Film sequels are invariably undertaken more for reasons of cupidity than art. The plots are forced because the only tale worth telling has already been told. But in the case of our charming friend Rocky Balboa, a sequel was logical enough because the story could carry on quite naturally. At the end of Rocky, he had won fame, dignity and a good woman, and despite his expressed intention to retire from the sweet science, we could reasonably expect that Apollo Creed, the champion, could entice him into a rematch. So, to be sure, the question "Will success spoil Rocky Balboa?" was a legitimate one to be posed by a sequel.
Unfortunately, Rocky II is nowhere near as good as the original—which we might have expected—but what is so sad is that it need not have fallen so short of the mark. It fails largely because it gives us blood and guts but not courage, because Sylvester Stallone, who created, wrote and starred in Rocky, has also taken it upon himself to direct the sequel. As a rule of thumb, the more a successful creative venture is extended, the more fresh input is needed. In Rocky II, though, the creative circle has been drawn tighter still, and as a result the product is repetitious and stale, nearly autistic. Should there ever be a third saga. Rocky would be best served if someone would first take a razor blade and lance Mr. Stallone's ego, much as his swollen eye was in Rocky.
Stallone has taken no risks. People liked that big closing brawl in Rocky, so let's make this finale longer and more outrageously savage. Have Rocky go back to the meat freezer. Have him run up the same steps again. Many scenes are virtually identical to the original—in staging, tone and cadence. I would not call it Rocky II, but Rocky Dèjà Vu. It is instructive that the only new character of any consequence is a business agent (Leonard Gaines), and the movie is freshest and funniest during his brief appearances. By contrast, two of the major figures who were so fine in the original—Rocky's disagreeable friend (Burt Young) and the loan shark (Joe Spinell)—have nothing substantial to do and merely clutter up things, taking what amounts to periodic curtain calls. Even Adrian (Talia Shire), who becomes the Italian Mare early on, is a passive figure, for the most part wasted. Rocky II needed new blood, but instead Stallone only gave us more—much more—of the old in the sanguineous fight sequence.
But, of course, Stallone does play a marvelous character, and however lacking in drama the plot may be. Rocky is too endearing a creature to be diminished by it. Indeed, the first part of Rocky II is every bit as warm as Rocky, because it is basically only an honest extension of the original, and the film flows happily with the man. But when Stallone the writer has to advance a new story, the movie becomes trite, then turgid—and, under Stallone the director, rudderless. Eventually, Adrian—who does not want Rocky to fight again—falls into a coma. Now comas may have made for breathless reading in 19th-century novels, but, alas, an interminable wait for an eyelid to flutter is not good cinema in 1979. More's the pity, when Adrian finally comes to, she suffers a horrible case of melodrama, immediately changing her mind about pugilism and saying only: "Win."
The fight that follows is overlong and excessive. To be sure, it is "realistically" staged, but it isn't realistic because it is too brutal. Stallone protests that he made the fight gratuitously violent "so kids would know the truth about boxing and not want to go into it. I wanted to show there's death out there." But if that is the message he wished to deliver, he copped out, because, to the contrary. Rocky and Apollo are glamorized by the boxing match. They are portrayed as uncommonly brave men, in fact fearless, and warm gentlemen as well, who learn to love and respect one another by pummeling one another. True, they beat each other to a pulp again, but we've seen that. There is so much overkill and slick technique that we do not grieve for the characters being hurt. Rocky Balboa is such a sympathetic figure that if Stallone truly wanted to show how vicious boxing is, it would have been easy: let boxing really harm the poor devil. Let boxing maim or kill Stallone's meal ticket. Instead, in both films, the greatest pleasure that Rocky gets in his life comes from the ring. We don't cry for Rocky this time, either with joy for his satisfaction or with sorrow for his pain. It is only a payday, and we know it.