“Ain't gonna be no rematch!”
“Don't want one!”
That was the brief exchange between Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers, Predator) and Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone, Cop Land) at the end of John G. Avildsen's Oscar-winning Rocky. They used the word “rematch,” but they might as well have used “sequel” - their fight was over and their story was complete. Rocky was originally intended as a standalone film, but it connected so strongly with the general public (translation: made so much money) that Stallone and co. couldn't resist the opportunity to turn it into a franchise. Rocky II isn't the worst of the Rocky movies, but it's easily the most redundant: it's consistently hampered by a compulsion to recreate just-different-enough versions of beloved scenes from the first film.
The first six minutes of Rocky II are devoted to replaying the climax of Rocky; a nice gesture for the two people who hadn't seen that movie. We see the “no rematch” exchange, and then we're treated to a new scene of Apollo confronting Rocky and demanding a rematch. “I thought you said no rematch?” Rocky says. Apollo delivers a long-winded, complicated justification for his decision, but his answer is basically, “That was before I knew how much money our first movie was gonna make!”
Still, Rocky has no interest in a rematch, and decides that it's time to start a normal life. He gets married to Adrian (Talia Shire, I Heart Huckabees), they buy a new house and he starts looking for a new job. He's hoping to get something respectable – some sort of office job, where he can sit behind a desk and make important decisions. Alas, such positions are hard to come by, particularly when you're a mushmouthed boxer with limited reading abilities. So, Rocky decides to seek out blue collar work, and takes a job at the meatpacking plant where he trained for his big fight against Apollo. It's unpleasant work, but it pays the bills. Turns out that position isn't easy to hold, either – Rocky gets laid off after a few weeks due to the plant's financial woes. Things are getting tight in the Balboa household. Oh, and did I mention that Adrian is pregnant?
I trust you can see where all of this is going. There are a host of factors that push Rocky into a rematch against Apollo – the media pressure Creed places on him, the financial bind he's gotten himself into, the fact that boxing is the only profession Rocky is really good at – but the big one is that Rocky feels a primal urge to be back in the ring. “I just gotta be around it,” he confesses to his old trainer Mickey (Burgess Meredith, Grumpy Old Men).
There's something odd about Stallone's performance in Rocky II. In Rocky, Stallone so fully inhabits the title role that you often lose sight of the actor. In this film, he often seems like he's doing an impersonation of his performance in the first movie rather than truly losing himself in the role again. I can't quite put my finger on it, but there's something that feels a little off – a little too much movie star swagger. Maybe it's the fact that Stallone directed the film himself – perhaps Avildsen was able to push the actor to places Stallone wasn't willing to push himself this time around. Part of it may be that so many of Stallone's scenes are variations on scenes he played in the first film. The iconic run up the steps of Philadelphia Museum of Art is repeated, but this time Rocky has hundreds of children swarming around him and chanting his name. A beautiful moment of unbridled joy has been transformed into something overblown and corny.
The film has the exact same running time as its predecessor, but it feels slower due to the fact that A) we've seen a lot of this stuff before and B) the midsection of this film contains a lengthy, unnecessary detour. The subplot involving Adrian's medical complications seriously disrupts the narrative flow, delaying Rocky's fight against Apollo for another 20 or 30 minutes while our hero does some fairly dull soul-searching. Perhaps I'd be a little more forgiving of this development if it hadn't been manipulatively used as a device to give Rocky extra motivation in the ring.
Eventually, we're treated to a fight sequence that is bigger, longer and more violent than the previous dust-up between Rocky and Apollo, but the dramatic tension is drained from the proceedings because the outcome is never in any doubt. The first film was a story about a common man just trying to hold his own in a match against one of the greatest fighters in the world. Could that happen in real life? Probably not, but it's more convincing than the fight in this film, which plays like something out of a mythical folk tale – the boxing equivalent of a “John Henry” song (minus the tragic ending).
Don't get me wrong – despite all of my negativity, Rocky II isn't a bad film. There are a lot of nice little character-driven moments in the first half, Bill Conti's music is still terrific (the piano-enhanced title theme he wrote for this film is my single favorite piece of music written for the series), the supporting cast is still dynamite (we don't get much of Burt Young's Paulie, but Meredith, Weathers and Shire all get a handful of good scenes) and this certainly has more personality than a lot of inspirational sports dramas. Unfortunately, it becomes difficult to pay attention to these virtues due to the fact that the movie is trying so hard to serve up a beefed-up, watered-down version of the superior original. Rocky is a deeply personal, distinctive movie. Rocky II feels like the Hollywood version of that movie.
Rating: ★★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG
Running Time: 119 minutes
Release Year: 1979