You may say I haven’t seen a Rocky film, but I say I have! Just. It was time for a lockdown film challenge: Food pairing with a punch…
“You fight great, but I’m a great fighter.”
I’ve spent the last week soaking up the Rocky franchise, the first time I’ve been near it. Why and how have I missed them, I can’t really say. Like some other startling gaps in my film reserves, the themes, motifs, and score have been lodged in my mind for years, but I can’t tell you how that happened either.
By coincidence, I was reading Geoff John’s Doomsday Clock shortly after, and this quote from Theodore Roosevelt stuck out:
“Far better is it to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure… than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much, because they live in a gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat.”
That quote from the influential president fits Rocky like a glove. Though the bouts stick out, the films ludicrously pinned to flagpole events, endurance is the central tenet of the franchise, not victory. That was a surprise.
Even more surprising was how innately Italian it is. Not just the Italian Stallion’s immigrant roots but its antiquity. With its soap, comedy, tragedy, betrayal and broad strokes, each film presents like a Roman Triumph. It tracks a succession of generals, often foes of Rome, defeated or lessened while Rocky endures.
Thanks to the success of Creed, the franchise is – almost preposterously – alive and punching (8 films). It may yet take to the small screen too, charting the misadventures of a young Stallion. But even though the story that began in the mid-1970s isn’t over, no decade shaped it like the 1980s. It reached its commercial peak playing on Cold War fears and assumptions in its fourth instalment. The template had been set a film earlier, uncoincidentally where Mr T’s uncompromising Clubber Lang labelled Rocky an ‘Italian meatball’ with relish. His relish, not the meatball’s.
So what choice was there for a tie-in Rocky meal? At the risk of cannibalism, I present franchise, six films worth, and a feast…
“What is keeping him up Bill? I don’t know”
In the ring:
It’s the mid-1970s. It’s dark, and it’s gritty. It’s A Star is Born with gloves on. It’s the lovely little details in Rocky that make all the difference. Take his shorts on the promotional drapes at the arena – the wrong colour, and why wouldn’t they be? They don’t matter to anyone but Rocky. But by the end of the bloody bout, his white shorts have inevitably turned that colour, the drapes a premonition.
Rocky legendarily belies its $1m budget, for the most part. While director John G. Avildsen struggled to capture the scale, he did capture an Oscar. But it’s Bill Conti’s score that wins bigger than Creed. This story needed a fanfare, matched superbly to a slog ballad. Conti adds the Triumph to the love story that runs endearingly through the franchise.
As Rocky spells out the night before the fight, this film’s all about trying, about stamina, about Going the Distance. You couldn’t call his ‘loss’, and it set a mostly unpredictable template for the sequels. It’s the dedication to this singular aim that sets it out from other underdog films. You never know if Rocky will win because the winning isn’t the point.
In the pan:
Yes, it’s all about the details.
The fine chops, ready for an iron jaw, and pounding bodyshots.
Rocky II (1979)
In the ring:
The second film’s funnier than the first, though there are fewer Rocky puns. This is where the Tiger roars in (at the zoo, the cats are the first to know about the wedding), but the franchise hasn’t reached its flag bearing standard yet. Conti’s fanfare raises its game instead. The template’s set for a mega-recap, needed as another punch isn’t thrown for over an hour. . carries the weight and may reach its peak. Perhaps the most predictable entry, but it roars to a conclusion where Stallone brings scale to the set-piece along with sadism or exhilaration depending on your perspective. Either way, it may be one of the great archetypal sequels, from the 800 running school kids onwards. They get the shorts right, Rocky claims the title and most importantly, he caught the chicken.
“I’ll tell you that’s just what it is – plain old butchering”.
In the pan:
No chicken, and there won’t be, but sauce first.
With three tablespoons of white breadcrumbs soaked in coconut milk, and the oven warming to 180°C, time for the tomato sauce.
Here are shallots, garlic, sliced red chilli and basil ready for 2-3 minutes gentle frying. I’d call this a soft draw.
Rocky III (1982)
‘The world’s hardest head’
In the ring:
The second film may make the franchise, but it’s often the third film that sets the template. Just as Goldfinger did for Bond, Rocky III is where the Roman Triumphs truly kick in – if only they’d named these films after his bouts (this would be R XI). This universe is now overrun by iconolaters, where things are genuinely lean and Tigerful. When ‘that’ song arrives, Rocky is revealed as an unashamed 80s franchise.
As is often the case, the definitive picture brings problems. As great as the friendship between Apollo and Rocky is, the vengeful triumph over Clubber Lang disrupts the message of endurance set by the first film. The way the Pride of Philadelphia adapts to fame after his success undermines the second.
Grittiness has given way to blockbuster, with more than a hint of Scarface (although the protagonist couldn’t be more different, Pacino’s bloodfest was only a year away). Stallone is leaner (First Blood came out the same year), its strokes broader and it’s self-aware (Micky yells at the theme to pipe down at one point). The main loser is the training, particularly as Burgess Meredith’s Micky bows out. It falls and rises in the time it took the second part to throw a punch, but it completes the cycle of the shorts: He’s now wearing Creed’s stars and stripes.
What’s that flying over the Atlantic?
In the pan:
Don’t pity the food!
The pan deglazed with a splash of white wine, then 400g of chopped tomatoes join basil, oregano, and the right amount of seasoning to match Clubber’s chatter.
After adding the optional olives, it’s left of 5-10 minutes to simmer, reduce and thicken. it’s the end of an era as attention turns to the meatballs.
What’s that waiting in the other pan? As Hulk put it, “The ultimate meatball!”
