I'm not trying to be a hero! I'M FIGHTING THE DRAGON!!

Rocky II

tn_rockyiiAfter the success of ROCKY, screenwriter Sylvester Stallone became writer-director Sylvester Stallone with the period wrestling movie PARADISE ALLEY. And then after that practice run he was ready to direct the rematch.

ROCKY II starts right before where ROCKY left off, with about 5 minutes of Balboa vs. Creed. In other words “the end of ROCKY.” This type of recap used to be done in many sequels and never is now. You have to remember, there was no home video at that time. It seemed important to remind people what happened because the last movie was 3 years ago and people haven’t necessarily been able to see it since then.

So the first new footage is right where ROCKY left off, right after the fight, and we can compare and contrast it to the first movie’s scene after Rocky beat Spider Rico in the church. Instead of our hero and his opponent laying bloodied in a small back room waiting for the doctor to show up later, they are both rushed to the hospital in ambulances, and are welcomed there by crowds of fans and press. And instead of the two fighters being like friendly co-workers in-this-shit-together, Apollo starts barking in front of the cameras about a rematch and calling Rocky a punk. This confuses Rocky because, as we were reminded by the archival footage, the very first thing Apollo said after winning the fight was “No rematch.” He was very clear about it. They both agreed.

mp_rockyiiThe two are stuck in the hospital for a while healing, so there’s time for a great scene where Rocky gets up out of his bed at night and limps to Apollo’s room to ask him “Did you give me your best?”

“Yeah. Yeah,” Apollo admits. So he’s not a total asshole.

Apollo’s sensitivity about the subject is partly showmanship, partly ego. We see throughout this sequel that the less-than-definitive victory over this nobody ham and egger bum from the neighborhood is fuckin with him. He feels he needs to do it again and knock Rocky out quick to prove it was a fluke. If this wasn’t a movie he’d probly be able to do that pretty easily. As far as he knows he’s Muhammad Ali, and Rocky is… some dude.

Rocky wasn’t trying to go pro. He wasn’t trying to use that fight as a stepping stone to glory. He just wants to marry Adrian (“I was wonderin if, uh, you wouldn’t mind marryin me very much”) and take the money from the fight and an endorsement deal and treat his new bride to some nice things. He buys her a fur coat even though she doesn’t really want it, himself a Trans Am even though he doesn’t know how to drive, and both of them a house even though it’s the first one they’ve looked at. Adrian is hesitant about all this spending, but Rocky wants to do it and it’s his money, so she doesn’t get in the way.

This stage of Rocky can be called Tiger Jacket Rocky, since that’s what he buys himself after seeing it in a shop window. Nobody ever said he was a financial wizard. He’s unskilled in balancing his check book, but he has alot of determination is the thing.


This is a pretty interesting use for a sequel. We loved Rocky for being an underdog. After his achievement he gets a bunch of money, something we know he deserves, something we wouldn’t mind having ourselves. But now how does it affect him? Is he not gonna be as cool if he lives a life of luxury? If he is a success? Are we gonna end up resenting Tiger Jacket Rocky?

Well, don’t get too worried yet. Things go south on the endorsing business because he’s no good at reading cue cards. You feel so bad for him when he’s dressed up in a ridiculous caveman costume and the director (John Pleshette, cousin of Suzanne, also played a commercial director in ROCKY, and Lee Harvey Oswald in THE TRIAL OF LEE HARVEY OSWALD, and Secretary of State Seward in THE DAY LINCOLN WAS SHOT) is being a dick to him about the trouble he’s having reading. Maybe you people should’ve thought of that when you hired a guy based on you saw him on TV getting knocked on the head really hard hundreds of times in a row. And I’m sure you’d seen interviews with him before, heard what he sounded like. You’re telling me you thought he was gonna be John Gielgud?

Anyway, next thing he knows he’s asking Paulie to buy his car and get him a job at the meat factory. (Paulie took that job with Mr. Gazzo. He’s lost weight, wears nice suits and doesn’t talk as much shit, just gives bitter looks like he’s not gonna say what he wants to and it’s killing him.)

Like so many great men in movies (cops, soldiers, cowboys, fighters, criminals) Rocky finds that his wife doesn’t want him to do the thing that makes him great. It’s too dangerous. And he agrees at first, but Apollo’s taunts get to him and he misses it and he gives in and starts working with Mick again. Meanwhile Adrian is pregnant but goes back to work at the pet shop, has an episode, gives premature birth and goes into a coma. We could read this as the movie saying that a woman should stay home and be provided for, but that wouldn’t be entirely fair. More like a woman should get paid maternity leave.

