Thursday, July 20, 2006

Battle of the Rocky Sequels

The other day I came across a parody trailer for the much-rumored "Rocky 6" movie. Like "Indiana Jones 4", I hope the powers that be decide against the option. Nowadays Harrison Ford could play Sean Connery's dad, and I'm even less interested in seeing what Sly does to his franchise.

"Rocky V" was the unquestionable nail in the coffin for the credibility of the Rocky story, but it's seeds had been sowed much earlier. In terms of "jumping the shark", some might argue that Rocky did so while wearing the caveman outfit he brandished early in "Rocky II" while filming ads to make ends meet with his new bride, Adrian. Others might suggest that the franchise killed itself merely by bringing out a sequel in the first place. (It was hardly alone in that regard; the list of good movies that were slaughtered in sequel-hood during that era is long..."Jaws", "Friday the 13th", etc.).

Whether the Rocky movies went from legit to self-parody is beside the point. The question on my mind is which of the Rocky sequels is "superior" to the others. The reason I'm thinking about this is because most of the time, whenever the Rocky films come up in causal conversation, "Rocky IV" seems to be the sequel of choice. No one disputes the ultimate superiority of the first film--at least no one that have seen it do; it's disturbing to learn how many people have seen "Rocky IV" but haven't ever seen "Rocky I"--but the "favorite" always seems to be Rocky vs. Ivan Drago.

Obviously I disagree.

I will wholeheartedly admit that there are several elements of R4 that make it a worthy entry in the "Cult Film Hall of Fame"...killing Apollo Creed in the first act...James Brown performing "Living in America" immediately beforehand...countless Ivan Drago lines ("You will lose", "I must break you", "He's not a man...he's like a piece of iron")...Sly's beard...the always amusing presence of Brigitte Neilsen (who reportedly was dating Sly at the time)...and best of all, the Gorbachev look-alike looming in the upper booth during the climactic fight (watch for token "evil" looks between faux-Gorby and the other Soviet bad guys at key turning points in the fight).

But for all of R4's obvious highlights, it's still not my favorite of the Rocky sequels...not by a long shot. That distinction, no matter how good/bad R6 may turn out to be, will always go to "Rocky III". I don't care about head-to-head criteria, subjective definitions of terms like "favorite" and "superior", or any of that stuff...this is just my opinion, and I'm standing by it.

Here's why:

1. Bizarro Originality. As silly as the caveman ads were in R2, I think it was R3 that marked the real transition from "serious" Rocky movies to "self-parody" Rocky movies (though I'm sure Sly would argue that all of them are still "serious" efforts). Therefore, R2 can only be compared to R1, and clearly that's a losing cause. So among the three remaining sequels, R3 holds the nod for "originality in bizarro Rocky moments". Some of these moments will be detailed as evidence of R3 superiority.

2. Thunderlips. This character, subtitled "the Ultimate Male", kicked R3 off with a surreal vengeance, and served as the inspiration for the name of my future mission bike and a future band I played in during 2001. In my mind, "Thunderlips" was Hulk Hogan's finest moment. Not only was the Hulk vs. Sly match a high point of absurdity for all sports movies, it also showed us just how short Sly really is.

3. Adrian Corleone. R3 marked the complete arrival of the "Connie Corleone" version of Adrian, as played by Talia Shire. Back in the beginning, Adrian was a soft-spoken insecure wallflower working in a Philly pet shop, but as the character gained money and confidence through her connection with Rocky, Adrian evolved into basically the same character Shire played in the "Godfather" movies, right down to the big fur coats and ties to inferior men. (On a related note, this parallel could make Paulie the "Fredo" of the Rocky films, which makes a LOT of sense if you think about it. Essentially the only difference between Paulie and Fredo is that when snubbed, Paulie goes after you with a baseball bat, while Fredo will just finger you for a mob hit.

4. The Eye of the Tiger. "Gonna Fly Now" is probably the definitive Rocky theme, present from movie #1, and "Living in America" may be the best song James Brown has written in my lifetime, but "Eye of the Tiger" is THE sports pop soundtrack song of the 80's, if not all-time. "You're the Best" from "Karate Kid" is up there, but still can't pose a crane technique next to the only song that ever justified Survivor's existence.

5. Mickey's Death. Killing off a main character is always a below-the-belt tactic (pun fully intended), but in terms of pulling a tear instead of a laugh, Mickey's death was a lot more effective than Apollo's. Apollo's, in fact, was a joke, one that left you saying, "what else has to happen to give Rocky the motivation we need to justify watching this?" I'm actually surprised that they didn't try to kill Adrian in least they could have killed off his kid. Mini-Rock never quited jived with me.

6. Clubber Lang. Next to his self-help video, "Be Somebody or Be Somebody's Fool", R3 was Mr. T's finest performance, "A-Team" exploits included. Somehow they even managed to squeeze two Clubber/Rocky fights into the movie. Ironically, you almost found yourself rooting for Mr. T early in the film; he was the one portrayed in the traditional Rocky underdog role, training in his dank ghetto basement while Sly did promotional scrimmage fights with Thunderlips. The Mr. T/Rambo combo was a classic 80's culture clash...the ascendance of the Mr. T era combined with the beginning of the decline of the legit Sly era. One of the CD's in my vast collection is from a band that specialized in doing speed-metal covers of 80's adult contemporary hits like "Say You, Say Me" and "Time After Time". The band's name? Clubber Lang and the Heavyweights.

7. The Trans Am. With all due respect to Burt Reynolds, this was the movie that marked the zenith of the Trans Am as the cool car of the early 80's. Rocky's black Pontiac with the bird on the hood, best viewed during the scene when he chucks his bottle at the big statue when he's feeling bad about himself and we're supposed to start seeing him as an underdog again, was so moving that I made my dad take me on a test drive of one while my mom and sister were visiting family in Cleveland. Needless to say, no purchase was made.

8. The Death of Dumb Rocky. In the same manner that Adrian evolves into the thick-skinned power behind the throne to Rocky, Rocky completes his evolution from a character who is generally dumb and sympathetic to a character that appears quite intelligent and merely makes a lot of dumb decisions. Kind of a reverse Homer Simpson evolution, in many ways. One might be tempted to suggest that Dumb Rocky is still Dumb Rocky under those nice overcoats and shiny haircuts, but would Dumb Rocky ever be capable of becoming the well-spoken borderline-city rep we see in R3? I mean, before the Thunderlips sequence, Rocky is trying to work the PR angle with Hulk Hogan like some kind of two-bit politician. Dumb Rocky would have stayed in his corner and muttered to Paulie, "Hey yo Paulie, I don' think this look so good, right?"

9. Adrian Lang. Several months ago, after having one of those days that makes you want to forget you had just had one of those days, I was flipping channels when I came across a late-night cable showing of R3 (this is another reason I think R4 is more regarded--it pops up on cable much more often). In the middle of the statue ceremony scene early in the movie, I was reminded of why R3 is far and away my favorite of the Rocky sequels: Mr. T makes a pass at Adrian. First he shows up and taunts Rocky for being a paper champion, for refusing to act like a man and fight a legitimate challenger. Then, sticking with the manhood theme, Mr. T invites Adrian to come by his place and find out what a real man is all about. This is one of those grand cinematic moments that could only have taken place with a particular actor in a particular role. Rocky/Sly is obviously incensed, not because Mr. T is coming on to his wife, not because Mr. T is stealing the thunder from his ceremony, but because Mr. T just stole his whole movie right out from under him.