My twisted imagination likes to believe that Warrior was first developed as Rocky VII--a sequel where the Italian Stallion comes out of retirement once more to “see what this MMA thing’s all about.” That certainly isn’t anywhere close to the truth, but it’s still good enough of an excuse to look back over the all-American movie saga that doesn’t involve long-ago, far-away galaxies. C’mon, when you’ve got a cinephile’s roundtable going, you know this is the one where everybody’s got their own favorite...
Rocky (1976) Dir. John G. Avildsen
By this point, everybody and their uncle knows this was directly inspired by the famous Ali/Wepner underdog fight of the year prior. Just like First Blood, the flick takes on different qualities depending on whether you choose to acknowledge the broader entertainment sequels or not. Taken on its own, it’s a much more bittersweet tale of a bum whose best and biggest ambition isn’t to beat the champion, but to simply not get obliterated by him. In all likelihood, Rocky’s never going to do anything noteworthy for the rest of his life, and that underscores all of the crowd-pleasing fun with some real sadness.
I also join this with First Blood as proof of Stallone actually being a real talent, both in front and behind the camera, despite any of the latter excesses of his fame. Rocky’s script is tightly written and witty, with probably the best-realized take-off of Ali’s legend anywhere on film.
Rocky II (1979) Dir. Sylvester Stallone
Well, this might be the longest epilogue/denoument ever filmed. It begins at the precise moment that the first ended and ties up basically every thread that was left even somewhat loose. Rocky marries Adrian, he gets to beat Apollo and his lifestyle even enjoys a few benefits from his success. It’s actually less of a boxing flick than just a straight, low-key domestic drama. There’s less humor and no signature song, but there’s a depth of emotional honesty that'll be surprising to anybody pre-judging this by the latter sequels.
Rocky III (1982) Dir. Sylvester Stallone
Here’s the clear turning point where the series went from down-to-Earth, heart-on-the-pavement character drama to over-the-top, highly-stylized entertainment. And that’s probably unavoidable when you’re packing Mr. T, Hulk Hogan and Survivor into one movie. While the formula of "Loss => training montage => victory" was well-honed by this point, Sly puts worthwhile spin on it by having Rocky ally with his old foe Apollo to put some speedy rhythm in his game and regain the hunger that his success has made him complacent about. Even if you don't catch those deeper themes, it all gets summed quite literally in "Eye of the Tiger."
Rocky IV (1985) Dir. Sylvester Stallone
Oh, good lord. Ferociously anti-commie, anti-drug and all-American, this flick's so emblematic of the 80s that 40-60% of its running time's comprised of pure training montage (it even runs two of them back-to-back!) Cinematic cheese doesn’t run any thicker than this, but none of the usual criticisms against “bad movies” hold any weight here because it’s just so damn entertaining. If you don’t have any fun watching this, you need to check that there’s actually something beating in your chest. Likewise, if this doesn’t motivate you to spend even one pointless hour at the gym, then nothing’s ever going to make you “verb it.”
Rocky V (1991) Dir. John G. Avildsen
OK, even Stallone’s trashed this one. I’m sure the idea was to bring the series back to its dramatic roots after two straight outings of fun and sun (barring the deaths of a couple close friends, of course) but Sly put it best when he said this was so dark it “brought audiences down into a mine shaft and turned off the lights.” Rocky having to quit fighting because of brain damage is a way serious buzzkill, the "Duke" manager based off Don King is a too-blatant parody and the 90's hip hop on the soundtrack isn’t too inspiring as pump up jams next to the likes of “Eye of the Tiger” or “Hearts on Fire.”
Rocky Balboa (2006) Dir. Sylvester Stallone
What I love the most about Sly’s recent (and final?) returns to his respective franchises is how each flick’s themes were summed up in succinct mottos. And, to be sure, “It ain’t how hard you can hit, it’s how hard you can’t get hit and keep moving forward” is much more inspiring bumper sticker material than “When you’re pushed, killing’s as easy as breathing.” This faced serious skepticism in its pre-release and it delivered just what I was hoping for--inspirational, low-key drama. Granted, the romance with "Little Marie" gets a little weird, the sub-plot with her son doesn’t go anywhere and the whole conceit of a sexagenarian stepping back in the ring maybe pushes the disbelief-suspension a wee too far, but I can’t deny that the plain-speaking philosophy of this flick didn’t hit home with me.