Last week, I was tasked with picking my favorite moments from the Rocky series for a piece tied to the release of “40 Years of Rocky: The Birth of a Classic,” now available on digital platforms. As a result, I ended up consuming all eight “Rocky” movies (including the two “Creed” films) over the course of 72 hours. In addition to feeling energized and a need to hum “Eye of the Tiger” nonstop, here’s a few things I picked up on during that marathon.
It’s Not About Winning — Or Boxing
Because “Rocky” went on to create a legacy of indelible characters and make over $1.7 billion at the box office, people remember cheering the big fights at the end of the films. But the first “Rocky” has virtual no boxing outside of the final match with Apollo Creed; it’s more of a character study and a love story between Sylvester Stallone’s underdog Rocky and Talia Shire’s painfully shy Adrian. It isn’t until “Rocky III” that we even see more than one major fight in a movie.
And in that first film, no one thinks Rocky will win — including himself. He tells Adrian, “If I can go that distance, you see, and that bell rings and I’m still standin’, I’m gonna know for the first time in my life, see, that I weren’t just another bum from the neighborhood.” He makes his name not by beating Apollo, but by earning his respect and the love of the audience. When the match ends in the first “Rocky,” he’s not even interested in the results — he just wants Adrian by his side. The first “Creed” film parallels this; Adonis doesn’t win the match, but he proves he’s a contender. Even his opponent, who once scorned him, tells him he’s “the future of this division.”
Talia Shire Is the MVP of “Rocky”
Shire is a revelation as Rocky’s love Adrian, playing a woman desperate not to be seen. Their relationship is what elevates “Rocky” beyond another underdog story and makes it one of cinema’s great love stories. Shire was nominated for an Academy Award in 1977 and I think if she had competed in the supporting actress category, might have won. (She was in the lead category opposite the unstoppable Faye Dunaway in “Network.”)
Apollo Creed Is Fascinating From Moment One
Watching the first two “Rocky” films, I wanted to know more about this man, so wonderfully brought to life by Carl Weathers, who seemed to build himself up from nothing and understood the showmanship part of the business better than anyone. I’m obviously not alone — Ryan Coogler brilliantly mined this history for “Creed.”
Clubber Lang Is the Best Villain of the Series
Apollo Creed was Rocky’s best opponent, but he was never truly a villain. There was a respect between the two that grew into a friendship. It’s similar with most of the boxers who come through the series, they eventually show admiration for Rocky or Adonis Creed. The exception is Dolph Lundgren’s Ivan Drago in “Rocky IV,” but he only has like three lines and seems more machine than man. Clubber Lang, however, shows no respect. He verbally attacks Rocky during his retirement speech, propositions Adrian and even refuses to shake Apollo’s hand, calling him a “has-been.” Mr. T is a force as this truly hateable bad guy, which might be why “Rocky III” is one of the most fun of the series.
“Rocky IV” Is Absolutely Ridiculous … But Apollo Creed’s Death Is Genuinely Horrifying
“Rocky IV” is another fun entry, a completely silly one that is a perfect encapsulation of its time. Few movies could feature both James Brown and a heartfelt speech about the Cold War. There’s even a talking robot that Paulie makes his girlfriend (don’t think too hard about that one.) And the montages! There are so many that one of them (played during “Hearts on Fire”) incorporates footage seen in a montage just minutes earlier! (Over on Twitter, Phil Lord admitted it inspired this parody on “Clone High.”)
All that said, there is a pivotal moment that is all too real when Drago kills Apollo in their match. It’s shot and edited in a visceral, shocking way and when Apollo falls to the ground and spasms, it’s almost impossible to watch. To this day, it remains a sobering reminder of just what these fighters are risking every time they step into the ring.
Paulie Is the Worst
No disrespect to the great Burt Young, who earned an Oscar nom for best supporting actor for the first “Rocky” for playing Adrian’s cynical, brutish bother Paul “Paulie” Pennino. Young is wonderful in the role and the character is necessary for a lot of the plot points to move forward. But just to recap his actions from each film:
“Rocky”: Paulie throws out Adrian’s Thanksgiving turkey. Yes, it’s to get her to go out with Rocky, but that was a perfectly good turkey! He also doesn’t know why Rocky is interested, seeing as how Adrian is almost 30 and unmarried. He also calls her “busted” in one scene for not being a virgin.
“Rocky II”: Paulie suggests that if Adrian is giving Rocky trouble, “ya just need to break her teeth.”
“Rocky III”: Opens with a jealous Paulie smashing a pinball machine bearing Rocky’s image and complaining he’s been mistreated.
“Rocky IV”: When Rocky goes to Russia to train for his fight against Ivan Drago, Paulie complains nonstop about the cold and being cut off from the world. (He must miss his robot girlfriend.)
“Rocky V”: Rocky loses his fortune because Paulie gave power of attorney to a bad accountant. When scolded, he plays the victim, screaming, “I’m not no tomato can you kick around!” (What?)
By “Rocky Balboa,” we see a kinder, gentler Paulie, full of regret for how he treated his late sister. Rocky’s support of Paulie through the whole saga is touching, and we all know what it’s like to have that one friend we can’t help but love.
Killing Off Adrian Was a Huge Risk — That Worked
After the critical and commercial failure of “Rocky V,” a follow-up was not a sure thing. But Stallone went back to basics for “Rocky Balboa,” returning the character to his simpler roots. After losing all his money in the previous film, Rocky is the owner of “Adrian’s,” a modest but successful restaurant.
I was initially outraged to learn Talia Shire would not be returning for the sixth installment, which finds Adrian having passed from cancer years earlier. But her death has transformed Rocky. He is on his own, older and slower, with the weight of the world seeming to weigh heavy on his shoulders. And Adrian is not forgotten; Rocky continues to visit her grave in the next films to pay his respects, and her presence is felt throughout.
“Creed” Shouldn’t Have Worked, Yet It’s a Masterpiece
Coming off the success of his feature film debut, “Fruitvale Station,” Coogler announced he would be taking the reins on the franchise with “Creed,” telling the story of Apollo’s son Adonis. Many people, myself included, thought it was an odd choice to move from his acclaimed indie to a “Rocky” sequel. We were wrong. “Creed” is fantastic from start to finish, and while it utilizes nostalgia for the characters beautifully, it’s not necessary to see any of the previous films to watch it. Michael B. Jordan sealed his star status and Stallone deservedly earned an Oscar nomination — his first since he landed nods for writing and acting in “Rocky” 39 years earlier.
Dolph Lundgren Shines in “Creed II”
As mentioned before, Lundgren only had about three lines in “Rocky IV” so it’s interesting he because such a pivotal character in “Creed II,” when we learn Ivan Drago has spent the last 33 years raising his son Viktor to be a fighting machine to earn back the life he lost when Rocky defeated him. Lundgren is compelling in his single-mindedness. He’s even sympathetic when you think about everything that was taken from him. But the film does something unexpected; when Viktor is in the ring for his final fight with Adonis, Ivan chooses his son over the country that turned its back on him and throws in the towel, ending the fight. The final shot of Ivan and Viktor working out together, father and son, gives you hope for the characters — and maybe a new franchise? I’d be up for “Drago.”