The biggest reason audiences are welcoming the return of Rocky Balboa to the big screen this Thanksgiving? Easy: audiences love The Italian Stallion, who’s easily the most endearing, layered and legendary character in creator/star Sylvester Stallone’s cinematic arsenal. While the emphasis of the latest installment, Creed, is on the son of Apollo Creed (played by talented Michael P. Jordan), it’s Stallone’s surprise return as Balboa that has audiences in anticipation. Before I join the long lines in front of theaters playing Creed, here’s a look back at a film series as likable as the title character.
The Story So Far: Rocky (Stallone) is a young punk who takes up boxing, falls in love with a wallflower named Adrian (Talia Shire), tolerates her no-good brother Pauley (Burt Young) and finds a father figure in his trainer Mickey (Burgess Meredith). Rocky, against all odds, has a boxing match that makes him an instant legend.
The Opponent: the Ali-like Apollo Creed, played by Carl Weathers with charisma and brazen cockiness.
Soundtrack Highlight: Instant classic “Gonna Fly Now”
KO Dialogue Snippet: “You’re Gonna Eat Lightnin’ and you’re gonna crap thunder!” – Mickey
Golden Scenes: The victory run atop the steps; when Rocky kisses Adrian for the first time; Rocky punching the dead meat.
Legacy: Stallone’s all-or-nothing breakout star vehicle, directed with grit by John G. Avildsen, was a sleeper blockbuster that won the Oscar for Best Picture.
Rocky II (1979)
The Story So Far: Rocky deals awkwardly with fame.
The Opponent: a high stakes rematch with Creed.
Soundtrack Highlight: Bill Conti’s theme becomes more gruff and somehow even better.
KO Dialogue Snippet: “I was wonderin’ if, uh, you wouldn’t mind marryin me very much?”-Rocky
Golden Scene: The birth of Rocky’s son; Rocky’s hilarious and painful stint as a TV commercial pitchman; his wedding.
Legacy: Another giant hit, though it’s the most underrated in the series.
Rocky III (1982)
The Story So Far: Rocky is taunted by an up and coming fighter and turns to Creed for guidance in how to train against someone who could defeat him.
The Opponent: Clubber Lang, an amusing but ferocious slugger, played by the equally amusing and ferocious Mr. T.
Soundtrack Highlight: From the first chords of “Eye of the Tiger,” the song declares itself the definitive song to be played in your gym.
KO Dialogue Snippet: “Dead meat” – Clubber Lang
Golden Scene: The death of Rocky’s friend that cripples him emotionally; the soaring scenes of him training alongside Creed.
Legacy: Another monster hit but predictability was setting in.
Rocky IV (1985)
The Story So Far: Rocky is now a wealthy family man. The in-the-ring death of a dear friend compels him to participate in a “suicidal” match in the Soviet Union.
The Opponent: Ivan Drago, a walking symbol for the then-might of the USSR. Dolph Lundgren arguably plays the scariest, most loathsome villain in the franchise.
Soundtrack Highlight: James Brown’s “Living in America,” which plays in its entirety during Creed’s flashy “exhibition match.”
KO Dialogue Snippet: “I must break you” – Ivan Drago
Golden Scene: The spectacular training montages, contrasting Balboa’s outdoor workouts in snowy Russia with Drago’s robotic, steroid-induced endurance tests.
Legacy: Definitively 1980s as a dated attack on the Red Curtain but it’s socko entertainment and hit big.
Rocky V (1990)
The Story So Far: A broke Rocky moves his family back to Philadelphia. Rocky mentors a young fighter but neglects his son (played with by Stallone’s late, charming real-life son, Sage).
The Opponent: Tommy Gunn, well played by the late Tommy Morrison .
Soundtrack Highlight: “Keep It Up” by Snap snarls over the rough, final punch-out.
KO Dialogue Snippet: “My ring’s outside” – Rocky
Golden Moment: The flashback of Mickey giving Rocky his cuff link.
Legacy: Famously opened against Home Alone and got clobbered by bad reviews, audience disappointment and Macaulay Culkin’s surprise smash. But the black sheep of the franchise has more heart and emotional honesty than the prior two entries.
Rocky Balboa (2006)
The Story So Far: Years later, an older, defeated and loner Rocky runs a restaurant and struggles to connect with his son. A chance for a come-back in the ring inspires both Rocky and the actor playing him to dig deep.
The Opponent: Technically, it’s Antonio Darver as Mason “The Line” Dixon but really, Rocky’s greatest challenger is himself.
Soundtrack Highlight: Conti’s soaring theme plays over a typically rousing training montage.
KO Dialogue Snippet: “It ain’t how hard you’re hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward” -Rocky
Golden Moment: Stallone’s performance, both amusing and heartbreaking, is among his finest.
Legacy: A surprise smash with audiences and critics, the character and the series itself went full circle as an underdog hit.
Photo from Rocky Balboa: Movieweb.com