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Review: Rocky II (1979)

Rocky II (1979)

Directed by: Sylvester Stallone

Premise: Picking up where the original film left off, Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) retires from boxing, marries Adrian (Talia Shire), and attempts to live a quiet domestic life. But Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) insists on a rematch and eventually lures Rocky back into the ring.

What Works: Following the success of 1976’s Rocky, Sylvester Stallone’s career floundered with F.I.S.T. and Paradise Alley. In an attempt to stage a career comeback, Stallone wrote and directed Rocky II. In the history of sequels, this is an important work. Sequels were not in vogue as of 1979. There had been some successful sequels such as Jaws 2 and the Planet of the Apes saga but serialization was not yet a regular fixture of the Hollywood business model. Rocky II, which was the most financially successful sequel to this point, did a lot to establish the pathway for successful sequels. First, it remains relevant to the original picture. Rocky II maintains the streetwise style of its predecessor and it continues the story in a way that is true to these characters. Second, Rocky II escalates the conflict. Where the first fight with Apollo Creed was a stunt that Rocky turned into an opportunity, the rematch poses Creed as a full-on antagonist. He badgers Rocky with insults and intends to destroy the Italian Stallion in front of his hometown. Third, Rocky II one-ups the showmanship of its predecessor. All of the technical qualities of Rocky II are superior to the first film (owing to a considerably higher production budget) and the Balboa-Creed rematch is the best fight sequence in the series. (It’s also notable that some key images and cinematic techniques of the Rocky II fight could be seen a year later in Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull.) Lastly, Rocky II justifies its own existence. The original Rocky didn’t suggest a sequel but Stallone—who is the writer, director, and star of the sequel—found a way to do it in a way that was credible. The bulk of the movie features Rocky trying to move on with this life but finding that impossible. This parallels the ups and down of Stallone’s career. In that respect, Rocky II demonstrates some of the self-awareness of the original film.

What Doesn’t: Rocky II might as well be titled Rocky 2.0 because that’s exactly what this film is. This picture is a classic example of “the same but different” school of Hollywood sequel-making and Rocky II adheres closely to the style and plot of the original picture. It repeats most of the major beats of the 1976 film, sometimes incorporating them organically but at other times shoehorning in the most popular elements of its progenitor. That’s most obvious in the running sequence in which a crowd of children tag along on Rocky’s charge up the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum. It’s a hokey and contrived sequence that’s only there to satisfy the market research. In the process of repeating so much of the original film, Rocky II loses some of that picture’s subtlety and dramatic resonance. The character is given a second shot at the heavyweight title but this time the emphasis is on winning. Here the film sacrifices substance for dramatic necessity. Stories have to escalate and winning the title is a natural progression from “going the distance” but winning the championship belt is not as profound as the central idea of the first film. The flattening of Rocky’s motivation extends to the rest of the characters. The core cast of Rocky return for the sequel but they aren’t quite as interesting this time around. In the first film Adrian discovered her self-worth but in Rocky II she’s a one dimensional housewife. The love story between Rocky and Adrian continues to be sweet but the film concocts a conflict in which Adrian protests Rocky’s decision to reenter the ring only to arbitrarily abandon it so that the film can get on with the training montages.

DVD extras: The edition of Rocky II released in “The Heavyweight Collection” has a number of special features but none that are particular to this installment.

Bottom Line: Rocky II is a compromised movie. It is risk adverse and sacrifices originality for the sake of appeasing the audience. But as a piece of populist entertainment, Rocky II gives the audience what it wants and does that very well. On a technical level it is a better movie than the original Rocky even if the sequel doesn’t recapture the first film’s soulfulness.

Episode: #623 (November 27, 2016)