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.