Hey yo: I spent months researching and writing a massive career retrospective on Sylvester Stallone. The most frequent question I heard when I told people I was watching and writing about every single Stallone movie—after “DEAR GOD, WHY?!?”—was “How do you rank the Rocky movies?”
From there, things got contentious. Fueled by frequent cable television marathons, the Rocky series has to be one of the most widely watched franchises in cinema history. Everyone has seen it, and everyone has an opinion on it, and there’s very little agreement about anything (except maybe which movie is the worst). My Stallone piece was already in the neighborhood of 6500 words without it, so I decided to devote a separate piece here in the Newsreel to my definitive franchise rankings. I’m sure you will disagree; your counter-punches are welcome in the comments section below. Like every character says in Rocky V 500 times: Go for it.
By the way, Stallone himself has weighed in on this subject. In a 2006 interview with Ain’t It Cool News, Sly was asked to rank the Rockys and at that time he said he’d pick, from worst to best, Rocky V, Rocky IV, Rocky III, Rocky II, Rocky, and Rocky Balboa. I respectfully disagree; here’s my own ranking from bum to champ:
6. Rocky V (1990)
Directed by John G. Avildsen
Stallone has also said in interviews that his primary motivation for making Rocky V was pure greed, which is curious since the movie’s message is about rejecting greed and superficiality in favor of a purer, simpler existence. Rocky loses his title, career, and health, and has to retire back to his old neighborhood in Philadelphia. A mercenary promoter in the Don King mold tries to lure him back for one last match, but Rocky repeatedly rejects his overtures. The money is worthless if Rocky’s too sick to enjoy it with his family. It’s one of the all-time do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do movies; “Greed is dangerous (except when I do it)!”
Rocky V, in other words, is inauthentic to its core—and that inauthenticity bleeds over into its final fight, a street battle between Rocky and his former pupil and current world heavyweight champ, Tommy “The Machine” Gunn (Tommy Morrison). Rocky’s been diagnosed with potentially catastrophic brain damage and ordered by his doctors never to box again. After a couple of hard shots, Rocky is staggered—but then his dead trainer Mickey (Burgess Meredith) appears amidst a flurry of stock footage to urge him to get up and fight one more time.
The whole movie is like that, flip-flopping between more realistic plot points—Rocky’s spoiled son (Sage Stallone) trying to adapt to the harsh realities of Philly life, Rocky’s struggle with retirement and obsolescence—and absurd sports movie clichés. Rocky V can’t decide whether it’s a sequel to Rocky (a mostly downbeat story of working class Philadelphia) or a sequel to Rocky IV (a mostly hilarious story of one American warrior triumphing over the entire Soviet Union).
Still, it’s not as bad as its reputation suggests, thanks in large part to Stallone’s endearing performance, probably his best and most relaxed since the first film. Credit goes to returning director John G. Avildsen, who pushed Stallone to play the character closer to his original conception (i.e. a big-hearted motor-mouth). The movie itself is often confused, but its Rocky is not.
Strange Rocky V Trivia: Stallone’s original concept for Rocky V would have seen Rocky die after his street fight with Tommy Gunn. The final bout between Rocky and Tommy in the finished film is still significantly different from the version Avildsen originally shot, which featured the ghost of Mickey standing on nearby elevated train tracks, urging Rocky onwards (in the actual film, he seems more like a memory than an actual physical presence in the scene).
5. Rocky IV (1985)
Directed by Sylvester Stallone
For many children of the ’80s, Rocky IV was as much rite of passage as film. My memories of “playing Rocky” are more vivid than watching the movie itself. At that age, Rocky Balboa seemed like the movie equivalent of a comic-book superhero; his buddy gets killed at the hands of this evil Russian, and he reluctantly sets out to avenge his death. With great power comes great responsibility, etc. He even had a costume (his American flag boxing trunks).
Viewed again today, Rocky IV still has a lot going for it. Although Stallone had a temporary falling out with series composer Bill Conti, the film contains one of the franchise’s best—or at least most workout-friendly—soundtracks, with irony-free fist-pumping tunes like Survivor’s “Burning Heart” and John Cafferty & The Beaver Brown Band’s “Heart’s On Fire” (apparently, the movie’s about heartburn or something). And there’s a reason Dolph Lundgren became so famous as Russian heavyweight Ivan Drago; he’s incredibly menacing. “I must break you,” is a classic.
My beef with Rocky IV now is that it’s clearly a shameless beat-for-beat rehash of the superior Rocky III. There’s the opening fight that ends with the death of Rocky’s best friend, the tragic funeral scene where Stallone stands solemnly in sunglasses, a villain who’s bigger, badder, and hungier than Rocky, a crisis of confidence, several lengthy training sequences, and then the obvious (yet improbable) victory in the climactic fight. If you’ve seen Rocky III and a couple of Ronald Reagan speeches, you’ve already seen Rocky IV.
