The “Rocky” series continues apace, even after Rocky himself has thrown in the towel, as Michael B. Jordan returns as Adonis Creed for “Creed III,” the latest installment in what might best be described as a spinoff franchise. How long can this go on? Well, consider this: At the very end of the new film, Adonis is playfully sparring in the ring with his school-age daughter — and the little girl already looks like a contender. So who knows?
It all began in 1976 with the Oscar-winning “Rocky,” in which scripter-star Sylvester Stallone created the iconic character of Rocky Balboa, a battered but proud palooka who’s inspired by shy sweetheart Adrian Pennino (Talia Shire), her boozy brother Paulie (Burt Young), and crusty trainer/manager Mickey Goldmill (Burgess Meredith) to take his best shot in an improbable matchup with heavyweight champion Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers). Several sequels later, we’re now focused on Adonis Creed, Apollo’s son, who took his own first shot under Rocky’s tutelage in “Creed” (2015).
There are nine titles in the franchise, which we have ranked from worst to best.
Rocky II (1979)
The first sequel in the franchise firmly establishes the formula for every follow-up bearing a roman numeral: Begin with the final few minutes of the previous movie, introduce fatality and/or financial setback as motivation, allow Adrian ample screen time to voice (or shriek) her disapproval of Rocky’s risky decisions, and end – in marked contrast to the original “Rocky” – with a hard-won, uncontested victory for The Italian Stallion. Unfortunately, while adhering too closely to his own blueprint for a sure-fire crowd-pleaser, Stallone (taking over as director from Oscar-winner John G. Avildsen) offers little more than a smudged carbon of its immediate predecessor. Even so, it’s amusing to note how often elements of this chapter are echoed in later episodes, including “Creed” (which has Rocky using a chicken to coach Creed much like Mickey employs fowl to train him here) and “Creed II.” (Does Rocky recall his proposal to Adrian in “Rocky II” while advising Creed to pop the question to Bianca? Absolutely.)
Rocky V (1990)
Even some of the franchise’s most fervent fans — including, reportedly, Sylvester Stallone himself — have dismissed the fourth sequel as a bridge-too-far cash grab. Still, “Rocky V” deserves at least a fistful of points for being the first film in the initial quintet to drop the pretense that, in the real world, Rocky’s blood-splattered bouts would not have been ended by referees after, oh, I dunno, Round 3. So how does this movie provide the inevitable catharsis of a Rocky Triumphant Smackdown? Well, in this sporadically exciting episode — the first to feature Rocky in the buff, while showering after his violent “Rocky IV” dust-up with Ivan Drago — The Italian Stallion and his family canter back to his Philadelphia neighborhood roots after declaring bankruptcy (for which Paulie, of course, merits at least partial credit), and winds up training a naïve up-and-comer (Tommy Morrison) who (a) betrays Rocky (b) wins the heavyweight title (c) still cannot emerge from Rocky’s long shadow and (d) rashly challenges his former mentor to a fight outside our hero’s favorite bar. All of which leads to an extended street brawl that, for all its melodramatic excess, arguably is the most realistic fight in the entire “Rocky” canon. (Also in in the fourth sequel’s favor: Writer-director Stallone arranges for a welcome return of Burgess Meredith’s Mickey Goldmill, even though the character joined The Choir Invisible in “Rocky III.”
Rocky III (1982)
Will success spoil Rocky Balboa? Apparently so: After claiming the heavyweight title in “Rocky II,” Rocky evolves (or, perhaps more accurately, devolves) into a slick, sleek superstar who, to paraphrase a lyric from the Oscar-nominated theme song “Eye of the Tiger,” trades his passion for glory. All it takes, however, is a serious beatdown from ravenously hungry up-and-comer Clubber Lang (the ferociously fool-pitying Mr. T) for The Italian Stallion to accept the accuracy of trainer Mickey Goldmill’s appraisal: “You got civilized.” In an underappreciated-in-its-time flip on the cliché of white saviors aiding downtrodden people of color, conspicuously Black former foe Apollo Creed steps in to prepare Rocky for a rematch by bringing our hero to a gym for back-to-basics training alongside — gasp! — a multitude of African-Americans. Paulie is dubious — “You can’t train him like a colored fighter, he ain’t got no rhythm!” — but writer-director Stallone wisely downplays the character’s barely concealed racism. Fun Fact: Although boxer-turned-actor Tony Burton appeared in two previous “Rocky” films as Apollo’s trailer — and delivered, in the first film, the great line, “He doesn’t know it’s a damn show! He thinks it’s a damn fight!” — his character wasn’t identified in the credits by name, Duke, until this one.
Creed III (2023)
What may very well be the final installment of the franchise flips the script of the original Rocky mythos: This time, the zillion-to-one underdog actually does win the heavyweight championship, but reveals himself after the victory to be, as Mickey Goldmill might have put it, “a very dangerous person.” Although Stallone’s Rocky Balboa is nowhere to be seen (or heard) here, Jordan (making his directorial debut) continues to carry the torch credibly and creditably as Adonis Creed, Rocky’s surpassingly successful protégé. Three years after his retirement from boxing, Creed is content to train and inspire other contenders while enjoying the good life with Bianca, his singer-turned-record-producer wife, and Amara (Mila Davis-Kent), their daughter. But just like ex-gunfighters always wind up forced to strap on their six-guns again, Adonis must don his gloves and re-enter the ring to battle Damian (Jonathan Majors), an old friend whose improbable title victory after a lengthy prison stretch does not quench his desire for savage revenge against the buddy he views as a traitor. The fight scenes are brutally effective (and, yes, a good deal more realistic than those in some other “Rocky” sequels) and the performances are first-rate across the board. Still, “Creed III” overall feels very much like an outlier, a boxing drama that works extremely well on its own terms — but isn’t a real “Rocky” movie, if that makes any sense. Call it the “Halloween III” of the series, and you won’t be far off the mark.
