It was 40 years ago today, on November 21, 1976, when #Rocky was given its premiere in New York City, and the world was introduced to one of the greatest movie characters ever created, courtesy of actor and writer Sylvester Stallone.
So let's celebrate and pay tribute to the 40-year-old franchise, share our memories of growing up with the Rocky movies, the characters, and the entire saga, as we discuss why we love this film series and its characters so damn much.
My First Memory Of Rocky
I was born in 1976, the same year that Rocky was released, so I didn't get to watch it on the big screen. I had to wait for the #VHS release years later. It must have been the early '80s, probably around '82 or '83. My aunt and uncle has just got themselves a shiny new VHS player. Back then, video machines were ridiculously expensive, at around $650 a pop — and that was in early '80s money, which meant that very few people had them in their homes.
My aunt and uncle were the first people I knew who owned a VHS player. Two of the first films I ever watched on VHS were Rocky and Rocky II, the sequel having been released in cinemas on 1979. I remember Rocky II being a rental, but Rocky was bought as an ex-rental. I don't know why I remember that, I just do.
Anyway, my first ever taste of Rocky would have been around '82 or '83. I must have been six or seven years old, and of course I didn't understand boxing — I just loved watching movies. But there was something about these two films that just sucked me in. I have very vivid memories of that music and how it made me feel.
I remember looking up to the #RockyBalboa character as a hero and how, even at my young age, I understood the whole underdog theme the first film had — even if I didn't understand what exactly an underdog was. OK, I may not have grasped everything about the films when I was younger, but I do remember just loving every second of them, nonetheless.
A Family Christmas
Eventually, my mom bought us our very own VHS player. This was the mid-'80s, I think '86. We were having a nice family Christmas at our house and my nan and granddad were staying with us for a few days over the festive period. Back then, we only had four channels on TV, and Christmas was always a big deal as the four channels would air the big, new movies. 1982's Rocky III had its TV premiere and we sat down as a family to watch it.
Seeing this film on TV for the first time 30 years ago is one of my most loved memories. It reminds me of those great family Christmases I miss so much. It was the first film that was ever recorded on our new VHS player. I loved watching The A-Team back then, and Mr. T was my favorite, so seeing him in a movie was awesome.
I also remember sitting down on the sofa to watch Rocky III with my nan, and how she put her arm around me while my granddad was asleep in the chair, snoring off all that Christmas food. Both of my grandparents died a few years ago now, and watching Rocky III always transports me back to that moment of my life. It's amazing how a film can spark such a strong recollection, where my loved ones are still with me.
Everyone Has A VHS Player Now
By the time the late '80s rolled around, VHS players were everywhere. All my friends and neighbors had them; I remember we used to have VHS parties. A big, new film would be released and someone on our street would organize a gathering and invite people around to watch. It was 1987 or '88 when 1985's Rocky IV was released on VHS, and one of our neighbors invited me round to watch it.
The atmosphere was amazing, even though it was just a few people watching a film on VHS. That intro, with the American and Russian boxing gloves exploding while "Eye of the Tiger" blasted in the background, got everyone cheering as they gathered around that 30-inch low-definition TV screen. I recall being shocked when Carl Weathers's Apollo Creed died as I loved that character, being genuinely scared by Dolph Lundgren's Drago, and getting an adrenaline rush by the time the final fight scene ended. I'm English, and this film made me feel American.
He Ain't Heavy He's My Brother
I was 14 going on 15 in 1991, the youngest of three boys. My older brother, who is six years older than me, was really cool when I was growing up. I was that irritating younger sibling struggling with my mid-teen life while he was the older twentysomething, hanging with girls and downing beer. Yet he would let me tag along with him and include me in things he would do. Rocky V was released here in the UK in January 1991 and my older bother took me to the cinema to watch my first ever Rocky film on the big screen.
At the time, it was widely publicized that this was going to be the last ever Rocky film. I recall a sense of excitement and dread; I was happy to be seeing my very first Rocky film at the cinema, but also sad this was going to be the last one. I was older and started to understand films and get into characters more then when I was younger. This was the first Rocky film where I fell in love with the Rocky Balboa character and the one that got me back into the films in a big way.
