Sylvester Stallone is Rocky.
There have been hundreds, if not thousands of sports as a metaphor for life movies, but of them all, has there ever been a greater, feel good, underdog makes good, movie than Rocky? Sylvester Stallone might have inflicted some real clunkers on us later in his career, including a multitude of sequels to this movie, but you can't deny that he created a classic here.
Rocky Balboa is the biggest palooka in all of Philadelphia. A smalltime boxer in dingy clubs by night, he works as an overly kindhearted collector for a local loan shark by day. Not the brightest bulb in the box, he's looked down on by the neighborhood and even kicked out of his locker at the gym where he works out. The only person who treats him with respect is Adrian, the painfully shy sister of Rocky's best friend, Paulie. He's on the long slow track to nowheresville.
Fate steps in and takes a hand in Rocky's life when a title boxing match is due to take place in Philly, but the contender has to drop out. Apollo Creed, the reigning champ, gets the idea of fighting an unknown boxer and he picks Rocky based purely on his nickname; The Italian Stallion. He just likes the way it sounds. While it's a whim for Apollo, for Rocky it represents the chance of a lifetime.
We can all of us see a little of ourselves in Rocky. Who of us at one time or another hasn't felt as though the world was stacked against us? Who of us hasn't wished for that one chance, that one shot to prove ourselves, to stand up and be recognized? It's the age-old Cinderella story and we've seen it many times before, but when it's done as well as it is here, that doesn't matter.
There's a gritty realism to the look and feel of the story that's absent from the later more polished Rocky films. In those, Stallone would become cut and ripped with almost zero body fat, while here he's muscular, but he's not superhuman. Likewise Talia Shire, while she cleans up pretty nice by the end of the movie, is more than just plain when Rocky begins dating her.
With its inspiring theme song and workout montage, it's easy to get caught up in Rocky's quest to win the fight. Those two elements would become so synonymous with the later Rocky films that they eventually seem like parodies, but the emotion is very real this time around.
And that emotion comes from the first hour of the movie as we get to know and like Rocky. He's dumb and he hasn't done much with his life, but he's kind and has a good heart. Stallone delivers a solid performance. He might not have a lot of range, but he plays this part to perfection. He delivers several dramatic moments. One when he vents his anger at Mickey over the way people who didn't know his name before, suddenly want to be his friend now. And the other, more quiet moment the night before the big fight when he confesses to Adrian how he feels about the upcoming fight in the film's most moving speech. It ranks right up there with Brando's, "I coulda been a contender".
"I was thinkin', it really don't matter if I lose this fight. It really don't matter if this guy opens my head, either. 'Cause all I wanna do is go the distance. Nobody's ever gone the distance with Creed, and if I can go that distance, you see, and that bell rings and I'm still standin', I'm gonna know for the first time in my life, see, that I weren't just another bum from the neighborhood."
On top of all that came before it, there's the nicely filmed boxing match at the conclusion. We feel every blow and we're rooting for Rocky all the way. Even now after seeing it many, many times, I still found myself in Rocky's corner, hoping he can find it within himself to stand strong and take what's thrown at him.
And speaking of emotional moments. If when Rocky is screaming out Adrian's name at the climax, if you don't get a little choked up, then you must be dead inside.
Of course this wasn't just Rocky's shot at the big time, it was also Stallone's. Maybe he never quite lived up to the quality that this movie promised, choosing instead to go a more commercial route, but you can't deny that here at least he created a work of art that will stand the test of time.
Rocky has an akward, yet sincere love story.
Rocky is the epitome of the underdog movie, sports or otherwise. The greatness being that he never actually wins the fight, he merely goes the distance, proving that if his life had taken a different path he could have been a serious contender in the boxing world.
The movie makes a point to state that he is past his prime at thirty and this is his last possible shot at a moment of boxing glory. The sequels would all contradict this plot point by having him beat Apollo Creed in the next film even though this one includes a scene where Apollo Creed says, "Ain't gonna be no rematch." and Rocky adds, "Don't want one." The later sequels have Rocky continue to fight and go on to become a boxing legend. That is the life he would have lead had he started younger, not the one this first movie presents. The rest of the films play more like Rocky's dreams than a real life.
Rocky has so many classic elements about it, including some great dialog. In defense of Rocky not being the brightest bulb, Adrian has this line, "Einstein flunked out of school, twice...Beethoven was deaf. Helen Keller was blind. I think Rocky's got a good chance." The real scene stealer is Burgess Meredith. He is short, gruff and brutally honest when facing the big bad Italian Stallion, "You're a bum, Rock. You're a bum!" He can also be inspiring,"You're gonna eat lightnin' and you're gonna crap thunder!" The entire cast was nominated for Academy Awards, although none of them won.
Many films made after Rocky have ended with an athlete or a team winning and then showing a loved one watching nearby getting misty eyed or smiling proudly. Rocky did that scene first and better than any other movie. Skinny little shy Adrian fighting her way through the crowd to see her bruised up man, as Rocky yells for her while surrounded by the bothersome press is one of the greatest scenes ever filmed. He did what he set out to do but he did not do it for the glory or fame. He did it to prove to himself that he could have been great and he can now be with Adrian without those nagging feelings of what if? The sequels never should have been made as they contradict that.
The topper to its classic film status is of course "Rocky's Theme" and "Gonna Fly," both written by Bill Conti. Could you even imagine the training and running scenes without them?
Sylvester Stallone and Carl Weathers in Rocky.
I agree that the numerous sequels should never have been made. They do nothing but tarnish the image of this bona fide classic. But then Rocky was such a huge hit in 1976 it was inevitable a rematch would soon follow. The success of this movie actually launched a mini-boxing genre with a remake of The Champ soon in the works and with such disparate talents as Barbra Streisand (The Main Event) and Robert De Niro (Raging Bull) cashing in.
1976 marked America’s Bicentennial and the color motif that year was a patriotic red, white & blue; colors featured heavily during the climactic fight between Rocky and Apollo. And speaking of fights, one of the keys to this movie’s success is the fact that Rocky (other than a very brief pre-credits scene) never boxes until the final ten minutes. Like waiting for the shark to appear in Jaws, the building anticipation gives the moment a bigger emotional payoff. And by then of course we are completely invested in this guy Rocky and his painfully shy girlfriend.
As good as Stallone and Burgess Meredith are I was even more impressed with Talia Shire. Her best scene is the one right after their first date. Whereas before they went out Adrian could barely open her mouth in Rocky’s presence, now she’s at ease with him. Notice the way she keeps casually touching him while they are sitting on the couch together watching television with Paulie. She’s the same plain bud, only blossomed.
Scott compared Rocky’s confessional speech to Adrian with Brando’s famous soliloquy in On the Waterfront. Stallone also seems to channel Brando from Streetcar. His cries of “Adrian!” are nearly as gut wrenching as Stanley yelling “Stella!” at the top of his lungs. Sylvester Stallone would never again come even close to the raw emotion of this performance.
Eric, you hit the nail on the head when you wrote, “The greatness being that he never actually wins the fight, he merely goes the distance...”. The one thing Rocky possesses in abundance is Heart. He’s not a quitter. In fact he’s, “Gonna Fly Now!” (can’t you just hear those synthesized crescendos in your head?) Rocky is more than a movie, it’s an American institution.
Photos © Copyright United Artists (1976)