Having seen the latest “Rocky”/ “Creed” film, “Creed II,” it’s time to rank all eight films of the saga from worst to first. There are no outright bad films in this series, and a case could be made for any order between No. 2 and No. 7. Just thinking back on the 42 years of “Rocky” films is enough to make me want to blast “Gonna Fly Now” and take a run up the museum steps. Here we go. Ding. Ding.
8. “Rocky V” (1990) – Something has to rank last, and I’m not unique among “Rocky”/ “Creed” rankers in choosing this entry, which is widely disliked. Here’s the funny thing, though: It’s a very watchable film. It’s a pleasure to see Rocky’s (Sylvester Stallone) home (both his family life and the mean streets of North Philly) explored in-depth, as he and Adrian (Talia Shire) raise Junior (Sage Stallone), now at the age where he has to learn to punch bullies in the nose.
The arc of Tommy Gunn (Tommy Morrison) starts off OK, as he’s torn between loyalty to Rocky and the temptations promised by Don King-esque promoter George Washington Duke (Richard Gant). Its final act drops “Rocky V” to the bottom of this list, and not because there is no arena fight. Tragically unable to brush the colossal chip off his shoulder, Gunn attacks Rocky in the streets and Rocky is forced to beat him up, the ultimate statement that he has failed as a mentor. This is a sad and sour ending, which might be daring and effective except that the filmmakers incongruously back it with the usual rousing victory score and hugs. A viewer is left more confused than a boxer hit by a blindside punch. (Full review)
7. “Rocky III” (1982) – The big-swinging style of Clubber Lang (Mr. T) seems like something from a video game more so than reality, and he admits he doesn’t enter bouts with a strategy. Still, he defeats Rocky the first time around because Rocky has gotten fat and lazy – well, not really; he’s more jacked than ever and he has drastically improved his non-boxing skill set, giving him substantial endorsement income. But his hunger to win is easily outstripped by Clubber, so “Rocky III” becomes Rocky’s quest to regain the “Eye of the Tiger” (which, not coincidentally, is also the franchise’s second iconic song).
The friendship between Rocky and new trainer Apollo (Carl Weathers) – RIP Mickey (Burgess Meredith) – is at the film’s heart, and it’s arguably daring that the movie shows the duo staging Creed-Balboa III in an otherwise empty gym but doesn’t tell us who wins. Despite the nice friendship arc, “Rocky III” mirrors the bombastic nature of Lang: more bluster than substance. “Rocky II’s” material about the dangers of boxing is dropped, and Rocky is re-imagined as a rock-skulled superhuman. (Full review)
6. “Rocky II” (1979) – The first sequel does not shy away from portraying the inhuman nature of the sweet science, starting with Rocky and Apollo being driven to the hospital by ambulance in the wake of their epic fight. It presents a stark choice for Rocky: He can try to start a non-boxing life and preserve his health (his eye is at risk, and there’s also the potential for brain damage), or he can accept the lucrative rematch with Apollo.
The bulk of the film drives home the point that Rocky is ill-suited to anything but boxing; he can’t even deliver the lines in commercials designed to cash in on his image. In the end, though, he is thrilled to have defeated Apollo (Apollo won by a split decision in the first film), and even Adrian seems happy, so “Rocky II” skirts away from confronting its conflict, letting its hero have it both ways. He’s still boxing, and apparently his health is OK. The film is nearly as enjoyable to watch as the first, but it doesn’t hold up as well to critical examination. (Full review)
5. “Creed II” (2018) – Thirty-three years after his introduction, “Rocky IV’s” Soviet fighting machine Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren) gets a robust arc as a broken man desperately hoping to reclaim glory through his son, Viktor (Florian Munteanu). Seeing Drago and Rocky share the screen again is a joy, but it goes beyond fan service as Rocky pulls out more great bits of monologued wisdom for Adonis (Michael B. Jordan) and also gets to be a silly uncle – he suggests the name “Cate Creed” for Adonis’ daughter, prompting Adonis to ask if Rocky knows the baby will be black.
