Still the Champ: The Rise, Fall, and Rise of Sylvester Stallone and the Rocky Series

By Bobby Morgan

Recently, as an early birthday present to myself, I purchased the new Rocky: Heavyweight Collection Blu-ray box set. For years I had held off buying the series on Blu until MGM found it in their heart to at least give consumers a set that contained all of the great extra features from the 2006 Collector's Edition DVD of the original, which the Heavyweight Collection finally managed to accomplish. I highly recommend it.


Naturally once the set was in my possession I just had to watch all six movies in a single sitting. Instead I chose to watch them on a staggered schedule over the course of three days. As I did something strange happened - I began to notice how each film correlated with the progression of its writer-star (and director of four of the sequels) Sylvester Stallone from struggling unknown actor to box office megastar to easily mocked has-been to resurrected elder statesman of testosterone-packed action event cinema.


Now I'm going to break down this theory I've formulated film by film and prove to anyone who chooses to read this why I feel that the Rocky series is the most personal and autobiographical of all movie franchises. This is most likely not an original postulation because when you think about it what I'm about to present to you is so bleedin' obvious if you know both your movie history and fading 1980's action movie giants. But if you digress, then please just hear me out.


Rocky (1976). The original. The one that started it all. One of the darkest horses of dark horses. It should have flopped hard. It had no right to be an era-defining blockbuster, but nestled between the trend-setting releases of Jaws and Star Wars the first Rocky unexpectedly found a large audience and became a timely cinematic milestone to boot. It was written and starred an relatively unknown actor looking to make a name for himself in the industry despite having unconventional looks and presence. No one could have foreseen the impact Rocky would have on the film industry and the world at large even if though it stared them right in the face. Stallone had only amassed a few acting credits to his name at the time, including a seedy porno flick that was retitled and re-released after Rocky hit to capitalize on his new-found fame, and no one at United Artists felt he had the chops to pull off a leading role of the magnitude of eternally optimistic Philadelphia palooka Rocky Balboa, even though he had created the character specifically for himself to play. Just as Rocky was handed a golden opportunity for fame and fortune on a silver platter to step into the ring with the flashy and charismatic heavyweight champion Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers), Stallone took his once-in-a-lifetime shot at movie stardom and succeeded against the will of the naysayers. Rocky may have lost the match in the end but he was never knocked down. He took Creed's best shots and gave as good as he got, and sometimes better. In the ring and on the screen Stallone was declared the true victor, and a career destined for legend began.


Rocky II (1979) found Stallone on the cusp of movie stardom but still struggling after using his modest clout to fund his directorial debut Paradise Alley which flopped at the box office. He was a star on the rise, but being pulled further away from grabbing the big brass ring with each questionable acting choice. That career slump is paralleled in the sequel by having Rocky trying desperately to make ends meet after his narrow loss to Apollo Creed, whose reputation has taken a harder beating than his face. He splurges his earnings from the fight on a new house, car, and wedding his beloved Adrian (Talia Shire). Soon the money is gone and Rocky is forced to take low-paying menial labor wherever he can find it in order to survive. Lured back into the ring for a rematch despite advice to the contrary, this time around Rocky wins and is anointed the new champion. The sequel was one of the highest-grossing films of 1979 and Sylvester Stallone was now a full blown movie star.


Rocky III (1982) opens with Rocky - and his creator - on top of the world. He has all the success he can handle and then some. The same year Stallone also starred in the original Rambo movie First Blood, another surprise blockbuster about an underdog warrior looking to prove his worth in a world that has long forgotten about his very existence, but with increasingly violent means. Rocky has been under the illusion that his many heavyweight title defenses were true test of his abilities, but they were all softball bouts designed to keep him out of physical danger and comfortably in the title of the champ even though he should have long retired. Serious competition looms large in the form of Mr. T's nigh unstoppable Clubber Lang, a precursor for Stallone's future competitor for the king of 1980's action cinema Arnold Schwarzenegger. Like Ah-nuld, Lang is a brash showboat who delights in taunting his rival every chance he gets, but he has the strength and talent in the ring to back that up. In their first match-up Lang beats Rocky to a bloody pulp without breaking a sweat and Rocky's beloved mentor and trainer Mickey succumbs to a heart attack from the stress. Rocky remains down for a while but with the help of his former ring rival Apollo Creed he gets back the eye of the tiger and bests Lang in a rematch, just as Stallone would temporarily beat back the rising tide of the Schwarzenegger until later in the decade. The victory in the ring and at the box office further cemented the character's status as an icon of the screen and its creator