I liked the series and the character before, but now I was older, I began to understand things more. I had watched the films a few times each as a kid, and the rise of the home video market through the late '80s and early '90s made viewing these movies a lot easier. But it was Rocky V that made me the Rocky fan I am today.
Rocky Was My Childhood
At the time, Rocky V was it. The end of the franchise. I literally grew up with the first five Rocky movies, along with characters like Indiana Jones, James Bond and Superman. Rocky Balboa was one of my childhood movie heroes who I admired and looked up to. As I got older through the '90s, I would watch and rewatch the Rocky films over and over and over again. I thought Rocky V was a really great ending to the franchise and characters. Rocky was back where he started, back in his old neighborhood and with nothing. That film kind of brought everything full circle, and I was happy about that. No more Rocky films.
It had been a long and emotional journey, one I soaked up like a sponge and relished. It was just a shame there were no more Rocky films.
He's Too Old Now
To be honest, the franchise had a bit of a reputation as going on for too long. Even back in the '80s, as far back as Rocky III, people were making fun of how many sequels this film had. There were jokes about how long in the tooth the films were getting. Even Airplane II: The Sequel made fun of the whole thing back in 1983...
Yeah, the Rocky franchise became the punchline (no pun intended) to a joke. So no one expected anymore movies to follow Rocky V, least of all me. There had been various rumors of #Stallone wanting to do another Rocky film through the '90s and these rumors persisted into the early 2000s. Then it was officially announced around 2005 that a new Rocky film was coming, and the jokes started to once again flow thick and fast.
Stallone was going to be 60 years old when making this new film. I loved the first five Rocky pictures, and yet I was there front and center, cracking the jokes about his age along with everyone else. I had zero interest in this new film; if Stallone had done another one in the '90s, yeah I could see that working — but not now in 2005 or 2006. So I chose to ignore this new film, avoided reading the interviews, didn't watch the trailers. The film was going to be a pathetic attempt to keep Stallone's (then) flagging career afloat.
In January 2007, the new movie Rocky Balboa was released here in the UK and I didn't bother with it — nobody I knew went to watch it at the cinema, either. Later that year, I purchased the Rocky DVD box set, with all six films included. I set aside some time to watch the entire franchise back-to-back over the course of two consecutive days and had a fantastic time from Rocky to Rocky V — and then the time came to watch the dreaded Rocky Balboa, the film I had tried so hard to avoid.
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I'm a big man and I can admit it: I was wrong. Very, very wrong. Watching Rocky Balboa took me back to being a kid again; all of those memories came flooding back. My first viewing of Rocky and Rocky II on VHS, sitting down to watch Rocky III with my nan's arm draped over my shoulder, remembering old neighborhood friends as we sat down to watch Rocky IV, and recollecting my awesome brother who took me to watch Rocky V at the cinema. All of those memories hit me in the face like a haymaker.
But this was finally it, this was the definitive end to the Rocky character. Stallone said his final goodbye to the franchise and ended on a high. Until...
The move #Creed was announced. Part sequel, part reboot, part remake. I saw the first trailer and was blown away. The style, the tone, it all felt like this new film wanted to begin something new and yet still pay the utmost respect to the (at the time) 39-year-old franchise. And Creed did all of that and much more besides. Sadly, due to work and life commitments, I didn't get to see this one at the cinema, but caught it later on DVD and thoroughly enjoyed it.
I grew up with the Rocky character. He was part of my childhood as well as my adulthood. Now, after 40 years of the franchise, I still love it as much as I ever did.
So let's wrap this whole thing up with some thoughts on the franchise as a whole and each of the films.
The Rocky Saga
For me, there are plenty of ups and downs throughout the series. There are some genuinely heartbreaking moments and there are some downright stupid ones, too. But as a whole, I love the Rocky franchise. Even if boxing is not your thing, there is still plenty to enjoy, as boxing is never the main focus of the films. It's the characters, the relationships and the stories that are always at the forefront. Boxing is just the backdrop that the films take place against.
The fact that the soundtrack is pretty amazing helps, too. If you are somebody who has trouble getting up in the morning, change the alarm on you phone to "Gonna Fly Now," a.k.a "Theme from Rocky," or "Eye of the Tiger" — I guarantee you’ll hop out of bed thinking you can take on the world.
