It starts with one push-up, or maybe a light jog. Then the music starts to build: an electric guitar wails over swelling strings, and the person who just seconds ago looked pitiful — the down-and-out boxer, the guy who just watched his brother die — starts to puff out his or her chest like a warrior who can accomplish anything. Push-ups turn into lifting boulders; the light jog turns into an unceasing sprint. This is the power of the training montage.
As the song "Montage" in Team America: World Police so deftly summarizes, "Show a lot of things happening at once / Remind everyone of what’s going on / And with every shot you show a little improvement / To show it all would take too long." The training montage is an essential trope mostly found in sports movies, but also in revenge and action and thriller flicks, that efficiently prepares a character to face an ultimate challenge. The sequences are astonishing in scope — forcing characters to endure unthinkable amounts of pain, spanning days, weeks, or even months — and almost always vibrantly triumphant. The best ones might even make you want to go for a run.
Which training montages are the best ones, you ask? To answer that question I determined the four core elements a training montage must have. I then watched as many training montages as humanly possible, and rated each on a scale of zero to 10 by how well they satisfied the four principles. (It should be noted that only those strictly defined as montages — a sequence of scenes patched together to form a composite — were considered. Though movies like The Empire Strikes Back and The Karate Kid feature iconic training scenes, they did not qualify for this list, for they are not montages.) Here are the four core elements of a training montage, explained:
- The Reason: This one’s simple: What’s the impetus behind this elaborate, extended montage? The higher the stakes or the more lofty the goal, the better.
- The "This Won’t Be Easy" Acknowledgment: Either just before or during training, someone will invariably comment on how difficult said training is going to be. This is a crucial element to these montages because it’s important to impress just how tough the trainees are. Also, it’s always good to have a guy who makes all of his observations out loud. I applaud that level of transparency. A good acknowledgment is original, creative, and pointed.
- The Feats of Strength: A training montage’s quality is obviously dependent on the strenuousness of the training. Let’s do a quick exercise: If one montage features a dude hitting a heavy bag until he has no more sweat and another montage features a dude eating fish guts and taking two-by-fours to the chest, which montage is more impressive? Yeah, it’s fish guts. (It should be noted that the validity of the training exercises are of no concern to us. We don’t care if eating fish guts has actual health benefits or not — we just wanna know if these trainees do amazing stuff.)
- The Song: How a training montage is scored is perhaps its most important facet. Just ask Martin Scorsese, who’s still kicking himself over passing on Survivor’s "Eye of the Tiger" for Raging Bull*.
*Claim still awaiting fact-check.
- Bonus Points: As usual, bonus points will be rewarded for random but extraordinary things like clever camerawork, cultural impact, and any mid-montage acknowledgments of improvement.
On to the rankings. (Once again, tiebreakers were determined by my personal preference.)
The Reason: Slim (Jennifer Lopez) — yes, that’s her name in this movie; she doesn’t go by anything else ever; maybe it’s to really hammer home how unintimidating she is physically? — is a victim of domestic abuse, and her slimy husband, Mitch (Billy Campbell), is a stalker who is extremely capable of tracking her down when she leaves him. This guy employs henchmen who pose as FBI agents and cozy up to Slim before revealing that they’re actually friends of Mitch. Coming to the realization that she can’t hide, Slim decides the only way to stop Mitch is to school herself in self-defense. Fighting back against a husband who’s so violent and shifty he comes off as a horror villain? This may be the most compelling reason to train on this entire list. 9/10
The "This Won’t Be Easy" Acknowledgment: There isn’t one. Slim’s trainer — who is never formally introduced and is listed only as "Instructor" in the credits — is extremely empowering and has zero apprehensions about her abilities to learn Krav Maga. 0/10
The Feats of Strength: J.Lo doesn’t go through anything extraordinary in this montage, as she learns self-defense, wards off medicine balls, and does that thing where you duck back and forth under a rope. But the montage is impressive for two reasons: (1) It’s so long — nearly three full minutes of exercises — and (2) while Slim is doing the same things that Rocky does in Rocky, he was already a boxer! She’s an untrained mother — the gap between where she starts and ends is so much wider. 7/10
The Song: Enough’s montage is set to a pretty generic score — the lifting strings, the fast-paced, momentous percussion. You know the drill. What elevates it is the voice-over dialogue between Slim and her trainer. "How do you win?" "I attack." "And what do you do after you attack?" "Nothing." "Why nothing?" "Because I never stop attacking." I don’t quite follow that, but it’s awesome nonetheless. 3/10
