Tuesday, July 11, 2023

Top Ten Things: The Rocky/Creed Films, Ranked

Welcome to a special installment of Top Ten Things, here at!  This edition is so special in fact that we only have nine things to rank.  Don't ask....

Today I'm here to talk about the Rocky/Creed film series!  The brainchild of struggling actor/screenwriter Sylvester Stallone, Rocky came about as a fit of inspiration in 1975, after Stallone watched no-name fighter Chuck Wepner shock the world by going the distance with the legendary Muhammed Ali.  He found the story of a million-to-one underdog a compelling mirror of his own journey in the film business, and pitched the idea to producers Robert Chartoff and Irwin Winkler at an audition.  They were intrigued and asked him to write a script, which he hammered out on lined paper in the span of three days.  Stallone's inspiring tale of a club fighter getting a once-in-a-lifetime shot at the Heavyweight Championship instantly captured their imagination, and the film was greenlit.  Limited to a tiny $950,000 budget, the production was a whirlwind affair, shot over four weeks, and no one was prepared for the cultural milestone the finished film would become.  $225 million and a Best Picture Oscar later, Rocky the film was as incredible an underdog story as its protagonist, and it quickly spawned a series.  The franchise is now nine films deep including the Creed spinoffs, with no signs of slowing down, and more amazingly, possessing of some of the sturdiest legs of any film saga.  After 47 years and counting, you simply can't knock this franchise off its feet.

But which installments are the best?  Which are the worst?  How does one rank these stirring, inspirational films spanning over four decades?  Let's hit the heavy bag and see if we're ready to go the distance.  Too many boxing metaphors?

9. Rocky V

The much-maligned fifth chapter earned most of its derision.  One of only two Rocky films I consider bad movies, Rocky V unfortunately didn't even reach "so bad it's good" territory.  I respected the filmmakers' endeavor at something different after taking the "Rocky as superhero" thing as far as it could go in Rocky IV.  They tried to return the series to its gritty roots, having Rocky lose his fortune (through one of the most convoluted financial plot devices in film history) and move back to his old Philly neighborhood.  Suffering brain damage after his grueling Drago fight, Rocky is forced to retire from boxing but instead becomes a trainer to up-and-coming fighter Tommy Gunn, who then ditches Rocky for a hotshot promoter and wins the championship.  Rather than build to an in-ring climax between Rocky and Tommy, the film instead has them fighting in an alley behind the neighborhood bar.  The attempt to eschew the Rocky formula while not really eschewing it just made for a muddy, uninteresting, drab film, and worse, at the time it seemed the Rocky franchise would go out with a rather embarrassing whimper (Originally Rocky was going to be killed during the street fight; thank god that didn't happen....).

8. Rocky IV

I wrote about this film extensively in my Awesomely Shitty Movies piece awhile back, but in spite of the widespread love for Rocky IV, I think it's pretty awful.  It recycles almost beat for beat the plot of Rocky III - new monster villain boxer appears on the scene, Rocky has a perfunctory bedroom moment with Adrian, there's a fight between the villain and a hero (whose friends are trying to talk him out of it), Rocky's best friend dies at the end of that first fight, and Rocky has to train far from home under spartan conditions to defeat the unstoppable monster heel (played almost wordlessly by Dolph Lundgren).  Oh, and in the case of this movie roughly 30% of its running time is comprised of musical montages (50% of the film's second half).  Rocky IV turns its iconic protagonist into a full-on American superhero and seems so concerned with getting to the training montages and the fight itself it doesn't slow down long enough to make us care what's happening to these characters.  True to mid-80s action blockbuster fashion, it's all style and no real substance.  Great soundtrack though.  Apparently the original cut of this movie was a full hour longer, and Stallone managed to improve it somewhat with his 36th anniversary director's cut, while Creed II helped lend the events depicted here more significance.  But Rocky IV is one of my two least favorite movies in the series.

7. Creed II

The top seven films in the franchise were actually hard for me to put in a specific order; they're all so good in their own way.  The first truly good film on this list is 2018's Creed II, starring Michael B. Jordan as the titular son of Apollo, who in the first Creed film followed in Rocky's footsteps and went the distance with the World Champion.  That feat three years before the start of this film catapulted him into contention, and at the outset of Creed II Adonis wins the title and gets engaged to his girlfriend Bianca (an always engaging Tessa Thompson).  Trouble arrives though, in the form of Viktor Drago, son of the Russian monster who killed Apollo in the ring in 1985.  Ivan Drago demands Adonis put up his title against Viktor, in an attempt to redeem his family name in Russia after his embarrassing loss to Rocky all those years ago, and the script by Stallone and co-writer Juel Taylor actually makes us care about this previously one-dimensional 80s villain.  On top of continuing Adonis and Bianca's journey as a young couple adjusting to newfound success and a newborn baby, Creed II lends weight and consequence to the cartoonish events of Rocky IV.  That accomplishment alone makes Creed II a worthy entry in the series, even if elements of this film are (lovingly) borrowed from Rockys II, III and IV.  Plus the climactic fight is surprisingly spectacular and doesn't exactly go as we've been conditioned to think it will.  Creed II may be the lowest-ranked good Rocky/Creed movie for me, but it's still a damn solid piece of business.  

