Friday, November 20, 2015

The Rocky Road: Rocky II (1979)

Click here to read my retro review of Rocky
After Rocky blew the doors off industry expectations in 1976, its writer and star Sylvester Stallone immediately benefited from all the attention the underdog boxing movie had garnered. The newly-minted Oscar nominee quickly put this fresh clout behind two 1978 productions: First up was F.I.S.T., directed by Norman Jewison and featuring a script by Stallone and Joe Eszterhas, which depicted the early days of the union movement. From there, Stallone himself moved behind the camera for the first time for Paradise Alley, a period piece about three siblings in the '40s.

While the former did alright, it certainly failed to meet the high bar that Rocky had set box office-wise. The latter, meanwhile, was an outright disaster both critically and commercially. However, in what would prove to be a very shrewd move, before Paradise Alley was even released, Stallone had already formalized plans with United Artists to revisit Rocky Balboa and continue his story. However, unlike the first film, which floated under the radar until its arrival in theaters, the next Rocky would have the weight of anticipation and expectation focused on it right from the start.

Armed with a hefty $7 million budget (a sizable jump up from the first flick's $1 mil), and Stallone both writing and directing after John Avildsen begged off, production on Rocky II began in late 1978 for release the following summer. For the franchise's second go-round, the entire supporting cast (Talia Shire, Burt Young, Burgess Meredith, Carl Weathers) returned, as did composer Bill Conti, making this Rocky feel more than any of the others like a direct continuation of the last installment. As we start, Apollo Creed and Rocky Balboa have been taken to the hospital after the brutal pounding they previously inflicted on one another.

Thanks to the local celebrity he's garnered, the now-retired Rocky is able to quit his job as a loan shark enforcer and wed girlfriend Adrian, using his big "Superfight" payday to shower her with gifts. Life goes on, however, commercial prospects for the former pugilist dry up due to his inability to read (filming a deodorant spot, he says  "Smeels mainly" instead of "Smells manly," for example). Further, Adrian is pregnant. Suddenly things are looking tough for the one-time Italian Stallion. Meanwhile, reigning champion Apollo Creed is dealing with issues of his own.

Bombarded by hate mail in the months following the fight, the champ's ego is unwilling to accept a victory by decision instead of a knockout (his ego will also prove to be his undoing a few movies hence), and though he'd said there would be no rematch, that's exactly what he wants. Hounded by Creed, struggling to support his wife, Rocky has little choice but to accept the challenge and get back to training with Mickey. And so the stage is set for "Superfight II," with Balboa and Apollo going toe-to-toe again. Same ring. Same stakes. Same outcome? Maybe not.

In many ways, Rocky II plays like exactly what it is: a "greatest hits" version of the original, one that's tasked with moving the story forward while also re-playing a lot of the same beats that folks loved before. That's why we see Rocky down on his luck once more after things were looking so good for him last time. But while the pathos could easily have tipped over into bathos (Adrian, unhappy with Rocky's decision to go back into the ring, lapses into a coma after giving birth to their son: Rocky Jr.), Stallone's plies our prior investment to maximum effect, and it pays off.

It isn't just the main character, though. Everyone else gets a little more to do this time, from Adrian to Paulie on down, and all of it is helpful in deepening our connection to them and their world. The climactic battle benefits from all the budgetary goodwill that the last one didn't have, and the punishing final rounds are some of the best in the entire series for how effectively they convey the utter brutality that each of these fighters are inflicting on one another. In the end, it's no split-decision, but a decisive knockout that determines the winner of the bout.

On the back of a mountain of hype, Rocky II was released in July of 1979 (just a few months before I showed up in this world), and the crowd-pleasing alchemy Stallone concocted played like gangbusters once again. Not only did critics embrace the sequel, but audiences turned out in droves, helping to make Rocky II one of the most successful sequels of all time. It nearly matched the take of its predecessor, and ended up one of the top films of the year (alongside United Artists stablemate James Bond, and Moonraker). In two movies, Rocky Balboa had gone from a "million to one shot" to champion of the world. Surely there were no more stories to tell here, right?

To Be Continued...

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