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What's the big deal?
Rocky II is a sporting drama film released in 1979 and as the name suggests, is the second film in the Rocky franchise. Written and directed by star Sylvester Stallone, the film follows on from the events of the first film and sees Rocky Balboa struggling to adjust to life away from the ring when the dangerous prospect of a big-money rematch with champion Apollo Creed emerges. The film also stars Talia Shire, Carl Weathers, Burt Young and Burgess Meredith. Stallone refused to go ahead with the project unless he was hired as director after the director of the first Rocky was unavailable. Despite studio fears, the film was released to a generally positive reception from critics while audiences were just as keen, helping the film to a global box office total of $200 million. In the US, it was the third most successful film of the year behind Kramer vs. Kramer and The Amityville Horror. The film would later be followed by Rocky III in 1982, once again directed by Stallone.
What's it about?
Following his narrow split-decision loss to world champion Apollo Creed, journeyman Rocky Balboa suddenly has the world at his feet. After recovering from his injuries sustained in the fight, his new-found fame and wealth go to his head somewhat. Marrying the love of his life Adrian, Rocky and his dog Butkus move into a much bigger home in his native Philadelphia together with Adrian - who quickly falls pregnant with their first child. After being warned that another fight could risk his eyesight following a detached retina, Rocky tries to adjust to a normal life but struggles to adjust. Before long, their mounting debts and Adrian's health become issues that Rocky simply can't ignore for much longer.
For the champ, life isn't much better either. Stung by criticism that Rocky either threw the fight or he couldn't beat the unfancied Balboa, Creed is furious that his unimpeachable reputation is being tarnished by the narrowness of his victory. Going back on his word that there would not be a rematch, Creed publicly goads Rocky into another confrontation for the world title and vows to physically dominate Rocky to prove that their last fight was a one-off. But will Rocky accept the deal - and at what price?
What's to like?
Rocky II certainly has its issues, much like the first film did but like its protagonist, this film works hard to overcome the odds. The film's biggest strength is its story, feeling like a natural progression from the first film instead of a premise being forced through for a cheap sequel. In many ways, it feels like an extension of the first film - the same cast have all returned including the excellent Meredith as the irascible trainer and owner of Rocky's boxing club. This film plays on the strengths of the first film with so many nods to scenes and characters I'd forgotten about and it's a rare testament to Stallone's directional skills to manage to make this sequel fit seamlessly with the first film.
Obviously, the film's climax is the reason most fans will watch. Personally, I'm not much of a boxing man but the build-up to the fight and the glamour giving way to the bloody brutality illustrate Stallone's deep appreciation for the sweet science. I will say that the fight isn't especially realistic - I was reminded of that episode of The Simpsons where Homer gets into the ring and exhausts his opponent by absorbing more punishment than is humanly possible! But the story of the fight, of Creed becoming consumed by revenge and Rocky's desire to simply get through the fight, makes for a more interesting drama this time around and arguably, is the most enthralling aspect of the film. Despite having the ending spoiled for me, I wasn't entirely sure how Rocky could compete with the highly motivated champion this time around and especially after only a couple of training montages. He'd need at least four!
- At the end of the second round, there is a brief scuffle between Creed and Balboa after the bell with their respective camps having to separate them. This wasn't in the script - the actors had actually connected with some of their punches despite the heavy choreography and were genuinely furious with each other. However, Stallone loved the action and ultimately kept it in the finished film.
- Stallone suffered a serious injury during the shoot when he tore his right pectoral muscle while training for the role. After surgery, his right arm was practically useless so it was decided for Rocky to switch fighting styles and throw Creed off-guard in order to disguise this fact.
- John G. Avildsen, the director of the first Rocky, was unable to return because he was planning to direct Saturday Night Fever but ultimately left that project as well. Stallone, in addition to directing this sequel, would go on to direct the sequel to that as well - the fairly disastrous Staying Alive in 1983. Avildsen would go to direct the first three films in The Karate Kid franchise before returning to direct Rocky V.
