In Rocky XXXVII, which opened the other day at every movie theater in America, the ubiquitous Rocky gang has joined the crew of the starship Enterprise. Paulie is such a complete pain that even Mr. Spock gets emotional; Apollo Creed has an affair with Lieut. Uhura; and Bones heals Rocky's detached retina just in time to help him win the heavyweight championship of the universe over a three-legged, five-armed giant from the planet Steinbrenner. This film isn't to be confused with Rocky Meets Lassie, which opened three weeks ago. As you recall, in that epic Butkus wins the Westminster Kennel Club Show and then in a tearful farewell leaves Rocky to play Nana in a road show of Peter Pan.
This endless Rocky series started many years ago, when Sylvester Stallone wrote and starred in an absolute gem of a movie. Rocky deservedly won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1976. Of course, it helped that, as a writer, Stallone is an accomplished borrower. The title character was inspired by Chuck Wepner, a sanguinary pug; Apollo Creed was a transparent Ali; even Rocky's nickname—The Italian Stallion—belonged to an All-America football player at Alabama, Johnny Musso. Stallone's facility for adapting real events to Rocky movies has made it easier for him to churn out Rocky copies that have all the blood and melodrama of the original, without its charm and poignancy.
You may, for example, recall Rocky III, which was foisted upon spectatorkind in May of 1982. In this saga, which was filmed in a breathless 37 days by Director Stallone, Rocky first meets Thunderlips, the world champion wrestler ( Hulk Hogan), just as Ali once took on a Japanese wrestler. Then Rocky spends the balance of the movie fighting a pug with a Mohican haircut named Clubber Lang, played by a sometime bodyguard and bouncer who calls himself Mr. T. Those who recall how Ali performed the rope-a-dope against George Foreman in Zaire guessed the outcome of this film even before the main fight sequence began. As shameless as this steal from real life was, it was outdone by Stallone's Chariots of Fire imitation, with Rocky running on the beach to fancy background music.
Students of the Rocky series noticed early on that as the plots grew more insipid, Stallone compensated with a) more graphic ring mayhem and b) louder music. The latter resulted, by Rocky XII—when the perennial champion and Apollo join with Dorothy Lamour in a laff-filled trip on the road to the Falklands—in many viewers suffering broken eardrums. Two years and six pictures later, in Rocky Meets Abbott and Costello, ticket buyers were required to purchase monogrammed Rocky Balboa ear protection at the box office.
Still, Rocky's appeal remains as universal as any comic strip you can name. Walt Disney's Rocky, filmed entirely underwater, was a crucial step in the process of making Rocky an idol for kids of all ages. As that film begins, Rocky wakes up one morning to discover that he's really a Waring blender who can both fly and predict winning lottery numbers. The Disneyesque hijinks proceed from there. Earlier, after Rocky IV, President Reagan presented Stallone with the Congressional Medal of Honor. As you must surely recall, Rocky IV is the movie in which Senator Jesse Helms (Jack Warden) pushes through a special Act of Congress restoring Rocky's amateur standing so that he can go to the Los Angeles Olympics and defeat the Communist Teo Stevenson of Cuba, thereby at last returning the gold medal to the U.S. of A., where it damn well belongs.
Hollywood itself honored Stallone at the 1991 Oscars, presenting him with both the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award and the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award (a first for that elusive double) for his patriotic and artistic Rocky themes and for his remarkable feat of producing in six months, as Stallone did at his peak, the following films: Rocky XVI, Rocky Meets the Ghost of Elvis Presley, Rocky XVIII, Son of Rocky (starring Robby Benson), Rocky Goes Hawaiian, Rocky XX, Mother of Rocky (starring Shelley Winters), Rocky XXI—Annie XIV, Rocky XXII Goes to Super Bowl XXIV, and Rocky X (co-starring Marilyn Chambers), which is not to be confused with Rocky X, wherein, you will remember, Rocky and Adrian have a flashback to the time when they reached puberty and ended up on a desert island without any clothes.
Next: Rocky XXXVIII. Soon to be at a theater near you.