Rocky II (1979) — The happy ending version

“Was ya ever punched in the face 500 times a night? It stings after a while, ya know.”

Al’s rating: Like eating lightning with maple syrup and little cayenne pepper!

Al’s review: Most people forget that Rocky used to be taken seriously. They forget that before he single-handedly ended the Cold War, before he had robot butlers and a mansion, and before he and Apollo frolicked in the ocean waves wearing shorts entirely too short for my comfort level, there was real effort put into creating a solid, memorable sequel to the Best Picture of 1976. To put a point on it, people forget that Rocky II is pretty darn good.

All the basics are handled well. The boxing, the training, the villain; all are competently done and more or less as you’d expect them to be. Looking at it on paper, really, it almost seems you’d be in for a pretty by-the-numbers experience. Luckily, this film manages to be smarter than that at every turn.

More than your average Big Fight movie, Rocky II is elevated, perhaps unexpectedly, by it’s sweetness. Sylvester Stallone understands Rocky Balboa on a level that I think few actors ever get to know a character. Allowed new freedom this time around as writer, director, and star, he’s really given license to let Rocky be Rocky. Early on, in what will become a cliché of the series, the Italian Stallion retires from boxing due to injuries and the insistence of his wife. While this leads to some less-than-memorable sequences (Rocky sweeping up meat leavings? Mmmm.), it also frees up the character from having to constantly worry about his next big threat and allows his personality to take center stage for a while.

What Stallone gets, and what I think was lost once the producers realized the bankability of Rocky as a franchise, is that our hero is not dumb. He’s simple but not simple-minded. During most the film’s first half, Rocky plays endlessly with little bouncy ball you just know he picked up out of some street gutter somewhere. It’s a brilliant bit of stage business that says volumes. Here he is, surrounded by vultures perpetually waving cash in his face and sizing him up for TV commercials, action figures, or anything else they can plaster his face on, yet he is still able to find an almost childlike fascination in so humble an activity as bouncing a ball. His conversations with Adrian reveal more of the same affability– always goofy, but never stupid. Too many people want to pigeonhole Rocky (and Stallone) as a lumbering, stumblng, “Which way did he go, George?”-style idiot manchild, and it’s so far from the truth that you have to wonder whether they’ve ever actually watched these movies.

And the rest of the cast helps fill out Rocky II in ways Sly can’t by himself. Apollo Creed is fun to watch as he slips into paranoid obsession over reactions to his “by-decision” win in the last film. Carl Weathers manages to let Apollo twirl his moustache just a little without letting him descend into proclamations of “You must pay the rent!” to little old ladies running orphanages. Talia Shire gives us an Adrian who is not the screeching shrew she would become, just a loving wife who has finally grown into her skin and is no longer afraid to talk to people like she’s an equal instead of a servant. Burt Young and Burgess Meredith steal every scene they’re in, of course, because Paulie and Mickey are simply two of the best supporting characters ever created.

Now, make no mistake, all the claims in the world of being “elevated” and “superior” are not going to change the fact that Rocky II is still a Big Fight movie. It really is all about the last thirty minutes, and the first ninety would mean doodley-squat if the end of the film didn’t deliver. But like I said, everything you expect is still here: the training, the prayers, and the vitamins return in force and with full musical accompaniment. I feel like lots of it is lifted almost shot for shot from the original, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, I feel secure enough in my manhood to admit I shed a tear when Rocky ascended the steps of the museum. Just because it’s been done before doesn’t mean it doesn’t work.

All told, Rocky II is more or less everything a sequel should be. It’s funny, exciting, and maybe even a little moving, if you’re a sap like I am. Micky is grungier, Apollo is scarier, the fight is more brutal, and Rocky finally gets what he deserves. What’s not to like?

Justin’s rating: “Going To Fly Now”, not “Gonna Fly Now”. Proper English, people!

Justin’s review: In the breathless arena of sequels, there’s a certain brand of descendant that I’d like to call the “rushed sequel.” I know, how original! It’s a move that happens when a film launches to critical box office fame to such an extent that Hollywood execs fall down in their offices, piddling themselves in the fetal positions, thinking about all the bright, shiny gold to be made if they could just turn this into a franchise. Strike while the iron is hot, and even a lackluster flick becomes a blockbuster. A rushed sequel usually has to happen within a limited time frame (say a year or two). Longer than that, and the movie will have to stand on its own merits.

A rushed sequel — like Rocky II, our case study for today — is nothing to be admired, only pitied from a distance. It usually reunites the main cast and the tattered remnants of a photocopied copy of the original script, rearranged just so to avoid egregious copyright infringement. Usually the victors of the first movie are artificially brought low again, just so they can be brought back to victory — ending the film at status quo. Think “more of the same”, and then toss in a pointless musical number led by Vanilla Ice. Rocky II is a straight-out rehash of the first film, with only a few tweaks here and there to validate its existence (Warning: spoilers ahead!):

Rocky I: Mumbly underdog Rocky scrapes by as a street thug collector, all the while looking for his “big shot”.
Rocky II: Mumbly underdog Rocky wastes all of his endorsement opportunities, and scrapes by as a meat plant worker, all the while looking for his “second shot”.

Rocky I: Paulie is abusive and drunk.
Rocky II: Paulie is still abusive and drunk, but everyone seems to tolerate him more and nobody puts together an intervention and/or “midnight soap-in-a-blanket” beating.

Rocky I: Cocky Apollo Creed challenges Rocky to a heavyweight match as a publicity stunt.
Rocky II: Cocky Apollo Creed re-challenges Rocky to a heavyweight match to prove that Rocky’s effort in the first movie was a fluke.

Rocky I: Rocky woos shy Adrian, and they have nerdy, awkward kisses.
Rocky II: Rocky makes love to shy Adrian, and they have nerdy, awkward children.

Rocky I: A crotchety coach slams Rocky for being a “bum”, but agrees to train him anyway.
Rocky II: Same crotchety coach slams Rocky for continued bummage, but agrees to train him anyway. Coach is understandably upset when Rocky takes a break from his training to attend his sick — and possibly dying — wife’s bedside.

Rocky I: Rocky undergoes a rigorous training montage, in which he climbs 30 steps — tops — and acts like he conquered Mt. Everest.
Rocky II: Ditto, but a billion Philadelphians run after him in an impromptu parade.

Rocky I: Rocky “goes the distance” in a hard-fought match.
Rocky II: Rocky “goes the slow-motion” in a hard-fought match.

So there you have it. So there you have it ZING! Which sentence appeals to you more?

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