With the seventh installment in the Rocky franchise coming out this week (albeit the first one not featuring Sylvester Stallone), it made me wonder about the first 6 films and how they stack up against one another. The first one is classic, but after that, it gets a little harder to choose a clear second.
By Kenneth Shipp
For the sake of suspense, I’m just going to discuss each one and you can find my ranking at the end of the article (although you’ll see my rating near each one, so you can probably guess how the list will look). Who knows? You may find this refreshing compared to the numerous list article circulating and recirculating on the internet. I recently completed a re-watch of the series and I have to say I was rather shocked by the ones that were my favorite and not surprised by which ones still earned my ire. Let’s break them down shall we
Rocky (1976) 10 out of 10
Before there was John Rambo and the wild number of action films that would come after that for Sylvester Stallone, he was defined by the film he wrote and starred in. Rocky has come to epitomize the underdog genre ever since it was released. It featured a relatively simple story of a boxer given the chance of a lifetime. The feeling and performances would fill out that initial premise into something pretty wonderful. We are treated to a slice of Philadelphia, a cast of characters who are colorful in spirit and adjectives, and a protagonist we can root for. The training montage may be one of the most parodied film moments since the Indiana Jones stone ball chase. But it resonates with us for a reason, we definitely like to think ourselves as champions and getting into that ring ourselves (the awesome score playing behind us doesn’t hurt either.) It clearly resonated with Oscar voters in 1976, as it took home Best Director for John G. Avildsen and Best Screenplay for Stallone.
Rocky II (1979) 7 out of 10
There was something intriguing about having a frustrated Apollo Creed desperately wanting to take on Rocky again. But much of the magic and care that was given to the first one was certainly starting to fade by this installment. We may not have realized that the franchise was going to keep churning out sequel after sequel. But if this had been the capstone to the first one, it really wouldn’t have been that bad. Everyone returns to deliver solid performances throughout, but there’s definitely a cheapened feel to this one that you can’t escape. You will still enjoy this one for it’s nostalgia factor, but those iconic 80’s moments are better encapsulated by III and IV.
Rocky III (1982) 7 out of 10
Now, if you argue there wasn’t a downward spiral in the sequel, you had to see it coming with the third movie. Mr. T is hilarious in this film, but that’s not exactly a good thing especially when I’m pretty sure they didn’t intend it that way. It does present a classic Tortoise and Hare situation through the lack of preparedness that Rocky displays to Clubber Lang’s intensity and consistent training. It would be Mickey’s (Burgess Meredith) last film as they would kill him off and have Apollo Creed come back to help out his previous rival. It was a pretty cool way to keep Carl Weathers in the franchise. It would however create some awkward beach moments
Oh, and how can we forget the soundtrack!! Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger” was made especially for the film and dominated the airwaves that summer. But it unfortunately it was the peak for a franchise that was starting to get sillier and sillier with each installment. I mean Clubber Lang was played by Mr. T….he was called Clubber Lang?…come on man!! Sweet Christmas!!
Rocky IV (1985) 3 out of 10
We hadn’t hit rock bottom yet, but scraping the bottom should be considering just as bad. While we may remember this one for the Serbian (actually Krasnogourbinsk which is fictional, but maybe they meant Krasnogorsk, which is a real place) training montage, Apollo Creed’s death, and Rocky punching communism in the face, it ultimately doesn’t hold up as a solid film, especially when compared to the rest of the franchise. This film desperately needed a tighter narrative, but it wasn’t going to be found as Stallone had lost his edge by this point. And then, we should discuss Drago for a moment. If I’m going to pick on Clubber Lang’s ridiculous name then I have to knock Dolph Lungdren’s wooden performance. If you search for Ivan Drago quotes, you will *almost* have the entirety of his lines for the film
The Rocky Balboa we had come to enjoy from the very first film was long gone. Which only made matters worse when it comes to the next installment.
Rocky V (1990) 2 out of 10
The real shame of this film is the potential. Assuming that the past ones had been decent or made sense as far as a character growth is concerned, Rocky V actually had a lot going for it. Rocky entrusted his money to Uncle Paulie, who through a decision of giving their accountant power of attorney and a few bad deals, lands the Balboa family in bankruptcy. This is untimely also to the fact that Rocky has sustained too many brain injuries to keep fighting. It forced them to downsize considerably and let’s us revisit some of the smaller venues and locations from the first film.
Rocky takes Tommy Gunn under his wing and trains him at Mickey’s old gym (the one thing he’s able to retain after the bankruptcy and such) and it gives him purpose again since he can’t fight anymore. What could have been a great passing of the torch movie turns into something else. The same weakly written characters that had been plaguing the series since III continue to persist, like Tommy Gunn (I take back my Clubber Lang comment, this name is definitely worse), George Washington Duke or the Don King parody create a comical feel to the movie.
While this one was surely a desperate grab for my cash, it also hurt another reason. The lack of time developing their hardship themes makes the bankruptcy in the beginning of movie feel like overkill. Taking away Rocky’s money almost seemed like a move out of a soap opera. We grew up rooting for him and even this situation would continue that, but it kind of sends a weird message, right?
If you want to bring the hero down a peg and make him work through a character flaw, I’m all for that. He neglected his son quite a bit in this one and more time spent of that relationship would have been more intriguing than the weak moments that collectively make up this pile of garbage.
Rocky Balboa (2006) 7.5 out of 10
16 years later and we would get the film we should have received in 1990. At the time, I was actively cringing the thought of them making another Rocky movie. Saying things like “Leave it alone” or “Stop squeezing the cash cow’s udders!!” were among my favorites. When it released, I was pleasantly surprised. Instead of another steaming pile of God knows what, we received a very decent entry into the series.
While the boxer he faces isn’t memorable (Mason “The Line” Dixon…can we just say this one and Tommy Gunn are tied for worst?) the story of a retired Rocky unable to leave the fight alone, dealing with the loss of Adrian and reconnecting with his son gave this film a familiar charm we hadn’t felt since the original. If nothing else, Balboa washed the bitter taste of Rocky V out of our mouths and made a case that sometimes reviving old properties isn’t the worst idea in the world.
Ranking the Rocky series
- Rocky Balboa
- Rocky II
- Rocky III
- Rocky IV
- Rocky V
Now, hold on!! Before you get upset at me for ranking Rocky IV so low, you have to remember how horrible that film really is. I’m expecting that’s the one I’ll get the most flack from or for ranking Balboa higher than II and III. Honestly, Rocky Balboa comes across move genuine than those first sequels and escapes some of the weak tropes and issues that were prevalent in 1970’s and 80’s fighter films than plagued III, IV and V. How’s your ranking compare to mine? Let me know in the comment section.