Rocky’s bedside vigils and late night empty church visits are moving, and it’s powerful when Adrian wakes up and then tells him to win for her, finally giving him permission to put family worries aside and go for it. I’m not sure what changed her mind, though. Maybe it’s time for a trippy animated spin-off movie about Adrian’s comatose visions of discovery.

The training montage is kind of a rehash, with the same familiar music, same grey sweatshirt (now with red handkerchief headband). The difference is that now he’s a folk hero in Philly, so when he goes running through the city he ends up leading a crowd of admiring children through the streets, up the stairs and into the celebratory freeze frame. They want to go the distance with him.

Rocky is still a lovable goofball. In his journey to better himself he’s constantly reading books out loud to Adrian, not caring if he sounds like an idiot. And there’s a funny scene where he’s late to the fight but he goes to the closed church and honks his horn to wake up the Father to ask him to yell down a quick prayer for him not to get beat up too bad. Then he thanks him profusely and drives off in a hurry.

Stallone does a good job of following in Avildsen’s style, but his filmatism for the fight is particularly strong. It starts out very straightforward, almost documentary-like, but as the fight progresses it gets more and more stylized. The editing gets much faster and it turns into a montage of the rounds passing. It becomes more subjective as the fighters get beaten down. The camera gets closer to their faces, switches to slow motion as their consciousness fades. And meanwhile Bill Conti’s music gets more and more bombastic.

According to IMDb trivia, they spent over 8 months editing the fight.

The outcome is pretty easy to guess. Of course Rocky wins the belt. And as the match is wrapping up all I could think of was, well, this is not as interesting as the first ROCKY. This is the obvious sports movie ending. The end of ROCKY was amazing because he didn’t win, but he didn’t care, because he pushed himself to the limit. And because of that moment of only wanting to see Adrian, who he loved. This can’t really capture that, it can’t be as good. Adrian’s not even there! Shire was off filming PROPHECY or something and they shot her watching the fight on TV months later.

But I’ll be damned if I didn’t find myself moved by it anyway. It works. And since we even have that ROCKY ending as a part of ROCKY II itself, it’s straight up asking us to compare and connect the two scenes. “Yo Adrian, I did it!” because he kept trying and he went even further this time. The first time Adrian was elated that he had made it through in one piece, this time she is accepting him as a boxer.

And my favorite part is that Apollo, it seems, holds up Rocky’s arm in victory. I’m a sucker for moments of sportsmanship. I’ve never been into boxing but I watch a little MMA, and whenever somebody refuses to touch gloves or gets real personal in the pre-fight interviews I root against them. They’re a disgrace to the sport. But then if they show their respect after losing then I will forgive them. The mutual respect of warriors and all that.

The world didn’t need ROCKY II, but since it got it I’m glad it’s this good.

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.
This entry was posted on Tuesday, November 17th, 2015 at 12:12 pm and is filed under Drama, Reviews, Sport. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

27 Responses to “Rocky II”

  1. Nice review Vern. I don’t disagree with a word you wrote, yet this has always been my least favourite film in the Rocky series. It has nice scenes like the marriage proposal in the zoo (recall if you will Gazzo’s antagonistic thug who taunted Rocky in the first one “Retards love the zoo!”), but the training scene with scores of children chasing after our hero always struck me as a little too cute.

    Sly was obviously in great shape but always looked just a tad heavier to these eyes in this one. I figured his immediate post-Rocky success and partying probably contributed to gaining a few pounds. Frankly, I don’t buy that he could beat Apollo the second time around. The Champ was in better shape, trained like a motherf****r, and only lost by one second (and the dumb slo-mo music really grates on me). I’m glad Apollo was gracious in defeat but I don’t blame him for wanting a secret rematch with Rocky years later after he’d trained him to victory against Clubber Lang.

    I love Rocky and I love your reviews Vern, and I’m really looking forward to reading the rest of them.

  2. That tiger jacket was the best investment Rocky ever made. If I had that jacket, I would never take it off. I’d get married in it. I’d get BURIED in it. Old Tiger Jacket Majestyk is what they’d call me.

    But not to my face. They’d know they weren’t worthy of speaking the jacket’s name aloud.

    Point being this was always one of my less-favorite ROCKY joints but now I need to see it again immediately.

