“Yo, Adrian.” The sequel to the 1976 Academy Award for Best Picture (Rocky) continues the saga with increasing momentum and spectacle. It’s an action/thriller written from the heart. Rocky II (1979) screenplay was written and directed by Sylvester Stallone, who also reprised his role as the “Italian Stallion” – Rocky Balboa. Other notable returning stars are Talia Shire (Adrian), Carl Weathers (Apollo Creed), Burt Young (Paulie), and Burgess Meredith (Mickey). Rocky II picked up right where the first one left off. Rocky and Apollo are in the same hospital, and things sort of whirlwind from there. Rocky lets his quick rise to fame get the best of him, and loses the respect of those close to him (along with all of his money). With a determined Apollo Creed feeling the heat of an overwhelming amount of hate-mail and media criticism, he is left with no choice but to prove his worth in a rematch with Philadelphia’s “favorite son,” Rocky Balboa.
In this Irwin Winkler/Robert Chartoff-produced film, the acting is absolutely spectacular. Carl Weathers steals the show as the reigning Heavyweight Champion. His line deliveries and body movements capture exactly how he feels, and got potentially snubbed for nomination of Best Supporting Actor at the 1980 Oscars. Weathers’s believability and vulernability really drove the motivation in every scene he was in. Another actor’s performance that really shone was that of Burgess Meredith, portraying Rocky’s trainer, Mickey Goldmill. He has a couple scenes in the film where he has to knock some sense into Rocky, and does it masterfully (in addition to adding some comedic relief at specific moments). His veteran experience really helps create that contrasted juxtaposition with the young, inexperienced Mr. Balboa. Sylvester Stallone was great as usual. His ability to continue the star-power of writing, directing, and starring in the same film, while making it almost an equal to his first big hit, compares similarly to a more recent example in Ben Affleck (as does this whole movie for the next blockbuster film Affleck will star in due out in March 2016, but that’s a different topic for a different day).
Most movie sequels don’t quite live up to the original, but that’s not necessarily the case with this film. A gritty and grounded style of storytelling really helps create believability not only for each scene, but in terms of what this film is trying to be. Another specific element in Stallone’s writing that excels is the humanistic approach combined with the grounded, everyday life “movie universe.” That term is used very frequently in today’s world of cinema. With sequels, prequels, remakes, and spin-offs in the works frequently, it can become very confusing to the average movie-goer for which is which. Fortunately for this film, it came out in 1979, so it didn’t have to deal with that.
When it comes to Stallone’s writing, each scene has a specific way in which they are voiced on screen that not only tell you, they resonate and make you think about it for moments afterwards (show, don’t tell). In other words, each scene carries weight. In a scene early on, Apollo is in an office with his trainers having a conversation. Apollo voices his opinion on wanting to face Balboa again, while his trainers disagree with him. Creed asks his head trainer Tony if he won the last fight, and even though Tony replied with saying that Apollo got the decision, Apollo fires back with “I won, but I didn’t beat him!” In addition to a comedic scene where Rocky proposes to Adrian in the most interesting and worst way possible, another scene where great writing is evident is when Rocky is greeted by Mickey at 3 A.M. in a church. Rocky is ailing, and Mickey sees this, so he starts off his monologue by going easy on him, reminding him that he has a fight coming up soon with an angry Apollo Creed that Rocky isn’t ready for. Then Mickey bursts out, “For God’s sake, why don’t you stand up and fight this guy hard like you done before? That was beautiful!” Then he eventually retreats by saying that he doesn’t want to get mad in a biblical place, but reveals his thoughts on how Rocky’s potential is more than he has proven thus far. It ends beautifully by Mickey sitting by Rocky and praying, while telling him how he’s all in with “Rocko” – whether they win or lose.
Another beautiful element in Rocky II is the score. Composed by Bill Conti, it highlights the comedy, drama, and suspense in masterful ways. The comedic scenes are few and far between, but when they appear, the score usually helps create the levity that Stallone is trying to captivate by having light, soft piano themes (especially the scenes between Rocky and Adrian). When the going gets tough, it continues those softer themes, but usually with a slower, more somber tone. A great example of this is the track, “Vigil,” where it captures the emotion at the particular part of the movie beautifully. One of the editing choices made was adding the score in towards the end of each scene that needs it, with the exception of the training scenes and climactic boxing match. Before the final ring confrontation, there is a scene where something critical happens involving Adrian, Pauly, Mickey, and Rocky, and the suspense leading into that event is brought out of the cross-cutting scenes even more with the long-lasting baritone/bass note that keeps repeating. When Rocky finally kicks it in gear and starts training hardcore, Conti created this dark, motivating track that demonstrates how Rocky is feeling inside (motivated), and then he goes on a morning run – except this time a famously familiar tune: “Gonna Fly Now” starts playing and kids everywhere start running with Rocky down streets and all the way up those stairs. Finally, the score during the boxing match between Rocky and Apollo is suspenseful and epic – much like a 300 or Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part II showdown. With the twists and turns during the characterization up until about 2/3 of the way in, the final battle between the two God-like warriors really exemplifies it, leaving you on the edge of whatever seat you’re sitting in to see who will make it out of the match alive.
Rocky II really embodies what makes Hollywood so great and successful in today’s entertainment industry. It has all the highs, lows, and thrilling plot points that make a feature-film exciting and fun to watch. You see all these beloved characters return to the big-screen and do their best to endure through and overcome tough times and struggles. Between Stallone’s brilliant balance of characterization vs. spectacle, the actors delivering and putting on a wonderful display of emotion and physicality, and the score that helps put you cringing on the edge of your seat (or crying during sad moments) really make for one of the best sports films of all-time. There have been quite a lot of sports movies over the years – some great, some not-as-great – but none have really resonated with me quite like this Rocky franchise. These movies (with the exception of Rocky V) have always been favorites of mine since I was a little kid, and although much time has passed between now and then, that time has only allowed me to enjoy them even more. If you haven’t seen Rocky II, or even Rocky, I’m highly recommending that you find it on Netflix or DVD (shouldn’t be more than $10). You won’t be disappointed!