6. Creed III

The latest installment in the series is also the first without Sylvester Stallone's involvement, and thus the first Creed film to fully stand on its own.  Following in Stallone's footsteps, star Michael B. Jordan also took over the director's chair, lending his own visual sensibilities to the project and giving it a different flavor than its predecessors.  In this threequel we catch up with Adonis Creed post-retirement from boxing, when he's become a promoter/talent scout, going in on the Delphi Gym with his former trainer Little Duke.  But a face from his troubled past shows up, having just been released from prison after 18 years.  Donnie's old friend Damian Anderson, a former Golden Gloves champion, re-enters Donnie's life and manipulates his way into the boxing spotlight, becoming an unlikely and unorthodox title contender.  Jonathan Majors delivers a low-key terrifying performance as this violent, resentment-filled man, made all the more palpable when you consider Majors' real-life violence issues.  "Diamond Dame" may be the most compelling series "villain" since Apollo Creed himself - this is not a one-dimensional baddie like Ivan Drago or Clubber Lang, but a fleshed-out product of a bad environment who unlike Donnie didn't have a famous name to give him a leg up, nor a benevolent mother figure to help guide him down the right path.  The final fight sequence has some of the most personal stakes of any in the entire series and uses inventive visuals to hammer this point home.  Creed III follows all the familiar story beats but does so in a very satisfying way, and Jordan finds new and innovative methods to make the central conflict and the inevitable in-ring showdown feel intimate, while also planting seeds for the franchise's future.

5. Rocky II

The first sequel in the series picks up right where the original left off; Rocky has just pulled off the impossible and gone fifteen rounds with Apollo Creed.  He lost by decision but it was a moral victory made that much sweeter by his new girlfriend Adrian professing her love for him.  As we catch up with these characters again, Apollo is so embarrassed by his failure to put Rocky away that he obsesses over humiliating him in a rematch.  Rocky however has other plans, announcing his retirement and settling into married bliss with Adrian.  But he soon realizes how tough it is to make a living doing anything besides fighting, and accepts the fight, initially against Adrian's wishes.  This domestic drama, like its predecessor, slowly builds to the climactic showdown, and the rematch is truly epic.  Superfight II as it's dubbed in the film is perhaps the best fight in Rocky franchise history; shot with grit and cinematic flair, and featuring some of the most brutal-looking facial damage in any boxing film.  Stallone's use of slow motion coupled with Bill Conti's surreal scoring loads the final moments with excruciating suspense, as both fighters struggle to regain their feet before the ten-count.  Rocky II drags a bit during the subplot about Adrian's pregnancy complications that leave her comatose, but overall it's a pretty fantastic sequel helmed by a fledgling director, that continues the character arcs from the first film rather than simply duplicating them.  Carl Weathers especially shines for me as the insecure champion who can't accept a decision win over a nothing fighter, resigning himself to becoming the most hated man in sports if it gets Rocky back in the ring.  

4. Rocky III

The third film in the series shouldn't work as well as it does.  Where the first two movies were gritty dramas first and sports films second, Rocky III is on the surface a glitzy Hollywood blockbuster about a boxing icon taking on a rather shallow monster villain.  But there's so much more to this movie than that.  Rocky III begins with a montage set to Survivor's mega-hit "Eye of the Tiger," which catches us up on the last three years.  After dethroning Apollo for the championship, Rocky has become a world-renowned superstar, adored by fans young and old, rich beyond his wildest dreams, and seemingly invincible between the ropes.  But a brutal young fighter named Clubber Lang has climbed the ranks and awaits a title shot, hardening himself in austere training conditions while Rocky coasts on his laurels.  In the first five minutes of the film we already have strong themes at play.  The perils of success (a theme Stallone really related to at this point in his career), the inherent softening of a fighter once he ascends the mountain, the aging warrior, the protective manager.  Rocky's first fight with Clubber ends in disaster both in and out of the ring, as Rocky is butchered in two rounds and his trainer Mickey dies of a heart attack.  But then, enter the film's true stroke of genius - Rocky's former adversary Apollo Creed offers to guide him to a rematch, complete with a 100% overhaul of his training and fighting strategy.  Watching Apollo hone Rocky into a lightning-fast boxing technician is for me the film's greatest joy, and the big third-act fight is one of the most fascinating in the entire series.  Instead of a fifteen-round war shown mostly as a montage, we're treated to a complete three-round sprint, where Rocky dazzles the young bruiser with a surgically precise attack, leaving Clubber gasping for air and ripe for the picking.  Rocky III's fight is pure strategy, inspired in part by Ali's "rope-a-dope" approach against George Foreman.  I love this fight scene.  For me Rocky III is one of the franchise's high points thanks to its audacity to change things up and progress Rocky's story in unexpected ways.  This was the first Rocky film I ever watched; I saw it in the theater, and it immediately made me fall in love with this series.

