My friend Dan—who lives in Missouri—and I are on Skype, engaged in a discussion on one of our favorites topics: Rocky movies. Dan has just posted a YouTube link to James Brown’s “Living in America” performance from Rocky IV on his social media.
“You need to acknowledge that ‘Living in America’ is the best music video in Rocky IV,” Dan says.
I sense that he’s baiting me. “That is ridiculous,” I say. “Not only is the ‘No Easy Way Out’ montage the best five minutes of that film, it enshrines Rocky and Apollo’s friendship, captures Rocky’s myriad emotions following his friend’s death and deftly replays the first three movies. It’s a complete fire jam.”
“You couldn’t be more wrong,” Dan says, needling me. “You know, Rocky II is an underrated film. It’s the best in the canon.”
“You need to sober up,” I say.
And so on and so forth.
I know that Dan and I are far from alone in our attempt to rank and file the cinematic saga that has defined American courage, resilience and grit. So I’ve decided to put an end to all debate and compile the definitive rankings of the Rocky movies so we can all move on to more important analytical questions, such as whether Neil Peart or John Bonham was a better rock drummer.
I also understand that’s both audacious and absurd to claim that I can definitively list the Rocky movies, worst to best, when the topic is subjective. But I won’t let that deter me, so allow me, please, to begin with my credentials.
Let’s start with the fact that I’m Italian. If you happen to have Italian heritage then you’re automatically more informed than those who aren’t paisans when it comes to your analysis of Rocky films.
Additionally, if you happen to have an Italian surname, like me, it’s even more impressive because you can start bandying around the moniker The Italian Stallion and use at your own.
Of course, the same broad generalizations could be applied to The Godfather movies, but now you’re stereotyping Italians as mobsters and criminals.
Don’t do that.
On top of the Italian credentials, I estimate that my obsession with watching Rocky movies prolonged my virginity by, at least, two years. While most guys were learning how to communicate with others and pursue romantic relationships, my dumb-ass was trying to do one-arm push-ups; therefore, I suffered for my cause.
So without further ado, here is your definitive ranking of Rocky movies.
(For clarification, the list does not include the Creed films, which I do believe have a place in the Rocky oeuvre, but my definition of a Rocky film necessitates that Rocky Balboa is the obvious MC (main character) and the subsequent narrative arc primarily revolve around him. Also, the hot mess that some refer to as Rocky V, does not exist in my mind. That slow-motion car accident is now simply a meme where Micky Goldstein, Rocky’s late-trainer, tells Rocky, in a punch-drunk reverie, to “get up because Micky loves [him].”)
#5: Rocky III (1982)
Listen, there’s a lot to like about this film. Can we at least agree that Hulk Hogan was screwed out the “Best Supporting Actor” award in 1982 for his role as Thunder Lips, The Ultimate Male. He was brilliant as…well, himself.
Additionally, Adrian’s motivational speech on the beach is, verbatim, what I’ve been waiting for my wife to say to me for almost twenty years.
There’s also a case to be made that the second fight against Clubber Lang is Rocky’s most dominant. He slims down then tunes up Mr. T in the first round, toys with him in the second, and puts the son of a bitch to canvas in the third to regain his title.
But my problem with Rocky III is something that vexes me in two of the films, making parts of them almost unwatchable. I call this “The Dogging Factor,” and I still lose sleep about it.
Rocky’s training for the first fight with Clubber, however, was absolute garbage. He’s hiring a house band, kissing platinum blond super fans—with Adrian watching, no less—and training with the nonchalance of my teenage daughter making a Tik-Tok video.
Then, for half of his training with Apollo, Rocky is wrestling with mental issues. I get being afraid. I’m afraid of everything—seaweed, spiders, sharks, death. But I don’t watch Rocky movies to see shades of myself.
That just bums me out.
There’s also the plausibility problem with Rocky gaining approximately 45 IQ points between his last fight with Apollo and the beginning of Rocky III. But I’ll let that one slide.
#4: Rocky Balboa (2006)
This movie has a schizophrenic feel to it.
For the first hour of the film—despite the shameless olive branches extended to diehards by including the characters Spider Rico and Little Marie—we start to see Rocky Balboa with a little more complexity. He’s a devastated widower telling the same pathetic war stories from his fighting days to the patrons at the restaurant he runs, Adrian’s—Rocky’s wife killed off after Talia Shire smartly decided to step away from this one. Meanwhile, Rocky’s son Robert, formerly Rocky Jr., is resentful of the old man’s notoriety and trying to create his own identity separate from his father’s name.
This almost sounds like a thoughtful plot.
Then the second half of the film descends into Banana-land, where Mason Dixon—I’m not even sure they could get away with this character’s name these days—the heavyweight champion decides to fight an exhibition bout with a 50-year-old bloated Balboa after a computer simulation predicts that Rocky would win.
The movie then becomes a parody of the others, with plausibility again tossed to the wind.
I’m 45 years old, far from a professional athlete, but if a fit 25-year-old dude decided he was going to beat my ass…
Getting old sucks, and this movie doesn’t help matters.
#3: Rocky II (1979)
Let me get this out of the way:
If you can watch Rocky, bloody and ravaged after actualizing his dream, hoist his heavyweight champion belt in the air and cry to his wife watching at home, “Yo, Adrian, I did it!” without becoming verklempt, you might not possess a soul.
Rocky II is the run-back on the ending of Rocky. Rocky punished Apollo Creed for The Dogging Factor in the first film, which subsequently affects Rocky Balboa in Rocky II.
Again, The Dogging Factor makes parts of this movie insufferable for me to watch. While I can only dream of my wife telling me to “win”—as opposed to “take out the garbage, it smells” or “stop drinking so much”— The Dogging Factor that precedes it is too much for me, personally, to take. If someone was putting up disparaging and humiliating posters of me where I worked and cuckolding me to colleagues, I would hope that would be enough motivation to train.
Rocky II is solid film but a little long and frustrating. The final round and Rocky’s speech, however, is cinematic gold. (“Yo, Liz! I did it!”).
#2: Rocky IV (1985)
Let’s imagine the perfect formula for a film dudes will love.
You would start an American hero (make him Italian, even better). Then let’s throw in a cold-hearted Commie that kills the hero’s best friend. Now, not only does our hero need to avenge his friend’s death, but he’s going to end the Cold War by showing said Commies what good ole’ American guts and gonads look like.
There it is, kids: Rocky IV.
I haven’t done the math, but there can’t be more than 15 minutes of dialogue in Rocky IV, and God bless it. This film is a 90-minute hot shot of propaganda that would make Donald Trump tingly. Make no mistake, this is a terrible story, but if I wanted a story, I’d read a Faulkner novel.
In essence, Rocky Balboa ended The Cold War years before the collapse of the Soviet Union and the fall of the Berlin Wall, proclaiming: “If I can change, and you can change, everybody can change.”
Unfortunately, I think Putin missed that memo.
#1: Rocky (Winner of “Best Picture” in 1976)
Seriously, this is a really good film.
Photo Credit: Rocky/Screen Cap