In anticipation of the November 25th release of CREED, we’ll be taking a look back at the ROCKY franchise and discussing why these characters and this world are still relevant and necessary forty years later.
Rocky II had one of the most unenviable tasks in film history. It followed one of the greatest pieces of American cinema featuring one of cinema’s greatest characters. The fact that it isn’t a shambling, publicly derided mess is an accomplishment in and of itself. As a matter of fact, Rocky II is actually a very good movie.
Sylvester Stallone directs his first entry in the series with Rocky II, again working from his own script. The film feels very familiar as we basically get everything we got in Rocky but more of it. Rocky, having earned a decent sum of cash from his first fight with Apollo Creed, spends all of his earnings like you would imagine Rocky spending them: a brand new Trans-Am (which he can’t drive), garish clothes for himself and Adrian, watches and more watches for himself, Adrian and Paulie and a townhouse (without looking at the upstairs because, “it’s just details”). When Rocky hits financial bottom and is forced to slum it in Mickey’s gym emptying spit buckets, we’re right back to the Rocky we met at the outset of the series. Apollo Creed, being ridiculed for letting the “bum” go 15 rounds with the Champ and accused of fixing the fight, challenges Rocky to a rematch and we’re back off and running. Adrian has their first child and becomes ill. Rocky stops training to tend to her. She heals. Rocky trains fiercely. Rocky runs the steps. Rocky and Apollo fight. This time, Rocky wins! Freeze frame. Credits. The runtimes of the two movies are even exactly the same. So why does this movie feel so much different, ultimately being just good enough?
I feel like this is a case of having too much of a good thing. We go deeper into Rocky’s psyche here and each moment with him is a joy and a pleasure. He is still the simple guy from Philly who just wants to do what he’s good at and love his woman. His casual observation of, “I never knew you were so light… I would’ve carried you everywhere,” is the perfect mix of cheesy yet innocent sweetness*. Stallone gives us so many moments which remind us of those facts that it ultimately becomes more tedious than helpful. It’s a case where the material really isn’t bad, there’s just too much of it that doesn’t serve the story moving forward.
Technically, gone are a lot subtleties of character through the artfully gorgeous camera movements of John G. Avildsen and James Crabe (The Karate Kid) as Stallone and new DP Bill Butler (Jaws) let the shots run much longer (scenes often covering the same ground) with often very questionable photographic choices. It isn’t a total abandonment of style from the first go-round but it’s a noticeable shift that doesn’t feel “right”. Scenes will start off at the traditional wide angle but the characters will be framed way off to the side, leaving the viewers’ eyes to wonder where to look as the ADR voices are like sounds in the dark.
Let me slightly correct myself from the first sentence in my piece on Rocky: Rocky II is where it all really began. While I have major problems with the revisionist history and sameness of Rocky II, it is essentially the birthplace for the rest of the series. We are given an up close look at Apollo Creed’s home life and even a healthy dose of pathos for why he is the way he is. Carl Weathers‘ work here is some of the most under appreciated in cinematic history. The way he sells every inch of Apollo is breathtaking, which only helps to prop the character against what becomes some aggravating storytelling in the coming installments. The film introduces a version of Paulie that isn’t a drunk and only a mild asshole, leaving plenty of room open for the character to be whatever Sly wants him to be in the future. Mickey is Mickey. Essentially, all is left is plug-n-play.
I can’t be angry with Rocky II for changing the perfect thematic ending of the first film. If I was around when Rocky was released and heard about the sequel plans, no doubt I would have been staunchly anti-Rocky II. Sly did the exact perfect thing to send this character on another journey, leaving the road open for many more. Now, onto Rocky III, where the series becomes what everyone remembers it to be.
*I highly suggest watching these films with someone who has never seen them. They’re such a cultural foregone conclusion that seeing someone’s reactions to the sweet and funny moments, further demolishing the established clichê, is wonderful to witness. My girlfriend, who is new to the series, has exclaimed multiple times, “Why am I crying?!”. Prepare for much, much more.