Success begets success, and success in Hollywood usually means sequels.
If Universal Studios can find an excuse to make Jaws 2, Rocky II isn’t a far leap beyond. Both are follow-ups to beloved masterpieces of audience enjoyment that immediately cemented themselves into the collective cultural consciousness.
A director/creator can go big, bold, and defy audience expectations with something like The Empire Strikes Back; you find a challenging direction to expand the story in unexpected ways. Similarly, a franchise machine can bring in a creator to shrug off a successful-but-not-beloved effort with something like Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, saying something resonant that transcends its genre.
The safest and most traditional choice, the one most preferred by studios, is a retread without excessive risk. You can forward a story incrementally and promise the audience a familiar sensation, like riding a roller coaster a second time. The audience remains comfortable, having fun, but aware that it’s not going to surprise them. While there’s an argument to be made that giving Rocky Balboa the chance to be champ is the story that people want, it also eats at what made the first so magical. Rocky declared that winning was secondary to love, respect, dignity, and opportunity.
Walking that back just so we can see him win is uncomfortable.
A mitigating note is that Rocky II was born before the home video revolution, which has warped our perception of sequels since. The reason for repetition with franchises like James Bond; the only way to recapture a sense of that original thrill was through a theatrical re-release or a sequel. In the end, you can’t really blame someone for trying to deliver a new Rocky that goes in the only direction it really can.
Rocky II starts interestingly enough. Stallone recognises the opportunity to explore Balboa’s growing realisation that you can’t pay bills with respect. It’s a resonant statement for anyone who’s found that principles don’t mean paychecks. The audience is left pondering what they were cheering at the end of the first film. This is a good direction, and honestly challenging. People can relate to the inevitable valley after a brief success. How you handle those moments is a lesson you have to learn repeatedly throughout life. It’s a terrific shorthand for Stallone to set Rocky in a familiar place without a need for excessive ingenuity.
The problems with Rocky II relate to Stallone using that shorthand to excess. There’s a speediness to the storytelling that lets you know how every turn will pay off. Instead of redefining the template, it sticks with it. We may get variances – a pregnant Adrian in the hospital after emotional abuse from a brother who should be locked in rehab or prison – but we all know where it’s headed. After a point, we just want to get to the end so we can feel good again.
Delivering what the audience wants isn’t a bad thing in and of itself. Rocky may remain a masterpiece because it doesn’t give us the ending our hearts demand, but denying that our hearts demand it, is dishonest. We *want* to see Rocky win! We *want* to see his hard work pay off. We *want* to see Adrian get a better life, after everything she’s endured from her deadbeat brother. So we go into Rocky II ready to love it.
Again, there are interesting things here! Rocky II starts by exploring Balboa’s growing realization that you can’t pay the bills with respect. It’s a resonant statement for anyone who’s found that principles don’t mean paychecks. Offset is Apollo Creed’s growing unease that his inability to decisively finish Rocky is evidence he’s not the greatest, which eats at his ego. It’s something that Carl Weathers expresses well, and you believe in his need to prove himself again.
READ MORE: The Road to Creed II… Rocky (1976)
There’s an easy trust Stallone places in all his returning actors. He may not push them to change or expand the characters, but they do what the rest of the film does: give us the familiar beloved so that we can experience it again. The audience is left pondering what they were cheering at the end of the first film. This is a good direction, and honestly challenging. People can relate to the inevitable valley after a brief success. How you handle those moments is a lesson you have to learn repeatedly throughout life.
But the hardest question of Rocky II is whether it’s “necessary.”
There’s a sense that a sequel that doesn’t live up to the original somehow sullies the memory of the first/previous instalment (it doesn’t). We feel like we should have walked away after Jaws, or Halloween, or Highlander, or The Matrix, or any of a number of other franchises. So the question at hand is whether Rocky II deserves praise despite its “unnecessary” existence?
In a word, yes.
Stallone has the wisdom to craft a story that interlocks in such a way that it recognises its dependence on the first film. This is another chapter in an unfolding book, which works to its advantage and makes shortcomings easier to forgive. Retaining Bill Conti is also very wise, allowing the sequel an aural continuity that makes the story feel appropriate and intentional. It doesn’t hurt that Conti delivers a great reimagining of ‘Gonna Fly Now’, and tracks like ‘Redemption’.
Rocky II smartly rides the momentum of the first film, and delivers exactly what it promises. While it never rises to the classic level of the first, it’s at least an enjoyable indulgence.
What’s your favourite Rocky movie? Let us know.