Note: This list was originally published on December 9th, 2015, but has been modified to include and rank the recently-released “Creed II.”
So, as I really hope you know by now, the “Rocky” series has the most inspirational trailers in the history of time. I highly recommend you watch them before an intensive workout or any kind of exciting life event — a nice dinner with a significant other, perhaps. You could also just find the training montages online, because they’re all fucking amazing (outside of “Rocky V”). And, yes, there might be a future Listcore of my Top 5 “Rocky” Movie Training Montages. Fairly soon.
I should clarify one thing before we get started — Bill Simmons tackled this well when he was doing his own “Rocky” series appraisal. I’m not going to rank these movies by order of quality, necessarily. Rather, I will rank them based on which was the most entertaining. “Rocky III” and “Rocky IV” are not strictly “better” movies than “Rocky II” or “Creed,” the two most (relatively) realistic “Rocky” follow-ups who staid tonally truest to the one that started it all. But I definitely like them more. “Rocky III” and “Rocky IV” are the ridiculously bombastic product of a gratuitously ‘roided-out mind. Rocky beats up a guy who weighs 50-60 pounds more than he does! Rocky and Apollo Creed race and hug it out on the beach! Adrian yells “YOU CAN’T WIN” a whole lot! Rocky topples the Soviet Union by chopping firewood! They’re dumb movies, sure. But for what they are, they’re very effective (and affecting, because Stallone keeps killing off great characters in them).
8 “Rocky V” (1990) —
You really don’t need to watch this, the trailer explains the entire movie. And the entire movie is the only serious misfire of the whole series. “Rocky V” isn’t un-watchable or anything (the way, say, “Rhinestone” is), because it’s still fun to hang out with Rocky, Paulie and Adrian in their little hardscrabble Philly universe, and it does have some decent boxing footage and a passable training montage or two. BUT its plot is microcosmic in scope or arc and so boring that, by the end of it, you’ll be asking yourself, “Why the fuck did they make this?” Basically, Rocky suffers severe head trauma from his definitive bout in “Rocky IV” with Ivan Drago, and is ruled out of boxing again (why this doesn’t come up in “Rocky Balboa” is anyone’s guess, but I’d assume it’s because even Sylvester Stallone hates “Rocky V”). He quickly goes broke and has to move out of his sweet mansion and into a working class Philadelphia neighborhood, where he opens up a little restaurant. So he resigns himself to training a new up-and-comer with a great mullet, Tommy Gunn (Tommy Morrison). Tommy’s career blows up under Rocky’s tutelage, and soon enough he’s getting offers for big-time fights. But Rocky doesn’t think he’s ready yet, aggravating his weird-haired disciple. Rocky’s is a low-budget operation, and soon enough, Tommy is seduced away from the good-hearted, mildly brain-damaged Rocky by a big-money Don King stand-in, George Washington Duke (Richard Gant). After some really boring family stuff (Rocky’s son Robert has been jealous of the attention pops has paid to Tommy), we get the riveting conclusion. Which is a low-key back alley fight between Rocky and Tommy. No promoters, no purse, nothing. Just pride. Rocky wins, of course, even though Stallone was 43 when they shot this and Morrison (a pro fighter in real life, who at 6’2″ dwarfs the 5’10” Sly) was 20. Stupid.
7. “Rocky Balboa” (2006) —
I don’t mind Adrian being dead by this one, honestly. Wasn’t totally necessary, but whatever. Her character was little more than an appendage after “Rocky II.” I know she was even a divisive figure way back during the first “Rocky,” but I thought that love story worked. The loser loan shark meat-head falling head over heels for the precocious pet store clerk. It’s hooky. That ice-rink scene especially is pretty damn cute. I’m glad Stallone didn’t cut bait with Jason Schwartzman’s mom after the first “Rocky” movie, but he has trouble giving her much to do apart from being a nag. I’m glad Ryan Coogler opted not to give Rocky some kind of cute love subplot with a 40 year-old nurse in the hospital or something (remember, Sly was 68 years old when he shot “Creed”). Sadly though, Sly lacks that restraint in “Rocky Balboa.”
