Earlier this year, Southpaw showcased Jake Gyllenhaal portraying a hard-edged side to modern pugilists reinvigorating interest in boxing on the silver screen. While Raging Bull (1980) is largely regarded as the greatest boxing movie of all time, the people’s champion Rocky (1976) became the phenomenon spawning five sequels of varying quality.
Another little film franchise was launched the following year, Star Wars and 39 years later the two film series’ continue with their adverse connection of a new addition released only weeks apart. Like the underdog portrayed by then unknown writer/actor Sylvester Stallone, Rocky managed to rise above more fancied opponents by winning 3 Academy Awards including the coveted Best Picture. Even ultra cool Jack Nicholson showed surprise when opening the envelope. Rocky was symbolism for hope, he lost the fight but won the girl, yelling out Adrian, Adrian repeatedly in despair until she enters the crowded ring to embrace her beaten warrior brought tears of emotion to the already uplifting tale.
Rocky caused audiences to stand up to cheer inspired by the Bill Conti conducted score, the streets of Philadelphia became a hot tourist destination. To this day, people run through the streets climbing the famous stairs with their arms raised as featured in the musical training montage (one of many throughout the series). The museum in the background now sells Rocky novelties.
Just ahead of the seventh Star Wars transporting us back to a galaxy far far away, Creed continues the Rocky saga for the seventh time, however rest assured Sylvester Stallone at age 69 does not step back into the ring as the iconic Italian Stallion but reluctantly agreeing to train the son of his old adversary and friend Apollo Creed.
Due to the massive original success, inevitable sequels followed gaining momentum in popularity and box office until a severe halt with Rocky 5. Due to losing the match to champ Apollo in the original, 1982 brought the rematch in Rocky 2. More of a rehash than a sequel, the build up to the big fight is incredibly inspiring cinematic power. It is also the film you learn that Rocky has a real name, Robert. Rocky 3 (1983) raised the bar bringing a parallel to the story as a retired Apollo decides to train his new friend Rocky Balboa in preparation after a loss to despicable Clubber Lang (Mr T). Highlights include an exhibition fight that gets personal against wrestler Thunderlips (Hulk Hogan) and the introduction of catch phrase and timeless song, Eye of the Tiger. It is also the introduction of the Rocky statue where it still stands to this day.
Pivotal in a time when USA and Soviet relations were at a Cold War premium, Rocky 4 released in 1985 to huge fanfare except in Russia where it was banned. Basic plot of David vs Goliath continued with Rocky taking on robot like Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren) in a bout staged behind the Iron Curtain. Inspiration for Rocky rises after Apollo comes out of retirement only to be felled by Drago during an exhibition match. Amazonian co-star Brigitte Nielson later became short term wife of Stallone. Retro propaganda aside, Rocky wears Apollo’s American flag trunks taking on an entire country and wins their hearts after an amazing 15 round fight of brute force. Dismissed by critics it remains the biggest hit and most fan admired with reports of full auditoriums chanting Rocky, Rocky, Rocky long after the end credits rolled.
Illegal copies of the film were shown in underground Russian micro cinemas illegally or through black-market sold VHS copies. Most amusing however was Rocky actually wins over the Russian fight fans who eventually turn against Drago. Rocky training in below zero conditions of nature while his opponent sweats in the gym using the latest high tech equipment and receiving injections of unknown origin pushes emotional buttons.
After such massive success, supposed final entry in the series Rocky 5 (1990) was bigger better and more inspiring right? Wrong! The return of Rocky (1976) director John G. Avildsen did nothing to bring back the feel-good streetwise origins. The one time champ has hit rock bottom relocating to the old neighbourhood, broke, damaged, entourage gone and diagnosed with irreversible brain trauma. Past formula abandoned, an ill advised fight goes ahead as a street brawl against a protégé turning against his mentor. Forgettable and despised by all including Sylvester Stallone himself, once asked to rate it, he said 0/10.
Unbelievably, against all odds another Rocky movie was released winning over audiences and critics alike. Rocky Balboa (2006) seemed closure for Stallone, his natural apology to the fans for the disastrous Rocky 5. Now a widower, he remains distant towards his son while running a restaurant to moderate success. After the current heavy weight champ is defeated by Rocky in a ‘virtual’ boxing match, Balboa is coaxed to come out of retirement to battle the much younger opponent in the ring for real. Although straining credibility, the movie revives the heart of the earlier stories and better than expected boxing manouvres for a senior citizen.
The unrelated Grudge Match (2013) brought together Robert DeNiro and Sylvester Stallone honing their boxing skills in an entertaining fight unofficially self parodying their own Raging Bull/Rocky personas. The much more serious Creed is something to look forward to with accomplished young star Michael B. Jordan taking the lead. He moves like a fighter in motion reminiscent of Carl Weathers but without the brash ring theatrics.
Although the focus is on rookie Adonis Creed, time will tell if the story can replicate histrionics of late Father Apollo and Rocky Balboa causing cinema audiences off the canvas to jump out of their seats in awe.
One thing is for sure, when the fanfare ‘Gonna Fly Now’ bellows over the soundtrack, chills for movie fans rejoicing the Italian Stallion saga may reign once again.
Shane A. Bassett