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It isn't just that Rocky Balboa has been part of my life for 25 years ... it's that I can't remember life without Rocky Balboa.
During the winter of 1976, my father brought me to the theater to see the original "Rocky," one of my first tangible memories as a kid. I was hooked. I remember listening to the "Rocky" soundtrack in my living room and shadowboxing an imaginary Apollo Creed for 15 imaginary rounds, unfurling jabs and uppercuts, dancing in circles, even punching myself in the noggin to complete the effect. And I wasn't alone. Every kid was doing it.When "Rocky II" was released two years later, I remember the sheer pandemonium in my theater when Rocky finally defeated Apollo Creed. I'm not kidding. People were standing and cheering like they were watching a closed-circuit fight. It was the greatest movie experience of my entire life. No lie. We were chanting, "Ro-cky! Ro-cky!" and everything. During the '80s, I watched "Rocky III" and "Rocky IV" religiously -- dozens and dozens of times, as some of my high school buddies can attest (they were there, too) -- to the point that my buddy Gus and I would play Intellivision and spout out random "Rocky IV" lines, as if they were part of our everyday conversation. I can't get over the size of that Russian! ... If he dies, he dies. ... You can't win! ... I must break you. In a related story, we were both single at the time. Sadly, the Rocky Express derailed for me in the winter of 1991, when "Rocky V"'s impending release made me so giddy that I planned an entire weekend around it. That was my junior year at Holy Cross; I trekked to upstate New York to visit my buddy Jim, a Colgate student, just so we could catch the opening together (since we watched "Rocky III" countless times together in high school). In time, we learned to pretend that "Rocky V" never happened, but I'll never forget walking out of the theater with Jim that night -- we were so depressed and disillusioned that I think I just drove back to Holy Cross, even though it was Friday and I had just gotten there. Rocky carried us from childhood to college; it was like the death of an era. Little did we know that the "Rocky" series would live on. And on. And on. Thanks to TNT, TBS, HBO and everyone else, Rocky keeps gaining steam, and like a fine wine, the movies seem to get better with age. How many movies can you watch over and over again without getting tired of them? Maybe five? 10? And yet three of the "Rockys" (the original, III and IV) suck me in at least once a year. I know I'm not alone here, because if people weren't watching, then the cable stations wouldn't be repeating them again and again. So something is happening here. That raises an intriguing question: Which "Rocky" holds up the best over time?
The first "Rocky" was the finest of the bunch, no question. That was the original. Captured all the Oscars. Put Stallone on the map. Took realism in sports scenes to the next level. Started the jogging fad. Not only was it the most influential sports movie of all-time, it might have been the most influential movie of the past 25 years when you consider all the "Rocky" ripoffs produced since 1976. But that doesn't necessarily mean that "Rocky" remains the most entertaining of the "Rocky" movies.That raises another intriguing question: If all five "Rocky" movies were showing at the exact same time, and you could only watch one of them from start to finish, which one would you watch? Hmmmmmmm. "Rocky V" gets disqualified ... because it never happened. You hear me? It never happened. That leaves the original, II, III and IV. So let's tackle them chronologically. And remember two things: 1. This is only one man's opinion. 2. I'm nitpicking because that's my job. On to the movies ... Rocky
How's this for a premise: A down-on-his-lock boxer gets handed an improbable chance to fight for the heavyweight title, dedicates himself to training for his 15 minutes of fame, falls in love and realizes his potential in the process. The end. Boom. Doesn't get much better than that. Often imitated, never duplicated.
