A film review by Craig J. Koban

 
 

 

 

 

ROCKY jjjj

30th Anniversary Retrospective Review

1976, PG, 110 mins.

 

Sylvester Stallone: Rocky Balboa / Talia Shire: Adrian / Burt Young: Paulie / Carl Weathers: Apollo Creed /  Burgess Meredith: Mickey

Directed by John Avildsen / Written by Sylvester Stallone

 

The more that I watch the original ROCKY the more it dawns on me that the film is not really a boxing and/or sports genre picture.  Granted, the underdog Rocky formula has greatly persisted over the last three decades to great effect, but the allure and success of the first entry into the exploits of the Italian Stallion is relatively simple: It is a finely nuanced character drama and a poignant love story. 

Yes, the film epitomizes the very essence of P.I.G. (perseverance, integrity, and guts) better than any I’ve seen, but ROCKY works marvelously beyond its obvious elements.  The film is about a boxer, but it really is about how he wins over the love of a woman and how he gets the world to respect him at a time when it would rather spit on him.  That’s the secret to ROCKY.  At its core, it’s an urban fairy tale.  The boxing and the big, climatic fight scene at the film’s conclusion are almost superfluous  elements.

It’s so deceptively easy to forget how great the first ROCKY film was, not to mention how equally solid the title performance is in it by the then-relatively unknown Sylvester Stallone.  Watching the film – in pure hindsight and retrospect – is to see the freshness of a new emerging talent, not yet contaminated by years of witless action films and even more moronic and juvenile comedies.  Stallone, at least if one glances at his resume, is almost the by-product of too many jokes and inside puns; he’s made a lot of crap, for lack of a better word.  However, his performance in the original ROCKY still is one of his finest and remains, to this day, to be his most enduring and beloved characters.  Even if he allowed the persona to populate a series of inferior and moronic sequels, there should be no denying that Rocky Balboa has emerged as one of the hallmark Cinderella characters of American cinema. 

The road to making ROCKY almost mirrored the story within it.  Sylvester Stallone himself was a struggling actor in the early to mid 1970’s.  In 1975 he only had $106 in the bank.  His car had just blown up and he had to hitchhike to auditions.  His wife was pregnant with their first child.  He only had a small amount of legitimate screen credits that bore his name (he played an uncredited thug in Woody Allen’s BANANAS in 1971,  headlined 1974’s LORDS OF FLATBUSH and 1975’s cult favourite DEATH RACE 2000).  With the $700 he made from starring in DEATH RACE, he barely managed to pay of four months worth of rent on his San Fernando Valley apartment.  Yet, his journey from a nobody to an instant celebrity makes ROCKY seem all the more autobiographical.

Within the span of the year Stallone took his script – which he wrote in three days – to a major studio (United Artists), convinced them to green light it and further convinced the studio to allow him to be the main star when they wanted bankable talent (like Robert Redford and James Caan) to be in it.  The film went on to be an incredible financial success (it made back it’s paltry budget of a million dollars a hundred fold at the box office) and one of the largest surprise critical successes in Oscar history.  It went on to beat heavyweight films like Martin Scosese’s TAXI DRIVER and NETWORK for the statue for BEST PICTURE at the 1976 Oscars.  It would also win two others (for Editing and Direction).  Stallone himself became the first entertainer since Charlie Chaplin to be nominated in the same year for Best Actor and Best Original Screenplay.   The success of ROCKY was a minor cinematic miracle.  Like its title character, its path to glory was a million to one shot.

ROCKY seems well entrenched in classic portrayals of rough, rugged, and sensitive pugilists of the past (Marlon Brando’s performance in ON THE WATERFRONT comes to mind), but Stallone’s real inspiration for the film may have come from actual headlines.  In a recent documentary Stallone reveals how he based Rocky Balboa on a real New Jersey club boxer named Chuck Webner.  In March of 1975 Webner challenged the then Heavyweight Champion Muhammad Ali to a title match in Cleveland, Ohio.  Amazingly – and in pure Balboa-esque fashion – Webner went the distance with his seemingly insurmountable opponent.  He also became one of the few boxers ever to send Ali to the canvas.  Webner eventually was TKO’d in the final round, but the importance of the match is noteworthy.  He was what many people believed to be a “bum” and he went against the odds and achieved a major moral triumph.

