The Rocky movies are beloved, without question the most well-known sports franchise in movie history. Every so often, one of them returns to the big screen for a limited event and it’s always a fun treat. This time, it’s the ultimate director’s cut of Rocky IV, Rocky IV: Rocky vs. Drago, coming to theaters courtesy of Fathom Events on Thursday, November 11. Sylvester Stallone may have hung the boxing gloves up, or, more accurately, passed them to Michael B. Jordan, so the chance to see the Italian Stallion on screen again is even more special.
This version of Rocky IV is a cut that delivers 40 new minutes of footage in a movie reshaped by writer-director-star Stallone, with an intro and Q&A from Stallone accompanying the movie. In honor of the Rocky vs. Drago special event, I thought I’d take a stab at ranking all the Rocky and Creed movies from worst to best. Some on this list were easy to place and others could have arguably gone almost anywhere. Still, this is the ranking that felt right to me.
8. Rocky V (1990)
Look. In a franchise spanning over four and a half decades and comprising eight movies, one of them is bound to be a dud. In the Rocky franchise, that distinction belongs to Rocky V, the forever bottom tier on most Rocky movie rankings. I thought about being provocative and bumping it up on my list, but sometimes, things are the way they are for a reason and in the end, I couldn’t justify putting the fifth movie anywhere but at the bottom. Way, way at the bottom. That’s not to say that other Rocky movies on this ranking don’t have their faults – indeed, few of the Rocky movies are perfect. But Rocky V doesn’t even manage to be a trainwreck in a fun sort of way, which would at least somewhat redeem it. It’s a frustrating headscratcher, because, in theory, you’d think it would be the right move to reground Rocky in its foundation of street-level grittiness. But it’s hamstrung from the start with some bad casting decisions, a lack of real emotional weight, and an overstuffed yet somehow simultaneously joyless plot that finds Rocky returning from being near brain-dead to fight and beat his protégé Tommy “The Machine” Gunn in a street fight. It’s not a great movie, but it’s also not a terrible movie. Yet Rocky V just sucks the charm that even the rest of the more questionable Rocky movies still manage to hold onto, and that’s a cardinal sin that earns it last place on this list.
7. Rocky IV (1985)
As a Rocky movie goes, Rocky IV is…honestly, it’s not really the best example of a ROCKY Rocky movie, with Sylvester Stallone’s titular character arguably being sidelined in his own movie in favor of developing Carl Weather’s Apollo Creed. And it’s not necessarily a good movie. But thanks to the over-the-top camp and aggressively ’80s vibe at every turn, Rocky IV is an honestly entertaining one. It’s arguably a nothing of a film from a weight and emotional heft standpoint, but it’s a lot of fluffy fun. Communist USSR as the enemy! Soviet beast Ivan Drago as the big bad! Rocky being America’s great hope during the Cold War! Rarely has a movie reveled more in its 1980s setting and era.
In between the cheesy, ’80s drenched fun, however, Rocky IV also quietly sets up a great deal of the Rocky franchise moving forward. Apollo Creed’s death is the event that haunts Rocky forever and sets up Apollo’s son’s entire arc and driving motivation in the Creed movies. The Rocky-Apollo Creed relationship has arguably been the definitive one of the Rocky franchise, and Rocky IV offers up the tragic pivot point around which it revolves.
6. Rocky II (1979)
Rocky introduced the world to Rocky Balboa and charmed the pants off everyone. Rocky II takes what made that movie great, repeated it and…well, yeah. Just repeated it. It doesn’t take the hard turn into a fantasyland that Rocky III does, but you can see the elements of camp already creeping into Rocky II. In some ways, it’s actually better than Rocky III, but that makes it a far more frustrating movie. You can see the bones of a much better, more earnest Rocky film buried somewhere inside. It’s the last movie for a while where Rocky is a grounded everyman rather than a walking wish fulfillment and the storyline of him being unable to handle his sudden fame and blowing all of his winnings is a cautionary tale that’s still relevant today. But the decision to put Talia Shire’s Adrian in a coma after giving premature birth to their son, Rocky Jr., is an inexplicable one. The first Rocky movie was powered by their relationship and growing love for each other and it strips the sequel of a great deal of badly-needed emotional resonance. Without their chemistry, Rocky II lacks too much of the charm that made the first movie such a winner.
5. Creed II (2018)
With respect to director Steven Caple Jr., who is a fine and serviceable filmmaker, but he’s no Ryan Coogler and it shows (not to mention Coogler not co-penning the script). On its own, Creed II is actually a very solid movie, gripping and mostly hitting the emotional beats it has to. Unfortunately, it’s a giant step down from Coogler’s brilliant Creed, which was released only two years prior, the proximity of the two films underscoring all the ways that the sequel fails to live up to the original. No doubt, it has layers of emotional nuance and complexity the virtually every other Rocky sequel lacks. Unfortunately, the story beats are all incredibly predictable and while, on the surface, Michael B. Jordan’s Adonis “Donnie” Creed fighting the son of the man who killed his father seems like a slam-dunk, his motivations are paper-thin. It also doesn’t help that the character of Viktor Creed is barely a sketch of a character. Granted, Donnie’s biggest dragon to slay in the sequel is the looming shadow of his father’s legacy, but you can’t help but wonder how much more impactful it might have been had the antagonist it was attached to been at all been developed beyond being a hollow copy of Ivan. Still, as far as movie sequels go, it’s arguably one of the best.