  3. You know, I never really considered how shitty this turn of events is for Creed. I always thought it seemed sort of fucked up that he didn’t share our awe that Rocky is able to go the distance. But of course you’re right, this is Creed’s career, his legacy, his LIFE! He’s supposed to be the best, and he just got shown up by some nobody from nowhere. How is he not going to be a little bitter about that? I kinda hope they address this in the upcoming CREED movie, that meeting Creed was the best thing to ever happen to Rocky, but it was probably the worst thing to happen to Apollo Creed. As Joey Pants says in RISKY BUSINESS: “In times of economic uncertainty, never ever fuck with another man’s livelihood.”

  4. Yeah when you really think about it Apollo sure did catch a pretty raw deal.

  5. Probably my favorite part of this film is the fight and its introduction of the song “Conquest,” which is repurposed to similarly awesome effect in Rocky Balboa. I never really cared for the way both of them fall to the ground at once, then it’s a race to see who rises first. That seemed pretty over the top, pun neither intended nor deleted.

    One weird thing is the scene where Rocky is trying to film that commercial as the caveman, where Sly really falls on top of himself trying to show us how utterly socially incompetent Rocky is. Like, he literally lacks the social skill, attention span, or basic literacy to make it through a few lines. Also, I think he cannot ride a motorcycle to save his life. But then in III and IV, Rocky is smooth and polished, pretty much all around. Gone is the un-self-conscious goofiness. He’s much more socially confident, restrained, and polished in pretty much every respect–dress, speech, mannerisms, and, of course, motorcycle riding. You could chalk some of that up to practice–we can infer the passage of significant time based on the various title defenses shown in the opening montage. However, the dude was already 30 in his first fight with Apollo, so his manner and capabilities were pretty well baked; plus, it’s still him, Mick, Adrian, and Paulie at the core, and there’s no indication that he’s gone through any kind of formal etiquette coaching or anything like that. All of sudden, he’s just smooth, tan, well-coiffed, pitchman 80s Rocky. That’s what Reagan and MTV will do to you, man. No wonder Paulie smashed that pinball game.

  6. I loved this movie when I watched for the first time some years ago in preparation for Rocky Balboa. A predictable but still worthy sequel. The score is great and very effective as workout music. I particularly like “Redemption”, the track that plays in the opening credits. I also liked to see Rocky work his ass off at the meat factory, it helped keep this movie grounded.
    I’m very curious to see Vern’s view on the following sequels. I find the third one too cartoony and the fourth one pathetic and dumb. I honestly prefer the fifth one to those two. Maybe I’m the only one.

  7. That scene with the commercial director is pretty heartbreaking to watch. Dude is such a dick.

    This and GODFATHER II are Mick Foley’s favorite movies. When he won the WWF championship for the first time he quoted the speech at the end talking to his family.

  8. This may be the only Rocky film I haven’t seen, although I have a few vague memories that may be from this film. For instance, does this end on a freeze frame of Rocky and Creed about to punch each other, or is that from Rocky III? I loved this series as a kid, but I only watched them when they showed up on broadcast TV, which means I’ve seen Rocky IV about a thousand times.

  9. There are a lot of personal/franchise parallels for me between the Rocky films and the Nightmare on Elm Street films. Both are bookended by what I consider to be truly top notch films by any standard. Both of them were really in their box office heyday in the 80s, then hit box office lows with part 5’s released at the turn of the decade. Both of them mostly languished in the 1990s. Both of them experienced a bit of an unexpected box office redemption in the 2000s. Both of them somewhat devolved into self-parody after the first couple of entries and then got their respective mojos back by revisiting familiar themes and characters and investing them with new significance or layering.

    I enjoy all of them. Rocky III and IV are really a kind of 80s time capsule, and if you take them on their own terms, they’re very lean, efficient, involving, colorful films. Clubber and Drago are, of course, totally cartoonish, but they’re great villains. Ahh…getting ahead of myself. Let the countdown continue!

  10. Batty, the freeze frame is end of III / opening of IV. The painting from that freeze frame shows up in 6, I believe. Rocky season! It’s like Christmas!

  11. Thanks, Skani. In that case, I somehow skipped 2, and I’ll have to rectify that this weekend. I couldn’t have been more than eight when I saw 3, so even though certain scenes are really clear for me, plenty of it is kind of fuzzy.