It's a great series of films that, despite more than a few instances where it does get silly, provides some amazing storytelling and gives us Rocky Balboa, one of the most charming and endearing characters ever captured on film.
So what do I think of each of the films?
A simple story that's told really well. It’s a basic underdog yarn that had been done to death. Stallone as Rocky is believable and also shows that the superstar can write and perform. The supporting cast is also golden.
Rocky won three Oscars at the 1977 Academy Awards — for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Film Editing. It was also nominated for Best Actor in a Leading Role (Stallone), Best Actress in a Leading Role (Talia Shire), Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Burgess Meredith and Burt Young), Best Screenplay (Stallone), as well as Best Sound and Best Music.
Brilliant film and for me, the best of the lot.
Rocky II (1979)
Was there a need for a sequel? Not really. The first film is one that stands on its own merits. But we got a sequel (several, in fact) and for the most part I really enjoy this one.
However, there is one major thing that bugs me about this film — how stupid Rocky is made out to be. Granted, Rocky had never been the sharpest knife in the draw. But he was never stupid. Yet, in this film (to paraphrase another film), they "go full retard." Rocky can’t read — since when? He managed perfectly fine in the first film. All the jokes shoehorned in to play on how stupid Rocky is, like the condominium thing. The fact Rocky blows all his money on fast cars and a nice jacket, etc. He is portrayed as a complete imbecile. Again, Rocky was never a mastermind, but he was still smart. He always had a good head on his shoulders and was never dumb, yet that is how he is portrayed in this movie.
Good sequel, but the way they dumbed down Rocky as a character was annoying.
Rocky III (1982)
I really enjoy this one more than Rocky II for two main reasons:
- Rocky is not a complete moron any more.
- Mr. T!
I love Mr. T's Clubber Lang, by far my favorite Rocky villain. Everything he does is pure awesome. His putdowns and insults, the character is just so alive, and not to mention the fact that this is the film where we first heard Mr. T's classic catchphrase, “I pity the fool.” Rocky III launched his career and it was this role that landed him a part on The A-Team TV series.
Aside from that, Mickey’s death is heartbreaking and the whole idea of Rocky being blinded by his own celebrity status was an interesting dynamic, as was bringing in Apollo in as Rocky’s trainer, giving some insight into and building on their friendship and the respect the two fighters have for each other.
Good sequel and great expansion of the characters.
Rocky IV (1985)
OK, now things get really, really stupid. This film is both one of the most silly, over the top, redundant films ever made, and yet also one of the singular most amazing things ever committed to film.
It's a terrible Rocky film, but also such a great one to just sit back and enjoy. Yes, there are a few problems with the writing. But you know the worst thing in this film? That damn talking robot given to Paulie as his birthday present. A talking robot — in a Rocky film? It may have only been in a couple of scenes, but still, that was enough to be unbelievably annoying.
Then there is Drago, who is basically a superhuman. He's like some kind of mega-boss battle you’d find in a video game. I really like the character and Lundgren in this role, even though he was a bit too outlandish.
As for that damn ending where Rocky ends the Cold War and unites the US and Russia as friends? It's all just a tad too cheesy and clearly a film of its time. I’m sure people were up out of their seats watching this back in the mid-'80s (unless you were Russian), but now it is a little cringe-worthy. Still, that James Brown introduction for the Creed/Drago fight was awesome. Best. Fight. Introduction. Ever.
Rocky IV is a fun film to watch. Really damn stupid, but still a whole lot of fun.
Rocky V (1990)
Pretty much universally hated. Even Stallone has disowned this one (and yet not Rocky IV, with its talking robot and superhuman Russian). The film to follow this one, Rocky Balboa, has a flashback to every Rocky film that came before it, except this one.
But I really like Rocky V. Yeah, the whole father-son thing is tedious and feels shoehorned in, simply because Stallone's real-life son Sage Stallone was playing Rocky Balboa Jr., and the bullying subplot is just pointless. But I still enjoy this film as it gets back to reality and back to the characters.
Tommy "Machine" Gunn (Tommy Morrison) was a great addition and it made for a refreshing change to see someone turn on Rocky the way this character did, despite all our hero had done for him. There are plenty of throwbacks and references to the original film, with Rocky back in his old neighborhood, and I enjoyed the idea of Rocky becoming the mentor figure that Mickey once was to him.