He gently, chastely (there’s a fairly painless smooch, but that’s as far as they go) hooks Rocky up with the “Little” Marie character (Geraldine Hughes, who was 35 when Stallone was 59 filming the flick), a neighborhood bartender who grew up around Rocky in Philly when he was just starting to take off, around the time of the first movie. Not a terrible character or anything, but I just totally didn’t buy their relationship and it took me out of the rest of the movie. Actually, whenever she showed up I just wanted to see more of Paulie so… okay, maybe she wasn’t that great a character. But Adrian “You Can’t Win” Balboa was no peach herself by “Rocky III.” The main fight was good, the primary training montage was top notch — Sly really has a command of the Philly boxing atmosphere by this point, and DP J. Clark Mathis abets the cause with some great high-shutter action. It is, of course, completely ridiculous that Rocky could go the distance against reigning World Heavyweight Champ Mason “The Line” Dixon (the 6’2″ Antonio Tarver, 2003 World Light Heavyweight Champ, now a cruiserweight fighter), 37 at the time of filming. But in the moment, you can almost buy it.
6. “Creed II” (2018) —
Decent, fun fights, mired by head-scratching training regimens (Adonis Creed trains in a brutal desert heat with middling facilities to get his “edge” back, a la Rocky’s training in an isolated log cabin within the Russian wilderness), and a severe overemphasis on treacly family time (the #5 film on this list falls for that trap as well). The biggest issue, of course, was a title bout between a light heavyweight/cruiserweight fighter (Creed, played by 6′, 175-pound Michael B. Jordan, who was trying to hit 195 pounds for the film) and a heavyweight (Viktor Drago, played by real-life 6’4″, 250-pound heavyweight boxer Florian Munteanu) where the significantly smaller guy wins somehow. The fight scenes, helmed by Steven Caple Jr., didn’t look nearly as impressive as Ryan Coogler’s gorgeous battle choreography in the original 2015 “Creed” (more on this below).
Why did Dolph Lundgren only get to speak a few lines? Why didn’t we get to see more Drago overall? I found myself more invested in the dark Drago family drama than the relatively happy, stable, first world problems of the Creed clan. I also missed the clever Cold War allegorical politicking of the otherwise-dumb “Rocky IV.” Why was there so much of an emphasis Creed’s relatively normal, drama-free relationship with Bianca (Tessa Thompson)? Why is everyone’s son in this (including the son of Creed’s trainer Duke)?
Also — WHY ARE THERE NO PATRONS AT ADRIAN’S BAR, EVER?
5. “Rocky II” (1979) —
I fucking love the beginning of this thing, with Rocky and Creed in their wheelchairs yelling at each other. I don’t care for the heavy downer that is the rest of the movie, as Rocky systematically gets beaten down: first he combats his serious risk of blindness (he suffered a detached retina during the fight); then he can’t read the cue cards for his various commercial endorsements (nowadays they’d just have a, um, less verbose athlete do what they do best and read a voice-over at the tail end of the commercial); Rocky mishandles his cash, loses a lot of it, and struggles to find non-boxing employment; even when Rocky decides to fight again, Adrian gets preggers and really pushes Rocky against the eventual re-match that he is half-heartedly training for. THEN, though, we get a juiced-up variation of the original “Rocky” fight, and that’s pretty great.
Sly has taken over directorial duties from the Academy Award-winning “Rocky” helmer John Avildsen (the man mysteriously responsible for the best AND worst “Rocky” movies), and his eye for action is pretty on-point. Carl Weathers is 6’2″ and listed at 220 lbs., and the the 5’9″ Sylvester Stallone (playing a 6’1″ Rocky) is listed at 190-200 lbs., so the end result of their second bout (Rocky beats a guy who in real life would NOT be in the same weight class) still feels… highly improbable. Technically, Sly would be fighting light heavyweight and Weathers would be battling at normal heavyweight (200+ pounds). That aside, objectively speaking, this is one of the better “Rocky” flicks. SUBJECTIVELY speaking, it’s not nearly as fun an experience as some of its dumber follow-ups. See below.