And yet the movie wouldn't work nearly as well without the little nuances. The transcendent soundtrack. The young Stallone, having his breakout movie. Rocky, the lovable loser. Paulie, the alcoholic bum who rates a 9.2 out of 10 on the Unintentional Comedy Scale. Apollo Creed, an angrier, more flamboyant Muhammad Ali. Mickey, the grizzled old trainer searching for one last run at the top.My favorite character was the mobster Gazzo's sarcastic driver, the guy who said stuff like, "Did you get the license plate of the truck that hit your face?" and "Take her to the zoo. ... I hear retards like the zoo." That guy kills me (he should have gotten his own sitcom). Anyway, it's a smart movie, which reminds me of something: What about the fact that Sly Stallone wrote this thing? It's a complicated, heavy screenplay, with rich characters and splendid dialogue ... and Sly Stallone wrote it? Huh? I always loved the fact that Rocky didn't actually win in the end ... he went the distance. Maybe the finest touch happens when Adrian runs into the ring after the fight, just to give him a hug and tell Rocky that she loves him, and Rocky says, "Where's your hat?" The movie's filled with moments like that. Just a terrific film. Nitpicking:
It kills me to say this, but I watched "the original" this week and it felt ... dare I say ... dated? It's a '70s movie (slow, sprawling and painstaking), which doesn't necessarily lend itself that well to the "MTV/Internet/Now-Now-Now" Generation. I found myself losing concentration a number of times during the first 90 minutes, especially during the agonizing Rocky-Adrian scenes, which usurp a sizable chunk of the middle section. Let's face it: 95 percent of the scenes between Rocky and Adrian in the Rocky series just plain sucked. It was Stallone's way of roping a "Chick Flick" angle into the whole thing. Rocky would have been better off marrying a local stripper or something -- at least the stripper would have immediately flown to Russia to see him fight Drago, for God's sake. Did Adrian bring anything to the table? Anything?
One other problem: The fight scenes haven't aged well; you can glimpse empty seats in every closeup of the two fighters, because they were filming in an empty arena. The producers could easily pull a "Spielberg with ET" and make some digital revisions to that sequence (some fake crowd insertions). I know I wouldn't complain.Chill Scenes:
The key to any great sports movie? The quality of the Chill Scenes, those scenes that give you goosebumps on top of your goosebumps. And Rocky was loaded with them: 1. Rocky chasing Mickey down the street after he yelled at him (when Mickey wanted to train him). Always gets me. 2. The training sequence (good God! -- a 10.0 on the Chill Factor Scale). Way ahead of its time. Does anyone not get fired when "Gonna Fly Now" kicks in? 3. The entire fight scene, basically a 10-minute Chill Scene (special emphasis on the part when Adrian walks into the stadium just as Rocky gets knocked down in the 14th, and then Rocky gets up and Creed, astounded, drops his shoulders in disbelief -- another 10.0 on the CFS, as well as my favorite moment in any Rocky movie). 4. The ending (Adrian and Rocky hugging as the ring announcer screams, "And still champion ... Apollo Creed!"). You run the gamut of emotions with that one. Still gets me. Final Watchability Verdict: 13 out of 10.
Even five years ago, that would have been closer to 20, but I've just seen "Rocky" too many times, and it's just a little too dated. Remember, we're nitpicking here.
Picks up right where "Rocky" left off, with Creed and Balboa heading to the hospital after the fight (accompanied by a jazzier, put-a-hop-in-your-step soundtrack). As it turns out, Rocky can't fight anymore, because of his damaged right eye (which mysteriously heals itself over the subsequent few years). He marries Adrian, buys a Trans AM and a condo, and embarks on a commercial career ... which ends in about two hours because he can't read. After losing a few jobs, Rocky starts working at Mickey's gym, where he gets teased by other boxers as he lugs around spit buckets and picks up bloody towels.
- Adrian: "You can do one thing for me."
Rocky: "What's that?"
Adrian: "Win. Win."
Mickey (getting up): "Well what are we waitin' for?"
(Quick cut to Rocky doing a one-handed push-up as the inspiring "Rocky" music kicks in.)