Scenes with Adonis’ growing family stand toe-to-toe with the grizzled veterans, from funny (Adonis’ mom knows Bianca is pregnant before she does) to bittersweet (baby Amara is soothed by the vibrations of a punching bag). In some ways, “Creed II” is a skosh better than both “Creed” and “Rocky IV,” but it gets knocked back a peg by repeating the cheat from “Rocky II”: The dangers of boxing are a serious concern right up until the point where they aren’t. (Full review)
4. “Creed” (2015) – There’s nothing new about “Creed,” yet it feels fresh. There’s a big boxing match, but this one is staged by director Ryan Coogler from an in-your-face perspective as one long tracking shot. There’s a mentor, but this one is Rocky, so we bring the weight of his experiences with us. Also, the “Rocky” films are stylistically old-school and white whereas the “Creed” films are stylistically modern and black – note the rap music of Bianca (Tessa Thomson), a girlfriend who gets her own arc in a way Adrian didn’t.
But “Creed” draws attention to this to the same degree that the saga comments on the interracial friendship between Apollo and Rocky – which is to say, not much. The spirits of the prior generation of boxers hang over young Adonis Creed in an appealing way, yet it feels triumphant when he carves out a boxing career of his own, making “Creed” a rock-solid handoff film. (Full review)
3. “Rocky Balboa” (2006) – In a saga filled with “last” hurrahs (Rocky comes out of retirement more often than George Foreman), “Balboa” is the ultimate. It’s also a sigh-of-relief movie, because Rocky beating the crap out of the hapless Tommy Gunn is no longer the final image of Rocky’s career as a boxer. The fact of a 50-something Rocky holding his own against the current champion is absurd, but the film knows this and has fun with age-related humor about Rocky’s “calcified joints.” New-century spectacle enters the saga in the form of ESPN graphics and voiceover analysis (something the “Creed” films copy), and as with previous films, the level of danger to Rocky’s health fluctuates based on the screenplay’s needs.
But “Balboa” is mostly about Rocky entering a reflective and mentoring phase of his life, with Adrian and Paulie (Burt Young) having died between films. While the father-son relationship is an engaging mix of tension and love, Junior (now known as Robert, and played by Milo Ventimiglia) wavers on how receptive he is to his dad’s mumbly wisdom – even as Rocky almost accidentally inspires everyone else in North Philly with his sheer, lovable Rocky-ness. (Full review)
2. “Rocky IV” (1985) – It’s a challenge to defend this as the second-best film, especially since I already said “Creed II” is a deeper examination of Ivan Drago and his family, and since the saga at this point was viewed by many (including “Spaceballs”) as a bloated story that would go to “Rocky 500” if there was money to be made. But it is my second-favorite film – and the entry that has the most rewatch value from fans — so I’ll take a shot at defending it. “Rocky IV” stylizes all the elements that are now cliches, from the training montage of Rocky climbing a mountain to his daydreaming about happy (Adrian) and scary (Drago) facets of his life.
The themes play under the surface: The Soviets cheer for Rocky because they are human, and Rocky is more likable than Drago. The idea that Soviets would feel compelled to back Drago, under the pressure of their government, is totally valid. The idea that they are as machine-like as Drago and the system that created him and can’t think for themselves is insulting. Rocky’s star-spangled trunks and flag-draping are tributes to Apollo, and symbols of what America can be (even if it is not). The film’s jingoistic imagery is a fake-out from the central theme, but savvy viewers will see past it: “Rocky IV” is a triumph of humanity over any oppressive system, and while this movie is a ton of fun, it’s not as silly as its reputation. (Full review)
1. “Rocky” (1976) – The statue of Rocky. The tourists running up the Philadelphia art museum steps. The hummable theme song. It could all seem forced – inspiration wrung from a stone — since Rocky is a fictional character and Stallone isn’t even from Philly. But then there’s the fact that “Rocky” is a masterpiece, with Stallone writing and acting the hell out of the role (for which he was rightly awarded Best Picture and robbed of screenplay and actor awards), and Bill Conti delivering the iconic pump-up sports theme “Gonna Fly Now.”
It also features three memorable supporting characters: Adrian, giving shy people a role model; Apollo Creed, the ultimate flamboyant showman, setting the stage for a whole string of them; and North Philadelphia, which looks so evocatively gross you can almost smell it through your screen even without Rocky ranting about how his apartment stinks. Rocky Balboa is made up, but “Rocky” the movie is a winning underdog story, and an example of a strange Hollywood truism: When filmmakers are short on money, time and experience, they often deliver their best work. (Full review)