Bonus Points: 1 — for the one unique thing in the montage: This brief moment where the trainer holds up a grapefruit and yells "Hut!" and Slim immediately punctures it with her fingers:
17. ‘Power Rangers’ (2017)
The Reason: Villain Rita Repulsa (Elizabeth Banks) is trying to destroy life on Earth, and the Power Rangers are the only thing standing in her way — but before the Power Rangers can take her on, they need to learn how to be Power Rangers. Saving Earth — and (re-)starting a new movie franchise — are both solid reasons to train. 7/10
The "This Won’t Be Easy" Acknowledgment: "Sir, that’ll be very painful." This line from robot Alpha 5 (Bill Hader) isn’t too clever, but I appreciate the bald honesty. 5/10
The Feats of Strength: Most of the Rangers’ training consists of sparring against simulations, which sounds lame — but whatever these things are, they’re capable of inflicting extreme pain. The Rangers also train in the art of, um, morphing into armor-clad superheroes? That sounds extremely difficult, and even more dangerous. 7/10
The Song: Really, this is the only downfall of the Power Rangers training montage. "HandClap" by Fitz and the Tantrums is fine, I guess, but it’s not a training song. There’s no inspiring crescendo, no sick guitar solos, no overt references to what’s happening on screen — just an inoffensive pop song. 3/10
Bonus Points: 1 — for Alpha 5’s intermittent commentary throughout the montage. Alpha 5 is the cutest movie robot since Wall-E.
The Reason: Willard (Chris Penn) needs to learn how to dance, for whenever Ren (Kevin Bacon) manages to convince Reverend Shaw Moore (John Lithgow) to lift his no-dancing law. This may not sound like a big deal on par with saving the world (or even a big boxing match), but can you imagine a world in which you can’t dance? And then this real cool big-city guy comes around and teaches you rhythm and steps? That’s life-changing. 7/10
The "This Won’t Be Easy" Acknowledgment: It’s not a declaration, but rather a quick gesture of frustration from Kevin Bacon that says, "Holy shit, this guy can’t even snap his fingers; we’ve got a lot of work to do."
The montage could’ve used a verbalized statement — I can’t believe a movie from 1984 passed up an opportunity to be corny — but Bacon sells the facepalm pretty well. 3/10
The Feats of Strength: It’s dancing, so there’s nothing in the montage that’s truly impressive. Still, it’s really fun to see Willard gain the ability to move his feet. And he’s just so darn excited and willing to learn. We should all aspire to be more like Willard. 4/10
The Song: "Let’s Hear It for the Boy" by Deniece Williams is the perfect song for this montage because it fits the vibe of Footloose — and the era it was made in — so well, with its drum machine, synth intro, and cheesy, triumphant hook. Plus, the song is all about the celebration of a boy, which Willard really deserves after being so enthusiastic and open to change. 8/10
Bonus Points: 1 — because the cinematography of this scene is legitimately great. This feet-only shot — with a boombox artfully center-frame — is truly beautiful and inspired:
15. ‘Rocky III’
The Reason: Rocky got spanked in his first fight against Clubber Lang (Mr. T), which coincided with the death of his trainer/mentor, Mickey. Real tough sequence of events. Ahead of his rematch with Lang, Rocky needs to regain the edge he had when he fought Apollo Creed — and also, apparently learn how to be a boxer in general, since Mickey never really taught him. It’s a little more impactful than a classic redemption tale, though: Rocky III is the first time we see Rocky really lose (his split-decision loss in Rocky is a moral victory), and the movie really teases the idea that he’s over the hill. Proving everyone wrong is therefore a pretty big deal. And guess what: Apollo Creed is gonna be the guy to help him do it. 6/10
The "This Won’t Be Easy" Acknowledgment: "We been living modern but now we’re gonna train old." I’ve only got a vague idea of what Apollo Creed means by this, but it sounds cool as hell, so who cares? 7/10
The Feats of Strength: Footwork drills and basketball dribbling (or as Uncle Paulie astonishingly calls it, training "like a colored fighter"); swimming; beating Apollo Creed in a beach race. Most of this stuff isn’t very impressive because, again, Rocky really should have been able to do it before Rocky III. Beating Apollo in a race, though? That’s a moment of absolute triumph. 5/10
The Song: "Gonna Fly Now" (otherwise known as "The Rocky Song"), with snippets of Survivor’s "Eye of the Tiger." I honestly wish there was more of the latter in this montage, especially because Apollo never shuts up about how Rocky needs "the eye of the tiger." 5/10
Bonus Points: 0 — the bonus points I gave Rocky III for all of the gratuitous close-up muscle shots are offset by the points I took away for how the movie stops and starts the montage several times before actually getting into it. Don’t tease me, bros!