4. “Creed” (2015) —
WHY DID PAULIE HAVE TO DIE, COOGLER?
Also, MAN it took a long time for them to bust out that famous Bill Conti theme song. They really had me worried for a second there.
Don’t let this ranking fool you, “Creed” is really good, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. One of my favorite movies of 2015 thus far, although to be fair, 2015 has been light on classics. It’s not a great movie, though. Let me tell you why: basic character motivation for our titular hero. So “Creed” is about Adonis Johnson (later to go by Adonis Creed), Apollo Creed’s illegitimate son, who was raised in foster care until he was 12, then raised by his pop’s widow (Mrs. Cosby, Phylicia Rashad). After getting a great education on his dead dad’s dime, living in a baller house in LA, and working at some kind of sweet financial job (while notching a 15-0 boxing record in Mexico on weekends), Adonis (Michael B. Jordan) decides to quit his job and box full-time.
Based on the movies’ chronology, Adonis is probably 29 here. He would have had to be 12 in 1998 (the movie doesn’t tell us that), because Apollo Creed died in 1985 — so we’ll have to assume that he got Adonis’s mom, who was Apollo’s mistress or one-night stand, pregnant more or less right before he got killed by Ivan Drago. So… 29 is fairly old to embark on a full-time professional boxing career; Mexico in the movie is kind of treated like a minor-league circuit, so at best it’s semi-pro. So, yeah… why would this dude want to fight, exactly? Especially after 17 years of Adonis’s adoptive mom telling him DON’T FIGHT IT KILLED YOUR DAD (at one point, she shares a TMI bathroom anecdote that feels intimate and brutal and would turn me right the fuck off from ever wanting to box, were I Adonis Creed).
So when he quits the cushy gig, and his mom tells him “I HATE THAT YOU’RE FIGHTING” (I’m paraphrasing), he… moves to Philadelphia and bugs Rocky until the Italian Stallion agrees to train him. Writer/director Ryan Coogler also generates some hokey conflict in the middle of the movie after Adonis discovers that Rocky has lymphoma. Rocky getting cancer is quite poignant and handled with grace and real feeling (and gets kind of intense, so have your hankies at the ready — I’m not saying they kill Rocky, necessarily, but I AM saying that the cancer stuff is hard to watch), that’s not the problem. The fact that Rocky refuses to get chemo at first (because Adrian went through it when she had cancer and it didn’t help her) is not the problem. The problem is the flimsy way Coogler tries to show Adonis being immature in handling the diagnosis. He lashes out at the important people in his life in a way that’s almost antithetical to his personality and behavior in the rest of the movie. It’s pretty flimsy. Fight realism note — Michael B. Jordan is 5’11.5″, Tony Bellew is 6’2.5″ with a 6’2″ reach, BUT they were around the exact same fighting weight. Jordan put on 24 pounds to get to 176 lbs., and Bellew is listed at 175. The weight/height disparity isn’t nearly as severe as the Sly/Weathers or Sly/Dolph issues.
Great fight scenes though, fun characters outside of the aforementioned issues, beautifully shot. Sly finally acts his age (way less jet-black hair dye than in “The Expendables,” “Rocky Balboa,” or “Rambo”), and he wears it well. There’s a decently handled love story too, although they kind of relegate the girlfriend (the great Tessa Thompson, of “Dear White People” fame, playing a musician with a bittersweet handicap) to the background in the second half of the movie. The conclusive fight, in particular, is quite spectacular, and surprisingly moving. DID I CRY DURING THE SCREENING OF “CREED?”
DON’T BE RIDICULOUS.
I NEVER CRY. I AM AN UNFEELING ROBOT WHO BARELY REACTS WHEN ROCKY BALBOA VOMITS FROM CHEMO TREATMENT.
