From humble beginnings to blockbuster status, join me as I follow the journey of Rocky Balboa and Adonis Creed, celebrating their highest highs and looking over their lowest lows… (spoilers ahead)
9. Rocky V (1990, Directed By John G. Avildsen)
To absolutely no one’s surprise, in last place, we have Rocky V. I’m gonna be real with you, I have a lot of love for this franchise, but this film is pretty much indefensible. Whilst Rocky IV teetered dangerously into ‘too camp for its own good territory’, this one went off the bloody rails and sent the franchise into a dormant state for 17 years (luckily its legacy sequel predecessor, which we shall discuss later, is far far better).
The film is just an absolute trainwreck from the start. Despite the fact that the film is meant to take place immediately after Rocky IV, everyone looks visibly older (it has been 5 years since that film after all), to the point where continuity quite clearly wasn’t a priority.
The performances all also just seem tired and unenthusiastic, despite some strong motivational speech scenes (which feel like a cliche for the first time in the franchise), and the directing is quite clearly a step down from Stallone’s masterful work on the last 3 films.
Rocky himself is also just ridiculously out of character, neglecting his family for knucklehead newcomer Tommy Gunn, who, in fairness, is an interesting character in concept: a new underdog for Rocky to train who lets the fame and arrogance get to his head. However, the lame and frankly uninteresting directing means he never really gets a true chance to shine.
The film’s other antagonist, obnoxious fight promoter George Washington Duke, is entirely insufferable and for the wrong reasons. In every scene he’s in, he’s yelling his lines like some caricature, a cartoon character who stepped into the Rocky franchise by accident. In fact, that’s what this whole film feels like: a bad 90s cartoon, complete with a ridiculously stupid final fight that sees Rocky, who has had to stop fighting because he’s got brain damage… fight. Where’s the logic? Someone, please tell me.
Best Moment: Tommy Gunn showing up and causing trouble to try and pull Rocky into a fight. For a moment, it seemed like the film would be good, and then Rocky actually does just proceed to engage in an illegal street brawl (despite having retired due to brain damage) with zero consequences. Where. Is. The. LOGIC?
8. Rocky IV: Rocky Vs. Drago (2021, Directed By Sylvester Stallone)
There are likely two things running through your brain now as you read this: Rocky IV didn’t come out in 2021, and Rocky IV is the best of the Rocky films! To the first statement, I say: this spot is referring to Stallone’s 2021 recut of the film, as I have not seen the original, so this review is entirely based on that edition of the movie. As for the other, more subjective statement, let me weigh in…
Now I had a tough time choosing between this or Creed II for the 8th spot. Both are good films, don’t get me wrong, and both essentially follow the same theme of vengeance and forgiveness. However, after much deliberation, Rocky IV has to take the L, and I’ll explain why.
The first act of Rocky IV is masterful: a tense build-up towards the fateful fight between franchise favourite Apollo Creed and the legendary Ivan Drago, balancing a sense of dread and excitement as you see the ice-cold Russian champ enter the ring whilst Apollo dances in with a brash sense of confidence. Of course, the fight ends with Apollo twitching face down on the floor, and from that moment things go a bit downhill.
For starters, the cut from the match to the funeral is straight-up ridiculous. The film does not fully establish whether Apollo is dead and then just cuts to a funeral. This, combined with the bizarre editing during Apollo’s death scene, is where the film transitions from phenomenal to 80s camp(and, in my humble opinion, not the good kind).
As expected, Rocky heads to Russia to face Ivan and trains with a montage, but, despite Stallone’s gorgeous restoration of the film making every frame pop, the story just falters. No matter how personal the fight should be, nothing about it feels personal, especially compared to how powerful the fights in the three prior films were. There’s just an emotional disconnect in the script that’s undercut by the film trying to cover up camp with seriousness.
There’s no denying the film is iconic, and Drago has a physically unmatched presence of intimidation in the franchise, but it just doesn’t quite do it for me, and I believe it started the temporary franchise decline that Rocky V finished.
