I may have made mention before that although I am a movie fan and now write a movie-reviewing blog, there are a great many classic films that I have never seen myself. That’s part of the reason why this blog is so heavy on older films; I’m taking the opportunity to fill in those gaps that — according to film critics, fellow movie fans, and pop culture in general — I really ought not to have. One of those gaps is Rocky. I have never seen a Rocky movie. Any Rocky movie. In my defense, the first one came out in 1976, a few years before I was born.

Obviously this is an omission that couldn’t stand. Rocky is perhaps the most critically acclaimed sports movie around, and is one of the few that is seriously touted as being an entertaining film even for people who aren’t fans of the sport in question. It’s also the film that really put Sylvester Stallone on the map, and hey, who doesn’t like Stallone? I spotted a double feature DVD at a used video store, and I couldn’t pass up the chance to acquire the first two Rocky films for less money than it would cost to rent one. I have no qualms at all about this film being in my collection, especially now that I’ve finally seen it.

Famously, Stallone wrote the script and then refused to sell it unless he could also star as the main character. Despite the studio’s reluctance (and subsequent slashing of the budget), this was essential for the film. It’s hard to picture anybody else as Rocky Balboa, and not just because three and a half decades of pop culture references have firmly entrenched Sly as Rocky in the public’s imagination. A bankable, big name star may or may not have been able to play Rocky the way he was at the beginning of the film: a man nearing 30, yet still as awkward and unsure of himself as a teenager, fearing he was a bum and aspiring to something better. Stallone, on the other hand, was pretty much in that position himself at the time (IMDb’s trivia page claims he was on the verge of selling his dog at the time he finally sold the script because he couldn’t afford to keep it.)

And a man without a dog is hardly a man at all.

The rest of the cast are largely actors who also weren’t big name stars at the time. Talia Shire, Carl Weathers, Burt Young… all had some roles prior to this (Shire in The Godfather), but none were likely to be big box office draws on their own. The exception was Burgess Meredith, already an established actor, but generally in supporting roles. And yet, despite the “lack of star power”, Rocky is superbly acted by all performers, and is by any measure a success. Which just goes to show that once in a while Hollywood should remember that they can cast lesser-known actors and still do just fine. How much of this is attributable to director John G. Avildsen I don’t know, but as the filming all looks great, and all the technical aspects seem to be in order, it’s certainly clear he deserved the Oscar nod he received.

Plus he kept Meredith from recruiting Stallone to kill Batman.

I think a large part of why this film succeeds where other “sports films” become niche favorites at best is because it really isn’t about the boxing match. Sure, it all gets started because Apollo Creed (Weathers) decides he’s going to give a Philadelphia nobody a shot at the title, but the match is almost background for the film, which is an extended character study. Rocky is a man who has nothing but his pride, and he doesn’t have much of that. He’s a hired thug for a loan shark, barely making ends meet. He boxes, but he never made it big, and it’s become mostly a hobby for him; the gym owner, Mickey (Meredith), even takes his locker away from him, citing that although he’s got talent and heart, he’s wasted his life as a “leg-breaker”. He’s been trying to win the heart of a shy woman at the pet store, but he doesn’t get anywhere with Adrian (Shire) until his friend, her abusive brother Paulie (Young) practically drives her out of the house to make her go out on a date with him. Fortunately, once she gets to know Rocky she realizes he’s actually a nice guy, and the two begin a relationship. This also pays off in her character development, giving her the backbone to stand up to Paulie.

Rocky is consistently shown to be a person who is trying to be a good guy, but doesn’t always know how. He has no idea how to approach Adrian at first, or how to talk to her. He tries to avoid the “breaking” part of his “leg breaking” job. He walks a girl home away from the street punks she’s hanging out with out of concern for her future, and gets sworn at for his trouble. Nothing he’s ever done has paid off. And then comes Apollo Creed. Creed had arranged a big title bout for the American Bicentennial celebration, but his opponent broke his hand and cannot fight. And he can’t get any other contenders to fight him. So Creed, shown as being as savvy a showman as he is a good boxer, hits upon the idea of playing up the “land of opportunity” angle of America, and gives a local Philadelphia boxer a chance. Let people root for the underdog. He picks Balboa — “the Italian Stallion” — out of a list of local boxers because he sees the potential in the marketing aspect, not because of any boxing prowess. But Rocky decides to take the match seriously. He accepts the offer, he trains, and even though he’s utterly convinced he can’t win, he wants to fight the full match without getting knocked out. He wants to go the distance. To prove that, even if he doesn’t win, he belongs there. That he’s not a bum. To not look foolish.

Creed, however, has no concerns about appearing foolish.

Rocky’s development, and the development of his relationships with other characters, are brought about by the upcoming match with Apollo. But it’s that development that is always the focus of the film, not the match itself. Rocky is not merely a good “sports movie”. It’s a good movie, period, and worthy of its Oscar nominations and wins. (Stallone, incidentally, was the third person ever to be nominated for both writing and acting in the same year, after Charlie Chaplin and Orson Welles. That’s pretty nice company to be in.) The film, as with its protagonist, went the distance.

