As I mentioned when I reviewed the original Rocky, when I obtained the DVD of that film, it was part of a double feature with the first of the sequels. Having it close to hand, I knew I wasn’t going to wait too long to bust out Rocky II and see how well it held up to the first. Well, it seems like three weeks was about as long as it took for me to decide that it was time.
As with the first one, Sylvester Stallone wrote the script for Rocky II; unlike the first, this time he also directs, the studio apparently having been convinced he knows what he’s doing after all. Writing an Oscar-winning movie will do that for you sometimes. Naturally, Stallone reprises his role as Rocky, and all the other major actors from the film return as well. Talia Shire returns as Adrian, and Burt Young as her brother Paulie. Burgess Meredith returns as Rocky’s trainer, Mickey. And Carl Weathers returns as Apollo Creed… who has decided he very much wants a rematch against Balboa.
He just felt like they hadn’t caused each other enough brain damage yet.
The film picks up where the first one left off… or rather, slightly before, as it repeats the end scenes of Rocky. As in the original, Creed, who won on points, stated there would be no rematch… but reporters goad him, asking if he thinks he could really beat Rocky outright. Apollo asserts that he’s willing to face Rocky in a rematch any time, any place. Rocky, however, announces his retirement.
Again, Rocky II is a drama first, a sports film second. Rocky tries to live his life wholly outside of the ring and at first enjoys the freedom and the money from the fight. He proposes to Adrian, and does so in exactly the nonchalant, self-effacing way that he had before the fight. No bended knee, no fancy setup; he just asks her what she’s doing for the next 40 or 50 years. He went the distance against the heavyweight champion of the world, had a moment in the spotlight, and the love and respect of his hometown, but he’s still the same guy he was before: humble to the point of being unsure of himself.
Creed, on the other hand, is swinging the other way. Although he technically won the fight, he doesn’t feel like he beat Rocky; unlike all his prior opponents, he failed to get a knockout. His trainer, Duke (Tony Burton) tries to get him to get over it, but he can’t. People keep sending him hate-mail, of various kinds. Some say he fixed the fight with the judges. Some say the judges just made the wrong decision. Some go the other way and suggest that Rocky was a bum who Creed carried for 15 rounds for the publicity. It eats at him, stings at his pride. He tries to get a rematch going, and in doing so starts playing the villain to the public, something the showman had never done before. He starts trash-talking Rocky, calling him a coward for not accepting the rematch.
This is only slightly smarter than pissing off the other Stallone character with a red headband.
The drama in the film largely comes from Rocky and Adrian’s reactions to the challenge. Adrian doesn’t want him to fight again; he promised her he’d give it up after nearly being blinded in one eye in the previous fight. But Rocky has his pride as well. It’s not so much the insults, it’s that he feels useless outside of the ring. No high school diploma means he can’t get a desk job, can’t do anything but menial labor. And in a tough economy, even that’s hard to come by. He can’t do commercials because he has no acting talent whatsoever, not even enough to read a cue card. (I have to praise Stallone, incidentally, for writing that scene knowing he’d be the one acting it; I can’t imagine a lot of actors are fond of portraying themselves as bad actors.) After some heavy spending, his fight money is exhausted, and with Adrian pregnant, he sees a new fight as his best chance of doing right by his family. But he puts his family first. After a scare, he stays by Adrian’s side and doesn’t entertain the thought of the fight until she makes one request of him: win.
In a lot of ways, Rocky II rehashes some of the same ground as Rocky. It’s the same two characters duking it out in the ring. The relationship with Adrian is still the heart of the movie and the driving force for Rocky to fight. And there are still unconventional training sequences, this time with Mickey having Rocky chase a chicken to build up his speed. He even still does the Philadelphia courthouse run.
Usually it’s a bad thing to have this many people chasing you.
But there are differences as well. Mainly it’s in the fact that the character development from the first film continues here. While Rocky still observes some people wanting to be around him just because he’s famous (wryly commenting after an autograph “to my best friend in the world… who I’ve never met”), those close to him genuinely want to be there because of him now. Paulie still has his moments of being a jerk, particularly to Adrian, but he’s more open about wanting to help Rocky and Adrian out, helping Rocky to get a job and buying Rocky’s car off him when Rocky’s pride won’t let him accept a hand-out. Adrian is more assertive than in the first film, hates what the fighting did to him, but learns to accept that is what Rocky does. And Mickey, in a quiet but powerful scene, shows that despite his tough-love trainer persona, shows that he’s willing to stick by Rocky even if he doesn’t fight at all. Even Creed gets his moment; while he acts the villain to the crowd, the film is careful to never actually paint him as one. He’s just a man whose pride is stung, and at the end, he shows he’s willing and able to let that go as he and Rocky exchange a few short friendly words at the end of the match (which is as close as the first one, though ending in a different manner).
So while Rocky II retreads some of the same ground as the first, it’s still its own film. Where it is the same, though, is that it’s also a great film. It’s always entertaining, even when Rocky is just ambling along looking for work or spending money like it’s water, there’s a charming aspect to the film that keeps the “lovable loser” aspect of Rocky working for it. And it still makes the audience want to cheer, not just at the end, but at several points throughout.