Strange Rocky IV Trivia: The same actor—David Lloyd Austin—plays Mikhail Gorbachev in both Rocky IV and The Naked Gun.
4. Rocky Balboa (2006)
Directed by Sylvester Stallone
By most empirical measures, Rocky Balboa is terrible. Rocky doesn’t sound or look very much like the guy from the older movies, and the entire plot hinges on the idea that the heavyweight champion of the world (real-life professional boxer Antonio Tarver) might try to boost his public image by turning an ESPN computer simulation of a fight between he and Rocky Balboa into an actual exhibition match. Like many Rocky plot points, Stallone took this one from reality—Muhammad Ali and Rocky Marciano once made a film called The Super Fight to settle the results of a computerized title bout—but in real life the “super fight” was several dozen rounds of staged sparring edited together, not a legitimate match.
But the Rockys work on a level beyond basic logic. Like their unflagging hero, they’re pure heart, and Rocky Balboa, in spite of its ridiculous concept, is still an affecting emotional journey. Stallone has several great speeches, including the one to his son (Milo Ventimiglia), who hates how his father’s comeback reflects on him. Stallone’s real son, Sage, who played the part of Rocky Jr. in Rocky V, passed away in 2012, lending this scene an extra layer of metatextual melancholy.
As I said in the Career View piece, the movie isn’t perfect, but the fact that it isn’t an embarrassment is a significant accomplishment. Rocky needed to prove he could go the distance; and with this (hopefully) final Rocky film, Stallone proved he could too.
Strange Rocky Balboa trivia: Stallone filmed multiple endings of the big exhibition match, including one where Rocky actually wins in a split decision. Thank God he didn’t use it.
3. Rocky II (1979)
Directed by Sylvester Stallone
At 119 minutes, Rocky II by far the longest of the five sequels, and that’s probably hurt its standing with Rocky fans; it doesn’t play as well on television, particularly with lots of commercial interruptions.
Although Rocky transformed into one of the longest running franchises in movie history, the sheer idea of a Rocky sequel was kind of crazy. The first fight between Rocky and Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) ended with the two exhausted boxers declaring they didn’t want a rematch. Seconds into Rocky II that gets reversed, as Creed, bloodied and bruised, demands a rematch in front of the assembled media. The real story of Chuck Wepner, the boxer whose fight with Muhammad Ali was the loose inspiration for the original Rocky, followed a much different path. Wepner developed a coke habit and went to jail on drug charges before straightening his life out and later suing Stallone for a piece of the massive profits from the Rocky franchise. (They ultimately settled out of court for an undisclosed amount.)
Stallone makes the best out of some shaky material. After audiences fell so deeply in love with Rocky, his victory—contrary to everything the character stood for—was inevitable. The best scenes, though, have little to do with the Apollo rematch, and focus instead on the boxer’s struggle to adjust to life as a celebrity and his tender relationship with his fiancée and later wife Adrian (Talia Shire). Stallone’s breakdown at Adrian’s bedside after she goes into a coma is devastating, and Stallone and Shire generally get far less credit than they deserve for the strong chemistry they have together in this and all the Rocky films.
The ending is preposterous, but I like Rocky II because the early scenes still feel demonstrably like the first film; Rocky seems like a guy who’d waste his money, fail at commercials, and wind up right back where he started. There’s still a connection, however tenuous to the original character here. When he gets up at the end of the 15th round, that connection was severed for 25 years.
Strange Rocky II Trivia: In 1976, Stallone told The New York Times he envisioned Rocky as a trilogy. In part two, “Rocky would go to night school and enter politics and eventually become Mayor of Philadelphia. And in part three, he would be framed by the political machine because he was too honest, impeached and wind up back in the ring at 37, broken down but happy.”
2. Rocky III (1982)
Directed by Sylvester Stallone
Speaking of the connection to the original character: this is moment the Rocky series shredded any last vestige of realism or nuance for superheroism and uplift. But damn if the whole thing doesn’t work like gangbusters anyway; it’s formula, perfectly executed. There are training montages galore, the devastating death of Mickey, a great villain in Clubber Lang (Mr. T), and the appealing and clever reversal of Rocky’s dynamic with his arch-nemesis-turned-trainer Apollo Creed.