Rating: 5 Stars

About Morgan R. Lewis

Fan of movies and other media
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15 Responses to Rocky

  1. jeffro517 says:

    This is a movie that seems to stand up really well with the pre-plastic surgery Stallone and a relatively low budget. I love this movie and I’m glad you took some time to write this. Good review.

  2. Jaina says:

    I have fond memories of this film. Though, I think I get more out of watching it now then when I first saw it. It’s a true underdog story, in so many ways. It’s not *just* a sports film, but a really heart warming story about a guy who’s down on his luck and still fights on. Very inspiring. Makes me want to go and see it again.

    I caught the final film in the Rock series – Rocky Balboa, a couple years back and really enjoyed it. It definitely goes back to the first film for its inspiration – check it out if you get the chance.

    • Yes, the fact that it’s more about Rocky than about Rocky’s match is definitely where the strength of this movie lies. And thanks for the recommendation; I do plan on getting to all of the Rocky films eventually.

  3. Jersey says:

    That’s why I love your blog, Morgan. You remind me how good some old movies are!

    As for Rocky, I do agree: it definitely made the distance. It became so iconic over the decades and now it’s sheer pop culture (and I don’t mean that as a bad thing).
    I’m glad you finally saw it and brought us such a great review!

  4. Great write up for a great movie. You’re right. Its not about the sport, its about the value of the people who are “losers” – that even the simplest people can find love, and or triumph. Neither Rocky nor Adrian would be voted “most likely to succeed” anywhere…

    Glad you find it worthy of its Oscar. I agree. Kind of contentious though, for the year it was in. I’ve always been firmly in Rocky’s corner.

    Wondering how you’ll take Rocky II. Its one of my least favorites in the series, but still pretty good. Definite drop off from I though.

    III and IV are where things start to get Cheesey awesome though! Bring on Clubber Lang and Drago!!

    • Ha ha ha… knew you’d be chiming in on this one! Definitely about the losers… really the only major character in the film who isn’t a loser at the beginning is Apollo Creed. Rocky’s a never-was, Mickey’s a has-been, Adrian’s reclusive in the beginning, and Paulie’s just an asshole.

      Certainly contentious for Best Picture — if they’d given it to Network I know I wouldn’t argue, and other films there are certainly critically acclaimed as well (including two of your MTESS) — but really, isn’t that how it should be? If there isn’t a fair amount of contention on Best Picture, that kind of spells out a sucky year for movies, doesn’t it?

      We’ll see what I think of Rocky II; I’ve got the double-feature pack with it and Rocky, so it probably won’t be too long before I check it out. And even if I think it lacks something, I’ll still check out the rest of the series eventually. III and IV at least have enough pop-culture status that they’re ones I’d feel I had to watch anyway. (Sort of like Friday the 13th in that respect — and I realize that’s an odd statement — but even if I wind up hating the first two in that series, I have to check it out at least until #3 because that’s the first one with the iconic hockey mask.)

      • Lots to talk about there CO.

        I’ve actually MTESS’ed 3 BP nominees from that legendary year now. Taxi Driver, All The Presidents Men and Network 😉 Rocky for sure one of these days. Mortal Lock.

        Yes. Definitely remedy the III and IV gap when you can. Theyre iconic, plus a shit ton of fun. Dont expect like any kind of serious filmaking or anything though LOL!!

        F13th is a great series, lots of fun. I-IV actually deliver what you’d expect. After V its a crap shoot if youre going to get what you go into them for or not. LOL.

        • Ah, somehow I overlooked one of those in the list of BP nominees there. Definitely a good year for film.

          As for F13, it’s definitely on the near horizon. I’ve been hanging onto a copy of the first one since mid February, since I could see that April provides the optimal date for it.

  5. S says:

    Excellent underdog story; I like some of the old cast like ‘cuff’ & ‘link’ LOL. Seriously though, it’s one of my favorites. I enjoy the scene where Burgess Meredith (original Penguin) goes to convince Rocky to be his manager after denying him a locker earlier. Stallone finds real emotional depth in the character I believe yelling his own frustrations back at Mick ( just before taking him on as a coach). Fantastic film; great post.

    • Definitely a great scene there… nobody but Adrian really wanted to be around him before he was picked for the match, and then everybody wants to be a part of it. But even though he’s justifiably upset about it, he’s still smart enough to see how Mickey can be helpful.

  6. Eric says:

    Awesome! I included Rocky in my latest movie project but haven’t had the chance to check it out yet. I have seen most, if not all, of Rocky III and IV, but never sat down to watch the original for some reason. I’ll have to come back once I finally see it.

  7. Pingback: Rocky II | Morgan on Media

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