Rocky II

US (1979) Dir. Sylvester Stallone

In 1976, a relative nobody wrote a script about an underdog boxer shocking the world that nobody wanted to make. The film itself was an underdog, originally felt to be a flop that another film would absorb with its success. Instead, nobody remembers New York, New York but everyone knows Rocky!

After going 15 rounds with world heavyweight champ Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers), who won on a points decision, Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) decides to retire, spurred on by the agreement of no rematch and needing surgery for a detached retina in his right eye. With fame and big money offers coming in for endorsement deals, Rocky marries girlfriend Adrian (Talia Shire), buys a new house, and settles into an easy life.

Except Rocky is no good at acting and is quickly dropped by his agent. With Adrian now pregnant, he needs money, and trying to get a regular job. When that fails, Rocky ends up back at the gym of trainer Mickey Goldmill (Burgess Meredith) where he is ridiculed by the other boxers. Meanwhile, Creed receives hate mail accusing him of throwing the fight against Rocky, and decides to challenge Rocky for a rematch.

Given the success of Rocky, a sequel was inevitable but there is always the fear that they’ll not be able to capture its magic a second time, and in the pursuit of making easy money, they will dilute the integrity and substance of the original. In this instance, the story essentially writes itself considering how the first film ended, yet Stallone once again writing, manages to make a human drama out of it.

The biggest difference found in Rocky II is Stallone being in the director’s chair. John G. Avildsen was busy on Saturday Night Fever when this project was first announced so Stallone lobbied hard for the job. He was initially denied due to his previous directorial effort 1978’s Paradise Alley (about wrestling) was a bomb, but when it was pointed out how much of the success of Rocky was down to Sly, he was given the job.

Whether the failure of Paradise Alley was down to Stallone’s direction I can’t say having not seen it, but he does a great job here, tapping into the same understated, grass roots vibe Avildsen created in the first film. The first hurdle was continuing the story directly after the climactic fight from Rocky – the last few minutes of which are replayed here – and maintaining continuity despite the two year gap between filming.

Despite the beating and eye surgery, Rocky hasn’t changed, he is still the wise cracking, good hearted, modest buffoon he was before. With an also battered Creed in another room, Rocky stops by to ask him if he held back, which Creed confirmed he didn’t, and Rocky thanks him. But Creed is fuming a nobody took him to the limit and coupled with the backlash that comes late, the seeds of the rematch are set.

From here, the focus switches to the newfound fame of Rocky following the fight and his wide eyed innocence at being offered big money for commercials and such. He made $37,000 post tax for the fight, which allows him to marry to Adrian in a tiny ceremony that is typical Rocky, then go on a spending spree which makes Adrian uncomfortable, but Rocky thinks his fame will pay off.

Seeing it evaporate so quickly, Rocky does the honourable thing and tries to get a job – again, the sight of the man of the hour applying for an office job should be satirical but it fits right in with Rocky’s inherent humility. Creed goes public with his challenge for a rematch, just as Rocky returns to work for Mickey at the gym, although for the sake of Adrian and the baby, Rocky refuses to fight. But after the birth of Rocky Jr (Seargeoh Stallone), Adrian gives Rocky her blessing to face Creed again.

Limited to just the one fight this time around, Stallone has to juggle more of the drama and training scenes ahead of the big showdown to keep both film fans and fight fans engaged. One thing that probably helped was a plot point born out of an offset accident. Whilst working out before the filming the match, Stallone tore his right pectoral muscle and couldn’t use his right arm, so he wrote into the script the tactic for Rocky to switch from left to right handed boxing, and worked injured.

Not that you’d notice of course, thanks in part to the meticulous choreography and the eight months editing the scene. It is a far more brutal affair than the first due to the heated backstory, which allegedly became real. If you notice the scuffle after the second round bell, that was real – a few missed punches landed and both Sly and Weathers got angry with one another.

Cooler heads prevailed and they got through the fight without killing each other. One person who missed it was Talia Shire, due to her working on another project, so Sly had Adrian stay at home and watch the fight on TV, then when she was free, filmed her  reactions. With the result of the first fight being a win for Creed it as obvious how this one would go but Stallone teases a different outcome first to keep us sweating.

Rocky II might be a repeat of Rocky by virtue of the same cast and the rematch angle, but hats off to Stallone for making us root for the underdog all over again. It’s a rare feat to pull off, almost impossible in a franchise scenario where you know the hero has to win. This may be the case in the remaining films in this series, which I will get to in time; for now, I may be overrating it a little but I think Rocky II has earned the right to be considered a sequel as good as the original.


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