14. ‘Never Back Down’
The Reason: Never Back Down is a rad movie from the sliver in time in 2008 when mixed martial arts was still a dangerous, mind-blowing form of competitive fighting. Never Back Down is like The Fast and the Furious, in the sense that you can feel how excited the movie is to introduce an audience to a previously underground culture and cool-sounding words like "the octagon." The plot is fairly simple: Jake (Sean Faris), a misunderstood teen with a temper, is the new kid in school. There, he’s bullied by the popular kid, Ryan McCarthy (played by Cam Gigandet, more or less reprising his iconic role as Volchok from The O.C.). As it turns out, Ryan is super into MMA. After getting pummeled several times by Ryan, Jake determines that the only place to take him on is in the ring. But first, he needs to learn how to really fight. Like I said — it’s pretty simple and local, but taking on a bully is a very pure reason for a training montage. Also, not really relevant but I thought you should know: Amber Heard plays the love interest in this movie, whose name is Baja. BAJA. 5/10
The "This Won’t Be Easy" Acknowledgment: "You won’t be thanking me tomorrow." Classic phrasing from Jake’s trainer, played by Djimon Hounsou. That sort of "you’re going to regret this" attitude is straight from the school of Mickey from Rocky. That said, it’s a little rote. 5/10
The Feats of Strength: Jake’s training features some classic beats — the chugging of raw eggs, endless sparring — so there’s not too much out of the ordinary. However, Jake is instructed to continually throw cinder blocks as far as he can, which would make my arms tear clean off. 5/10
The Song: "False Pretense" by the Red Jumpsuit Apparatus. Best part of this montage. It’s not only a perfect fit for the weird, post-alternative, semi-emo trend that happened in the mid-2000s, but the lyrics are absurdly on point. "The world’s got a funny way of turning ’round on you," is the first line of the song, and also the encapsulation of Jake’s entire worldview. And then repeats the word "sacrifice" over and over, which is exactly what Jake is doing DURING THIS MONTAGE. I need to shake the hand of Never Back Down’s music director. 8/10
Bonus Points: 1 — because Never Back Down goes the extra mile. We’ve examined the main training montage of the movie, but guess what: A second, smaller one scored by TV on the Radio’s "Wolf Like Me" precedes it, because apparently Jake really needs to get into the gym. That sort of devotion to training montages is awe-inspiring. Not even Rocky thought to do two training montages.
