Directed by: John G. Avildsen1, 5, Sylvester Stallone2-4, 6 || Produced by: Robert Chartoff1-5, Irwin Winkler1-6, Charles Winkler, William Chartoff, Kevin King-Templeton 
Screenplay by: Sylvester Stallone || Starring: Sylvester Stallone1-6, Talia Shire1-5, Burt Young1-6, Carl Weathers1-4, Burgess Meredith1-3, 5, Tony Burton1-6, Sage Stallone5, Milo Ventimiglia6, Mr. T3, Dolph Lundgren4, Tommy Morrison5
Music by: Bill Conti1-3, 5-6, Vince DiCola4 || Cinematography: James Crabe1, Bill Butler2-4, Stevven Poster5, Clark Mathis6 || Editing by: Richard Halsey, Scott Conrad , Stanford C. Allen, Janice Hampton, Danford B. Greene , Mark Warner3 Don Zimmerman3-5, John W. Wheeler4, John G. Avildsen, Michael N. Knue, Robert A. Ferreti , Sean Albertson6 || Country: United States || Language: English
Running Time: 90-120 minutes (633 minutes total) || 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, = Rocky I, II, III, IV, V, & Balboa, respectively
Everybody knows of at least one popular media franchise they can’t stand. If you’re as rabid a cinephile as I am, having seen thousands of films as a legal adult, alone, you may note half a dozen or so blockbuster intellectual properties (IPs) that rub you the wrong way. These cases involve one not caring for a profitable and/or critically acclaimed series as a whole, the brand itself, even if one may enjoy one or two installments under that franchise umbrella. Major Hollywood studio IPs I can recall on command that I dislike include Michael Bay’s Transformers (2007, 2009, 2011, 2014, 2017) and the ongoing Fast & Furious (2000-present) movies, whose most recent installment, “Fast & Furious Presents… ” Hobbs & Shaw, I thought was a fake movie. I don’t count things like Walt Disney’s Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU, 2008-present) in this category because, as much as I whine about the brand’s obnoxious ubiquity and faux-nerd appeal, I enjoy several (re: not just one or two) MCU films quite a bit; the series’ most offensive artistic trait is its bland inoffensiveness, which is not something over which I can feel angry.
An older and perhaps just as beloved franchise that does bother me, however, is Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky. These six films are perhaps the most overrated IP in mainstream American cinema, and with one exception, are all mediocre to extremely bad films. I would further argue this is not the case of me being an exceptional individual unable to appreciate a popular film series’ cinematic genius — ask most die-hard Rocky fans and they’ll sheepishly admit the majority of these titles are guilty pleasures, at best — rather, the Rocky series is one of the few successful Hollywood IPs to release before Star Wars (1977) that drove itself into the ground by milking the brand as long as possible.
The closest modern equivalent to the original Rocky films of which I can think are the bloated, bombastic works of Roland Emmerich (e.g. Independence Day [1996, 2016], Godzilla , The Day After Tomorrow , 2012 , White House Down , Midway , etc.). Like the Rocky films, Emmerich’s dumb, FX-driven blockbusters are generic and loud enough to placate the popcorn-eating masses in search of mindless “entertainment,” coming across as live-action renditions of your average Saturday morning cartoon show. Also like the Rocky films, Emmerich has made one good film and one good film, only.
That single good Rocky film is — drum roll, please — none other than John G. Avildsen’s original film, released in 1976. The best parts of the original Rocky echo the strengths of Avildsen’s other popular coming-of-age sports drama, The Karate Kid (1984), namely its likable lead actors, an emphasis on character relationships, a fun soundtrack, and a strong screenplay about underdogs earning self-respect rather than self-important glory. Neither film is embellished with the self-reflexive editing, charismatic long-takes, or complicated performances of the American New Wave movement that Star Wars crushed around the same time, but they’re both reliable, well structured stories about characters worthy of broad appeal.
None of the Rocky films sport much cinematographic flair besides some gratuitous montage sequences once you reach the later sequels (see Rocky IV , in particular), which is one of their many problems, but the characterizations and quality narrative of the 1976 film are as reliable as any sports drama. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Rocky is no Raging Bull (1980), and it’s not much of a “boxing movie,” per se, but as a rags-to-riches underdog tale in a metaphorical sense, it is successful and a ton of fun.