Sound familiar?

Stallone, seeing that Webner’s story could make for great drama, slaved away in his tiny, run down apartment and hammered away at his type-writer for three days.  Stallone shopped around ROCKY to just about every studio in town until United Artists finally decided to take a stab at it.  Stallone – in an act of career bravery and determination – never relented in his sheer insistence that he would be the only one that could possibly play Rocky with any amount of humility and realism.  UA had their doubts, but finally relented.  They did, however, offer up some terms.  In exchange for allowing the then unproven Stallone to headline the film, the studio forced the filmmakers to make Rocky for under a million dollars.  Fearing that the budget was too low, the producers for the film even went as far as mortgaging their homes.  The resulting budget came in at 1.1 million, still a low sum.  With the extremely low financing, a lead that has never headlined a picture before, and a script that every studio turned down, ROCKY went into production and was finished in lightning time: 28 days.  A year later, it would be heralded as a darling of the critics and in the minds of moviegoers.

A simple glance at the offering of films from the 1970’s would indicate that ROCKY was not a typical film that embodied the disillusionment of the decade.  It was not nihilistic, not gritty and morose, nor was it unrelentingly depressing in its themes and story.  ROCKY was a rigidly atypical film of the 70’s in the sense that it is about the triumph of the downtrodden human condition.  Whereas other 70’s films pained to tell the world what a unsettling and disturbing place it was, ROCKY can be considered a breath of fresh air for the times. 

The film was about an everyman-nobody that occupied a world that does not respect him.  Rocky Balboa is not too unlike Travis Bickle in this respect, but the fundamental difference between the two is in the sense that Rocky defies his overwhelming odds in the end to prove that he is not just a two-bit loser.  Whereas TAXI DRIVER had its main character caught in tailspin of emotional implosion, ROCKY had its star run the gambit through impossible odds to eventual emotional victory.  ROCKY never created the feel-good motion picture, but it sure was one of the finer ones.  From the eyes of most critics (myself included) ROCKY is not a superior film to TAXI DRIVER - the rightful and deserving winner of Best Picture for 1976 - but it remains a transcending and powerful  film.  It works on us for different reasons.

It sure is hard not to relate to and empathize with Rocky.  He’s one of those nice and polite bottom feeders in the sense that he knows he’s at rock bottom and does not pain to tell the world that he is.  ROCKY correctly places its title character in the middle of a grungy and decayed urban Philadelphia.  At the beginning of the film Rocky does not aspire for greatness; he just wants to manage to get by everyday on his meager means.  He’s not a talented fighter with any discernable skills other than his ability to take a pounding and dish more out.  He’s a slugger and a bruiser, one that will gladly fight any bum for a $50 purse and - upon victory - will try to get a cigarette off of one of the spectators.  On the side he works for a loan shark, but his heart is not really in it.  At one point it is revealed that his boss wanted Rocky to break a client’s thumbs if and when he could not come up with his money.  Rocky is just too noble spirited to be a hooligan.  Instead, he lets the client go, but not before the client promises to bandage up his hands as to not get Rocky in trouble with his employer.

Rocky lives a shabby existence.  He has a crumby one-bedroom apartment that looks infested with any imaginable creature lurking out of baseboards.  He’s a lonely and isolated figure without family.  He does have two pets – turtles – that he amusingly names Cuff and Link.  He has amusing conversations with them (“If you two could learn to sing and dance then I would not have to go through this crap”).  Rocky bought the turtles at a local pet shop that is across the street from the gym he trains in.  The girl that sold him the turtles is Adrian (Talia Shire), who is irreproachably shy to the point of it being deemed a sickness.  Adrian is so timid that she has never been intimate with a man before.  When a hulking and imposing presence like Rocky comes her way, his stature and inarticulate manner scares her off.  Rocky secretly pines for her affection and has been trying to woe her for a long time.  He’s in love with her.  His attempts at winning her over are not made any easier based on the fact that she is the sister of one of his loud-mouthed and temperamental friends, Paulie (Burt Young). 