13. ‘Cool Runnings’
The Reason: Jamaican runner Derice blows his chance at making the Olympics as a sprinter and decides his next-best option to win a medal would be to bobsled in the Winter Games. As expected, neither he nor his newly recruited Jamaican teammates know the first thing about bobsledding, so coach Irving Blitzer (John Candy) attempts to teach them. Derice is silly for picking bobsledding as his alternate sport, but the reason behind all of it — that he and his teammates, who are also failed track runners, want to compete in the Olympics so badly that they’ll pick up whatever sport they have to — is heartwarming and underrated, even if the stakes aren’t technically that high. 7/10
The "This Won’t Be Easy" Acknowledgment: "Oh, goodie." I appreciate the sarcasm here, and of course John Candy delivers the two-word line with a nice bite. 6/10
The Feats of Strength: The Jamaican bobsled team spends most of the training montage learning how to bobsled, which isn’t too strenuous as far as this list is concerned. But Coach Blitzer’s tactics for weather acclimation are savage: forcing each member of the team to sit in the freezer of an ice cream truck. For what seems like a long time! This is how Sanka Coffie (A+ name right there) looks when he comes out:
That’s messed up; Blitzer’s a demon. 5/10
The Song: "Wild Wild Life" by Wailing Souls 6/10
Bonus Points: 0
12. ‘Bleed for This’
The Reason: After a gruesome car accident, Vinny Pazienza (Miles Teller with a bad accent) and his trainer (Aaron Eckhart with no hair, a large gut, and a bad accent) get to work on Vinny’s rehabilitation (and an eventual title fight), even though his skull is still propped up by metal rods and all doctors have advised against exercise. Going against doctor’s orders is always a good indication that the stakes are high. 7/10
The "This Won’t Be Easy" Acknowledgment: "This is a fucking Hail Mary at best." Eckhart’s awful accent and sense of utter defeat make this a really good version of the trope. And he’s not chiding Vinny, as these statements usually do — he’s just legitimately scared for his friend’s safety. In a movie that’s mostly derivative, this is a good, heartfelt moment. 7/10
The Feats of Strength: Bench pressing, doing curls, hitting the exercise bike — these are all very basic exercises. But maybe right now you need to be reminded that this guy is wearing a broken-neck halo and was just told he may never walk again? That tilts the scale here. 7/10
The Song: AC/DC’s "Rock and Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution" fits Vinny’s late-’80s blue-collar vibe, but it doesn’t have the build that a montage song needs to be iconic. A better choice would have been something like "Thunderstruck." 4/10
Bonus Points: 0
11. ‘Wet Hot American Summer’
The Reason: To get a girl. In a summer camp parody starring a bunch of purposefully too-old famous comics, Coop (Michael Showalter) is kind of a dork, and the love of his life (Marguerite Moreau) picked the hot stud (Paul Rudd) over him. The stakes aren’t high, but this is a situation almost everyone can identify with. 6/10
The "This Won’t Be Easy" Acknowledgment: There isn’t one, unless you count this facial expression by mess-hall-cook-turned-life-coach Gene (Christopher Meloni):
The Feats of Strength: As a parody, Wet Hot’s training montage covers pretty much every subset of the genre: Coop races Gene, à la Rocky III; learns dance steps, à la Footloose; and even does some quick group therapy sessions — all while his shorts and shirt get smaller and smaller. I know this movie is making fun of all of those other movies, but even so, this is a pretty great and varied montage. And opening up on an emotional level may be a feat accomplished by no other person on this list. 6/10
The Song: "Higher and Higher" by Craig Wedren and Theodore Shapiro was made specifically for Wet Hot American Summer, and it’s a great argument for bespoke montage songs. With the building intro, synthesizers, and wailing guitar licks, the song perfectly evokes classic training montage tracks. That Coop, Gene, and Gary (A.D. Miles) — who briefly participates in the montage for some unexplained reason — dance in sync to the music, swaying their legs in time with a lead guitar riff, makes "Higher and Higher" hit that much harder. 10/10
Bonus Points: 2 — one for all of the hairy leg closeup shots and one for the freeze-frame that ends the montage (it looks almost exactly like the above photo from Rocky III):
The Reason: With the Huns invading China, the emperor orders one man from each family to enlist. In order to keep her elderly father, the only man in the Fa family, from going back to war, 16-year-old Mulan pretends to be a man and joins the army. This is a great, inspiring reason for a training montage. Shout-out to Mulan, the most badass Disney princess. 8/10
