As much as the Rocky sequels will come to be defined by their 1980s freneticism, Rocky II feels firmly rooted in the seventies. It is made in the spirit of The Godfather Part II (1974 – Francis Ford Coppola – Talia Shire’s brother), a sequel that deepens the themes and ideas of its predecessor. For Stallone, Rocky II provided an opportunity to take full control of a movie series that he had created. In that sense (and Paradise Alley can viewed in a similar manner) Rocky II is almost a complete remake of the first film, only minus the Rocky and Adrian courtship. (Sam Raimi would pull the same trick with Evil Dead (1981) and Evil Dead II (1987)). At times, it possible to forget which of the films we are watching, so similar is the plot of Rocky II to Rocky – Italian-American amateur boxer overcomes poverty to defeat a Muhammed Ali stand-in. It could easily be read as a shameless re-tread.
However, Stallone is making an essential point. So often in life we place huge value on moments or decisions we make – ‘if I get this new job I will be happy’, ‘If this person loves me, I will feel okay’ we tell ourselves. But the happiness these outcomes give us are often only fleeting, and Rocky II demonstrates that achieving a goal – going the distance with Apollo Creed – does not bring any significant change in circumstance. Rocky is still poor, still an outsider, still unfulfilled. Stallone’s empathy for the human condition has always been underrated; I think ‘we fill each other gaps’ remains one of the purest expressions of love that cinema has ever given us. The re-tread is not out of laziness; it exists to underline how material change does not inherently lead to joy.
In his attempts to root Rocky II in seventies independent American cinema (ironically Quentin Tarantino regards Rocky as one of the death-knells for this period), Stallone employs a limited soundtrack and muted colour-palette for the first half of the film. The camera is rarely placed at Rocky’s eye-level, as if he cannot look us in the eye after failing to transform his life. Balboa is living an existence with little meaning or excitement. Only Adrian, characteristically dressed in red (a key visual signifier for Stallone), brings a graphic stimulus to the screen. It is only once Rocky starts training for his final showdown, that the film comes alive, and Bill Conti’s extraordinarily uplifting soundtrack kicks in.
It soundtracks one of Stallone’s key visual tools – his use of montage. The shift into the third act – Rocky faces Creed again – is driven by an extended montage of Balboa training for the match. It is a longer montage than we initially suspect, because halfway through, Stallone slows down one scene to show Rocky caring for his new-born child. In fact, much of the first two acts of the film feel like a moderately languid montage. Scenes feel like selections of short moments designed to emphasise a purposeless life. With his use of montage, Stallone seeks to emphasise that there are no short cuts in life, by sardonically employing a visual short cut himself. Rocky, and by extension Stallone as writer/director/highly physical performer, have had to put in hours of hard work to achieve success.
Rocky II sees Stallone continue his exploration of the Italian immigrant experience in America. Despite achieving the impossible in the first film, Rocky is still an outsider. He is unable to access employment due to his lack of education. The minor victories of marriage and childbirth are the only sources of happiness in his path. As admirable as this exploration is, it comes slightly at the expense of a fair portrayal of the African-American experience. By casting Apollo Creed (a clear Muhammed Ali substitute) as the nominal ‘bad guy’ (and Creed’s ‘sins’ of arrogance, vanity and neglect of children are relatively tame), he reduces a great sporting hero to a punchbag. But Stallone is trying to underline the values of his ancestors, a generation who never much sympathised for a man who threw off his slave name and refused to fight a phoney war. Stallone’s sympathetic choice to show Creed reading piles of hate mail, underlines the truth that success doesn’t mean shit in the Western world if you’re black.
For the confrontation between Creed and Balboa, Stallone places his camera outside the ring, choosing the shoot the match in mid and long shots. For the first few rounds, the camera only enters the ring between rounds, and only cuts to close-up of reaction shots from the two contenders and their hollering teams and family. This is a necessary choice made by Stallone due to the false perspective used to give the verisimilitude of punches landing, but Stallone cleverly drops this technique, bringing the camera alongside the actors, and using a quicker cutting style as the fight progresses. He is underlining the escalation of the match, as we watch two contenders refuse to give in.
The film begins and ends with two of Stallone’s greatest tools as a director. The opening minutes of the film are a recap of the events of Rocky. It underlines Stallone’s intent to document a life over several movies, much in the same way that Francois Truffaut followed an aging Antoine Doinel across several films beginning with Les Quatre Cents Coups in 1959. And the final moments see Stallone employ slow-motion, as the epic Balboa/Creed rematch comes to a slightly contrived conclusion. For Stallone, it is an opportunity to revel in micro-gestures, those moments where our face and limbs betray our innermost thoughts. It drives up the tension, forcing the audience to become embroiled the uncertainty of a boxing match. It is the glory of the sport, that it can be over in a few seconds, or last a seeming lifetime and that at any moment, the whole contest can turn on a dime. A boxer on his last legs can deliver a knockout punch. By finally allowing Rocky the victory, Stallone emphasises his own success; he was now a true movie star, and able to choose whatever projects he wished. It’s interesting to see what he chose to do with this power and influence.