The first 90 minutes of "II" are nearly unwatchable. Who wants to see Rocky repeatedly humiliated and beaten down like that? And why would Adrian refuse to let Rocky fight, forcing him to resort to the "I never asked you to stop being a woman, don't ask me to stop being a man" routine. Puh-leeze. Nothing worse than a whipped Rocky Balboa.If that wasn't bad enough, Stallone plays Rocky for much of the movie like he's mentally retarded, with no real reason given. There's a difference between "punchy" and "retarded." When you're "whipped and retarded" ... well, that's no fun. Chill Scenes:
1. The aforementioned "What are we waiting for?" scene, which immediately makes up for every wretched moment in the previous 90 minutes. The best single exchange in "Rocky" history. An absolute tour de force. 2. The subsequent training scene, climaxing with Rocky jogging along with every kid in the entire state of Pennsylvania. (Bonus points here, because I actually got chills while I was typing about this.) 3. The entire fight scene. You knew Rocky was winning ... but the unexpected Double Knockdown was an inspired wrinkle, wasn't it? 4. Rocky's post-fight speech. Goosebumps galore. Yo, Adrian! I did it. Final Watchability Verdict: 9.5 out of 10.
Put it this way ... if I'm flicking channels and I see Adrian just about ready to snap out of her coma, I'm locked in for the rest of the movie. They should have just turned the last 30 minutes of "Rocky 2" into an extended 30-minute "Deleted Scene" for the "Rocky 1" DVD. Frankly, there's still time.
The most polished of all the "Rocky" movies, with the best storyline and some stunning twists. The opening "Rocky's the champ and kicking butt!" sequence (with Survivor's "Eye of the Tiger" pounding in the background) sets the tone. And Rocky's charity wrestling match with Thunderlips (Hulk Hogan, in a career-altering performance) might have been the best 10-minute sequence of any Rocky movie.You want surprises? What about Mickey dying before the first fight with Clubber Lang? (Nineteen years later, and I'm still blown away by this one. People in the movie theater were reeling when this happened; nobody saw it coming. Mick? Mick? Mick?) Or Rocky getting knocked out by Clubber? Or Apollo coming out of nowhere to train Rocky? Or Adrian unveiling the first of her irritatingly enjoyable "You can't win!" speeches? Or that really awkward hug between Rocky and Apollo after Rocky finally wins the beach sprint, when they just show a little too much affection for two grown men? Even the gimmick ending worked here -- after Rocky recaptures his title -- with Apollo and Rocky lacing up the gloves again for the impromptu, no-crowd exhibition, capped off by a freeze-frame "both opening rights landing at the same time" ending. Who won? We'll never know. Best of all, how 'bout Mr. T as Clubber Lang? Was there a better villain in sports movie history? "Hey, woman! Hey, woman! I bet you go to sleep every night wondering what it's like to be with a REAL MAN!!!" I've mentioned this before, but have you ever noticed the eerie similarities between Clubber Lang and Mike Tyson? It was like Mr. T was ripping off Tyson's gimmick before Iron Mike even got started.
Of course, Stallone is the key to everything. From his wailing/speaking seizure at Mickey's bedside after the first Lang fight ("Ehrhhshngh Mick! Aw sjsjshshgwge Trrrhsshh! Awrrtttt doin' jsjsfdgdgdfdfdf! I can't Ahjhdhsgsfsfeurjdjsiaj") to his confession to Adrian on the beach ("I'm afraid! All right! I'm afraid!") to the final fight scene with Clubber ("You ain't so bad! You ain't so bad!), Sly reached his absolute apex here. In the history of American cinema, no actor has been as alternately cheesy, hysterical, likable, ludicrous, inspiring, laughable and endearing ... sometimes even all at once. He's a first ballot Hall of Famer, no questions asked.Nitpicking:
None. I wouldn't change anything about this movie ... not even the incredibly awkward beach hug between Apollo and Rocky. I might have tossed in a gratuitous sex scene with Adrian, because she was looking so frisky in "III," but that's about it. Chill Scenes:
1. Rocky convincing Mickey to train him one more time for the first Clubber fight. Come on, Mick. One more. I loved that scene. 2. The final training sequence, when Rocky finally regains the "Eye of the Tiger." 3. Clubber saying to Rocky before the second fight, "I'm gonna bust you up," and Rocky mumbling, "Go for it."
4. Rocky regaining the title. Good times ... good times.Final Watchability Verdict: 16 out of 10. Hasn't gotten remotely stale even after the 575th viewing.
