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An Academy Award has a funny way of skewing one's perspective when it comes to determining the best movie of a saga. Take, for example, the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Sure, Return of the King took home the Oscar, but does that mean its climax tops the Battle of Helm's Deep in The Two Towers? I think not. And so it is with the Rocky franchise, which over six films tackled subjects ranging from pride and redemption to life and death. Sure, Rocky got the Oscar -- and deservedly so. But to single out the "best" of the franchise, a more precise metric measuring each movie's success is required.
The first Rocky is the ultimate underdog story, depicting a born champion at the lowest stage, before a historic ascent. More than a straight-up boxing story (like Rocky III), Rocky shows the emotionality and depth of a soul at two extremes of the human experience, from destitution to destiny. But wait: Rocky II accomplished the same, continuing the story and plumbing the soon-to-be-champ's psyche as deeply as the first. Then there's Rocky Balboa, which mirrors the original in almost every way, from Stallion's return to "underdog" status to his romantic pursuit of a woman to his commune with the city of Philadelphia. If you're into Rocky for the story, there's more to consider than just the first chapter.
The stakes behind each of Rocky's fights are as varied as the films themselves. In Rocky, Balboa is fighting for himself, to prove he's not a bum and that he can go the distance. In Rocky II the stakes are raised -- he he can go the distance, but now he has to prove he can win. In Rocky III, it becomes a quest to retain his title and prove his mettle in honor of his mentor, Mickey. Rocky IV's stakes are astronomical -- not only does Stallion need to avenge the death of Apollo Creed, but duke it out for democracy. If you're a fan of upping the ante with each successive film, Rocky IV may just have more to offer than any that came before it.
The infamous jogging tour of Philly ending at the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum may very well be the most iconic montage in Hollywood history. But as the Rocky movies progressed Balboa added to those archives a chicken ("If you can catch a chicken, you can catch Creed!"), a frolic in the surf with Apollo ("You gotta get that look back, Rock. Eye of the tiger, man."), and a lumberjack mountaintop summit ("Draaagooooo!"). What pumps you up more -- chopping wood or visiting a museum?
Ironically, the fight is probably the least important aspect of any film, because let's face it -- they're all pretty much the same. He loses in Rocky on what is essentially a technicality, he wins in Rocky II on essentially the same note. The rest of the time he stands in the ring and takes a pounding for a number of rounds before one final, improbable comeback. That's why we love Rocky. But if you're a fan of sheer brutality, you've gotta give props to Ivan Drago, the hardest-hitting Commie to ever utter the words, "He is like a piece of iron!"
The number-one indicator of a great Rocky movie is your likelihood of staying tuned when you've already seen each one a dozen times and own them all on DVD. This is an area where Rocky II falls flat. Though it has one of the most energized lines of the saga -- Mickey's exclamation, "Well what're we waitin' fer? An invitation?!" -- the movie meanders too much. The same can be said of Rocky, which really requires a start-to-finish run to appreciate. But Rockys III, IV and Balboa have the energy, the fun and the straight-up ridiculousness to entertain no matter where you come in, no matter how many times you've seen them.
As for the fifth chapter, Rocky V, the less said the better.