Rocky has other problems.  The boxing club that he frequents has tried to push him away, at least its manager has.  Mickey (played by the immortal Burgess Meredith) heads up the club and is one of those gnarly, spitting, cantankerous managers that seems spawned from countless other sports genre pictures.  Mickey is small in stature, but he sure speaks his mind.  He’s disgusted and ashamed of Rocky.  Like another classic movie boxer, Mickey believed that Rocky “could have been a contender,” but instead he feels that he has wasted his life being a punk with no ambition working for a cheap, second rate loan shark.  Mickey disowns Rocky and empties out his locker for another more fitting protégée. 

However, just when things looked their bleakest to Rocky, his fortunes change for the better.  The heavyweight-boxing champion Apollo Creed (played memorably by Carl Weathers in a performances that has definitive echoes of Ali) just discovers that his newest challenger has been injured and is unable to fight.  He was to fight him at a gala spectacle in January of 1976 dubbed "The Bicentennial Match” and now without a challenger the champ and promoters could lose millions.  Apollo then conjures up an amazing plan: Find a relative unknown and give him a once in a lifetime chance to challenge him in the ring.  Who he is will not matter; in his cocky and narcissistic mind, “He’ll take ‘em in three.”  The hook here is that he’ll give a local Philadelphia fighter a chance at glory.  When he comes across the Italian Stallion, he is instantly attracted.  Creed and his promoters go out of their way to lure him into the match of a lifetime.  Creed’s trainer has reservations.  Rocky is a southpaw.  Creed has never had to contend with one.  Apollo, however, never seems worried.  In his mind, no bum will last longer than a few rounds with him.  Right?

Of course, Rocky accepts and thus begins a two-step journey towards getting some respect.  Not only does he strive to be a worthy contender for the champ, but he also tries to win Adrian’s heart.  In one of the great movie date scenes, Rocky finally is able to get Adrian to go out with him.  They go for long walks and end up at a local ice skating rink.  When Rocky finally gets her back to his dirty apartment, she wants to leave.  He slowly and tenderly breaks down her incredible façade of timidity and bashfulness in a scene that plays slowly and delicately.  The build up to their first kiss remains one of the sweet and finer love scenes.

Now that Rocky has the woman he loves, all his has to do is secure respect from the world that sees him having no chance in hell against the champ.  Mickey quickly warms over to Rocky and pleads with him to allow him to manage and train him.  In another of the film’s great scenes of emotion, Rocky pitifully lashes out at the crusty trainer that he desperately wanted to be a surrogate father figure to him when he needed him the most.  The two finally get over their differences and commence the training, all which culminates in an unforgettable training montage. The scene where Rocky runs triumphantly up the Philadelphia Art Museum’s steps, struts and dances around, and finally pumps his fist in the air remains one of the most memorable moments of contemporary cinema.  Rocky is sending a message: He will not be defeated so easily.  He will rise to the occasion.

All of this builds to the final match, which is masterfully constructed and builds real tension and intrigue.  Of course, those that are familiar with the final outcome know that it is primarily an emotional and moral victory for Rocky.  Even before the match Rocky slowly begins to realize that the key to getting admiration is not really in beating the champion.  In one pitiful – but heartfelt and honest – moment he reveals to Adrian how he feels he’ll never beat Creed.  “I mean, who am I kiddin'? I ain't even in the guy's league.  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.”  The real inspiring aspect of ROCKY is not in the possibility his triumphant defeat of the champion.  Victory and winning the title are almost secondary.  All that matters to Rocky is getting self-respect by going the distance.  In this way, Rocky emerges as even more of a powerful hero figure.  He understands intuitively his obstacles and – even with the realization that he will be the loser – he will spiritually be the victor.