The "This Won’t Be Easy" Acknowledgment: "We’ve got a long way to go." Though it perfectly adheres to the trope, this line is just a little too on the nose. 3/10
The Feats of Strength: Most of this montage depicts Mulan being completely unable to do things and Li Shang doing them extremely well, so you can’t give her too much credit. That is until the end, when through pure grit she climbs a pole with weights around her arms, hits every bull’s-eye in archery training, runs faster than every recruit, and roundhouse kicks Li Shang right in the face. The girl learns quick, OK? 6/10
The Song: As a Disney musical, Mulan has an advantage in this category because the point of musicals is to make up songs that are perfect for a given occasion — and also have their characters sing them while training. "I’ll Make a Man Out of You" is both literally and figuratively on point, and it’s also an unassailable banger — if you were born between 1989 and 1994, you have almost definitely sung this song. Plus, Li Shang (Donny Osmond IRL) has the voice of an angel, which also helps. 9/10
Bonus Points: 0
9. ‘Dirty Dancing’
The Reason: Baby (Jennifer Grey) is a rich girl so naive and pure that everyone just calls her "Baby." While at a resort in the Catskill Mountains, she pals up with the waitstaff, who — get this — sometimes touch privates while dancing. Consider Baby intrigued. Also consider Baby extremely helpful: With staff members Johnny (Patrick Swayze) and Penny’s (Cynthia Rhodes) dancing gig at another nearby resort in jeopardy because Penny needs to miss a performance to get an abortion (there’s a lot going on in Dirty Dancing), Baby volunteers to be Johnny’s partner. But she needs to learn how to dance first because, again, she is a baby. The future employment of a few random hotel workers isn’t the most consequential thing to ever be on the line in a movie, but Baby’s selflessness is applaudable, and as we covered during Footloose, depriving the world of dancing is a heinous crime. 5/10
The "This Won’t Be Easy" Acknowledgment: "She can’t even do the merengue!" I’m not sure where the merengue ranks on a scale of dance difficulty, but judging from context clues and the tone of Swayze’s voice, I assume this is the sickest burn one dancer can give to another. It’s the "You play ball like a girl" of dancing insults. High marks all around. 8/10
The Feats of Strength: Unimpressively, Baby only does some very basic dance training here, and she’s basically as much of a novice as Willard is in Footloose. Did the town that Baby’s from also ban dancing? On the other hand, though, this montage seems to be the first time that Baby becomes comfortable experiencing the touch of a man, which is no small feat. 5/10
The Song: The first part of the montage is soundtracked by the Surfaris’ "Wipeout," the second by Eric Carmen’s "Hungry Eyes." Both songs get the job done in different ways: "Wipeout" is a jocular bit of music and a clever backdrop for the roast of Baby’s dance skills, while "Hungry Eyes" perfectly introduces the idea of the character relaxing and — swoon — possibly falling for Johnny. I, too, have dreamed of falling in love with Patrick Swayze while "Hungry Eyes" blares in the background. 8/10
Bonus Points: 0
The Reason: Rocky needs to train for a match against Apollo Creed. Yes, there are more profound motivations at play — Rock’s desire to prove himself to an entire city, and his fear of wasting his potential — but the reason here isn’t too grand. Rocky even admits that his goal isn’t to win — it’s to last an entire match. Think bigger, Rocky! 5/10
The "This Won’t Be Easy" Acknowledgment: There are plenty of people who tell Rocky he can’t in this movie, but none of those statements occur directly adjacent to this training montage, so: 0/10
The Feats of Strength: Rocky runs A LOT and does an inordinate amount of one-handed push-ups, but he gets most of his points for creativity when he decides to punch bisected beef. 6/10
The Song: Is there anything better than "Gonna Fly Now"? It’s as iconic as Rocky himself, the go-to song for inspiring underdog triumph. Plus, toward the end there’s a church choir that repeats, "GETTING STRONGER," which is very helpful for any viewer struggling to perceive Rocky’s development. In my mind, this song is the main reason so many of these movies (seven and counting, if you include Creed) have been made. So the next time you see Tommy Gunn mouth-breathe during a TNT reair of Rocky V, say to yourself, "Thanks, Bill Conti!" 10/10
Bonus Points: 5 — because you have to give Rocky props for spawning this entire trope. Without the Rocky montage, you might not have the Bloodsport montage, or however many montages featuring Steven Seagal, not to mention all of the other montages throughout the Rocky franchise.