This wasn't exactly an intricate plot: Apollo makes a comeback, gets subsequentally destroyed by Russian Olympic hero Ivan Drago -- partially because Drago forgot that this was supposed to be a damned exhibition and partially because Rocky forgot to throw the damn towel -- which means that Rocky needs to avenge his buddy's death. And he does, in an improbable Christmas Day fight in Russia, for which Rocky receives no money and gets knocked down approximately 330 times before winning the Russian crowd over and vanquishing Drago. Somehow, this remains my favorite Rocky movie, mainly for the way it straddled the balance between "absorbing action" and "unintentional comedy galore." There are 10-minute sequences without any dialogue. There's Dolph Lundgren as evil, monosyllabic, steroid-frenzied Drago (who has six intelligible lines of dialogue all movie -- "I cannot be defeated," "You will lose," "I must break you," "If he dies, he dies," "Until the end" and "You're dead"). There's Brigette Nielsen (Sly's woman at the time, but Mrs. Drago in the movie) with a gawd-awful Russian accent, saying things like, "You think you Americans are so berry berry good, and we're so berry berry bad." There's Apollo's shocking in-ring death, capped off with Barry Tompkins saying, "What started out as a joke has turned into a disaster!" as Warner Wolf feigns horror. There's Adrian with her standard "You CAN'T win!!!!" speech as Rocky contemplates fighting Drago (could somebody shoot her please?). There's Stallone hopping in his Lamborgini after Apollo dies -- as Robert Tepper's "No Easy Way Out" blares in the background -- and having a flashback driving scene where he goes 140 mph, shifts at least 40 times into at least the 35th gear, and never looks at the road once. There's Survivor trying to recapture their "Eye of the Tiger" magic with "Burning Hearts" ("Was it East vs. West? or man against ma-annnnn?"). There's Stallone (unbelievably ripped in this one), pulling out his old beard from "Nighthawks" for the training sequence, which concludes with him climbing a 40,000-foot mountain in Russia and screaming "Dra-goooo!!!!" There's the comical training sequence which juxtaposes Drago's new-age training with Rocky's back-to-the-basics training (hmmm ... what was the director going for there?). There's Duke (Apollo's old trainer) entering the Sports Movie Pep Talk Pantheon (more on this in a second).
Best of all, there's the ridiculous 20-minute fight-to-the-death scene (can you imagine the CompuBox numbers on that one?), which ends with the Russians turning on Drago and cheering Rocky -- the biggest stretch in movie history, bar none, and for the love of God, I will not argue about this -- Rocky winning in the 15th round, and Stallone giving his Cold War-altering "If I can change, and you can change, everyone can change!!!" speech.What a ludicrous, awful movie. I loved it. Nitpicking:
I would have made one change: When Adrian changed her mind right before the Drago fight and decided to fly to Russia, I would have had the KGB shoot down her plane. But that's just me. Chill Scenes:
1. Rocky cradling an unconscious Apollo, as Drago sneers at him and tells reporters, "If he dies, he dies" and eerie, evil '80s synthesizer music drones in the background. 2. Duke's pep speech in Rocky's cabin, which was so phenomenal that I can actually remember it without cueing up the DVD: Apollo was like a son to me. I raised him. And when he died, a part of me died, too. But now you're the one ... you're the one who has to make sure his death didn't go for nothing. You're the one. Do it. Do it. 3. The entire training sequence, capped off by Rocky climbing the mountain. Bonus points here for the TREEEEEEEEE-mendous soundtrack (reason No. 4,745 why you should own a DVD player). 4. The 15th round, when Rocky knocks out Drago and avenges Apollo's death. He's chopping the Russian down! Final Watchability Verdict: 18 out of 10.
Along with Cheese-Its, Sour Patch Kids and "Miami Vice" re-runs, "Rocky IV" remains one of those guilty pleasures that I can never resist. It's still the most watchable "Rocky" movie for me, even after all these years. If all four Rockys were showing at the same time, I would choose "Rocky IV." And even if you don't agree, well ... if I can change, and you can change ... Bill Simmons writes three columns a week for Page 2.
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