I think that this is why the first ROCKY works so well whereas it’s other sequels went so astray.  In the first film and its first sequel, they were more concerned with characters and interactions.  They were not concerned about the boxing and big fight themselves.  The first two ROCKY films knew that the reasons they worked so well were primarily because they were concerned with the frailty of the human condition and how people tie themselves together to tackle the obstacles that impede their progress.  Rocky wanted the world to see him as being worthy, but he also wanted to instill the same feelings in Adrian. 

Adrian herself is a reflection of Rocky too, as she also tries to emerge from her fragile shell of isolation and loneliness and become the woman she wants to be.  The film is uplifting in its portrayal of Rocky, but also in the sense that it is a liberating experience for the female love interest too.  There is a moment where Adrian finally stands up to her brutish brother that emotional berates her.  Paulie cathartically chastises his sister to make up for his own shortcomings because she never fought back.  What Rocky teaches her is that she too can stand up for herself and prove her worth.  In this way, ROCKY is an uplifting experience on more levels that many see otherwise.

The performances in the film are as rock solid and universally strong as it gets.  Along with Stallone, Burt Young, Talia Shire, and Burgess Meredith rightfully received Oscar nominations for their work.  Meredith in particular remains one of the film’s most unforgettable characters.  His performance is the essence of scenery chewing.  Yet, the true epicentre of the film is Stallone’s portrayal of the punchy pugilist with a heart of gold. 

ROCKY surely launched Stallone’s career and by the mid-1980’s he was one of the most popular and successful action stars of the time.  In the last 30 years it seems that many have forgotten how great Stallone is in ROCKY.  Of course, ROCKY soon became the very concept of predictable clichés (the other sequels did not help in this matter), but long before the ROCKY series become a dim and redundant formula it highlighted Stallone as an actor with talent.  Rocky was not a one-note simpleton.  He was crude, fairly slow-witted, and brutish, but underneath him was a decency and compassion.  He’s not a traditional screen hero, in this sense, but what makes us root for him even more is his innate likeability and the affectionate ways he treats the woman he loves. 

We respect him even more when he goes on to learn one of life’s greatest lessens at the end of the film – sometimes, it’s not winning that really matters, but what you get out of the journey towards that.  ROCKY III, IV, V, and – at least in part – ROCKY II forgot the morals that the first film taught.  Those films cared more about the character achieving victory.  The big climatic fights that Rocky wins were really all those films cared about.  The first ROCKY did not concern itself with this, which is what it endures as the finest outing in the series.  It cares about what the hero gains in defeat.

Ultimately, it is for those reasons that ROCKY – even 30 years after is release – still emerges as one of the great, memorable and optimistic films about limitless passion and drive to triumph in life when all others think it to be impossible.  Whereas all of its sequels seemed more inspired to showcase the title character winning at all costs in the end, the first ROCKY is more interested in the sense that its heart lies in the fact that its hero becomes self-actualized and confident even before reaching the climatic big fight.  The film’s basic underlining premise has been regurgitated endlessly for years by the other ROCKY films and by other less inspired sports pictures, but the first ROCKY still remains the most successful film to utilize the underdog, subjugated, and demoralized sports hero formula to best effect.  However, perhaps the most longstanding and noteworthy aspect of ROCKY is that – deep down - it's less a sports film of a down-on-his-luck prize fighter than it is a warm romance about two people who allow their budding love to strengthen their resolve against a world that beats them down.   The universality of its themes are ROCKY’s proudest legacy.  It wisely illustrates that just when life can perplex and suffocate your into submission, you can find a way to gain your confidence to find your way again.  How anyone could not cheer while watching the film is beyond me.

 

 

CrAiGeR's other

REVIEW:

 

ROCKY BALBOA  jjj1/2

ON THE WATERFRONT 

And, for what it's worth, CrAiGeR's ranking of ROCKY films:

 

1.  ROCKY (1976)  jjjj

2.  ROCKY BALBOA (2006)  jjj1/2

3. ROCKY II (1979) jjj1/2

4.  ROCKY III (1982)  jj1/2

5.  ROCKY V (1990)  jj

6.  ROCKY IV (1985)  j1/2

 

 
     
 

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