Best Moment: Apollo V. Drago of course. The James Brown dance number contrasting with Drago’s cold demeanour allows a perfect build-up to an emotionally devastating fight.
7. Creed II (2018, Directed By Steve Caple Jr.)
Essentially Rocky IV but a little bit better, this sequel to Ryan Coogler’s fantastic reimagining of the Rocky franchise suffered without its forbearer’s more assured direction, but still hammered home the expected emotional beats when a Drago shows up in this series.
Following a level of required ego maintenance after Adonis is devastated in a fight by the son of his father’s killer, the film follows Donnie on a journey of rediscovering his inner passion and spirit for fighting, a path that ultimately leads him to peace in an emotional victory against his newfound blood-rival.
Without a doubt the weakest of its trilogy, Creed II for the most part is your standard affair modern sports blockbuster, lacking the sense of iconic style and originality that allowed the best entries in this franchise to fly high. The sheer downgrade in almost every aspect is felt with Coogler’s absence, but luckily the film manages to land the punch with its final act.
Haunted by his past failure, Ivan Drago finally finds peace in his son’s climactic defeat and grants him the comfort he himself never received after he lost all those years ago, and this, combined with Adonis and Viktor Drago’s embrace, and Rocky finding peace in the world and finally visiting his son, left me a sobbing mess, even if the rest of this film didn’t quite earn this ending.
Best Moment: The ending. The Dragos, Creeds and Balboas all find their peace, and it’s beautiful to see.
6. Creed (2015, Directed By Ryan Coogler)
Arguably the most technically commendable film in the franchise until Creed III, Creed was a gorgeous, beautifully acted, intimately directed breath of fresh air in the franchise. Grittier and more self-serious than its father franchise, yet sticking the landing more effectively than Rocky IV managed to, this film is a masterclass on how to breathe new life into a 40-year-old franchise.
Michael B Jordan immediately steals the show as the illegitimate son of fan favourite Apollo Creed and quickly became a fan favourite himself. Avoiding the cliche of “angry son with something to prove”, Adonis is instead kind-hearted and ambitious, hoping to live up to his father’s legacy whilst building his own (which the film also manages to do for the character too, no easy feat as the 7th film in the franchise).
Of course, to draw older fans back in, Rocky is still present and accounted for, with Stallone toning down on the cheesy and adorable side of his performance to deliver a more grounded, older and serious Rocky, one who wears his past like an all-encompassing cloak, but still has that classic Rocky charm. The only real issue with Rocky here is that his arc regarding overcoming his loneliness and distance with his son is quite similar to what we saw in Rocky Balboa, but the tone and execution are different enough for it to work.
The real star of the show here, though, is Ryan Coogler. He boldly strays entirely away from the style of the OG films, and crafts a new identity for the franchise, with a beautifully established new tone that relies more on intimacy and the beauty of the people and world around us. However, he clearly struggles with the blockbuster aspect of the film, as like his MCU entries, the final fight is a bit of a green screen mess.
All in all, though, the film is wonderful. Does it reach the same heights as the best of the Rocky films? No, it does not, but it forged its own identity in a franchise that’s been around since the 70s and to me, that is commendable in itself.
Best Moment: The emotional montage that plays when Adonis is motivating himself to get back up and finish the fight; cinema was reborn right there.
5. Rocky (1976, Directed By John G. Avildsen)
If you thought my placement of Rocky IV was controversial, well, you’re in for a treat with this one. Now, don’t get me wrong: this is an amazing film. This placement is in no way attempting to diminish or doubt that; it won best picture for a reason, after all. However, I simply prefer what came after it!
Stallone is ridiculously charming in this and is the core appeal of the film. Watching him in the first act, wandering around, living his life and doing his thing is immensely satisfying. Seeing how he reacts to the different situations he finds himself really helps establish the character as a small-brained bruiser with a heart of gold, and Stallone sells every single damn line.