The same cannot be said for the remaining five(!) sequels, all of which jettisoned the original’s emphasis on self-respect over crowd respect, “going the distance” over winning a professional sports championship. Perhaps what’s most irritating about Rocky II-Balboa is how lazy they are at justifying their existence, drawing comparisons to the embarrassing later sequels of the Terminator (1984, 1991, 2003, 2009, 2015, 2019) franchise. Remember, “No fate but what we make?” Never mind! Remember, “I can’t beat him. I’m not even in the guy’s league… All I wanna do is go the distance; no one’s ever gone the distance with Creed… and if I can go that distance, seeing that bell ring and I’m still standing, I’m gonna know for the first time in my life that I weren’t just another bum from the neighborhood.”
Never mind! Hey, Rocky, wanna try a few convoluted, phony excuses to get you back into the ring and risk your life again? Let’s have you be a comical, brain-dead, monosyllabic ape who can’t even profit on endorsements so you can fight Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers, Rocky II) a second time; let’s retcon all ten(!) of your subsequent title defenses as to be meaningless so you can fight Clubber Lang (Mr. T, Rocky III); let’s have you become inexplicable “best friends” with your former nemesis so you can watch him die in an exhibition fight with a walking Soviet-propaganda stereotype (Dolph Lundgren), then fight that walking Soviet-propaganda stereotype (Rocky IV); and finally, let’s have your brother-in-law (Burt Young) sign away power of attorney to your crooked accountant for no reason at all, thus leaving you penniless and needing to train a boxing protégé (real-life boxer Tommy David Morrison) for money, then fight that protégé (Rocky V)! … and finally, let’s have you be “inspired” to restart your boxing career in your 50s after watching a comical ESPN computer simulation of you fighting a contemporary boxing champion (real-life boxer Antonio Tarver) in your prime, then fight that champion for real (Rocky Balboa)!
Perhaps what’s most insufferable about the Rocky sequels, however, are their sheer amount of filler and stupid characters, including and especially their antagonists. All these sequels are two hours long or shorter, yet each has to stretch their montage sequences beyond reason, bloat their supporting casts with filler dialogue and placeholder roles (e.g. Burt Young.), and resort to pointless melodrama (e.g. Talia Shire going into a coma following childbirth in Rocky II, Carl Weathers being punched to death in Rocky IV, etc.) to provide its main character with motivation. It’s so, so dumb.
For all these reasons and more, I stand by my argument that the Rocky series is a Hollywood brand fueled by nostalgia for its original feature — and maybe its viewers’ Generation X-childhood — but little else. I can appreciate the franchise’s soft-reboot with the Creed (2015, 2018) films, but those are a separate beast from the works of Sylvester Stallone and John G. Avildsen, willed into existence by Ryan Coogler despite, rather than because of, those five unnecessary Rocky sequels. The original Rocky is an enjoyable crowd-pleaser that had no business challenging Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976) in any awards competition, but its sequels range from filler at best (e.g. Rocky Balboa) to downright embarrassing at worst (e.g. Rocky V). Beyond a fun soundtrack and some underdog grit in its DNA, there’s not much artistic merit nor much entertainment value to this series, so let’s stop pretending there is.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: The first Rocky is a sweet, if corny rendition of the classical underdog sports story, whereby a relatable everyman proves his salt with the help of a charismatic lead (Stallone) and a reliable screenplay (also Stallone). Things break down once the sequels attempt to justify a continuation to this simple story thread a la Jaws II (1978), with both narrative structure and character arcs growing more comical with each additional installment. I would search for bright spots in the films’ hamfisted montage sequences and cartoonish boxing matches, but, well…
—> The original 1976 Rocky comes RECOMMENDED based on its scrappy appeal and Stallone’s charm, while I’m ON THE FENCE with regards to Rocky Balboa’s halfhearted attempt to recapture that working-class tone. All other sequels (re: Rocky II-V) are NOT RECOMMENDED.
? Rocky V could’ve been salvaged if Stallone had walked away from Morrison’s childish street-fight at the end, but why try for something new when you can further embarrass yourself?