What's not to like?
How can I put this delicately? Rocky II is not a film for anyone looking for something serious. Its ham-fisted approach to characterisation, the soap-opera level of storylines and sub-plots and the gleeful replication of sequences from the first movie (specifically, the famous montage of Rocky running through the streets of Philly and up those stairs) give the film a cheesy vibe that's hard to ignore. Coupled with Stallone's mumbling, monosyllabic delivery, the film takes time to adjust to - if I didn't have subtitles then I wouldn't have known what was being said half the time. Stallone simply has too much to do and his performance does suffer. As great and imposing as he looks during the more physical scenes, he struggles to emote properly which hinders the film's more dramatic scenes. Compared to the animated Meredith, Stallone looks like a recently thawed Neanderthal who isn't entirely sure what's going on.
There are other issues as well. I had forgotten how much of a jerk Rocky actually is but in this film, it's practically comical how bone-headed he is. Whatever poor Adrian sees in him, I'll never know. And speaking of the lone significant female cast member, Shire looks just as out of place as ever. I couldn't decide if it was her character or whether the actress just wanted to be anywhere else. The character of Paulie feels largely surplus to requirements as he doesn't have a whole heck of a lot to do this time around but Creed, played well by Weathers, is a more interesting character this time around but we don't get to see that much of him. My overwhelming impression of the film was that Stallone was attempting to remake the first film in his own image - making Rocky even more of an underdog, upping the dramatic stakes and turning this lovable numbskull into a cherished folk hero for school children to run alongside to the familiar Rocky theme. He even manages to squeeze in a cameo for his brother Frank Stallone as a member of a singing bunch of homeless bums and if that doesn't tell you everything you need to know about this film, I don't know what will.
Should I watch it?
Undeniably cheesy and kitsch it may be but fans of the first film will lap this up like a blood-soaked sponge. It's certainly the best of the Rocky sequels until its unlikely revival in 2006 and while they may damn it with faint praise, it's certainly worth a look for anyone with a passing interest in pugilism. The fight is exciting, Meredith's performance still has echoes of his timeless portrayal of The Penguin in the Sixties Batman series and that soundtrack remains as stirring as ever. If the first film was a knockout then this feels more like a points victory.
Great For: fans of the first film, Stallone's ego, boxing enthusiasts
Not So Great For: any hopes for the next three films, anyone hoping for a repeat in quality, any woman called 'Adrian'...
What else should I watch?
I confess that the next three films - the widely derided trio of Rocky III, IV and V - hold a morbid fascination for me and I shall be watching them in due course, probably with my head in my heads. The fifth film in particular felt like a knockout for the franchise but like the Italian Stallion himself, the franchise got back up and came back much stronger with 2006's Rocky Balboa which saw Stallone return to the role in his fifties and for the first time since 1990. Critics were frankly surprised by the film and praised Stallone's performance, calling the film one of the best in the franchise. But it was clear that Rocky's fighting days were behind him so the series took a dive and produced a spin-off series, Creed, based around the son of Apollo Creed being trained by Rocky for his own boxing career. A third film, Creed III, is due for release later in 2022.
Boxing and the big screen have long been sparring partners and often producing some highly acclaimed films in the process. Martin Scorsese's Raging Bull is a dramatic recounting of short-tempered boxer Jake LaMotta and his self-destructive behaviour which affects those closest to him. By contrast, Cinderella Man tells the real-life story of James J. Braddock who overcame financial hardship in the Great Depression to become world champion and sees star Russell Crowe on fine form. Million Dollar Baby was a big success at the Oscars with four awards to its name including Best Picture while the documentary I Am Ali covers examines the life and career of arguably the sport's biggest star, Muhammad Ali, who has been the subject of films himself including Will Smith's acclaimed performance as the boxer in Michael Mann's Ali.
Tony "Duke" Evers
Release Date (UK)
25th October, 1979
12A (2020 re-rating)
© 2022 Benjamin Cox