For the month of January, the contenders of Deadshirt are looking at the high highs (and low lows) of Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky franchise. For each installment, Deadshirt film editor Max Robinson sits ringside with another Deadshirt staffer to discuss the film. For Rocky II, Max goes a round with Andrew Niemann.
Rocky II (1979)
Directed by Sylvester Stallone
Max: Rocky II! Stallone wrote the script for the original film over a long weekend while flat broke, and it not only made him a star overnight but won Best Director and Best Picture Oscars! Naturally, He would be able to replicate that success again with a second Rocky film three years later, right? While stepping into the director’s chair? Ahhhh well, not quite. Andy, was this the first time you’d seen Rocky II?
Andy: I’m actually not sure. I remember watching a marathon of Rocky films on like Spike or some other channel with my dad a long time ago and this film sort of blends together with Rocky III for me. So, I’d probably had seen most of it but there were definitely some things I forgot about or don’t remember. It’s kind of interesting how most of the film is really just a drawn out coda to the first film. The Rocky sequels have a very episodic feel to them, in much the same way as today’s superhero films.
Max: Rocky II is very much “…OK now what?” and I totally agree about the episodic feel. I’d take that even further and say that Rocky II feels like a really inconsistent season of television packed into two hours. Let’s start out with what works: Bill Conti’s score here is FANTASTIC. “Redemption” (the piece that plays over the opening credits) is a really cool, funky riff on the classic Rocky theme and does a nice job of setting tone. Overall, the opening….I’d say 30 minutes is pretty solid, emotionally effective stuff. Rocky and Apollo giving that press conference while neither of them can stand, Rocky proposing to Adrian at the zoo in the snow, their extremely Catholic wedding. It’s after that the movie starts to lose me.
Andy: The score is extremely good. In fact, upon starting, I was convinced that this was the film where we first hear “Eye of the Tiger” (but that’s not until the next film). I really love the continuation of the romance between Rocky and Adrian. Stallone and Shire always have had this fantastic chemistry together and I think the romance angle of these films isn’t often talked about but it’s a big part of makes these early films work. It’s also a big part of what made later films in the franchise like Creed work as well. I dig how Rocky is about to receive all of these tremendous money-making opportunities and he still can’t wait to wed Adrian in a modest ceremony, after which he immediately carries her to a reception of bums singing around a trashcan on fire. He’s just this humble guy who doesn’t need anything lavish to prove his love for Adrian and, most importantly, she’s game as well. When, specifically, does the movie lose you as I’m curious to know? I feel like the middle of the film is a bit boring because we’re mostly waiting for Rocky’s motivation to accept Creed’s challenge for a rematch.
Max: So Rocky II loses me once we watch Rocky buy a bunch of expensive shit he doesn’t need with his fight money and then goes broke.The idea that Rocky can’t live off his one big moment forever and that he now has a wife (and child!) to support is a cool premise but this stuff just drags. We get good bits like Rocky’s subtle embarrassment at not being able to read but all of this really feels like we’re killing time until the Apollo Creed rematch. What’d you think about the sorta-B plot Carl Weathers’ Creed gets here, Andy?
Andy: Creed’s subplot here feels like a missed opportunity. Here we have this legendary character who is mostly an opponent in the first film but still doesn’t get much character development in the second film. We get a better sense of his personal life at home with his wife (who is played by a different actress than the first film) but we don’t really get a sense of why he wants to fight Rocky again other than the challenge. I like Apollo Creed a lot because he is allowed to be this petulant yet confident frenemy of Rocky instead of a sidekick, but ultimately he only exists to serves Rocky’s story and not have his own issues or engagements. Still, his name isn’t on the movie poster, at least at this point. Honestly, I think my favorite character in this film is probably Burgess Meredith’s Mickey Goldmill, who gives an incredibly impassioned speech to Rocky in a church when he’s at his lowest point.
Max: Burgess Meredith pretty much always brings it and he’s really great as Mickey here. The training montage stuff feels kind of repetitive after seeing all this before but Mickey growling “….greasy, fast speed!” at Rocky is kind of amazing. Doubling back a bit, Apollo’s little storyline in this movie is maybe the most frustrating part of Rocky II? In the original film, Creed was kind of pompous and full of himself but seemed like an inherently decent guy. Here, Apollo Creed has kind of a Ahab-in-Moby Dick obsession with defeating Rocky again and — while that’s kind of an interesting angle—it makes Creed way more of a two-dimensional villain.
My favorite Roger Ebert piece is the interview where he and Muhammad Ali go to see Rocky II. Ali points out that Rocky II pretty much exists to have a white guy beat an Ali-stand in and, man, it’s hard to unsee that when you watch the film. Rocky II’s biggest problem is that Rocky *has* to actually win the fight, which is kind of antithetical to the last film. Kind of a having your cake and eating it too sort of situation.
Andy: I absolutely agree and I’m not even sure that racial blindness was even intentional by Stallone or the makers of the film based on the year when it was released. But in a modern context, it is very weird that Rocky loses the first time and wins fairly easily the second time around. It also really drops the stakes a lot, too. Rocky is still presented as this hometown hero of Philly, symbolized by the kids running with him up the stairs during the montage, but I’m not sure why Creed couldn’t have been this guy either in his hometown of Los Angeles. I guess we’re shown that Rocky rejects wealth where Creed does not, but we don’t really know enough about Creed’s background to really judge him. I guess my point is that the movie sort of falters when it tries to put Rocky in the same position as the first film. Maybe it would have been more interesting if it made Rocky a bit more arrogant? But, Rocky is often written like a Golden Age Superman. He’s mythic and humble and nice and sometimes a bit boring. What do you think of the climatic fight scene by the way, Max? Where does it rank for you?
Max: As with the first film, the closing fight in Rocky II is really well done. It’s compelling, it’s interestingly shot and you get amazing moments like Creed winding up and just pounding the living hell out of Rocky’s face. But whereas Rocky ended with Adrian just happy that her boyfriend’s still alive, here we get this gratuitous ROCKY WINS ending where it’s the (second) greatest day of Rocky’s life. I can’t fault Stallone’s performance here because his post-fight statement’s sold really well, but overall it just kinda falls flat for me. Rocky II is essentially “More Rocky”: You liked Stallone running up the art museum steps triumphantly? Well, here’s Rocky doing it again but surrounded by an inexplicable army of cheering children!
Andy: The “Yo, Adrian, I did it” line is probably the most quoted line from these movies, and I feel like it’s honestly a pretty weak ending. It’s no fault of Stallone like you said, but yeah, it’s just kind of a “show’s over kids” ending that really goes nowhere. I’m torn because I think this is probably one of the best matches in the series from a technical standpoint. The budget was certainly higher for this film and the use of multiple camera angles and slow motion shots is absolutely breathtaking. There’s a moment near the end that is a series of slow up-close shots on every major character that is really just captivating. Even Paulie and Adrian, who are watching the match on a TV at home, feel like they’re right next to the ring in some of these shots. I don’t think Rocky II is necessarily a bad film but there’s a lot of room for improvement. The fight choreography was certainly never a problem.
Max: I think you’re right. On its own, Rocky II is decent enough but it’s a disappointing follow up given how good the first film is.
NEXT: MR. T AND HULK HOGAN