By: Garrett Collins
Starring: Sylvester Stallone, Talia Shire, Burt Young, Carl Weathers, Burgess Meredith and Tony Burton
I don’t think there has been a career that took such a huge turn as that of Sylvester Stallone from the mid to late 70s. For the three years between 1976 through 1979, Stallone had gone from a down on his luck actor/wannabe screenwriter to Oscar-winning toast of Hollywood. He had also starred in two films that flopped (F.I.S.T. and Paradise Alley), so it was inevitable that he would return to the character that made him scale the mountain of success to begin with. And, in 1979, fans of that lovable lug underdog named Rocky Balboa got their wish when Stallone once again put the pen to the paper and wrote a sequel (and stepped behind the camera as director), furthering that character’s adventures. And, since I was only two years old at the time, thoughts went flying through my head when watching it again for this review. What would come of a rematch? How would Rocky handle success? Or, to put it more bluntly, how would Stallone handle the success that was brought forth upon him with the first Rocky film?
The answer is pretty well. If there is one thing Stallone was good at back then, it was humanizing characters. And, once Rocky receives the fortune for that first fight, he does what all guys with a girl who loves him on his arm would do: he takes Adrian to splurge it. He buys a car. He buys a jacket with a tiger on it. And, of course, he gets them a house. Stallone also does little things that call back such as having his title character propose to her in the zoo. The same exact place that was talked about in such a nasty way by Gazzo’s crony in the first film. Truth is, all of these scenes are very well written and acted. And, if there is one thing that has remained consistent in the Rocky series, it is the relationship between Adrian and Rocky. Sure, he is not trying to court her anymore. But, the character development on display is superb. As Rocky buys all the gifts, Adrian is warning him to back off the spending a bit. And, while this becomes a little lukewarm later on in the film, it works very well here, even if his character’s attempts to be domesticated don’t.
Another thing Stallone does here is give Apollo (Weathers) a bit of a human edge. In the last film, we had no idea he even had a domesticated life. But, it turns out that he has taken exception to the fact that the first fight made his fans start to turn against him. As he reads fan letters and rips them up, his wife tells him he is not spending as much time with his kids as he is reading his own press. Stallone dangerously flirts with making Apollo TOO sympathetic, but pulls back on this by having him run a smear campaign to goad Rocky back in the ring. Again, Stallone is great at these human situations, and boxers had never been written like this before. I enjoyed these stages of story development, but it was around this time that the story takes a turn for the worst.
Now, Rocky doing commercials and not being able to read was an interesting place to take the character. But, on the whole it felt like a little too much for me. Sure, it helps add to his decision to get back in the ring, but this subplot, along with the one of Adrian having a complicated birth, made for some so dramatic it was melodramatic moments of the film. On one hand, you have to give Stallone credit for at least attempting to personalize Rocky II as much as the first one. But, this writing bordered on working the formula he had established into the ground (how did Rocky all of a sudden forget how to train?). However, when all else fails, he can turn to Mickey (Meredith) for the athletic inspiration that he needs to become champion. And, while it does not seem as dramatic rooting for him to catch a chicken, I enjoyed it and the interaction between Mickey and Rocky. It also doesn’t hurt that Mickey is funnier than ever here (with him telling Rocky that his shirt brings flies being a highlight for me).
Overall, Rocky II needs to be classified as an excellent sequel. The film, as already stated, borders on being too over dramatic. But, if there is one thing Stallone knows how to do, it is bring us back to what makes the series great. The way returning composer Bill Conti plays the strings and pumps us up is awesome. However, seeing Rocky run with scores of kids, while a nice sight, does not carry the magic that the first film’s final training montage did. And, maybe that is my review of this entire film. It is very well told and directed. But, that essence of Rocky’s character which made him just want to last the entire first fight has been replaced with our title character fighting for money, and his opponent fighting for pride. However, while that bit of magic might be missing, we are still rooting for Rocky in the final fight. And it is a tribute to what Stallone has done with his character as a whole that makes Rocky II as good as it is. It’s not perfect. But, it is a more than worthy follow-up to one of the best sports movies of all time.
4 out of 5