  12. I love Bill Conti’s score for this. The opening titles and final fight music are amazing.

  13. One thing that impresses me about the first two films, given the action star meathead rep Stallone eventually cultivated, is the degree to which his performance resoundingly proves his dramatic chops. Like Oprah as “Sophia”, Will Smith as “Ali”, Brad Pitt as “Early Grace”, Stallone completely disappears in the role.

  14. I’ve never seen an audience go as berzerk as they did during the final fight scene. I caught this Sunday night on its opening weekend – a rare thing when you’re a kid, in a pre-multiplex world no less. Can’t remember who drove me or who I went with, but have never forgotten grown men leaping up from their seats and throwing punches like it was some xBox kinect game.

  15. I watched this four years ago and got major HALLOWEEN II vibes. A listless retread with little to invest yourself in and (the worst film sin of all) very boring. It’s basically an hour and a half of Rocky being irresponsible with money and then he fights Apollo Creed again.

    I’ll say the last twenty-five minutes or so were pretty good and the fight was really well done, but overall it’s a real drag. Paulie gets skinny and uninteresting. Mickey suddenly has a different accent. Rocky’s hair looks like shit. Apollo is in full Ali mode. The training montage is pretty much the same as the first film, except Rocky has Rambo’s headband.

    I’ll take the cheesy ’80s excess of ROCKY IV over this any day.

  16. Merso, I also like V more than IV and I see we like the same tracks from II.

  17. This is certainly the start of the Rocky gravy train, but it’s still routed in that back-yard, Philly-street grime that still makes him identifiable to us, almost attainable by any mere mortal if you want it enough. Rocky 2 would be how Rocky 1 would play if it was made today.

  18. I’m another ROCKY V > ROCKY IV guy. I’ll explain why when we eventually get there.

  19. Rogue4: We 100% agree on something! It’s a shame that Stallone has that reputation when he first came to prominence with such a great performance, and in fact has continued to be great in many other types of movies (even as recently as BULLET TO THE HEAD, but nobody saw that).

  20. geez if you’re going to complain that all that happens in Rocky II is “It’s basically an hour and a half of Rocky being irresponsible with money and then he fights Apollo Creed again”, well, why watch movies? I’m not a big Rocky defender, but that is pretty reductionist. To quote Roger Ebert, “it’s not what (a movie) is about, it’s how it’s about it”.

  21. Heh heh heh… how bout that.

  22. This is one of the first movies I remember seeing in the cinema. I was bouncing around during that final fight and it was my first experience of, literally, being on the edge of my seat.

  23. Not as great as the first Rocky but I admit I love a lot of the scenes: the proposal at the zoo, “chasing the chicken”, Adrian telling him to “Win!”, the “Pied Piper bit with all the kids of Philly following up the museum steps,” “Switch to southpaw!”

  24. In terms of Stallone’s journey from serious actor to cartoonish action hero and beyond, I still think Cop Land is an underrated gem. It never quite delivered on the “Stallone’s big serious actor comeback” expectations, but it’s a good film. It’s a different character from Rocky, but it’s definitely a pivoting away from cartoonish badassery back toward more underdog, coulda-been-a-contender, unlikely badassery. What shines through in the film is how well Sly holds his own with the some of the finest actors of several generations (plus, Method Man).

  25. I like that Vern mentioned the “touching gloves” bit since that’s what’s seemed to turn the world against Ronda Rousey in the last week. I also like that Apollo gives Rocky a quick brotherly tussling of the hair after he holds his hand up in victory at the end. Apollo is just alot more interesting in this one – he’s slightly more assholish but he’s also more complex – I love the scene of him reading the “fan” mail telling him to go kill himself or that he’s a disgrace to his people. Who knew asshole internet commenters were around back then? And Rocky II makes Apollo seem even more bad-ass than the first one. I love the way he talks to the audience during the fight like a showman, and his wind-up punch gag is hilarious. Plus it’s not mentioned much but I like that Apollo DID have Rocky beat by points at the end. He could have won if he just stayed away, but he HAD to go for that knockout for his own pride. It’s like the macho end of Tin Cup but grafted on to the antagonist!

    I’m going to lose all credibility and say I enjoyed this more than the first one. Sure it’s broader but I still think it retains that gritty feel and character-based drama the first one has. It’s like a perfect blend between what people liked about the first one and what people liked about III/IV. Even though the first 3/4 is pretty depressing, I think Sly is a genius to make this the funniest entry in the series. Rocky acts just like Ed in Good Burger in this movie (“Condominiums?? I never use em!”) and it keeps the movie entertaining and watchable even if what we’re witnessing is sad. (The caveman aftershave commercial is simultaneously heartbreaking and a pioneer in “The Office”-style cringe-based humor).