The Reason: A Muay Thai fighter named Tong Po paralyzes Kurt Sloane’s (Jean-Claude Van Damme) brother during competition, and does it with so much enjoyment and disrespect. Like, look at this guy, he’s so pumped about destroying another man’s spine:
As these things tend to go, after the fight Kurt resolves to get strong enough to meet Tong Po in the ring and avenge his brother. Familial vengeance is one of the most compelling motivators behind these montages, and with Kurt’s brother beaten nearly to death, the impetus behind Kurt’s training is strong. 8/10
The "This Won’t Be Easy" Acknowledgment: "You gonna live to regret this, mark my words." Ha ha — Kurt’s friend Winston Taylor (Haskell V. Anderson III) is a straight-up jerk for saying this. His brother just got paralyzed, man! Can’t you sugarcoat this a little?! Kickboxer’s acknowledgment gets high marks for being very real and inducing a high level of dread. Thanks for nothing, Taylor. 7/10
The Feats of Strength: Under the watchful eye of a mythical-seeming eagle, a man named Xian Chow (Dennis Chan) puts Kurt through some hell: dropping weights on his midsection, hitting him repeatedly with sticks, and making him kick trees until his shins crack open. It would all be a little more impressive, though, if it wasn’t so reminiscent of Van Damme’s training in Bloodsport, which came out the year before Kickboxer, and covers the same territory. 6/10
The Song: The score goes heavy on the guzheng, which fits the movie’s cultural appropriation, but doesn’t add much to the montage. 4/10
Bonus Points: 1 — for the POV shots, which I think Breaking Bad stole:
6. ‘Batman Begins’
The Reason: Bruce Wayne wants to save the city of Gotham from injustice — a cool way to say, "Fill the gaping hole in my heart from the time I watched my parents die." If I didn’t know this was a superhero origin story, I’d make fun of Bruce for being a whiny rich dude who goes culture-vulturing with the League of Shadows. But he’s literally training to become Batman, and that’s a pretty good reason for a montage. 7/10
The "This Won’t Be Easy" Acknowledgment: "Death does not wait for you to be ready." This line from Ra’s al Ghul (Liam Neeson) is possibly the most poetic "This Won’t Be Easy" Acknowledgment to ever preface a training montage. 8/10
The Feats of Strength: Bruce is out here doing some crazy shit: standing on pillars while ninjas poke him with sticks (very hard and also annoying), sword-fighting on ice (super dangerous), and getting primed to decapitate a farmer (whoa, way too heavy). The Batman Begins training montage is one of the most rigorous in film history. 8/10
The Song: It’s just a score, but it is a score from Hans Zimmer, who just played Coachella — that’s gotta count for something. 3/10
Bonus Points: 1 — I just really like when Liam Neeson mutters, "You’ve sacrificed sure footing for a killing stroke" and submerges Christian Bale in freezing water.
The Reason: A group of oil-rig workers have been recruited to go into space and drill the shit out of an asteroid. If they don’t train properly, they’ll mess up, and the asteroid will crash into Earth and destroy all of mankind. Extremely high stakes. 9/10
The "This Won’t Be Easy" Acknowledgment: "United States astronauts train for years — you have 12 days." Expressing how little time trainees have is a tried and true way to acknowledge that "this won’t be easy." But for a movie that features Michael Clarke Duncan on a motorcycle yelling "Come and get Papa Bear!" while gleefully fleeing a horde of police cars, you sort of expect more. 5/10
The Feats of Strength: These guys go through some tough stuff, like cardio and working on a machine while underwater. But the best part is when the group is introduced to the spacecraft they’ll be mining from while on the asteroid and they all immediately hop in and start disassembling the thing. No one stops them — genius scientist Jason Isaacs looks on nervously, but mostly NASA is just like, "Oh sure, let’s let the oil-rig guys take the lead here. They’re definitely better at engineering than NASA." Bruce Willis at one point actually asks, "Somebody tell me what this is, a plastic ice cream scoop?" No, Bruce, it’s probably an extremely important piece of equipment — THAT’S WHY IT WAS PUT THERE. But the way Armageddon is so sure the audience will be on board with this ridiculous arrangement is what makes it so marvelous. 6/10
The Song: "Sweet Emotion" by Aerosmith. Sure, no one has ever said "Let’s get our pump on to Aerosmith!" but this song does fit with Armageddon’s apparent mission to score an entire movie to Steven Tyler’s voice. 6/10
Bonus Points: 1 — just because I really like the banter between Owen Wilson and Ben Affleck when they’re arguing over who would be Han Solo. The way Wilson marvels, "Chewie, have you even seen Star Wars?" after Affleck calls him Chewbacca is a distilled example of the actor at the height of his powers.
