recall how many produced a second installment nearly equal to the first critically.
But where Rocky really establishes its bonafides is being able to change course entirely in “Rocky III” and “Rocky IV,” leaving its status as critical darling behind and morphing into a blockbuster franchise with huge success.
What other movie series can claim to have succeeded in such drastically different venues? What other series not only raked in cash at the box office after collecting its statues, but also wove itself into the fabric of America, becoming a fixture on Cable TV and in celebrated box sets?
The aforementioned Godfather? It’s a classic for a reason, but nowhere near as accessible for the average filmgoer as Rocky. Star Wars? Never go the Best Picture nod. Lord of the Rings? Took three tries, and even so, remains far more niche in terms of its fanbase.
No, I hold tight to my claim: Rocky is the greatest film franchise of all-time because it succeeds on all levels. It succeeds as an award-winning work of art. It succeeds as a popcorn movie that makes you cheer. It succeeds as a love story stretched over several chapters. It succeeds as a sports film, a romance, a drama and even a comedy.
You can’t beat Rocky; Apollo couldn’t, Lang couldn’t, Drago couldn’t, and neither can any other series of films.
In 2006, more than a decade and a half after “Rocky V,” Sylvester Stallone returned to the character he made famous for “Rocky Balboa,” a sort of coda to the epic story he had told over five previous films. Exploring the everyman pugilist as he entered his twilight years, the film marked a true return to the feel of the original. With Adrian deceased and his boxing career a thing of the distant past, Rocky must re-examine the things that drive him, regain the respect and affection of his son, and see if he still has what it takes to hang with a new generation of competitor in the ring.
In many ways, “Rocky Balboa” represents “Rocky V” done right, with appropriate distance from the prior installments and an emotional heart rediscovered. It provided perhaps the greatest franchise in movie history with an appropriate and poignant conclusion.
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