Where the film perhaps does not hold up as well is Rocky’s relationship with Adrian. Inattempting to portray Adrian as shy, the film ends up making Rocky seem a bit forceful in his attempts to woo her, nagging her to stay round his, insisting that she doesn’t leave, it all comes across a bit inapropriate. As for her brother Paulie, he just acts like an ass all the time and faces zero narrative consequences. It’s deeply frustrating.
However, in the build up and climax of the iconic final fight against Apollo Creed (played with effortless charisma by the legendary Carl Weathers), the film finds its footing again, with the now iconic training montage that wpuld remain a franchise mainstay to this day, and the immaculately tense boxing bout between the reigning champ and underdog. I was on the edge of the seat the whole time, and when that ending music finally kicked in, my heart soared.
Best Moment: That whole first act. Just seeing a day in the life of Rocky is so interesting and entertaining, especially in how it sets up his characterisation.
4. Rocky II (1979, Directed By Sylvester Stallone)
This film is essentially Rocky but better, and that’s saying something considering how damn good the original is. Every single thing about this sequel is bigger and better: the romance is far more natural and less stilted, the stakes for the fight are even higher due to the pressure of the rematch, and the training montage has Rocky run with a massive crowd of people, which automatically makes it more awesome.
Now, yes, it can be said that the simpler charm of the original is lost a bit, but honestly, there’s one key thing that made placing this above the original an easy choice: that final fight. After suffering humiliation at the hands of the underdog, Creed isn’t messing around anymore, and that adds that extra level of tension.
There’s also the rather simple fact that Stallone simply directs fights a lot better than Avildsen. The camera weaves around the shoulders of our fighters, getting up close and personal, utlising stylised shots and slow mo to full advantage, in a way that wouldn’t really be achieved again until Creed III.
I do not hold anything against anyone who says the original is better: it’s smaller in scale, more charming and more unique. However, this film just felt more refined to me from a filmmaking perspective, morepolished, and that just gives it the upper hand for me.
Best Moment: The final fight; Stallone directed the hell out of it and that’s abundantly clear in every single shot.
3. Rocky III (1982, Directed By Sylvester Stallone)
Rocky III: the really, really cool one. Rocky has fallen into comfort and none other than Mr T himself, Clubber Lang, has arrived to humble him. What follows is a badass journey of redemption, one to become the best of the best once more, and prove he’s still got the eye of the tiger.
This film perhaps slights on the story side of things, stripping Rocky down to its bare minimum, but honestly, who cares? It’s got a montage set to Eye Of The Tiger, I don’t need anything else; that alone is enough to justify a 5 star rating. Seriously, watching Clubber reach his physical peak whilst Rocky poses for magazine covers is a beautifully bit of on the nose juxtaposition.
Of course, the real star of the show here is the beautiful bromance between Rocky and his former rival Apollo Creed. As always, Weather steals every scene he’s in, and watching these two men go on a journey from rivals to best friends was a true highlight of these movies. When they frollicked in the sea in slow motion, cinema was truly born.
Is this objectively the best of the original 3 Rocky movies? Probably not. Is it my favourite? Easily. Give me that early 80s charm and I’ll eat it all up baby.
Best Moment: EYE OF THE TIGER! Seriously: best montage ever.
2. Rocky Balboa (2006, Directed By Sylvester Stallone)
The year is 2006. It’s been 16 years since Rocky V, the disaster that sunk the Rocky franchise to the depths of dead franchise hell; the franchise is attempting a final comeback with a brand new legacy sequel, Rocky Balboa. As they always are, all the odds are stacked against Rocky, and yet somehow the cinematic icon came back for a final round to remember.
Balboa reminds me a lot of T2: Trainspotting, as they are both films that are drenched in nostalgia, whilst being fully aware of it and criticising it. The film openly reflects on its past, with familiar musical motifs, locations and, of course, a plot about an underdog rising up all present, but with a sense of retrospective present throughout.
