To the uninitiated, the Rocky sequels live somewhere in the 80s camp shlock genre, one that is characterized by dated music, an heavy reliance on montage and straight up jingoism. While I have yet to complete my viewing of the pre-Creed films in the Rocky series, I have so far been pleasantly surprised with the first two. I was bowled over by how raw and emotional the original Best Picture-winner was, by Sylvester Stallone's surprisingly mature script and by the authentic performances. I went into the sequel expecting the beginning of the downhill slide, and while it is nowhere nearly as whole a movie as its predecessor, Rocky II is nevertheless a sturdy entry into the sports genre.
Rocky (Stallone), coming off of his incredible holdout against heavyweight champion of the world, Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers), is suddenly flush with cash and recognition, far from the two-bit palooka we met before his chance encounter. He marries his nebbish girlfriend, Adrian (Talia Shire), and they conceive a baby together. Perhaps as a result of never having had more than pocket change in his wallet, Rocky quickly burns through the $37,000 he took home as a result of the split decision, on some necessary items like a row house that can accommodate his growing family, to watches and other jewelry for himself and the rest of his family, including Adrian's roughneck brother, Paulie (Burt Young).
Rocky also promises Adrian that he is out of the fighting game, given the irreparable damage done to one of his eyes as a result of his bout with the Master of Disaster. Rocky's a born fighter, though, so the only odd jobs he can cobble together involve hauling meat at Paulie's old job, a stint that doesn't last long in that economically stressed time. Meanwhile, Creed, incensed at the accusations that the fight was fixed and that he couldn't actually beat Rocky in a knockout, decides to challenge the Italian Stallion to a rematch, in order to soothe his ego and prove that he deserves to keep his title. Rocky yearns to get back in the ring to follow his true calling and to provide for his family, especially after Adrian becomes sick due to her pregnancy and overwork at her part-time pet store job the Balboas need to stay afloat. Browbeaten by his trainer, Mickey (Burgess Meredith), Rocky pushes himself to train to get back into the ring with Creed, putting his life and livelihood on the line.
This is the film that all other sports films have endeavored to emulate, in spite of the original's far superior quality. Replacing Oscar-winner John G. Avildsen in the director's chair is Stallone himself, also the credited screenwriter. (The previous year, Stallone had directed a wrestling picture called Paradise Alley, his debut as a director.) Stallone brings far more of a journeyman's touch to the film, lensing the boxing action clearly and without fuss. Avildsen had a better sense of the relationships between the characters, and generally seemed far more interested in that than the gritty pageantry of the training scenes. Stallone leans heavily on the goodwill established in the first film, barely developing the characters beyond where we find them at the beginning—which, unnecessarily, replays the last five minutes of the previous movie, despite only three years having passed and the film's massive popularity. Stallone instead demonstrates the enthusiasm for the effort and spectacle of training, taking the sports montage into the heightened state it would continue to blow up from throughout the 1980s. It's not enough that Rocky runs through Philadelphia at top speed, scaling those iconic steps: he has to be followed by an enormous herd of children, too. Where are these kids' parents?
Much of the specificity of the first film has been sanded over in favor of story flow. Paulie's sharper edges—his apparent alcoholism, unreliability and abusiveness towards Adrian—are more or less gone. Adrian is still soft-spoken, but she isn't debilitatingly shy, either, which you may be able to explain if there were a time lapse, but the film is set immediately after the events of the first. Rocky lacks the few flaws that he used to have, and the major error he makes in spending all of his money doesn't seem to have many tangible consequences. Even Mickey is less of a mean son of a bitch than he originally was, although Meredith still spits piss and vinegar throughout most of his performance. Only Creed seems to have retained his arrogance and indefatigable pride, which are the essential drivers of the plot, rendering him more of a protagonist than Rocky, who lacks an arc in any recognizable sense.
The film's pedestrian quality is redeemed by how exciting it is once the action gets going, presaging Stallone's future career as a filmmaker more interested in bombast than the sort of quiet courtship scenes that made the original film such a success. The training montage and the final boxing scenes are arguably better than in the first film, albeit a bit more juiced up than feels necessary. Rocky II feels like a transitional film, in which Stallone, still a newbie director, was pushing up against the more character-driven sensibilities of his producers as he attempted to emphasize the jazzier aspects of the story. Having been somewhat impressed with this film, I'm inclined to go into Rocky III with an open mind, but that is the film that introduced "Eye of the Tiger" to the world, so it may be dead on arrival. We'll have to see.