REVIEW: The first follow-up to Rocky, Part 2 begins in the ring recapping the final fight from the original. In the squared circle is the reigning world heavyweight champion Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) and his challenger, the unranked Rocky Balbao (Sylvester Stallone) in a fight that Creed organized after his scheduled opponent dropped because of an injury. The bout was meant to be spectacle for the audience in celebration of the country’s 1976 Bicentennial. Creed was planning on a show. But Rocky came with different ideas. He came to fight, and what’s more, go the distance with the champion.
That he does and it shocks the boxing community. In the ring, as the bell sounds, Creed, broken and bleeding, tells Rocky there won’t be a rematch. Rocky agrees but at the hospital, as dozens of journalists crowd the lobby, Apollo has a change of heart and vehemently demands a second fight. This puts the plot in play. The film then follows the exploits of the newly-famous Rocky as he first, recovers from the beating in the hospital (even visiting the equally battered Creed in his room and asking if the champ gave his best. He did) and then moving on. The real problem is that Rocky suffers from a detached retina, he’s told that if he fights again, he risks going blind. But Rocky isn’t concerned with another challenge in the ring. He’s enjoying the sudden fame and wealth. Able to buy a home and secure financial independence, he asks Adrian (Talia Shire) to get married and soon after, she becomes pregnant. Things are going well. Life is good.
For Creed however, things are less happy. He’s obsessed with the fight, clinging to the streams of hate mail he’s been getting that claim he threw it for money. He goes on a mission to goad Rocky out of retirement and get him back in the ring, to the disappointment and pleas from his family and staff to move on to better prospects. His pride tarnished, he can’t let this one fight go.
Balboa ignores the calls at first. He’s married and finally able to live the life he’s been dreaming. Unfortunately, he’s spending money fast and when the commercials he’s signed on to do fail because he can’t read well, things get worrisome. He goes back to work, cleaning the floors at the meat factory, but then gets laid off. He’s not qualified for anything else, but worse, he’s a fighter. It’s in his blood and he misses the action. Adrian is against it, and even when he asks Mickey (Burgess Meredith) for help, he urges him to give up, worried about his eye.
Of course that all changes when Creed publicly humiliates Rocky on national television. Mickey, furious with the tactic, devotes himself to the rematch and with Rocky fired up, the movie truly begins. Directed by Sylvester Stallone, who also wrote the script, the film succeeds because of its commitment to the characters. Before the series became a parody of the formula it helped to create, here, these people feel real and like natural extensions of the lives already so vividly established in Rocky. Stallone keeps the world gritty and a little dark, never over-sentimentalizing Rocky’s story but giving it weight and depth in surprising ways. These are accomplished with small effective moments between Adrian and Rocky that wisely never paints her as the villain. Instead of making her bombastic in her opposition to his return to fighting, with excessive histrionics and melodrama, the moments are instead soft and personal. We want Rocky to fight, but we also understand her plight. It feels genuine. Knowing what its audience expects but delivering much more, Rocky II delivers with punch.
That Moment In: Rocky II
Scene Setup: As Mickey tries to train Rocky for the big fight, using unorthodox methods such as chicken chasing to gain speed, Balboa himself is a little detached. He’s not motivated and is easily distracted, half-heartedly pushing himself to prepare. Mickey grows increasingly impatient with the fighter, eventually telling him he’s lost his heart. But everybody knows what is wrong. It’s Adrian. Or rather, her lack of support for her husband to fight. Paulie (Burt Young), her brother sees what is happening and confronts her at the pet store where she is working. She gets emotional and collapses and is rushed to the hospital. She delivers her baby a month premature, but lost a lot of blood. She slips into a coma. It changes everything. Rocky wont train, he won’t see the baby and won’t leave her side.
The Scene: (Timestamp 01:25:15): Not long after, she wakes in the middle of the night with Rocky at her bedside. She made it, and so did Rocky. The next day, with Paulie and Mickey in the room, Adrian and Rocky meet their baby son. Overjoyed with the sense of family and pride for Adrian, Rocky tells his wife he won’t mix it up with Creed. She tells him he looks tired, but then asks him to lean close. There’s one thing she wants her husband do to. “What’s that?” he asks. “Win,” she says. “Win.”
From here, Rocky finds his motivation and takes to training in earnest, driven by Adrian’s support. Mickey is energized and the film shifts from melancholy to pure adrenaline as the now familiar training montage begins accompanied by Bill Conti‘s rousing, inspired score.
So why the change of heart? For the entire film, Adrian has been against Rocky getting back into the ring. They are married and have a baby on the way. He needs to be responsible and care for his family. Worse, he could likely suffer permanent injury and be blinded. His decision to face Apollo again is his alone. Before the coma, when he makes his case, he tells her he never asked her to stop being a woman, she shouldn’t ask him to stop being a man. Hollow at best. It’s an empty reason.
When Adrian wakes, she realizes that Rocky has been by her side the entire time. He gave it all up. While she was in the coma, he read books to her and spoke to her and most importantly, put her in front of himself. When she was at her most vulnerable, Rocky was there. Now it’s her turn. She realizes that by pressuring him to be something he is not, he is at his most vulnerable. To give him strength, she must be in his corner. It’s not about the fight. There’s no doubt that she wishes he would give that up. It’s about recognizing her need to want what he wants. “Win” means everything. Find your heart.
The moment is effective because of its timing. The movie spends a devoted amount of it to Rocky being with Adrian as she lies silent in bed. Also, Mickey. This is also important, as Mickey is there for most of it. This is his journey, too. When Adrian wakes, there is no sense that boxing is coming. This is Adrian’s moment and there is joy that she is okay and the family can be together. But when she gives him the word, it’s sudden and hits us like a proverbial shot to the gut. It shakes us. We feel the power and we suddenly get it. In a way, it wakes Rocky from his “coma” of fear. With the thunder of Conti’s music, we are fired up for a fight and this time, it’s got a whole new meaning.
The movie then harkens back to its original three years earlier as Rocky takes a run through the city to the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the top of the steps. This time though, he is not alone. Hundreds get behind him, running with him and then leap with joy as they ascend the steps. This may be metaphorical, and an attempt at nostalgia but what it really demonstrates is how Rocky feels. These people represent the power Adrian’s support has on him. Her faith in him, and her love, is like the entire city pushing him to be their winner.
Director: Sylvester Stallone
Writer: Sylvester Stallone