At this point in the franchise, Rocky starts to look and sound less and less like a mook from the backstreets of Philly and more like an incredibly wealthy and successful movie star. His accent fades, his body fat vanishes, and his wardrobe gets a lot nicer. If you buy the idea that Rocky is less of a character than a thinly veiled vehicle for Stallone to project his own autobiographical anxieties, that’s not necessarily a bad thing; Rocky III is his chance to vent about hangers-on (Burt Young’s Paulie is perpetually looking for a handout) and his fear of losing his hard-fought success and fortune.
Rocky III Rocky’s fear of failure is a lot less relatable to the average viewer than Rocky Rocky’s dreams of a better life, but that doesn’t make the film any less personal. Plus this version of Adrian—part therapist, part cheerleader—feels a lot truer to the origins of the character than the woman in Rocky IV and V who frequently second-guesses Rocky’s desire to fight.
There are smarter, more sophisticated, more provocative, and more intelligent movies than Rocky III. But there may not be a more rewatchable movie than Rocky III. “Eye Of The Tiger,” Hulk Hogan as angry wrestler Thunderlips (“In the flesh, bay-beh!”), and the best—or at least the most awesome—training montage in the franchise (Running on the beach! Swimming! The speed bag! Sparring! Dancing like Apollo! Running on the beach, but this time in short shorts!).
Still, it’s not just fluff; even with its more cartoonish elements, Rocky III has some serious stakes. Mickey’s death is a punch in the gut, and Stallone’s anguished wails over his deathbed are haunting. For such an crowd-pleasing movie, it’s surprisingly harrowing at times. Few sequels today dare to muck up their mythology to such an extreme.
Strange Rocky III Trivia: Stallone’s plan for Rocky III was even crazier than his plans for Rocky II and V. In 1980, he outlined his vision for Roger Ebert: as in the finished movie, Mickey would still die, Apollo would become his new trainer. But this film’s fight would be aired “on global TV from the Roman Coliseum,” and would also end with the champion’s death. “If I have the nerve,” he told Ebert, “Rocky should die at the end of the third film. I was originally thinking in more grandiose terms—the Coliseum and everything—but Rocky III should end with more than a fight. It should end with Rocky’s life coming full cycle, The way I imagine it, after the fight, he’s riding home in a cab, with the roar of the people chanting ‘Rocky!’ still in his ears. And he just drops over dead. In other words, he has achieved everything possible and he dies when he’s on top. I don't think people want to see Rocky when he’s 80.”
1. Rocky (1976)
Directed by John G. Avildsen
Before undertaking the Stallone retrospective, I probably would have ranked Rocky III as the best in the series. It was, after all, the entry I’d seen the most. Watched uncut and uninterrupted for the first time in at least a decade, there’s no question that the original Rocky is not only superior, it’s one of the superior films of the 1970s. It won the Best Picture Oscar in a particularly competitive year, against great films like All The President’s Men, Network, and Taxi Driver. Rocky may not be the best of the bunch, but it’s definitely in the same league.
Unlike the sequels, Rocky is not a formula sports movie; it’s a character study of a boxer and his girlfriend. Watching it this time, I was shocked how small Carl Weathers’ part is, and how long it takes for the movie to even set up the fight between Rocky and Apollo. For half the movie, the plot isn’t “Will Rocky beat Apollo?” it’s “Will Rocky convince this shy girl that works at the pet store that he’s not a bum?” Even after the fight is booked, the movie makes it clear: Rocky can’t win. The only suspense is whether he’ll lose by knockout or by decision.
Although Rocky became one of the biggest franchises in history, the first movie was made on a shoestring. By all accounts, the production repeatedly made lemonade out of scheduling and budgetary lemons. With time in the location running out, Stallone was forced to deliver Rocky’s key speech about going the distance against Creed in a single take—his own anxiety and desperation mingling perfectly with the character’s. Crummy shooting conditions inspired his rambling, improvised rant about Rocky’s stinky bathroom. A costume screwup suggested the charming moment where Rocky makes fun of his own robe. And the brilliant scene below at the ice skating rink was originally supposed to feature hundreds of extras but the movie couldn’t afford them; instead, Stallone reworked the scene to feature just Rocky and Adrian.
In that same 1980 interview with Ebert, Stallone pinpoints Rocky’s appeal: its simplicity. “Most successful art reflects the exact ideas of the viewer—whether or not the viewer knows it, of course. Paintings that endure are paintings that inspire people to say, ‘Hey, that’s the way I feel; those are the colors I see in my dreams.’ Even abstract art depends on that. When you get right down to it, Rocky said exactly the same things to a 5-year-old that it said to adults. There was nothing complicated about it.”
Rocky may not have been complicated. But sometimes there’s beauty in simplicity.
Strange Rocky Trivia: Just a few of the actors that were interested in playing Rocky Balboa: Ryan O’Neal, Burt Reynolds, James Caan, and Robert Redford.