Rocky IV (1985)
In the ring:
The biggest film opens sacrilegiously. Conti’s fanfare is out, but Survivor is in, their Tiger backing exploding boxing gloves. A cheap trick, but the Cold War ever was at the blockbuster movies.
“I fight so you don’t have to fight”
There’s a new pitch towards parenting and domestic travails that would endure, although with fewer robots. Apollo has a new family in the Rocky household, Adrian has more to say, and being an even-numbered entry, Paulie rises to his comedy sidekick role.
For the most part, the friendship of Apollo and Rocky that’s so integral to the plot is neatly handled. The Russian dimension not so much. There is much to be mined from these fishes out of the water; the dichotomy between James Brown’s Coming To America (rightly credited as the Godfather of Soul) and the politik Moscow finale.
But if JB feels good, Apollo doesn’t. It’s hard to rationalise the blunt, publicised revenge of it all now (Drago, monotone: “If he dies, he dies”). But there’s raw sorrow in there – no better presented than in Adrian’s pleading. At points the couple seems a far cry from the one we watched form in 1976, at others, it’s like no time has passed; estranged, Rocky trains like Clubber. Reconciled, Adrian’s arrival spurs what must be the most avant-garde sports montage of two parts ever put to film.
The Iron Force versus The Death from Above. It’s absurd, although impressive when Rocky climbs a snowy peak in place of steps. His triumph (with proto-Predator logic; if Drago bleeds he can beat him) is unlikely. But it needs brute confidence and isn’t afraid to pick what it wants. Rocky doesn’t end up teaching the Union a lesson. He defeats a renegade and inspires change (or applause). Though Conti is absent, Vince DiCola unleashes the fanfare with unexpected delicacy before the comic-style recap of the entire film over the end credits.
In the pan:
Or rather, the largest bowl yet. It’s a East meets West as equal quantities of minced beef and pork collide.
They’re joined by garlic, parsley and Parmesan. The breadcrumbs too, squeezed to remove the excess milk. Mixed and kneaded by hand, more the rustic back-to-basics techniques of Rocky inspired than the new-fangled and ill-founded science of Drago.
Time to ponder that as it’s seasoned with salt and pepper.
Rocky V (1990)
‘A fight ain’t over till you’ve heard the bell.’
In the ring:
Is it really the 1990s already? The fifth film finds a franchise ready to retire with a host of comebacks. Conti’s back, his fanfare too. We’re back in Philadelphia after the Balboass considerable fall from grace and wisely, Avilsden’s back to capture those streets once again.
The intention is glaring, and generally, if not charismatically, it succeeds. How did Stallone describe his producing? – “negligent”. It doesn’t skimp on the returns, but it fails to punch the franchise out. Burgess Meredith’s reappearance, this time slightly less funny and entirely more sentimental, is just one factor in the most emotional entry. That’s particularly true 30 years on, as many of the cast have since departed.
Given Avilsden’s return, it’s no surprise that the shadow of Karate Kid looms large, but the weak foil of the traitorous protegee is the real let down. The peaks and troughs of the adventure verge to pantomime, but these villains can’t fill the screen.
Stallone is gaunter, Adrian more vocal. Odd that things sound so much further from the Pennsylvanian streets the films return to, and chooses as the arena for the closing street fight.
Before it closes with Alan Menken and Elton John’s Measure of a Man, there are some great scenes, like Rocky getting his punch back as Tommy triumphs. There’s no doubt that Stallone’s Rocky is the most likeable franchise holder in history. As he says, ‘Well I love almost everybody.’
In the pan:
We’re in the endgame.
The mixture’s shaped into balls, the size of a walnut, and dusted in flour.
Olive oil is heated in a large frying pan. When hot, the meatballs fried until golden.
Rocky Balboa (2006)
“Let’s start building some hurting bombs.”
In the ring:
Hell yeah, Duke. It’s 16 year’s later, 30 years after Rocky first hit the big screen. The fanfare’s back – but it’s a muted start. The punches are muffled throughout. Balboa is a correction of the fifth part, steeped in a new century, but it still struggles with finding a worthwhile challenger. Wisely, it doubles down on Rocky instead. Despite a slew of triumphs and tragedy, Stallone’s fighter finds even greater heights of likeability in his final standalone.
“You know I think if you live somewhere long enough, you are this place,” he mutters at one point, instantly shot down by his long-moaning friend Paulie (it’s an even-numbered film, so he’s a bit softer). Balboa‘s structure is odd, and its pace may be slower than Rocky II. But its slowed by countless callbacks to the first film (even a new dog!) that let and let its bruiser shine in a way the fifth part couldn’t.
Being the 21st century, a CGI digital catalyst is required to pull Rocko back to the ring. It reflects Creed’s original offer. By now, the weathered Rocky is slightly more articulate, a little less hopeful, not so distinctive.
A failing is not allowing the champ any bouts on his way up to his big fight, but it’s worth it when it arrives. The most significant change is the representation of the battles. Even as the round cards became digital during the previous run, they were visually linked. In Balboa, Stallone plays with the scope, he draws in Michael Buffer, uses TV trickery, runs with a more stat-obsessed decade. It’s more meta, it’s more stylised and atmospheric in Las Vegas, but it’s still Rocky. The fighter reluctantly soaks up the love of the crowd after another noble split decision loss, the cycle reaching back to 1976 complete. Oddly, he fades at his wife’s graveside (it’s first and foremost a love story after all), and statue or not, it ends with everyone at the top of the steps.
“You gotta stop trying thing coz you’ve had a few too many birthdays?”
In the pan:
The hurting bombs are built.
The meatballs are added to the and transferred to an ovenproof dish. Baked in the oven for 10 minutes, the Basil discarded or not, the choice is to whether to serve it with salad on the side.
I chose some Itlaian style garlic bread I dubbed Creed.