Rocky – 1976
Sylvester Stallone stars in this Oscar winning movie about a washed out boxer who is inspired by the love of a woman to be better than he thinks he can be. Rocky Balboa has become an iconic figure in pop culture. The movie turned into a big enough franchise to spawn five sequels. The latest, Rocky Balboa, sometimes called Rocky VI, was released in 2006, 30 years after the movie that started it all.
Interesting note: I’m sure that it is common knowledge, but I didn’t know until I did my research on the film: Stallone not only starred in the film, but he wrote it as well. He was even nominated for Best Original Screenplay. Kudos to you, Sylvester!
Rocky was called a sleeper hit. It cost just over $1 million to make, but it earned $225 million at the box office. And just like Rocky, himself, the movie was an underdog. Critics did not expect it to do well. Even today, some reviewers call the movie pure schmaltz. That may have some truth to it, but it makes it no less fun to watch. Everybody loves an underdog. We love seeing him come out on top and succeeding. You see, everybody feels like the underdog every now and then. And when we see someone, even if it is a fictional character, it makes us feel like we can succeed as well.
And that is exactly what happened in Rocky. Stallone plays the title character, Rocky Balboa. He has the potential to be a serious professional boxer, but he isn’t too smart, and he has never had proper management or training. So, to make money, he works as a debt collector for a small-time loan shark. But when told to actually hurt someone who cannot pay, he can’t do it. This shows that he is really a good guy who has no desire to hurt anyone.
And then there is the girl he is interested in. Adrian is a painfully shy girl who works at the local pet shop. She is played by Talia Shire, who was also in two recent Best Picture winners, The Godfather, and The Godfather Part II. I thought Shire’s performance was wonderful. She was so shy and had so little sense of self-worth, she could barely even bring herself to speak to Rocky when he shows interest in her. When he speaks to her, asks her a question, she can barely even look at him. But he eventually gets her to open up to him and accept his advances. Actually, he practically has to force her. Apparently when a girl says “no” it makes no difference to Rocky. He pushes ahead anyway. Fortunately, with Adrian, it was the right move. And once she lets him in, she blooms into a more confident and socially competent woman.
Interesting note: Another actress who auditioned for the part of Adrian was Susan Sarandon. She did not get the part because she was apparently too pretty.
Another good performance is Burt Young, playing Adrian’s alcoholic and abusive brother, Paulie. He is Rocky’s friend, and allows him to use the frozen sides of beef as punching bags. The character of Paulie was, on the surface, fairly stereotypical and one dimensional. However, there were times when Young brought a depth to the role that surprised me. Sure, he was a drunk and he mistreated his sister horribly with mental and emotional abuse, even threatening her with physical violence, but we forgave him because Rocky did.
Through a freak turn of pure chance, Rocky is given a chance at the biggest prize in heavyweight boxing: The World Champion Title. The current Champ is a man named Apollo Creed, a character loosely based on real-life boxer Muhammad Ali, played perfectly by Carl Weathers. After his original opponent drops out of a highly publicized fight, Creed decides, as a publicity stunt, to fight an unknown boxer, giving him a shot at the coveted title. He chooses Rocky’s name out of a book because he liked his nickname, the Italian Stallion. This is what gives Balboa his big chance.
Interesting note: Apparently Apollo Creed was a very well protected man. In an unaccredited role, Michael Dorn played his bodyguard. Dorn, of course is best known for his role of Warf, a Klingon warrior in the Star Trek franchise.
Burgess Meredith plays the part of Mickey Goldmill, Rocky’s trainer, who shows up and offers to train him only after the chance-of-a-lifetime opportunity comes his way. Before that, he had written Balboa off as a bum, just as everyone else had. Meredith did a good enough job, though his character became a little one-note. He had a little back-story that he told Rocky at one point, but even then, I felt Meredith’s emotional range was a little lacking. Still, he was an integral part of the plot, and now I can’t really imagine anyone else playing the part.
The character of Balboa is well written with human flaws and fears. He is emotionally damaged, believing that he is a worthless bum. But he agrees to take part in the fight, knowing that Creed is way out of his league as a boxer. He knows that he has no hope of winning. In fact, there is a scene that takes place the night before the big fight in which he confesses to Adrian that he knows he cannot win, despite all the hard work and training that he has gone through to prepare. All he wants to do is to go the distance with Creed, meaning that he wants to last the full 15 rounds without being knocked out, something nobody has ever done before.
I must say that I found Stallone’s acting to be… adequate, though not overly laudable. But that little scene was a rare moment of depth for him. Still, the whole training montage was very uplifting and inspiring to watch. The famous song Gonna Fly Now, written by Bill Conti is very memorable, despite the walk-a-chica guitar part that really nailed it to the 1970s. It plays all the way through the montage. Rocky climbing the steps and lifting his hands over his head in victory has become an iconic image in pop culture.
And finally, there was the big fight. Both Stallone and Weathers did a good job. I found it interesting that to Creed, the fight was more of a show, and to Balboa, the fight was a real fight. He ends up nearly knocking Creed out before the first round is over. After that, Creed starts taking the fight seriously and the two men commence to beating the hell out of each other. And in the end Rocky meets his goal, he goes a full fifteen rounds and is still standing. The result is a split decision which Rocky LOSES! He loses the fight! But he won. He beat his fears. He beat his low self-esteem. He beat every person who had ever called him a bum.
Interesting note: While filming the final fight scene, both Stallone and Weather suffered injuries, but it was the nature of those injuries which I found noteworthy. Stallone suffered bruised ribs while Weathers suffered a damaged nose. These were the exact opposite of the characters Balboa and Creed.
Another interesting note: In the original script, Balboa ended up throwing the fight before the end of the 15 round, realizing that he no longer wanted to be in the world of professional boxing. This might have put a damper on the possibility of a sequel.
And when the final bell sounded to end the fight, all he could think about was the woman who had stood by him throughout the whole thing. “ADIRAN!!!”
The underdog may not have won the fight, but by then we understood that it wasn’t his goal. He had won in several other ways. He had won a number of things, the most important of which was the love of a good woman. So, it really was a victory, of sorts. The victories in the ring would come. That is what the sequels are for.