Then that final street fight is amazing, offering up something different to the norm in this franchise. So despite Stallone really, really hating this film and many of the fans agreeing, I’ll always stand by Rocky V as a better sequel than Rocky IV and one that gets things back on track. I just have to ignore the younger Stallone, and the film is great.
Rocky Balboa (2006)
I was one of those people who made the old-age jokes when this film was first announced. Really, another Rocky film with an elderly Stallone? As much as I love the films, Rocky V was enough and where it should have ended. I even made the decision to not bother to watch this one and avoided it for ages.
When I finally got around to watching it, I was blown away. The film is the best since the original and really is a return to form. It's all about the characters, with very little spectacle and an honest story told well and written brilliantly.
Stallone gives an amazing performance and the whole film is full of emotion. Rocky taking his anniversary tour of the places he used to go with his late wife Adrian just tugs at the heartstrings. Plus, there are a couple of well-written speeches that mirror the kind of flak Stallone was copping for wanting to make this film, like the speech Rocky gives at the boxing commission when he applies for a license, or the one he gives to his son when he tries to talk him out of fighting again.
The fact the fight was filmed with a real-life boxer and during a real boxing match during a real pay-per-view event adds to the realism. It's probably the best fight in the whole series. The decision to replace Sage Stallone with Milo Ventimiglia as Rocky’s son was surely a tough one, but the dynamic between the two actors is brilliant. Stallone is better here acting alongside Ventimiglia than he was alongside his real-life son in Rocky V.
Killing the character Adrian off was also a ballsy move. It was a gamble that really worked as we now get to see Rocky with nothing, which was what he had at the start of his journey. This adds a certain gravitas to our protagonist.
This was a film I was looking forward to, but also wasn’t really expecting too much out of. Yet it really surprised me, how great it was.
The plot really just boils down to a reworking of the original Rocky film. A young amateur boxer is mentored by a reluctant, aging trainer. The young boxer finds love as well as a chance at the title fight. However, while it's a rehash, it's a great rehash and one with some superb writing and acting throughout.
Michael B. Jordan in the starring role of Adonis Johnson/Creed is both a joy to watch and perfect casting for the role of the illegitimate son of Rocky’s old rival-turned-friend Apollo. But what was truly great is how much we see of Stallone in this film. I thought he’d only be in it for 20 minutes or so, as he is billed as a supporting actor. But no, he almost has as much screen time as Jordan.
The chemistry between the two leads is amazing, and you really get a sense of the respect the Rocky character enjoys in this world and his history through the series so far. While not as great as the previous film, there is one thing in this installment that was far better then any Rocky film to date. That's Stallone himself, giving us the best performance of his long career. If people ever doubt Stallone's acting chops, I’d just point them toward Creed, as his performance is mesmerizing.
Creed is an amazing, emotional film. Even if the plot is a carbon copy of the original, everything else about it is crafted perfectly. I had tears in my eyes.
Interesting note: Stallone was the exact same age in this film as Burgess Meredith when he appeared in the original film as Rocky’s mentor.
There have been rumors of a sequel to Creed, and I for one would love to see that happen.
The Man, The Myth, The Legend
To understand the emotion I felt when watching Creed, you have to understand Rocky Balboa's rich history — and the only way to do that is to watch all of the films from start to finish. To see him struggle as an amateur boxer who finds love in Rocky. Witness the shy Adrian slowly evolve though the franchise to become a stronger woman. See the bigoted and bitter Paulie — well, remain bigoted and bitter throughout. Watch Rocky end the Cold War and make the US and Russia friends in the '80s. See him lose everything he has worked so hard for.
Forty years on and Rocky is still one of the best film franchises ever made, full of amazing characters, stories and emotion. I recommend watching the entire saga, even of you're not a boxing fan — because boxing is not what these films are about. They are about love, relationships, fear and emotion. To quote Rocky Balboa himself:
"Let me tell you something you already know. The world ain't all sunshine and rainbows. It's a very mean and nasty place and I don't care how tough you are it will beat you to your knees and keep you there permanently if you let it. You, me, or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life. But it ain't about how hard you hit. It's about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward. How much you can take and keep moving forward. That's how winning is done!"
Are you a fan of the Rocky saga? Sound off in the comments section below.