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'Rocky's' got a bad case of sequel-itis

November 04, 2005|Michael Sragow | Baltimore Sun

No item struck greater fear into the hearts of movie reviewers everywhere than the recent announcement that Sylvester Stallone intends to return as that renowned Philadelphia pug Rocky Balboa in "Rocky VI."

Don't get me wrong: I was a big fan of "Rocky." And maybe future generations able to forget the namesake sequels that came after it will once again deem it one of the great film flukes of all time.

In 1976, Stallone made people identify with -- and even love -- the character of a loan shark's thumb-breaker. It wasn't just because he had a heart of platinum. And it wasn't just because he was an underdog fighter with the ambition to become a champ and the guts to seize the day when an Ali-like record-breaker named Apollo Creed offered him a bout as a stunt.

It was because Stallone, as a 30-year-old writer and performer grabbing for his own brass ring (he wouldn't sell the script unless he could star in it), created a character filled with native wit -- smart and sensitive in unconventional, streetwise ways. To polite society, he was a loser, but we knew from how he joked with his turtles, Cuff and Link, or made his wallflower lover Adrian (Talia Shire) bloom, that he was born to win. Or at least "go the distance."

But Stallone began to devalue his franchise with its next installment, "Rocky II." The only tale he knew how to tell was that of the underdog triumphant, and the only way he could retell it was to make Rocky Balboa forget everything he knew about life in the first film.

Just for starters, this newly lobotomized Rocky went on a buying spree like one of the consumerist zombies in "Dawn of the Dead."

Stallone had one rule as a sequel writer-director: More is more. When he raced up the stairs of the Philadelphia Museum of Art in "Rocky II," he suddenly became the Pied Piper of Philly, with hordes of kids emerging from buses and cabs or off street corners.

In short, Stallone became the doggerel poet laureate of sequel-itis, repeating the same trajectory for "Rockys" III, IV and V. Every time you see a sequel seem to give its hero or heroine amnesia to duplicate an original film's success (think "Legally Blonde 2"), you're witnessing the legacy of "Rocky II."

Maybe some advisor can stop Stallone before he remakes it again.


Michael Sragow is film critic at the Baltimore Sun, a Tribune company.

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