It’s incredible how well the Rocky movies have aged over the years. After nearly five decades, Rocky Balboa’s story inspires and entertains despite hundreds of knockoffs and parodies. The franchise is so popular we’re about to get the next chapter, Creed III, with Michael B. Jordan — though, sadly, no Sylvester Stallone — on March 3.
As such, we’re diving into the Rocky saga to determine which boxing epic is the best by ranking the best Rocky and Creed movies.
8. Rocky V (1990)
Rocky IV felt like a fitting end to the Rocky Balboa story — how do you top Rocky single-handedly ending the Cold War? — but Stallone decided to take another crack at our slow-witted hero and gifted audiences … Rocky V. Awkward silence.
You gotta hand it to Stallone. The man takes serious chances with his beloved characters and isn’t afraid to mix things up now and again. In this case, he decides to take Rocky back to his street-level roots, resulting in a well-intentioned but disappointing chapter that sees the iconic boxer — now poor and severely brain-damaged — taking on Tommy Gun, a former student-turned-psychopath.
Sounds compelling, right? Unfortunately, Rocky V limps along without much juice. While the pic dutifully sets up the next batch of films (intentional or not), it lacks the human element that made the original Rocky a classic and dumps the commercial swagger that turned Rocky IV into one of the great pics of the 1980s. It’s undoubtedly a fascinating exercise and worth a watch. Still, at this point, it was clear that Rocky needed to retire.
7. Rocky II (1979)
After Rocky’s astounding success, a sequel was all but inevitable; credit to everyone involved for defying the odds and crafting a follow-up that was, at the very least, passable entertainment. However, this by-the-numbers entry feels like a cynical cash grab, even if it still finds exciting ways to challenge its likable characters.
Rocky struggles with his newfound fame and fortune. Eventually, he loses all his money, necessitating another boxing match with Creed — who, by contrast, grapples with his failure in the ring. When the two men meet for a rematch, we understand their motivations, leading to a surprisingly effective (and moving) conclusion.
Unfortunately, despite some high points, Rocky II only partially justifies its existence. Put bluntly, this movie didn’t need to happen. Rocky Balboa was an everyman who took advantage of a fantastic opportunity. Once he goes toe-to-toe with the champ and wins the girl, his story is complete. Stallone knows this and uses Rocky II to perform a soft reboot of the franchise, repositioning his downtrodden fighter as a comic book hero capable of defeating anyone. The transition may not be the smoothest, but Rocky II sets our boy up for long-term success — for better or worse.
6. Rocky Balboa (2006)
I was initially disappointed by Rocky Balboa and its grounded approach to the material. However, after multiple viewings, I think it is a solid entry in the long-running franchise, even if it lacks the pizazz that made the original foursome so much fun.
This sixth chapter finds Rocky spending his days operating a humble Italian restaurant where he regales customers with stories about his past. Adrian is dead, you see? And so Rocky has no one but Paulie and his deadbeat son, Robert Balboa, Jr. When fate comes calling, Rocky seizes the opportunity to step into the ring again, this time in an exhibition match against a young punk named Mason “The Line” Dixon.
Rocky Balboa lacks dramatic tension and feels more like fan service than a necessary sequel. Still, following Rocky V, at least the film gives the guy a proper send-off until Creed summoned him back from the dead a decade later. The bout between Rocky and Mason is fun but also a tad anticlimactic, particularly for those expecting the hard-hitting spectacle of Rocky I-IV. No matter, Rocky Balboa works as a stirring epilogue and goes the distance to deliver good old-fashioned entertainment.
5. Creed II (2018)
Like Rocky II, Creed II labors to find a plot strong enough to hang its hat on and contently sticks to the tried-and-true formula. Yet, director Steven Caple, Jr. stages a few impressive fight sequences and conjures up enough emotional drama that more than makes up for the film’s lack of originality.
Michael B. Jordan is as magnetic as ever as Adonis Creed, while Stallone and Tessa Thompson are excellent in supporting (read: underwritten) bits. Kudos to whoever brought back Ivan Drago, whose story arc revolving around his son, Viktor, gives the picture much-needed weight. While Creed II doesn’t ascend to the heights of Rocky IV despite following that film’s plot nearly beat-for-beat, it still entertains with its age-old story of perseverance against all odds and ends in a way you may not expect.
4. Rocky III (1982)
That’s more like it, Sly. With Rocky’s humble origins in the rearview mirror, Stallone aptly moved into the boxer’s more ludicrous stage, conjuring a predictable but spectacular crowd-pleasing blockbuster. Here, Rocky struggles with an overinflated ego and ends up getting his ass handed to him by the ruthless Clubber Lang (a magnetic Mr. T). Luckily, Apollo Creed comes out of retirement to guide Rocky back to the light, resulting in one of the best bromances in movie history.