4. ‘Team America: World Police’
The Reason: Gary Johnston is a Broadway actor who’s been recruited to help a tactical organization called Team America take down Kim Jong-il. After the rest of the team is captured by Kim, Gary is their only hope. That’s the context. I’ll let Spottswoode, Team America’s boss, take it from here: "If you’re going to storm Kim Jong-il’s palace single-handed, we have to make you a complete soldier in very little time. … I think I know just what we need." All in all, definitely a good reason for a training montage. 7/10
The "This Won’t Be Easy" Acknowledgment: "It takes a montage." This is the closest we get to a "this won’t be easy" line. It’s not totally form-fitting, but you gotta give it some extra points because it’s a lyric in the song that plays over the montage. Very meta. 6/10
The Feats of Strength: Gary, who is a puppet, hits all the traditional notes in this montage: He runs on a treadmill, practices firing an automatic weapon, and spars with a more experienced soldier in a dojo. Nothing too special, but again, Gary is a puppet — fair or not, that elevates these basic workouts. 5/10
The Song: "Montage" by Team America and South Park wizard Trey Parker is perfect. It really nails the ’80s action vibe with its synths and crunchy lead guitar, and it’s extremely meta in a way that’s hilarious but not overly clever. We don’t have time to do a close reading of all the lyrics, so read them here and laugh. 10/10
Bonus Points: 0 — the movie already got enough for starring a puppet
The Reason: On a superficial level, Adonis Creed (a super-ripped Michael B. Jordan) has to train because he accepted a challenge to fight world light heavyweight champion Pretty Ricky Conlan. On a much deeper level, he has to train to fill the footsteps of Apollo Creed, the father he never knew. The first reason doesn’t get much credit from me because movie boxers have faced tougher opponents than a chavvy dude with a bad beard, but the second reason is nice and heavy. Men doing stuff to rectify the sins of their fathers is one of film’s greatest traditions. 6/10
The "This Won’t Be Easy" Acknowledgment: "I usually did that with one hand. I didn’t wanna say anything, though." Rocky (Sylvester Stallone) is hilarious in Creed, and he says this line — from his hospital room, no less — with such nonchalant shade. I love it. 7/10
The Feats of Strength: Everything looks pretty tough — jogging and running stairs nonstop, jump-roping vigorously — but standard to boxing. Honestly, the hardest thing Adonis does in this montage is not get run over by an ATV. 5/10
The Song: The song, "Lord Knows" by Meek Mill, makes this montage. Using a Philly-born rapper’s song to score the climax of this Philly-set sequence is a smart move. And as Adonis rounds up the ATVs that ride through the streets — a symbol that he’s finally been accepted as one of the city’s sons — Meek’s aggressive bars hit like fists. It’s impossible to watch this montage and not want to go fight someone, and that’s largely because of "Lord Knows." 10/10
Bonus Points: 1 — for the expert nostalgia; director Ryan Coogler does a fantastic job dropping in allusions to the original Rocky movies — the run through Philly, the cross-cutting between Adonis’s training and his opponent Ricky Conlan’s — but manages to separate this montage from its predecessors.