4. Rocky III (1982)
There are few fictional movie names in Hollywood greater than Clubber Lang, and it’s by the grace of Rocky III that it was introduced to the world. Yet, despite Mr. T.’s swaggering performance as Rocky’s latest antagonist (he is, for my money, quietly one of the most underappreciated characters in the franchise), Rocky III is a mostly middling movie. The Rocky movies have always been at their best when grounded, but Rocky III is not that kind of movie. Blame it on Sylvester Stallone hitting his A-list stride in the early ’80s, but both he and Rocky eschew the blue-collar underdog ethos in this movie and embrace the megastar spokesperson image. It’s not to Rocky III‘s benefit, and it begins the run of a few movies that find the Rocky franchise moving further away from its believable roots into the Upside-Down, where Rocky is a rich icon and Lang is the scrappy guy who has nothing. Still, the lighter tone makes it a fun watch, and credit goes to Stallone for his sense of how far he can lean into the silly without going completely over the edge. Its ridiculousness works in that it doesn’t take itself so seriously, and the result is a really engaging watch that clicks along. The blossoming and genuine friendship between Rocky and Apollo also grounds the movie in more heart than others further down in the rankings. And, hey, it gave us the classic earworm “Eye of the Tiger,” so there’s that.
3. Rocky Balboa (2006)
It’s rare that a sequel can come along 16 years after the worst movie in a franchise and be as good as Rocky Balboa. Unfortunately, it’s caught in a no-man’s-land of coming a decade and a half after the previous movie and a decade before the next movie, leaving it stranded as the odd island out in the Rocky archipelago. Had Creed not come along ten years later and absolutely blown everyone away, Rocky Balboa would arguably be talked about more frequently and given the credit it deserves. It had a quiet release, which is a shame – had the franchise permanently ended with this movie, it would have been an emotionally satisfying conclusion. The Rocky of Rocky Balboa is more mature, more introspective, and more down than the younger Rocky of previous movies, and when it comes time for Stallone to climb back into the ring again, the willing suspension of disbelief is stretched to its breaking point. But it wisely returns to the roots of the franchise, feeling the most like a Rocky movie since Rocky II. It’s what Rocky V wanted to be but with the benefit of a few decades of mileage and maturity on both Stallone’s and Rocky’s treads, which is why it works.
2. Creed (2016)
Filmmaker Ryan Coogler and actor Michael B. Jordan are no strangers to working together, and Creed is arguably the pinnacle of their creative collaboration. Legacy sequels have been all the rage in Hollywood in recent years, but the vast majority are creatively and intelligently bankrupt cash grabs or complete retreads of the originals. Creed is neither of those things, but instead is the modern blueprint of how to craft a legacy sequel that is true to the roots of the franchise while completely reinvigorating, reinventing, and evolving it. The in-universe story of Adonis Creed trying to move out from under his father’s shadow while honoring his legacy is symbolic of Creed‘s own task in the broader Rocky franchise and it’s a feat Coogler and co-writer Aaron Covington accomplish with such poignancy and power that you have to wonder what Coogler might do if turned loose on his own original franchise. He understands that, at its core, the best Rocky movies aren’t boxing movies with dramatic elements but character dramas that happen to unfold in the world of professional boxing. As such, he’s able to give Creed its own distinct vibe and focus far apart from the Rocky movies while still maintaining the scrappy, underdog heart that powers the franchise. Just a phenomenal bit of work all around and why it’s in second place on this list.
1. Rocky (1976)
Yo, Adrian! Is there any other movie that could be #1 on this list than the original Rocky? If I’m being honest, I think Creed is, on the whole, a better movie than Rocky. BUT, I lean toward incorporating influence and legacy into movie rankings, and it’s exactly that which hands the championship belt to the OG Rocky. This was the movie that made Sylvester Stallone a legitimate star in Hollywood, and with good reason. As the most grounded and gritty of the Rocky films (which the franchise would never truly achieve again), it provided the future movies with an earthy foundation. Even almost 50 years later, the unshakeable emotional core of the movie is one that gets you right in the heart, with first-time viewers still getting caught up in Rocky’s story. This is Rocky Balboa at his purest, a working-class kid who has modest dreams and aspirations to take those he loves with him when he rises, a Rocky before the beatings and the losses and the wealth and the fame. Rocky’s seemingly hopeless situation begets a movie with a message of hope and triumph that still resonates today. It may not be as hard-hitting as other Rocky movies, but in terms of hitting you right in the heart, it still laps the others by a mile.