3. Rocky Balboa

Well this wasn't supposed to happen.  The sixth entry in the dead horse the Rocky franchise had become should never have been even watchable, let alone one of the best in the series.  But Stallone managed to wash off the foul stink of the wretched Rocky V and present a compelling, even deeply touching revival.  While this film doesn't totally ignore the events of V (Rocky is still back to his working-class roots), it picks up the story years later, after Adrian has died and Rocky's relationship with his son is on shaky ground.  Rocky now owns a successful Italian restaurant (I know it's not real but I desperately want to eat there) and has settled into a comfortable (albeit lonely) retirement, until an ESPN dream fight simulator pits Balboa against the current heavyweight boxing champion Mason Dixon, piquing the public's interest in seeing the matchup for real (inspired by George Foreman's unlikely comeback in the 90s).  Rocky eventually agrees to the exhibition fight and we wander into familiar territory, complete with the classic Training Montage.  As with the first film however, this movie is not really about the fight, but rather focuses on the characters.  Rocky has seemingly lost his sense of purpose after Adrian's death and spends much of his energy mourning her, while her sorrowful brother Paulie is anxious to leave that part of his life behind ("Stop talking 'bout yesterday, Rock! Yesterday wasn't so great!").  Paulie wears his regret over his poor treatment of his sister like a chain around his neck, and that part of the film is borderline heartbreaking.  Rocky unexpectedly develops a relationship of sorts with Marie, a girl he used to know from the old neighborhood, and in growing close with her and her son, Rocky begins to really live again.  I had no expectations of enjoying this film when it came out.  The idea of picking up the Rocky series again after 16 years seemed totally absurd, but to his credit Sylvester Stallone rediscovered what made these movies work in the first place and crafted an excellent "final chapter" that rivals the original.  But amazingly this wouldn't be the end... 

2. Creed

Perhaps even more impressive than Stallone's Rocky Balboa writer/director comeback is this thrilling 2015 spinoff from Ryan Coogler (of Fruitvale Station and later Black Panther fame).  Thirty years after Apollo Creed's death we learn he had an illegitimate son named Adonis whom he never met.  Raised in foster homes and group homes until he was thirteen, Adonis is taken in by Apollo's wife Mary Anne (played by the wonderful Phylicia Rashad) and eventually takes up his father's line of work.  Over his stepmother's objections Adonis (played as an adult by the charismatic Michael B. Jordan) moves to Philadelphia intent on being trained by his father's best friend Rocky Balboa, and immediately we are hooked into this story.  Jordan and Stallone have palpable chemistry as the student and teacher who become like family, and Rocky teaches the upstart Adonis humility and resilience.  Rocky is forced to confront his own mortality when he's diagnosed with lymphoma, and Adonis convinces him it's worth fighting the disease, even though his wife and brother-in-law have long since passed away.  Along the way Adonis becomes involved with Bianca, his downstairs neighbor musician who is hearing impaired, and their romance serves as both an echo and a divergent update from Rocky and Adrian's.  After proving himself in a local Philly fight, Adonis (whose bloodline is subsequently made public) is issued a challenge from Light Heavyweight Champion "Pretty" Ricky Conlan, and the brutal training regimen begins.  In grand Rocky tradition the Conlan-Creed fight is a suspense and action-packed battle, where Adonis wins over both the hostile crowd and his arrogant opponent with his grit and determination.  Creed takes all the familiar Rocky elements and updates them for the 21st century, while serving as a torch passing from the old generation of unlikely boxing hero, to the new.  Ryan Coogler's lovingly crafted spinoff is the best Rocky film since the original.  

1. Rocky

What else could possibly take the top spot?  Sylvester Stallone's career-making script and performance have become the stuff of legend.  The ultimate underdog story put to film.  The street tough with a heart of gold defying the odds to live the American Dream.  It's one of the most relatable films ever made, and like its hero, its creator had to fight tooth and nail to get it produced at all.  Made on a near-shoestring budget, cast mostly with unknowns, and shot over a hectic four-week schedule, Rocky touched audiences around the world with its universal themes, its magnificently bombastic score (If the strains of Bill Conti's "Gonna Fly Now" don't make you want to get up and run five miles you might just be dead inside), its beautifully unconventional-for-the-time cinematography (courtesy of Steadicam inventor Garrett Brown), and of course its electrifying Superfight finale.  Rocky is the story of everyone who was ever dealt a bad hand in life, told they weren't good enough, told they'd never make something of themselves.  It's that rare case of the right script with the right star, the right director, the right supporting cast, and the right music, none of which might have happened if the studio had granted a bigger budget.  Like Rocky himself, the filmmakers made do with what they had, and it turned out to be exactly what they needed.  Rocky is an all-time classic that birthed an enduring saga, and like the original Star Wars, it will always be champion.

There's my ranking, and I look forward to adding more Creed films and perhaps even the Rocky IV re-cut to this list in the future.  Comment below with your ranking!

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