The Film: Rocky II (1979)

The Principals: Director / writer / actor: Sylvester Stallone, Talia Shire, Burgess Meredith, Burt Young, Carl Weathers, Tony Burton.

The Premise: After going the distance in a torturous fight with Apollo Creed in the first film, Rocky is at first flush with his brief brush with success.  He uses the money from the fight to marry Adrian, buy a car, a house and various knickknacks.  But his inexperience with money and limited education soon make it nearly impossible for him to find work.  He finally has to take a menial job at a meat packing plant, until he loses even that job due to budget cuts.  With boxing seemingly his only prospect for providing for his family, which will soon include a son, Rocky contemplates returning to the ring, despite the risks that it presents to his vision, and Adrian’s objections.  But Mickey tells him that with his impaired vision, he would stand no chance against Creed and more than likely be hurt permanently in the attempt. Nevertheless, Rocky begs Mickey to help out around the gym as a laborer, which leads to his eventually being ridiculed by the local fighters as a flash in the pan and a has-been.

On the flipside, Creed is dogged by the public negativity against him surrounding the first fight and his own dissatisfaction with a jobber taking him the full distance.  He’s determined to goad Rocky back into the ring no matter what to prove that the first bout was a fluke against a challenger he took too lightly.  When Rocky accepts the fight, Adrian refuses to support him, which leads to stress on her pregnancy that puts her into a coma when she delivers early.  Rocky is unable to train for the fight nor even see their son until Adrian awakens.  When she does, she lends her full support to Rocky, who trains even harder than he did in the first movie for the return match against a determined Creed.

Is It Good:

It’s my favorite Rocky film.  I don’t make the case that this is better than the original, but this is the film in the entire series that I’ve always enjoyed the most.  I think it’s a nice progression from the first film and was successful in capturing most of the heart and underdog appeal from Rocky.  I’m of the opinion that the third act fight is clearly better than the original, and the best fight in the entire film franchise.  I wouldn’t be surprised if Warrior director / writer, Gavin O’Connor, took some cues for his film from this one, particularly concerning Joel Edgerton’s character’s situation.

Since Rocky is the seminal American sports underdog film, I can only imagine the issues Stallone faced in following it up, especially since he also took on the directing reins as well as writing it and starring.  But follow it up he did, and successfully.  Rocky II was a box office and critical success and the second highest grossing film of 1979.  I’d probably put it in the top 10 sequels of all time.  I like that it picked up directly after the first film and is very muich a true continuation.  The problems that Rocky and Adrian face after the first Creed fight are very grounded and real, which is something that the series found harder and harder to achieve as it devolved into cartoon area with each subsequent installment until Rocky Balboa.

I love Rocky III for the sheer entertainment value, and I’ve probably caught that more on TV than any other of the films.  But if Stallone had left the series after II and then picked it up with Balboa years later, I think it would have been a very interesting trilogy.  As it was, after Rocky won the title, the entire franchise skewed into something else, becoming as much about the spectacle as anything else.  Rocky always worked better for me when it maintained its roots and core premise.  Mickey said it himself: the worst thing that could have happened to a fighter happened to Rocky starting in III.  He became civilized.  The first two films and Balboa all shared much of the same tone and premise: a nobody trying to achieve (and reachieve) something greater than his station in life.

Performances from Stallone, Shire, Young, Meredith and Weathers had no fall off from the first film.  In fact, it was very easy to accept that, even though it was three years later in real time, the story made the seamless transition between the two films.  The one that benefits the most from more screen time in II is definitely Weathers.  His Creed becomes much more fully-realized than in the first film.  He’s not the Delaware-crossing, stars and stripes joker that he was in the first film.  In II, he himself has to deal with something from deep inside as Balboa did: dissatisfaction with himself.  He becomes a man and athlete who faces a challenge for the first time in his career.  How he chose to address it in the ring became his undoing ultimately, but Creed as a character certainly achieved his full potential in II.

Then there’s Superfight II.  I love it, always have.  It’s the best bout in all of the Rocky films: a chess match and a gut check for both fighters as much as the first fight ever was.  But Stallone’s action choreography and back and forth between the two is much more riveting than the original.  Rocky’s comeback at the end of Round 2 and his turning the tide in Round 8 added another level to the match.  I tell you, if every fight was even half as entertaining as Round 15, I’d be catchiing boxing every chance I got.  And Stu Nahan’s commentary in the fight, particularly that final round is awesome: “I thought he took a beating ten months ago.  But this is twice as bad!”, “Creed doesn’t know where he is!  It’s blind instinct!”, “Balboa is staggering from exhaustion – but a right to the head of the champion. “, “A right hand! A right hand! It’s Creed! Now it’s Balboa! Now it’s Creed!”  And however far-fetched that ending might be with Rocky trying to pull himself up on the ropes (was he even really completely vertical?), it’s some truly rousing shit.  You want to jump into the damn ring to help Rocky up.  Hell, you want to help Creed up too so the thing can continue.  It’s a bitch-out emotional moment for me every time when Rocky collapses into his trainer’s arms.  Definitely the best fight – not the most realistic of course – but the most fun for me to watch.

Random Anecdotes: Stallone tore his pectoral muscle during training for the film and required 160 stitches.  He also actually bought a black and Gold ’79 Trans Am.

Cinematic Soulmates: Rocky, Rocky Balboa