Back in 1979 sequels weren’t exactly the booming business it is now (example: pretty much every franchise ever made INCLUDING this one) but Sylvester Stallone obviously felt that drawling pugilist Rocky Balboa had some unfinished business…
The original Rocky was – and still is – the perfect archetype of the sports movie where a likeable sports person overcomes trials and tribulations in order to get a one in a million shot at the big time. While missing out on the prize to a split points desicion he is more than happy to gain the self respect of going the distance and finding true love and at this point we all end the film with a warm glow in our hearts and moist, glistening eyes that we awkward write off as “hayfever” – end of…
Not so, as Stallone felt that maybe the amiable lug deserved another crack at the title which succeeds in giving the audience what they want but maybe strains too much into keeping the Italian Stallion a believable underdog.
It’s the night after the title defence that rocked the world where the still undefeated champion Apollo Creed faced the impossible – an opponent who could actually last the distance. Battling through with inferior boxing ability but maximum heart, the hand-picked challenger Rocky Balboa managed to not only last the full 15 rounds but actually made Creed work for his title and the two are promptly whisked off to hospital following their earth-shaking bout. Both beaten senseless with eye sockets so swollen you’d swear someone had stuck a glass eyes into the protruding butts of four baboons, the men weigh up emotionally what they’ve just experienced.
Apollo, incensed that this guy has literally come from nowhere and made him look bad immediately goes back on his “no rematch” stance the second the cameras go on – whereas Balboa, content to merely go the distance, takes his sizable pay check and heads back into the world with his loving girlfriend Adrian, both adamant that Rocky has retired for good. However, the rest of the world doesn’t exactly see it that way and soon everyone is salavating to see the rematch of the century come together – everyone, except Rocky that is who uses his money to marry Adrian and try to give them a better life. Unfortunately, life hits harder than anyone Balboa could possibly face in the ring and a series of setbacks soon has him broke with a child on the way and to make matters worse Apollo Creed, incenced over public reaction to the bout, engages in some “diplomatic” trash talk to shame Rocky into a rematch. He eventually relents despite everyone around him worried about his health (a detached retina ain’t nothing to be sniffed at) but worst of all, due to complications in her pregnancy, Adrian falls into a coma and her distraught husband refuses to leave her side despite the date of the rematch rapidly looming. With his prep and focus nowhere near ready, can things turn around for Rocky to achieve success beyond his wildest dreams?
Rocky II is a perfectly reasonable sequel in almost every respect which gamely attempts to answer the question that usually is left hanging at the end of every sports movie ever made: so what the hell happens AFTER the big climax? Well, the answer seems to be a whole lot of depressing stuff as the follow up charts the continuing misadventures of boxing’s most lovable lug much in the same vein of the gritty drama of the original. However, before the series gradually went full cartoon as the eighties progressed, I’ve personally always seemed to regard the second installment guilty of perhaps going TOO gritty as the seemingly Neverending indignities and tragedies that befall Rocky and Adrian wind up becoming a major bummer.
Oh, I understand that to reach the glory of the the ending – which sort of partially undoes the nobility of the ending of the original if you think about it – you have to put your characters through the wringer; it’s called drama, I get it. But the script’s insistence on beating Rocky to a pulp long before Apollo gets his hands on him during the inevitable rematch becomes almost too excessive. Watching our hugely relatable lead mocked in the papers for “cowardice” and berated by a commercials director for being so illiterate he can’t even read his cue cards is simply uncomfortable to watch and we haven’t even started on Balboa buzzsawing through his money as fast as Nicolas Cage in a comic auction.
Ultimately, the film delivers in the rapid combination of moments that somehow manage to be simultaneously both cringingly saccharine and genuinely touching – but none more than Adrian’s coma which stinks of obvious audience manipulation despite causing a massive rush of endorphins when the poor put upon wife looks up at him from her hospital bed and tells him to win. Cue theme, cue montage, cue shameless man tears but Stallone’s ascension from writer to writer/director shows a shocking lack of subtlety (this time Rocky’s re-climbing of the iconic training steps comes complete with a horde of cheering adoring children) and yet it all works – just.
But the eager, over-stacking of the odds against our hero frequently trips the film up, for example Adrian’s trip to coma town means that during the climatic fight she’s stuck at home with her awful brother Paulie and not ringside where she belongs which leaves Rocky’s victory (is it a spoiler if it was all but guaranteed?) still elating but a tad hollow. It doesn’t help that he gives a touching speech through a face so horribly mangled you forget for a second that it’s a movie and you find yourself almost phoning for an ambulance (these days both boxers would be getting an MRI before they even hit the canvas) but it is a testiment to Stallone’s enthusiasm to the film that even though Rocky II contains less suprises than an empty Kinder Egg, it still somehow nails you with an uppercut right to the feels.
Everyone featured in the cast is just as good as they were in the original (interestingly there isn’t a single major new character in the thing) although many, like Burgess Meridith’s Mickey and Burt Young’s Paulie are just going through the same motions and some, like friendly loan shark Gazzo, are utterly superfluous and barely affect the story more than Rocky’s pet turtles Cuff and Link.
A serviceable story that’s somewhat awkwardly trapped between the grubby seriousness of the original and the crowd pleasing spirit of the sequels to follow, Rocky II manages to go the distance without throwing in the towel, although it’s script could’ve used a few more reps in the gym…