Surprisingly, the arc of the Rocky franchise began as the underdog losing to the better-prepared man, and soon became the rise and rise of a fighter who would eventually own a robot butler. That is the magic we love to see at the cinema. “Ain’t gonna be no rematch,” is what we heard. Those immortal words closed off a story that should live on as a dependable, sentimental statement. We may lose the battle but the experience will see us out as a winner. That is not enough for the series, hence the existence of Rocky II. It is the do-over that wasn’t necessary but still provides a collation of excellent sequences, a stripping back of its antagonist, and another outing for Sylvester Stallone to prove himself an immortal champion of sporting fiction.
Desire drives both Rocky Balboa (Stallone) and Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers). Balboa is trying his utmost to stay away from the squared circle, where Creed is laying the pressure on thick, trying to bring him back into the fold. You can smell the desire from Balboa, and through the eyes of Mickey Goldmill (Burgess Meredith), we can see it too. He stares off into the distance as Rocky leaps through menial job after menial job. He is not just returning because he needs to fight, but he needs the money. He has tried all other options, and that melding of desire and desperation is nicely adapted, although it does weaken the first instalment somewhat. For a sophomore effort in directing, Stallone is surprisingly engaged with the material he brings to life in front of and behind the camera. It adds urgency and importance, but the steady ground of rehashing the original provides him with the opportunity to prove himself not just as the ultimate boxer, but a competent director too.
Rocky is out of sync with the boxing world. Six months of work in the meat factory and a gym can only take a man so far on his journey to becoming a world champion. If we can move past the awkward moments between Paulie (Burt Young) and Adrianna (Talia Shire), then we can work through a good, dependable story of a man proving he is not living the life of a lucky fluke. Still, Shire is written out of the story, slipping her way into a coma that puts her out of action for the rest of the film. It is a cliché that does nothing more than remove a loose end, but Stallone provides an exceptional performance here. He’s the man who is tired of boxing after his one and only fight. He could bank on this one fighting appearance if he could gel with commercials, products and those that wish to market him. He is not that man; he lacks the punch necessary to sell merchandise.
Some are born to work in one specific field. Rocky can box. He cannot do much else. Rocky is good with his hands, whether that is packing meat or punching men. Stallone brings further depth to the character as he battles an inner conflict and prepares for an outer one too. There are times where Rocky II feels sloppy and soppy, where children run in the street behind their hero Balboa, who recreates the same feel-good montage of the first. But there is an extra weight to it, Rocky now fights for his own value and that of his wife. There’s just an issue with taking us from that point of reservation to the fight itself, which takes up far less time than one would imagine. It undoes much of the message provided by the first, replacing it with a lesser one, but it is still the right sentimental note to end the rise of a champion on. Or at least, it would have been.