The Reason: When Army Captain Frank Dux (Jean-Claude Van Damme) was a rebellious teen, he tried to steal a katana from Senzo Tanaka. He got caught, but Tanaka was impressed by Dux and decided to train him in martial arts along with his son, Shingo. Many years later, Shingo has died. Tanaka is heartbroken, because a Tanaka won’t be fighting in the Kumite, a martial arts tournament in Hong Kong for the first time in, like, ever. As a sign of gratitude for everything the Tanaka family has done for him, Dux volunteers to take Shingo’s place. Training for an athletic tournament is a baseline reason for one of these montages, but Bloodsport gets an above-average rating because of the fraternal ties that motivate Dux — even if the whole adoptive family thing in this movie is founded on the thinnest of premises. 6/10
The "This Won’t Be Easy" Acknowledgment: "You are not Japanese! You are not a Tanaka!" These exclamations by Senzo Tanaka are an incredible way to say, "You’re not good enough." So unique and factual and unchangeable. It must cut Dux — a guy with no apparent connection to his own family — so deep to be rejected and challenged this way by his adopted father. 9/10
The Feats of Strength: The montage has some pretty standard stunts — it starts with an awesome repeated shot of Van Damme tumbling to the ground, and features the guy generally getting his ass beat by his trainer, Tanaka. But then Tanaka makes Dux serve him and his wife tea while blindfolded, which is just twisted and crazy and really, really hard!
To cap it off, Tanaka ties Dux’s limbs to poles and nearly quarters him. This is a rigorous training montage. 8/10
The Song: This one is set to "Training" by Paul Hertzog, who did all of the music for Bloodsport. It’s basically an extension of the film score, so in that sense it’s not too exciting. But the song, with its synths and electronic drumbeat, is all vintage cool, and perfectly fitting. It sounds like a song by the Chromatics or M83. The Bloodsport soundtrack is the original Drive soundtrack. 6/10
Bonus Points: 1 — for this look from Tanaka’s wife during the tea sequence that says, "Oh damn, this boy’s getting good!"
1. ‘Rocky IV’
The Reason: Rocky (Sylvester Stallone) has to get into fighting shape because he needs to fight Russian boxer/possible robot Ivan Drago. Obviously, it goes much deeper: Drago killed Rocky’s best friend Apollo Creed in the ring and then basically spat on his corpse; also, Drago is a Russian in a movie that takes place in 1985. So personal vengeance and pride are on the line, but victory in the Cold War is, too. These are very good reasons to train. 8/10
The "This Won’t Be Easy" Acknowledgment: "You’re gonna have to go through hell — worse than any nightmare you’ve ever dreamed." I’ve had some pretty messed-up dreams — I bet Rocky, a man who saw his best friend die and once fought a dead cow, has, too. So a guarantee from Duke, who also casually dubs Rocky his surrogate son right before saying this line, that training in Russia will be worse than any nightmare ever is pretty serious. 7/10
The Feats of Strength: Rocky is loaded by the time Rocky IV rolls around. He owns a robot, which was the height of luxury in the ’80s. But because "the house, the cars and everything we got ain’t everything," Rocky chooses to train in poverty, out of a random cabin in god-knows-where Russia. This means he has to get creative with his workouts: sawing wood (hard), carrying a four-foot log on his back through knee-deep snow (harder), and most famously, dragging a sled full of boulders and Paulie through the snow (almost definitely impossible). The hurdles Rocky puts himself through are the most compelling facet of this montage. As a bonus, Rocky’s makeshift training in the middle of snow-blown Russia is juxtaposed with Ivan Drago’s in a technologically advanced gym to show that Rocky (and America) don’t need no stinkin’ science gadgets to win a fight. To quote our pals in Team America: America, f — k yeah. 9/10
The Song: There are two — "Training Montage" by Vince Dicola and "Hearts on Fire" by John Cafferty & The Beaver Brown Band. (Rocky IV is so devoted to the training montage that just when you think it’s over — when Adrian shows up — it fires right back into more training, hence the need for two songs.) "Training Montage" is just OK, if a little basic (5/10), but "Hearts on Fire" is pure, uncut glory, full of hot guitar licks and ridiculously inspirational lyrics. "Heart’s on fire / Fever’s rising high / The moment of truth draws near." Superb (9/10). Average score: 7/10
Bonus Points: 3 — one for diving right back into the montage after making it seem like it was over; one for having the balls to do a montage after the first three Rocky movies basically perfected the form; and one more for Sylvester Stallone’s beard:
That’s a beard fit for the best training montage of all time.