Rocky IV (1985)
Near the tail end of the Cold War, writer-director Stallone heated things up by initially offering an exhibition bout between grandstanding U.S. fighter Apollo Creed and seemingly superhuman USSR boxer Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren) — and then, after Drago more or less kills Creed in the ring, providing a grudge match between Rocky and the Big Bad Russkie. “Rocky IV” is the first film in the franchise to completely sever all tethers to reality — even by “Rocky” franchise standards, the climactic Rocky/Drago matchup comes across unbelievably over the top, with the sort of bloodletting one normally expects in movies about bogeymen armed with chainsaws — but its unchecked excess and shamelessness are the keys to its enduring appeal. But wait, there’s more: James Brown brings the house down with a pre-fight performance of “Living in America” that could serve as Exhibit A while making a strong case for the song’s being our new national anthem.
Creed II (2018)
For many fans of the franchise, this nominal sequel to 2015’s “Creed” may feel more like a long-overdue resolution to 1985’s “Rocky IV,” as Adonis Creed (Jordan, again drop-dead perfect), the heavyweight champ son of Apollo Creed, takes on the brutish Viktor Drago (Florian Munteanu), son of the Russian fighter who literally beat his dad to death. Stallone reprises his portrayal of the aged Rocky as a battle-scarred sage in young Creed’s corner, Tessa Thompson once more makes Adonis’ beloved Bianca a more substantial character than Talia Shire ever was allowed to be as Adrian, and the movie itself provides such a satisfying closure for every character (yes, even for Viktor and Ivan Drago).
Rocky Balboa (2006)
For a considerable stretch of its running time, “Rocky Balboa” plays like the “Archie Bunker’s Place” of the franchise, with the long-retired Rocky operating a popular restaurant in Philadelphia, occasionally interacting with old acquaintances — including street kid turned single mom Marie (Geraldine Hughes) and club fighter Spider Rico (Pedro Lovell), two characters from the very first “Rocky” film — and faithfully visiting the grave of his late wife Adrian, whose death by cancer is pointedly recalled in 2015’s “Creed.” (Burt Young’s Paulie is still around, though just barely, still drinking so heavily that news of his death in “Creed” really doesn’t come as a surprise.) And, truth to tell, such an offbeat addendum to the original quintet might have been entertaining on its own merits. But, naturally, since this is a “Rocky” movie, we eventually wind up back in the ring: After a computer-simulated matchup suggests Rocky might have beaten current heavyweight champ Mason “The Line” Dixon (Antonio Tarver), the younger boxer challenges the living legend to a real-life bout. Much like the first movie in the franchise, however, the ineffably melancholy and surprisingly affecting “Rocky Balboa” doesn’t rely on an against-all-odds upset for an emotionally satisfying conclusion. Once again, Rocky recognizes, and fully appreciates, what an achievement it can be simply to go the distance.
Stallone wrote the first six “Rocky” movies, directed four of them and played the title character in all of them, over a period of three decades. It’s difficult to think of a similarly consistent sustaining of actor, character and creator in the entire history of cinema — the collaboration of Francois Truffaut and Jean-Pierre Leaud for the Antoine Doinel cycle, maybe? — which makes what director/co-scripter Ryan Coogler and lead player Jordan achieve in “Creed” all the more remarkable. The movie works extraordinarily well as both a seamless continuation of an ongoing narrative and an arresting introduction to a new saga, with Stallone’s aged Rocky — at first reluctantly, then eagerly — passing the baton on to a new contender, Adonis Creed. Make no mistake about it, this is the younger boxer’s story, and Jordan’s movie. But Stallone (who netted a richly deserved Oscar nomination for his performance here) is an invaluable supporting player, portraying Rocky as a streetwise grey eminence who gives to Creed what, decades earlier, Mickey Goldmill, gave him: Blunt-spoken encouragement to take a million-to-one shot.
Forget about the rip-offs and put-ons — and, yes, some of the lesser sequels — that it inspired. And never mind that its underdog-against-the-odds plot was whiskery even when the movie premiered in 1976. “Rocky” represents an almost miraculous confluence of actor and role, emotion and manipulation, entertainment and zeitgeist. In a post-Watergate era of cynicism and disillusionment, Stallone and director John G. Avildsen found a way to uplift and exhilarate audiences by offering a feel-good fantasy in the credible guise of a street-smart, kitchen-sink drama. And yet, even though “Rocky” is very much a product of its time, it remains timeless in its appeal. Not unlike “Casablanca,” which also scored an Oscar win as Best Picture, it inspires admiration bordering on fanaticism: Anyone who has ever embraced it can quote memorable dialogue, or describe a favorite moment. (Take note of the beautifully acted scene in which Burgess Meredith’s broken-down Mickey Goldmill practically begs to be Rocky’s manager.) A sobering thought: If it appeared today instead of yesterday, “Rocky” would be considered an indie production (a small-budget effort scripted by and starring a virtually unknown character actor) and probably would premiere at Sundance or SXSW. But would it — could it — score anything like the same impact?