Rocky II – The 40-Year Contender

The Rocky series has endured from strength to strength. The original, the 1976 classic Rocky, made Sylvester Stallone a household name. Then, 1983’s Rocky III introduced future The A-Team star Mr. T and WWF star Hulk Hogan to the world. This was followed by 1985’s Rocky IV having the Italian Stallion end the Cold War by punching out Dolph Lundgren (Universal Soldier 1992, Johnny Mnemonic 1995). Moving on, 1990’s Rocky V tried to return to franchise’s roots, before 2007’s Rocky Balboa capped off the series for good. Well, until the juggernaut evolved into the Creed series, where Balboa trains the son of his most famous rival, Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers: Predator 1987, Happy Gilmore 1996).

This historic run down presented, while people can remember the series through its tropes, Rocky II tends to fall by the wayside. The sequels neither had snappier music such as “Eye of the Tiger” by Survivor coming from Rocky III, or did it go way over the top like Rocky IV. It could be argued that these dramatic shifts in the following sequels might have been in response in Rocky II’s soberer tone. Yet in retrospect, Rocky II might be one of the more natural-feeling films in the series as it celebrates its 40th anniversary.

Rocky II still. © Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Making a theatrical debut on June 15th of 1979, Stallone took over directing from John G. Avildsen (The Karate Kid 1984, 8 Seconds 1994), and stayed there until Avildsen’s return for Rocky V. He kept a firm hold of the pen though, writing all the main Rocky films up to Rocky Balboa. Needless to say, Stallone kept his franchise in safe hands. Well, safe-ish, he still threw in the robot maid for Rocky IV.

The real question is, what did Rocky II have to offer? As laid out in the original film, Rocky (Stallone) did not manage to beat Creed, but he did manage to go the distance with him. He became a viable-enough contender for boxing fans, and Creed himself, to want a rematch to prove once and for all who the champ is. That in mind, Rocky is left torn between his in-ring injuries and the pressures of fame. As a result, he is not sure if he has what it takes to keep boxing. Can he step back in the ring?

If anything, its ending gained some renown as being rather contrived – a way to keep both boxers looking strong while determining a winner. Aside from that, its standout scenes were the advert shoot, Rocky chasing a chicken, and Adrian (Talia Shire: The Godfather 1972, Prophecy 1979) falling ill. Otherwise it felt like more of the same.

Rocky II still. © Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Least that is what the critical consensus says. The attitude shows in the ratings too, with Rocky II sitting pretty on 3/5 stars from Empire Magazine, 72% from Rotten Tomatoes and 61% from Metacritic. All middle of the road – too high to be bad, but too low to be spectacular. Unlike Rocky IV, viewers neither love it or hate it. It is more of a universal shrug. Critics aside, it does have its fans. Roger Ebert attended a screening of the film with Muhammad Ali and his family just a few weeks after its release. Ebert detailed Ali’s thoughts and criticisms, from the way Stallone and Weathers spar to its finale, in an article that has since been saved on RogerEbert.com. Ultimately, Ali said Rocky II was A great movie. A big hit. It has all the ingredients. Love, violence, emotion. The excitement never dulled.

These thoughts all in mind, what is all this about this sequel feeling natural? It is more about the film’s progression. Stallone was never exactly Olivier. Most of his action roles tend to balance between Rocky’s goofball charm or Rambo’s steely seriousness. Even Rocky himself got diluted by Rocky III and Rocky IV, the straight man to Mr. T’s fool-pitier Clubber Lang, or Lundgren’s Soviet powerhouse Ivan Drago. Stallone tried to recapture the first film’s charm by dialing everything back for Rocky V, though it did not find favor with critics or audiences in the end.

So, while Rocky II does not do anything dramatically different, that is also where its charm can lie. Rocky is not saving the Capitalist West or avenging his fallen trainer Mickey (Burgess Meredith: Batman TV series, Clash of the Titans 1981). He is doing something more recognizably human; trying to find a way to support his family that does not involve getting punched in the face. Stallone retains that sympathetic charisma he had in the first Rocky, whether he is getting starstruck by riches, or trying to find work. It makes for a drier picture, yet perhaps a more relatable one.

Rocky II still. © Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Least by a touch. Most people are not stuck between finding work or fighting Manny Pacquiao for the belt. Although struggling for work, to support a family, and even handling 15 minutes of fame are familiar issues. The film still plays out like a domestic drama with boxing in it, rather than a boxing action film. It stills offers the training montages, the jogging, the music by Bill Conti (For Your Eyes Only 1981, The Right Stuff 1983), etc. All these ingredients provided, it just keeps its feet on the ground while doing so.

So Rocky II may be more like Rocky: Part 2, though it does not fall low because of that. The film retains its appeal without flying off the handle. If anything, this makes it a refreshing change of pace on its own compared to its follow-ups, or even to other action films around today. There are no explosions or superpowers, just solid drama that touches the right spots. It is hard to fault the critical consensus, but Ali was right too; it still has all the right ingredients. That is why it is arguably pound for pound the best Rocky sequel 40 years later.

United Artists

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1 Comment

  • Great review Dave! Rocky 2 is not just favorite Rocky movie, bit my favorite movie of all time. I never knew that it didn’t do all THAT well with the critics. It’s a simple story that touches the right spots, as you said. I thought everything about it was the perfect way to follow-up the original. I love Rocky 5 too and never really understood why many put it down. Thanks for your tribute to an incredible film.

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