"There will be no rematch
there will be no rematch!" "I don't want one" This is from the first 'Rocky' film, right after the final bell and before Bill Conti's 'Final Bell' would conduct one of the greatest and most unforgettable concluding movie scenes. Rocky didn't win the match, but he went the distance, he didn't get down and never abandoned
and if Apollo won the fight, Rocky won the heart of the spectators, of the woman he loved, of all the viewers in the world who identified with one of the greatest and most inspiring cinematic characters.
Apollo didn't want a rematch, neither did Rocky. So when "Rocky II", the sequel starts with Apollo asking for a rematch, you know there's a problem in the continuity department. Does it really matter? Not necessarily, but this is what separates between the great and the very good films, "Rocky II" ignored some plot details left in the glorious first opus because it was a necessary move to justify the sequel's very existence. Still, did the film need a sequel? I believe if it wasn't for the series, the character wouldn't have become so hugely popular all over the world, and there's so much optimism in Rocky and Adrian that it's impossible not to root for them, not to feel something for the little universe evolving around them. So even if the quality suffers, the series helped to construct a legend, and if anything, it contributed to show how great and deserving of a Best Picture Oscar, the first movie was.
Consequently, there are two ways of reviewing "Rocky II": on its own, it's a very poignant drama with an inspiring message, when compared to "Rocky", it's inferior, but for its defense, it's still closer to the quality of "Rocky" than all the other sequels. What makes it inferior is clearly the characterization during the first act. While Rocky was a lovable dim-witted guy, his personality flirts with plain imbecility more than in one occasion, Mickey was a funny grumpy old-timer, he became annoyingly aggressive, but still this is nothing compared to Apollo, who traded his charismatic flamboyance for an obvious villainous mask, so obnoxious and condescending toward Rocky, it's like the fight from the first film never happened. In "Rocky II", it looked like everything was changed for the sake of the plot, accentuating the character's worst traits, with the exception of Paulie, whose transformation is left for interpretations... but doesn't add much to the appreciation of the film anyway.
Another weakness is in the pacing, too slow and not as rich in characterization and content as the first, basically, it's all about Rocky losing the money he won, trying to find a job, becoming a bum again, teased by Apollo for the rematch, facing Adrian's refusal, and then Adrian's coma leading to a whole sequence where we're waiting for her to wake up and give her blessing. I'm not saying these parts are not correctly handled, on the contrary, many of them provided some of the most memorable sequences of the trilogy. The problem is that nothing can ever catch us by surprise, the viewer is inevitably ahead of the characters, we know Rocky will play (and certainly win) the fight, it's just a matter of time; we know he'll endure all the humiliations, from Apollo or Mickey, before becoming a hero again. It's so obvious that I could even picture Stallone thinking "Rocky must conquer his pride back, so he must lose it before." This obviousness was totally absent from the first film, that ended up with Rocky, unexpectedly losing the match. Here, we're 100% sure that he will become the Worldwide Heavy Weight Champion.
So, inferior to the first film, "Rocky II" is, but it's so superior to the following sequels, that nonetheless, the movie works on an emotional level. It features so many scenes that are both poignant and inspiring, the marriage proposal in the zoo, Rocky's attempt to build a life for his family, the coma sequence, the birth of Rocky Jr., Rocky's (hairy) heir and the father-and-son relationship growing between Rocky and Mickey. Being analytical toward the movie's minor flaws doesn't prevent from appreciating its simple and naive beauty; as a drama it's a decent one, and as a sports movie, it has the merit to surprise us through a very spectacular finale. I don't know if it's realistic or not, but at least it leads to a thrilling suspense and a final bell sequence that echoes the greatness of the first one.
Despite everything, the "Rocky" films have a unique talent to redeem their own flaws through their finales, proving that it's all about 'heart' and passion, and any rational attempt to decorticate what works and what doesn't, ultimately loses its significance. Whatever you say about "Rocky II", it's a very good film that remains faithful to the spirit of the first one, it sins by being a little over the top sometimes, but overall, it's a great work from Stallone, and as the first film I saw from the series, it'll always have a special place in my heart
I remember how I wished I could be among those schoolchildren who ran with Rocky through Philadelphia.
Now, I'm more skeptical toward that running scene, which is too 'cinematic' to be fully appreciated on a realistic level ... but Stallone is so sincere and genuine that I'm sure he only wanted an inspiring on-screen depiction of the 'Rocky' effect, an ordinary hero whose running steps pave the way for success, inviting us to follow them to go the distance, over and over again.