Ever since Rocky Balboa came out in theaters a couple of years ago I’ve been meaning to watch through the series in its entirety.  When Devin posted his review of the first film awhile back, it inspired me to want to watch this continuing story of a man and his dream even more. 

Last week, I finally completed my self-imposed task.

Let me start by revealing a shocking fact about me: until last Christmas, the only Rocky movie I had seen all the way through was Rocky IV when it first aired on one of the premium movie channels back in the mid-80s.  

I know – I should be lynched.

I was about ten or eleven at the time, so the main draw for me was that it was yet another action-style flick for the guy who was Rambo.  Up to that point (and even a long time afterward) I had never really had an interest in the other Rocky films.  I remember seeing bits and pieces of the first one on TV as a kid and it was just boring to me.  The theme song even grated on my nerves.  For me, the closest I would get to watching the first Rocky was the other similarly-themed fighting flick directed by Avildsen – The Karate Kid.  That movie was pretty much a Rocky movie for kids, and seemed better suited to my not-very-mature sensibilities, much like the fourth installment in Stallone’s boxer saga.

Over the years, my interests and tastes evolved and expanded (of course, if you’ve read my first blog, you’ll notice that they haven’t changed completely).  I started watching films that were more than just popcorn faire.  I went back and watched movies that were considered classics.  Unfortunately, one series of movies fell out of my peripheral vision, mostly due to simply the sheer number of other things vying for my attention:

Rocky just kept missing the spotlight.

Fast forward to 2006.  Rocky Balboa had just come out.  By this time my interest in character-driven story lines was pretty much cemented thanks to some really great writers like Joss Whedon.  After too many years of never getting to know the Italian Stallion, Rocky Balboa finally brought Stallone’s most well-known character back into my direct line of sight.

Only to once again lose focus due to too many other projects, movies, TV shows, and minutae vying for my attention.

Now, here it is 2010.  Like I said above, after all this time, I finally completed what I should have done a couple of decades ago.  And I have Encore to thank.

Last holiday season, I was able to take a couple of weeks of vacation from my job.  It had been a tough year, and I needed the time to decompress and recharge.  This consisted mainly of playing video games, watching movies and TV shows, writing, and getting my Christmas shopping done early.

At the same time, the Encore movie channels had a plan of their own.  Operation: Entice Donnie Sturges to Watch the First Five Rocky Films Because He’s Waited Too Long and is an Insufferable Git Because of It was underway.  All month long in December, Encore would be showing each of the first five, culminating in a marathon on Christmas Day.  That, Encore decided, would be the bait that would lure me in.

It worked.  Kind of.  I ended up watching the first three.  I skipped IV, mainly because I had seen it so many times as a kid that it was pretty much burned into memory.  And I skipped V because I had heard about just how awful that film was.  Even Stallone himself was displeased with it.

After watching the first three Rocky films, I fell in love with them instantly (in varying degrees).  At that point I realized that this was a series I really wanted to own, especially if I wanted to finally see Rocky Balboa (Rocky V be damned).  By this point Christmas was already over, so my chances of procuring the boxed set were slim.  So on my birthday wish list it went.  My birthday, being in March, meant I had to wait just a little longer.

Long story short (too late), I finally acquired the Rocky boxed set on Blu at the end of March, and immediately started in on this incredible series, watching one or two a week.  I had decided that this time, I would watch each one (including IV and V) so that I could really experience the whole saga in context.  What follows is a brief (too late) rundown of each:

Obviously the gold standard for the entire series, this film is simply perfection to me.  A character study of a man who just wants the girl, but manages to go the distance with the only thing he’s ever felt he was built for – being a fighter.  Each time I’ve watched this movie, I kept thinking it was in black and white.  The colours are so muted for most of the film that it gives it a rough, documentary-style quality.  I love it.  It feels raw and honest.  And I am glad to say that the theme no longer grates on me.  In fact, it does exactly what it’s meant to – inspire.  And like Devin said in his review – if you don’t at least get misty at the end, your soul rotted away years ago.

Rocky II
Pretty much a continuation from the first.  In fact, it felt very much to me like I was just watching an extended version of Rocky.  I’m not saying that as a bad thing, either.  Rocky II allowed me to slip right back in (of course, it helped that I had only watched the first one the night previous) to this world, picking up right where the first left off.  One of the nice things about seeing this series so late is that I already knew Stallone’s intentions behind each installment.  I went into this seeing each film as a window into Stallone’s career as well as the natural progression of his character.  This film comes across just as strong as the first, but with a far better outcome for Rocky.