Rocky IV (1985) found both Stallone and the character he built his career on remolded into baby-oiled symbols of Reagan-era American exceptionalism. Recruited to fight a metaphorical Cold War in the boxing ring with Dolph Lundgren's unsmiling, imposing human T-90 tank Ivan Drago, Rocky not surprisingly triumphs over his foe and ends the film literally draped in the American flag and earning the praise of his Soviet naysayers with a closing speech dripping with New Age simplicity. To drive home just how far the Rocky franchise had gone off the rails at this point the series' signature composer Bill Conti was dumped in favor of a soundtrack of disposable synthesizer pap crapped into creation by Vince DiCola, whose other claims to fame include the 1986 animated Transformers: The Movie and the belated and misguided Stallone-directed Saturday Night Fever sequel Staying Alive. Rocky IV was made and released during the opening salvo to Stallone's late-80's descent into cinematic cheese that began with Rhinestone and culminated with the guilty pleasure likes of Cobra and Over the Top. Even Rambo: First Blood Part II- released the same year as Rocky IV and also one of my personal favorite action flicks of the decade- is pretty damn difficult to watch all the way through with a straight face. That shit is fun, but it's ripe.


The 1990's opened with Stallone down for the count but not entirely out, but his professional rivalry with Arnold the Barbarian and some deservedly derided career choices (though I love Lock Up) had dulled his marketability with moviegoers. Sly needed to remind his fans that he hadn't changed much since he first punched and jabbed his way into their hearts more than a decade earlier, and thus was born Rocky V. An attempt to break from the overbearingly dated music video look of the fourth film, Stallone hired original Rocky director John Avildsen to bring the franchise back to its roots. A fine idea on paper, but the script is all over the map in terms of tonality and at times comes off as even more dated than Rocky IV. Still though, it has its moments. The late Sage Stallone was a natural to play Rocky's on-screen son as he had considerable real life experience. The various callbacks to the first film work well. Stallone initially wanted Rocky to die at the end, but cooler heads prevailed and instead he fought his final (for now) battle in the streets of Philly with a former protege gone screaming over to the dark side of modern athletics. It's hard for me to hate a Rocky movie especially when it ends with Rocky and his son going into the art museum at the top of those famous steps. "I've been running up and down these steps for 20 years, and i never knew there was valuable pictures in this building." Rocky V's intentions may have been pure, but with a budget greater than that of the other sequels and nothing but apathy from those who once held the series in the highest of regards it was destined to be a flop. The film sunk without a trace at the box office and Stallone, though still regarded as a star in the crucial international markets, was left to scramble for leading roles in his home country. With the one-two punch of Cliffhanger and Demolition Man in 1993 Sly briefly got his groove back, and then he promptly snuffed it out with Assassins and Daylight. 1997's Copland found the Italian Stallion working for peanuts and earning rave reviews for his turn as the sheriff of a small New Jersey town populated by corrupt cops and their dirty secrets but that praise couldn't be translated into massive profits and awards season honors. A few years later Stallone would finally hit rock bottom when Eye See You and Avenging Angelo were both released directly to VHS and DVD after suffering through delayed releases. Revivals of the Rocky and Rambo franchises were planned but no studio was about to take them seriously. Stallone realized that if he wanted to get back on top again he was going to have to take the long way up. That naturally meant going all the way back to the beginning.


Made for $24 million (in comparison the fifth film cost $42 million sixteen years earlier, and the fourth came in at $28 million five years before that), Rocky Balboa (2006) served to be the perfect ending to the series. Once again the lives of its star/creator and main character were aligned. Rocky was in a comfortable place where he was no longer seen as a joke, but neither was he taken seriously. He was back to almost the same place he was in life he was in the original, except now he had a lifetime's worth of good memories and tragic losses. The opportunity to fight a younger opponent in an highly-hyped exhibition bout gives Rocky the chance to make peace with his personal demons and prove he still has what it takes to enter the boxing ring and battle with everything he has, body and soul. The fight isn't a personal one like in the last three films, and even though he doesn't come out the clear winner as when he first fought Creed the chanting crowd leaves no doubt who the true victor is. The film was once again an out-of-nowhere hit that helped revitalize Stallone's film career and closed out the franchise that made him a star with quiet dignity and respect for the character of Rocky Balboa and his fans. More than a year later Stallone brought the Rambo series back to its bloody former glory, and in 2010 the first of the unexpectedly popular Expendables franchise was released, uniting Stallone with an all-star squadron of his fellow forgotten action movie icons. He wasn't back on the A-list, but at least he was just fine cooling his heels on the B-list and enjoying his generous share of the profits and adoration.


Tell me the truth, my friends. Did I read too much into these movies?