Rocky is beloved by everyone, greeted by strangers everywhere he goes, and yet, he’s the loneliest man in the world. His best friend, Paulie, is growing old and tired; his wife, Adrian, lies peacefully in the graveyard, and his son Robert, avoids him for fear of living in his shadow. Then he meets little Marie…
A minor character from the first film, Marie is a single mother who Rocky decides to take under his wing (thankfully it’s entirely platonic as a romance plot would’ve been entirely inapprorpiate). Giving her a job at his resteraunt, she slowly reminds him of the joys in life found by spending time with those you care about, leading him to reconcile with his son and find peace in life.
Of course, I missed out a key part here: the fight. For once, the fight feels like the least important part of a Rocky film; this is a character piece through and through. However, watching Rocky come back swinging for one last fight is awesome, and even better? He doesn’t win. He loses, but he proves himself one last time to a new generation, much like the film itself.
Stallone gives his best performance since the original, channeling Rocky’s regression into the lonely wanderer he was into the first film with the corret balance of both undying optimism and sadness, and that makes his subsequent progression into a Rocky who’s happy and at peace again all the more rewarding.
Best Moment: Rocky’s last goodbye to Adrian. The franchise could’ve ended here and I’d have been more than happy.
1. Creed III (2023, Directed By Michael B. Jordan)
Any one of the top 3 could’ve taken the top spot here; they are all equally worthy. However, I had to choose, and I did, so I chose what is arguably the most bold and original film in the franchise since the original. With Stallone absent, the weight of the entire Rocky franchise fell on Jordan’s shoulders for this one, holding both the leading role the directorial one. The pressure must have been insurmountable… and yet he overcame it.
Creed III is a story of redemption; it’s a story of confronting your past, and it’s a story about letting go. Jonathan Major’s Damian represents all of these themes, Adonis’ former best friend and now bitter rival. Recently released from prison, Damian is angry and has a lot to prove, so he channels his anger into becoming the new world champion, and goading his former friend into taking it from him.
Whilst Jordan flies high as always, it’s Major’s who really steals the show here: he portrays bitter resentment, friendly nostalgia and emotional trauma in every expression, never dropping his guard yet always holding it high until it’s finally broken at the end. Their frenemy relationship is the best the Rocky franchise has ever seen, and that’s saying something given Rocky and Apollo exist.
A special shoutout has to go out to Jordan’s direction, which, in my humble opinion, is easily the best in the series. There’s a constant presence of style and beauty in everything he does; the fights are shot and choreographed in such an insanely stylised way I couldn’t help but be in awe (at one point a punch sends the camera spinning out of control); the colours and lighting in every scene always pop vibrantly, and every performance feels real and earnest.
Seriously, the 9th entry in a blockbuster sports franchise didn’t have to go this hard, but it did, and I’m glad it did because the effort most definitely paid off.
Best Moment: The final fight. It’s the easy choice, but it’s true. From beginning to end (and the emotional aftermath), this fight was supercharged with style and emotion.
Watching all 9 of these films for the first time has been a very special journey. The emotional highs and lows that come with the Rocky franchise, the victories and the defeats, are simply unmatched. Even though I slated on some of these films, it’s important to remember: lots of love still went into them. I’m simply offering my opinion for entertainment, but that factor always remains in my mind when writing lists like these.
To finish off, I’ll offer some words from Rocky himself, taken from Rocky Balboa: “Let me tell you something you already know. The world ain’t all sunshine and rainbows. It’s a very mean and nasty place and I don’t care how tough you are it will beat you to your knees and keep you there permanently if you let it. You, me, or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life. But it ain’t about how hard ya hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward. How much you can take and keep moving forward. That’s how winning is done! Now if you know what you’re worth then go out and get what you’re worth. But ya gotta be willing to take the hits, and not pointing fingers saying you ain’t where you wanna be because of him, or her, or anybody! Cowards do that and that ain’t you! You’re better than that! I’m always gonna love you no matter what. No matter what happens. You’re my son and you’re my blood. You’re the best thing in my life. But until you start believing in yourself, ya ain’t gonna have a life”