Fine, fine. There was some welling-up, okay? Just a little. MINOR WELLING. I’m very glad to not be the only Filmcore-er to report this sensation. Especially at the end, in the 11th round, when our Adonis hits the mat. And it could be over. Or he can get the fuck up and keep fighting. Even though we know what’s going to happen, it doesn’t really matter. It’s quite the moment. And it’s quite the movie, warts and all.
3. “Rocky III” (1983) —
WHY DID MICKEY HAVE TO DIE, SLY?
SO THAT COACH APOLLO COULD REIGN. Because man oh man, does this one have a wacky training montage or five. Chicago’s own Mr. T, actually a somewhat size-appropriate competitor for the Italian Stallion (5’10” to Stallone’s 5’9″, although Mr. T weighs maybe 40 pounds more), roared onto the screen in his film acting debut, playing the brilliantly-named Clubber Lang. A former bouncer and bodyguard, the future B.A. Baracus is a great, intimidating opponent, charismatic and cruel (“No, I don’t hate Balboa, but I pity the fool”), a kind of next-gen up-and-coming Creed-esque baddie. This one is really fun, much more streamlined and to-the-point than its two predecessors, if also excessively dumber and more contrived. But let’s run a quick Ted Turner Test on this baby: let’s say you see that “Rocky II” is on TBS or TNT (or, uh, CNN). How long do you sit through Rocky’s baby mama drama, his poignant struggles acting in commercials, his debilitating retinal re-attachment surgery, just to get to like 30 minutes of cool stuff? Now, on the other hand, you see that “Rocky III” is on. And you just know that you’re gonna be glued to that couch for two hours. I mean, come on, the theme song for this one was “Eye of the Tiger.” Nobody can resist “Eye of the Tiger.”
Sure, there’s an annoying “YOU CAN’T WIN” scene on the beach with Adrian, but outside of that, we get lots and lots of drama: the rise of the challenger, Clubber Lang, who sort-of kills Mickey by violently pushing him and inducing his eventually-fatal heart attack (thank goodness Mickey holds on long enough to say his goodbyes, though, huh?); the softening of Rocky as a competitor now that he’s finally gotten his money right (a much more entertaining outcome than him becoming destitute again in “Rocky II” — and, later, “Rocky V”); Rocky’s defeat at the hands of Lang; his complicated relationship with Apollo Creed deepening; less Adrian; the aforementioned sweet training montages (third-best in the series after our #2 and #1 movies, actually); AND glorious last-reel retribution.
AND, of course, that last, secret Rocky-Creed III fight. I mean, come on, what a cool set-up: “I didn’t hear no bell.” “Ding, ding.” AND FREEZE. Happily, Stallone keeps our big question (WHO WON THE FIGHT?) a secret for several “Rocky” installments. We wouldn’t find out for 32 years, but it turns out that, yeah, it was the greatest fictional boxer of all time, Apollo Creed.
2. “Rocky IV” (1985) —
WHY DID APOLLO HAVE TO DIE, SLY?
In a lot of ways, I think the task of gauging the “Rocky” movies’ quality is quite comparable to breaking down the James Bond movies. “Casino Royale” is (relatively) understated and realistic, whereas “Goldeneye” has a character named Xenia Onatopp who kills men by crushing them between her thighs mid-coitus (I’d like to die this way, please). “Rocky IV” is really, really stupid, and makes only the slightest of efforts at feigning realism. But fuck it, the stakes are real, the motivations are clear, the characters, though cartoons, are engaging and realized, the pace is good, the boxing scenes look great, and HOLY FUCK THOSE MONTAGES.
I’m pretty sure that “Rocky IV” can actually boast the BEST single ’80s training montage. And yes, I’m counting the “Real Genius” montages (Exhibit A and Exhibit B) as training montages. They’re great, no doubt (and their music is superior), but, I mean, come on, dude, “Rocky IV” all the way. BEAR WITNESS TO ITS GLORY (there are two training montages in there, and they are tied for first place in the Great ’80s Montages hierarchy). “DRAAGOOOOOOOOOO.” We also get my favorite “YOU CAN’T WIN” from Adrian.
Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren) and his icy wife and handler Brigitte Nielson (Ludmilla Vobet Drago) are fun, formidable Soviet villains — pure cartoons, more a joint oppressive immovable force (kind of like their government, get it? DO YOU NOT SEE THE SYMBOLISM??) than two fleshed-out characters. But they’re really not allocated a ton of character-building screen time, so it doesn’t detract from the heart of the movie, which is Rocky. Realism notes: Drago was 261 pounds and 6’5″ in the movie, and Rocky had to be 200+ to fight as a heavyweight (again, he was 6’1″ in the movie). Lundgren in real life was somewhere between 235-245 pounds, and Sly was probably closer to 190 (and, again, 5’9″ or 5’10”). So, yeah, Sly (38 at the time of filming to Dolph’s 27) stood absolutely zero chance of victory. Still, though.
1. “Rocky” (1976) —
Please note: even though, clearly, I hold a special place in my heart for “Rocky” and all its offspring not named “Rocky V” (which even Sly himself doesn’t like, according to Adonis Creed), it DID NOT deserve to win the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1976. In fact, it was only the third best NOMINEE to come out that year.
You don’t believe me, do you? Well check out the 1976 Academy Award nominees for Best Picture:
– “Bound For Glory”
– “All The President’s Men”
– “Taxi Driver”
Four of these movies (i.e. everything not named “Bound For Glory”) are generally regarded as being all-timers. That being said, I happen to disagree about “Network” even being good. It’s an overwrought Message Movie so proud of its argument that it forgets to have any fun with its heightened comic satire or develop any characters outside of the power-mad Faye Dunaway; it’s incredibly predictable, and it’s a screeching two-dimensional mess. “Taxi Driver” is one of my 10 favorite movies ever, “All The President’s Men” one of my 15. The original “Rocky” is somewhere in my top 100. “Rocky” was a wonderful, welcome return to many great traditional cinematic tropes, an old-school boxing picture that somehow felt new. “All The President’s Men” is the single-greatest newspaper movie ever made, and it’s so rich with texture (in its character, its plotting, its atmosphere — all supplied to us courtesy of director Alan J. Pakula, writer William Goldman, and producer/star/apparent ghost-director Robert Redford) that you could watch it 50 times and never get bored. I can attest to this personally. “Taxi Driver” was so fantastically unique, such a pioneering cinematic singularity, that there’s no way it was ever going to win Best Picture. The masculine anger, the raw nihilistic violence, the hellish seedy underbelly of Midtown, the deep romantic discomfort. Gorgeous, brilliant, special movie. Anyway, I guess the point of all this is… 1976 was a hell of a year to love movies.
Anyway, I kind of went on a huge tangent there. I fucking love the original “Rocky.” The set-up is so great, a familiar boxing underdog story even in 1976, but really effectively handled. A nobody gets a shot against a fictionalized Muhammad Ali. And Apollo Creed was a terrific foil for Rocky before they were allies: he’s not a bad guy at all, nor is he painted that way. He’s an arrogant, flashy bad-ass, a champ looking for a fresh PR angle. But he’s not some ruthless murderer or pseudo-murderer, or some disloyal punk, as several series antagonists have been (the baddies in “Rocky III”-“Rocky V,” and “Pretty” Ricky Conlan in “Creed,” who’s about to go to jail for 7 years for an undisclosed violent crime). Rocky is one of the great cinematic underdogs, and he needs an intimidating, true professional for the match to really be realized. A loan shark who moonlights as a mediocre bottom-feeding amateur boxer, the 30-ish (i.e. too old) Rocky Balboa has never gotten a fair shake. This movie is about a man finally realizing his potential, pushing himself (THE EGGS SCENE! THE MEAT LOCKER SCENE!) beyond the limits he had previously imposed. He gets the girl, he gets the trainer (iconic stick-man Burgess Meredith, playing his trainer Mickey Goldmill) after the famous “You’re a bum!” confrontation (“It’s a living.” “It’s a waste of life!!”), and he gets his dignity in going toe-to-toe against an all-time great. And, of course, we the audience get the single-most inspirational training montage OF ALL TIME.