Rocky III
From the opening scene following the recap, I could tell that there was a tonal change occuring.  It was announced the minute “Eye of the Tiger” began to play in lieu of more Conti score.  This was the beginning of a transition from character piece to action flick.  It was reflected in the situations Rocky had to endure, as well as the “final boss” Clubber Lang.  There were scenes that seemed out of place for me as I watched this movie, like the showdown with Thunderlips.  Even Stallone wasn’t playing Rocky quite the same.  He seemed to become a little too refined.  In fact, keeping in mind that these films were somewhat autobiographical for Stallone, I could see that at this point Stallone was starting to play the character less like Rocky and more like himself.  Oddly for me, in that context the movie seemed to work better.

Rocky IV
The installment I had seen at least twenty times as a kid, Rocky IV continued to push that tonal shift and pretty much became a full-fledged action flick set in a boxing ring.  Not surprising, since by this point that’s what Stallone was becoming noted for.  That formula was firmly in place here.  Still, I have an odd love for this film partially due to all those viewings I endured as a kid.  Stallone continues to portray himself here, and Lundgren is just too much fun to watch as a stone-faced Goliath.  With a soundtrack almost completely infused with inspirational rock ballads, this movie continues to exude a certain charm for me.  One thing I never noticed before (probably because I would have never picked up on it at the age of ten) – Brigitte Nielsen does a horrible Russian accent.

Rocky V
Maybe it was because my expectations were lowered so much going into this one, but I didn’t find this chapter to be as bad as I had expected.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s bad.  But it still has a few redeeming qualities.  The biggest plus for me was that Stallone seemed to remember that the character elements were what made the first couple of films great.  All of the character moments between Rocky and his family are really enjoyable to watch, between Rocky’s health issues to Paulie’s mistake sending them back to the poor house to Rocky’s estrangement to his own son.  These elements served as incredible reminders of the strongest aspects of the first film.  Unfortunately, almost as soon as we get reacquainted with characters we’ve grown to love, they suddenly get tossed into what I can best describe as a Vanilla Ice film.  Seriously, there were several times throughout the film that I thought there was going to be a rap-off or a dance-off.  I get that Stallone was trying to be topical mirroring the real life events surrounding Don King, but Duke is practically played to parody levels.  The over-the-top moments surrounding Duke as a promoter clash with the more subtle character moments with the Balboas, leaving a very disjointed film.  Despite that, I still really like parts of this movie.

Rocky Balboa
My journey through Rocky’s life culminated with my viewing of the final film in the series last week – Rocky Balboa.  I think the general consensus is correct – Balboa is the perfect bookend to the first film.  Even after be away from the franchise for over fifteen years, Stallone manages to come back and nail exactly what made the first film a masterpiece.  This is the perfect coda to the character study that is Rocky Balboa.  As much as I missed seeing Talia Shire reprise her role as Adrian for this installment, I think Stallone made the right decision to have her character pass away.  It fits in perfectly with the recurring theme that has become a staple of the Rocky series – overcoming adversity and loss.  Adrian’s death is the perfect catalyst to build Rocky’s final story around.  It gives the movie focus, purpose, and direction.  And through that this movie managed to pull at my heart strings for the full hour and forty minutes, as well as reminded me what Rocky has been all about from the beginning – Adrian.  Yeah, the Rocky films have always seemed to focus on the trials and tribulations of a south paw fighter, but the heart and soul of the film series, as well as Rocky himself, have always been about Adrian.  This final installment to the series manages to bring that all full circle, creating the perfect coda to a flawed, yet enjoyable film saga.

One thing I’ve noticed now that I’ve finally seen Stallone’s six part opus is that after I finished the last one I felt a slight tinge of sadness knowing that Rocky’s story was now complete.  I don’t know if I would have felt the same had I seen the movies as they originally came out, but I would like to think so.  In fact, I would think that spending almost your entire life up to the present watching these films would almost be like getting to know your own family growing up.  Stallone made sure that these characters resonated to the point where their triumphs and tragedies became personal and intimate.  You really identify and feel for these characters, like you grew up with them.  I managed to achieve that same feeling just over the course of a month, but part of me wishes I had gotten there naturally.  These are characters I would have like to have gotten to know gradually over the course of my life.  But, regardless of how I got there, I find that Rocky and his family still feel like part of my family.  And I look forward to someday visiting them again.