    I dunno, I think the training montage in this one (even with the cheesy kids) is even better than the first one, and that fight at the end! The music, the slo-mo, the closeups of the punches – it’s almost operatic in intensity and the choreography is amazing. I can’t believe the same guy directed this, probably one of the greatest hand-to-hand fights of all time, and the incoherent fights in The Expendables 1. I’m actually envious of the guys here saying they saw this in the theatre, it must have been amazing to behold.

  26. Neal2, I think you make as good a case for the film as I’ve heard, and I wouldn’t deny any of your points. I enjoy it, but it’s one I watch less often, because I think in retrospect it’s got one foot in the gritty, down-on-your-luck world of Rocky I and the other foot in 80s Rocky and can’t decide which it wants to be. If I want either of those two experiences, I’m going to choose a more concentrated form. However, now that I think of it this way, Rocky 2 is particularly interesting as a critical transitional film for the series. More on this in a second.

    For the Rocky of 1, 5, 6, and (I gather) 7, it’s not about knockouts or even victory, and it’s certainly not about wealth or accolades. Its about fighting a personal battle within, for one’s own soul, so to speak. Will I do what’s right, make my time on earth count, push myself to the limit and see what I’m capable of, regardless of whether the ref or judges or society declares me a “winner.” I am a winner if I am being the best I can be and facing life’s challenges and opportunities with hope and fighting effort vs. despair and resignment.

    For 80s Rocky, it’s not enough to go the distance or do the right thing: Sly needs for Rocky to win by knockout and be the recognized champ; literal foes must be decisively vanquished and Rocky must be hailed and coronated publicly as victor. A Rocky who was already past his physical peak when he first fought Cred (he was in his 30s and remember that very vulnerable eye of his from part 1 and 2) and who barely eked out a victory in part 2 is now years later decisively knocking out stronger and younger opponents, one of whom killed the same Creed that Rocky barely beat years ago. Rocky is also conspicuously wealthy, tanned, well-dressed. Designer clothes, fancy sports cars and motor cycles, mansions, are all prominently bandied about. Rocky doesn’t seem to need it himself, but Sly seems to need Rocky to receive tangible social validation of his prowess and worth. In this respect, I think the 80s Rocky loses his way a bit, with Rocky becoming an increasingly bigger-than-life character whom Sly is forcing to fight largely ego-driven battles that reflect Stallone’s own hubris and the 80s ethos.

    This bigger-than-life 80s Rocky reaches its pinnacle (nadir?) in IV when Rocky, now significantly older and presumably no healthier than when he first faced Creed, manages to decisively knock out a gigantic, monstrous super-engineered creation who literally killed the same technically superior Creed whom Rocky barely beat years ago. We’ve clearly ventured into 80s excess male fantasy wish fulfillment here. III and IV are Stallone playing with Rocky action figures in his bedroom. At the beginning of Rocky III, we learn that it is Mickey who is shielding Rocky from defeat, but at the end of Rocky III and in Rocky IV, it is Sly who needs Rocky to decisively win fights that Rocky I and II suggested were well beyond the grasp of even his most strenuous and heroic efforts. This is what I mean when I say 80s Rocky. It’s not clear why Rocky needs to win in III or IV except that Sly and perhaps the studio need him to win, because we don’t want to lose this feeling. It’s just being swept up in the irrational exuberance and bigger-than-life fantasy wish fulfillment of the times.

    Even though I still love III and IV, I think they are the continuation of something that started with II. As a stand-alone film, Rocky I is beautiful. It is exactly and unabashedly *not* about winning by knockout or by judge’s scorecard or by wealth or looks or polish (Apollo embodying these qualities). It’s not even about winning the devotion or legend of neighborhood (when the decision is being read all Rocky cares about is Adrian, not the decision or the fans). It’s about love and struggle and making the most of life and your opportunities. Rocky II is the first turn toward a Rocky that needs to be better or more than that, even if it means a Rocky that continues to achieve increasingly improbable and unnecessary victories so that he can achieve riches and professional sports immortality. This is 80s Rocky. Post-80s Rocky is a course correction that restores us to what this character and his story are about.

  27. But make no mistake, I love 80s Rocky, too. :)

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