The “Rocky” films were among the first of the modern kind of franchises. Historically movie series were mostly comprised of individual, largely self-contained installments, like the Mickey Rooney-led Andy Hardy films of the ’30s and ’40s or the 50-year-plus Bond cycle. But the “Rocky”s were among the first brands that kept a story going for years, following the same character as he ages and changes. “Rocky II” even came a year before “Star Wars” wrought “Empire Strikes Back.” With “Creed,” its new semi-spin-off now out, we offer our purely objective ranking of the films title-by-title.
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1. ‘Rocky’ (1976)
Along with “Jaws” the year prior and “Star Wars” the year after, the first “Rocky” is often credited with helping break the gritty, downer streak that had come to somewhat (if by no means entirely) dominate Hollywood in the ’70s. But it’s still pretty downer and gritty, and it doesn’t end with our palooka pugilist even winning. What its many, many knockoffs get wrong is that it’s not just about the melodrama and a cheer-able close. Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky really has his hills and valleys before he hits the mountaintop. Also often neglected: Stallone’s performance, which is so lived-in, so lively, so genuinely lovable that it’s easy to take for granted.
2. ‘Creed’ (2015)
The first movie to feature Stallone’s Rocky without being written (and in four cases, directed) by Stallone, “Creed” is technically fan-fiction, courtesy “Fruitvale Station” maker Ryan Coogler. But it balances honoring the classics with being its own thing, feeling fresh even when it’s pounding out a classic training montage or a big climactic bout. Michael B. Jordan’s Adonis — the aspiring boxer son of dead-and-gone Rocky rival-turned-bud Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) — may be the lead, but Rocky doesn’t just pass the torch. Even after four decades, Stallone is able to find new notes inside a character who has aged from Rocky from the block to a superstar who, in “Rocky IV,” fixed the Cold War to a guy who’s back on the block, mourning the many loved ones who’ve passed on.
3. ‘Rocky III’ (1982)
The sequels — before the genuinely melancholic revival “Rocky Balboa” in 2005 — turned increasingly silly and outsized, to match a star who himself turned silly and outsized. The third is at least deeply entertaining, no less because it has a villain — Mr. T’s Clubber Lang — whose personality is so big and charismatic he threatens to hijack the entire franchise. Each “Rocky” film is as much about Stallone as it is about Rocky, and by “III” both had let superstardom go to their head, softening them. The Rocky of “Rocky” is barely glimpsed at all in “III,” buried underneath designer suits and an accent that’s no longer as much-mouthed. At least Stallone the director had evolved, and for the better. He was among the first in Hollywood to adopt a punchier MTV aesthetic to mainstream filmmaking (and thus made the movies shorter by about 20 minutes). As Matt Zoller Seitz illustrated in a terrific video piece
about Stallone’s filmmaking, the difference between the sleepier ’70s training montages of “II” and the jazzed-up one in “III” is chasmic.
4. ‘Rocky Balboa’ (2006)
The ’90s were spotty for Stallone, and the first half of the ’00s were abysmal, the star bottoming out with DTV fare like “Avenging Angelo” and the disastrous (and disastrously titled) “Eye See You.” You could cynically say he was just being cynical when he dusted Rocky off (and then Rambo too), but he took the return seriously, in part because he wanted to give a noble send-off to a character who’d gone out like a chump in the little-loved “Rocky V.” “Balboa” is in many ways stubborn: at times sleepy and old-fashioned, even spotty, but it’s also deeply felt. Even its appropriations of the original, including the same ending, feel sincere, devoted to a character who feels as real as Stallone himself, if not moreso.
5. ‘Rocky II’ (1979)
In the first “Rocky,” Balboa felt so vivid it would be a shame to let him go, or to give him a sequel that just put him through the same ropes. Though technically “Rocky II” is a rematch movie, pitting him back against Weathers’ Apollo — to test whether the first fight, and the first film, wasn’t a fluke — it also seriously considers what would happen to a Regular Joe like Rocky after a freak breakthrough. After an initial flush of fame and money, he winds up forgotten, having to work his way back up in a way that’s different from what he went through the last round. It’s not a perfect film, and the protracted Adrian-in-a-coma stretch is one twist too many. But it helps deepen a series, even one about to turn goofy.
‘Rocky IV’ (1985)
The same year Stallone had Rocky fight the evil Soviets, he sent Rambo, in his second adventure, back to re-win Vietnam. It was peak Reagan for the actor/filmmaker, and “Rocky IV” feels especially ridiculous. Still, look closely and there are subtle, occasional nuances about the West demonizing the U.S.S.R. — in between sledgehammer subtle moves like showing Rocky running up actual mountains while Dolph Lundgren’s Ivan Drago gets pumped full of drugs. Half the movie is montages, as though Stallone shot it and realized he’d only made 45 minutes of movie. Also there’s also a robot. It’s the perfect sign of how much America had changed in the last decade, from grimy and depressing in the ’70s to out of its mind in the ’80s.
7. ‘Rocky V’ (1990)
Though far more down-to-earth than its “America, F— Yeah” predecessor, the fifth — and for a long time, it seemed, final “Rocky” — only proved you couldn’t return home. (That is, until “Rocky Balboa,” which return home but with several extra pounds of sadness.) And yet Stallone has Rocky literally return home, abruptly (and unconvincingly) losing all of his riches and returning to his old stomping grounds to start anew, this time as a mentor. The “Rocky”s are often compared, and not always flatteringly, to old-timey melodramas, but “V” is the only one that goes way into the sappy, even having Rocky play tutor to a kid (Tommy Morrison, a real fighter who would later contract HIV and die) who proves too easily corruptible. Original “Rocky” helmsman John G. Avildsen returned, and Stallone’s touch is missed. Surely he never would have so badly botched an already wincing scene where Rocky has a ghostly pow -wow with deceased trainer Mickey (Burgess Meredith), or a climactic street fight with peppered with lots of poor black-and-white flashbacks.
In addition to our review of "Creed," you can also read our interviews with stars Michael B. Jordan and Tessa Thompson.
Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge