Rocky retrospective Part 2: ROCKY II (1979)

Luke G. Williams
15/01/2016 10:17am

With CREED released in the UK on 15 January, Luke G. Williams re-examines cinema’s greatest boxing hero - the one and only Rocky Balboa - for Boxing Monthly Online. Today, he assesses the second entry in the series, ROCKY II …

Despite the runaway box-office and Oscar-award-winning success of ROCKY, a follow-up was far from certain. Back in the 1970s the movie industry wasn’t yet burdened with the surfeit of sequels that currently exist and the success rate of those that did make it to cinemas was patchy. Movies, it seemed, were still movies, as opposed to ‘franchises’ or ‘properties’. 

Having said that, Sylvester Stallone was always open to the possibility of continuing the Rocky saga, albeit not quite in the form that eventually transpired. In the wake of ROCKY’s release in 1976, Stallone outlined his potential vision for the continuation of the series to the New York Times, explaining that a second Rocky film would see our hero attend night school and then enter politics, eventually becoming Mayor of Philadelphia. Part III in this mooted trilogy would have seen Rocky framed by the political establishment, impeached and forced to return to boxing –“broken down but happy” – at the age of 37.

Once ROCKY II entered production this somewhat earnest ‘state of the nation’ style storyline was jettisoned in favour of a more populist approach. Stallone could ill afford ROCKY II for fail, largely because of the critical and commercial failure of his two immediate post-ROCKY projects, both of which were released in 1978. Norman Jewison’s F.I.S.T., in which Stallone played union boss Johnny Kovak, earned mixed reviews and disappointing box-office receipts, while his directorial debut, the ambitious wrestling opus PARADISE ALLEY, was slashed in the editing room on the orders of Universal Studios - the resulting mess of a film was greeted with critical derision and proved a box-office bomb.

Not for the first time in his career, it was left to Stallone’s most endearing and enduring creation to get his career back on track. In this respect ROCKY II succeeded in spades, proving one of the box-office hits of 1979, both in the USA and abroad. Furthermore, although the film did not garner the ecstatic reviews afforded its predecessor, the critics were generally enthusiastic, and the film has maintained a good reputation since, often being referred to by many as the second best film in the series.

This writer, however, would beg to differ. Despite its many virtues, I would argue that ROCKY II is – aside from the commonly unloved ROCKY V - the weakest entry in the Balboa saga, largely because it is a resolutely unambitious film with an uneven and unsure tone. Essentially a re-tread of ROCKY, ROCKY II also loses points for sacrificing the philosophy which the original film stood for by abandoning the purity of Rocky’s original ambition – to ‘survive’ for 15 rounds against Apollo Creed and in doing so earn a sense of self-respect and self-worth – in favour of a ‘winning is everything’ attitude.

This ethos would dominate the series until 2006’s ROCKY BALBOA, perfectly chiming with the Reaganite political climate of the 1980s, a transformation in philosophy best summed up by the words uttered by Adrian in ROCKY II when she emerges from a coma prior to the film’s climax: “there’s one thing I want you to do for me …” she tells Rocky. “Win!”

One can more easily forgive this dramatic transformation in the ethos of the Rocky character by the time of ROCKY III and ROCKY IV as the films themselves have also, by this stage, undergone a stylistic transformation from the muted, gritty visual texture of the original – which echoed 1970s Italian-American cinematic trend-setters such as Scorsese’s MEAN STREETS – to a flashy, cartoonish, montage-dominated, pop video vibe.

ROCKY II, however, is caught uncomfortably between the realistic and the absurd – it tries to maintain the gritty visual texture of an independent film, but such an approach is no longer valid or effective when set against the context of an increasingly unbelievable series of narrative events.

This is not to say that ROCKY II is unenjoyable. The returning cast are all as engaging as ever, even if the ensemble could have done with the injection of a major new character or two. Technically, Stallone’s direction is excellent and Bill Conti’s score is nerve-tingling in its brassy brilliance. The opening scenes of the film are also very good. Indeed, taken in isolation, the first 50 minutes or so represent an interesting coda to the first film, as Rocky adjusts to the drudgery of everyday life after the emotional high of his extraordinary performance against Apollo.

We see Rocky charmingly propose to Adrian at the zoo, their rather downbeat wedding (attended by a lone bridesmaid, Paulie, Gazzo and Mickey) and Rocky’s struggle to adjust to life post-boxing after he splurges most of his earnings from the first Apollo fight, including blowing some of his money on a shockingly poor taste jacket with a tiger emblem on it and a sports car he can barely drive. Finding other sources of income hard to come by, Rocky ruins a potentially lucrative advertising opportunity due to his poor reading skills, and fares little better elsewhere, suffering the ignominy of being let go from a job at Paulie’s old slaughterhouse and then being mocked by young boxers at Mickey’s gym for ducking a potential Creed rematch.

However, after this promising start, the film loses its way somewhat with a series of medical melodramatics, as a pregnant Adrian collapses after an argument with Paulie before falling into a coma in the wake of giving premature birth to Rocky Junior (actually named Robert, like his father, Rocky only being a nickname).

Of course, Adrian awakes just in time to motivate her husband to train with renewed energy, as represented, of course, by a splendid montage or two, including a re-creation of the Rocky steps run, although this time with 800 school kids in tow.

Unfortunately, the climax to the film, namely the Creed-Balboa rematch, is problematic on several fronts; whereas we truly believe that the Rocky of the first film could go the distance against an unmotivated Apollo, his ultimate triumph in ROCKY II against a champion who has prepared diligently and in a focused fashion stretches credulity beyond breaking point, particularly given Rocky’s neglect of his training when Adrian is unwell.

The absurdly overblown conclusion to the fight – which sees both men fall to the canvas before Rocky rises with one second remaining is also unsatisfying. For starters, it’s impossible to shake the conviction that most referees would have counted Rocky out as well, given the unsteadiness of his legs and the fact he is still clutching on to the ring rope with one hand when the referee’s count reaches ten. Additionally, the fight choreography throughout lacks the sharpness or charm of the first film, with numerous punches from both men clearly hitting air rather than flesh, despite the deafening thwacks and thumps of the soundtrack.

It’s my belief that Rocky should either be a gritty, downbeat underdog, or a cartoonish superhero. He cannot represent both archetypes at the same time and this is where ROCKY II falls down. Ultimately, it is a film which is caught betwixt and between the realism of ROCKY and the glorious, hyberbolic absurdities of ROCKY III and ROCKY IV. As a result, it fails to engage the heart – in the way that ROCKY did – or the pulse rate, in the way that the next two films in the series would do.

The way ahead for the saga was now clear - as Stallone and Rocky entered a new decade, the last remnants of 70s grit would be jettisoned in favour of 80s glamour, enabling Stallone to craft two films which still stand today as masterpieces of popcorn entertainment.

ROCKY II retrospective rating: 6 out of 10