By this point, Stallone (who also directed) was more enamored with money than art. Rocky III gives audiences what they want — Rocky vs. Hulk Hogan, anyone? — and cynicism aside enthralls as a kick-ass boxing picture peppered with violent fight sequences, an extraordinary soundtrack — “Eye of the Tiger,” folks — and passable human drama. No, we don’t learn much more about Rocky than was previously known — he’s still a lovable underdog — but the joy of the Rocky saga is seeing our beleaguered hero overcome the immense obstacles tossed in his path. To that end, Rocky III is one helluva piece of popcorn splendor.
3. Creed (2015)
Sure, Creed is just another Rocky knockoff in terms of its lead character’s arc and overall plot structure, but when the results are this good, does it matter? Nope.
As directed by Ryan Coogler, Creed hits all the right beats and transcends franchise tropes to become an entirely new beast altogether. Michael B. Jordan is magnificent as Adonis Johnson, the bitter and conflicted son of deceased boxing champion Apollo Creed who decides to follow in his father’s footsteps and seeks out Rocky for aid. The film chronicles the relationship between Adonis and Rocky as the two battle the odds and exorcise past demons. At one point, Rocky discovers he has non-Hodgkins lymphoma, and the story pivots to his fight to survive.
Concurrently, “Pretty” Ricky Conlan challenges Adonis to a boxing match, which gives Coogler an excuse to reproduce classic scenes from the original Rocky — albeit remixed with modern flourishes. Creed ends in typical fashion but remains a stirring, heartfelt, well-acted, and satisfying chapter in the formidable franchise that steers the series in a unique direction.
2. Rocky IV (1985)
The Rocky Saga can easily be divided into two groups: Rocky, Rocky V, Rocky Balboa, and Creed form the grounded approach to the franchise and emphasize character over spectacle, while Rocky II, Rocky III, Rocky IV, and Creed II present a more robust view of Rocky’s universe. This varied strategy is probably why the franchise has endured for so long. None of the films ever feel like they’re riffing on the others, even though they’re doing precisely that.
Rocky IV is the best example of the sensationalist approach. While it follows the structure and flow of previous chapters, it repackages the various series elements to make them wholly original. Rocky IV finds our leading man as a retired underdog, so rich he can afford a fully functioning robot. Eventually, he must step back into the ring to avenge the death of his best friend, Apollo Creed, by taking on Russian juggernaut Ivan Drago. Right from the get-go, you know what to anticipate. Credit Stallone (who also wrote and directed) for granting fans what they want to see: a rousing crowd-pleaser of the highest order.
Stallone shoots and edits the picture like a music video, leading to a series of thrilling montages and fight sequences sure to get the adrenaline pumping. Sure, there’s no denying the cheese — “Hearts on Fire” is as silly as they come, but also incredible, particularly in the context of the film — and over-the-top patriotism. Still, Rocky IV is so much fun, and it’s hard not to let its ludicrous charm uppercut you into submission. Rocky, the down-on-his-luck drifter who just wanted a chance, single-handedly ends the Cold War, folks. What’s better than that?
It’s worth noting that Stallone recut Rocky IV into Rocky IV: Rocky vs. Drago, trimming the excess and reshaping the picture into something more akin to the original Rocky. While I admire the man’s enthusiasm, he misses the picture’s point. Rocky IV’s excess is its saving grace — the songs, the colorful photography, and the cartoonish, bloody fight scenes all collaborate to convey the American spirit circa 1985. Times have changed our views on government, politics, and entertainment. Still, this is how most Americans felt about our society back then. We celebrated the stars and stripes and happily cheered on Rocky’s endeavors to destroy threats foreign and domestic. Where the original presents him as an average guy doing his best in a complicated world, in Rocky IV, he might as well be Rambo — and I mean that in a good way.
1. Rocky (1976)
The original Rocky is a damned fine film, a sensational sports drama about a man who wants to go the distance and fight the good fight, jam-packed with complex characters, emotional themes, and iconic, crowd-pleasing moments. Who can forget Rocky’s ascent up the Philadelphia Museum of Art steps set to the tune of “Gonna Fly Now” or his long-winded battle with Apollo Creed? Equally iconic is his subtle romance with shy and brittle Adrian and his torrid relationship with ornery trainer Mickey.
Looking back, it’s funny to see Rocky struggle with Apollo after watching him beat the snot out of Mr. T and Drago. But then, this is a much different film. I’d disconnect Rocky 1976 from the rest of the franchise because it just doesn’t fit. Where the other films were essentially comic book flicks about a superhero battling an assortment of comically over-the-top villains, the original Rocky is a melancholy affair about a down-to-Earth everyman yearning to make something out of his life. Simply put, there’s a lot more to the story than overcoming a muscle-bound opponent. Rocky and Adrian, for that matter, were dealt a bad hand in life. The story is about how they spit in the face of fate and achieve some modicum of success in their crumbling universe. It’s brilliant.
In terms of sheer entertainment, nothing beats Rocky IV. Still, suppose you’re looking for a great movie with more on its mind than rock’em sock’em razzle-dazzle. In that case, Rocky remains the undisputed cinematic champ.
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