Rocky (United States, 1976)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

There are essentially three kinds of boxing movies: those that offer a grim, tell-it-as-it-is perspective of life in the ring, those that focus (often in an exaggerated fashion) on the business aspects of things, and those that seek to uplift through a rags-to-riches story. Rocky, the 1977 Best Picture Oscar winner, belongs unabashedly in the third category. Although the movie contains realistic elements and is set in a believable arena, it is essentially a fairy tale about a down-and-out pugilist who gets a chance at the fight of a lifetime, and, at the same time, wins the girl. Rocky certainly didn't invent all the sports movie clich├ęs - they were around long before the mid-'70s - but it applied them in a way that captivated audiences and didn't seem over-the-top. Since 1976, nearly every film featuring a big sports comeback and triumph has been inspired by and/or compared to Rocky, regardless of whether it involves boxing or not.

According to writer Sylvester Stallone, the script for Rocky was developed over a short, three-day period. Stallone then shopped the project around, attaching himself as the star. Initially, United Artists wanted James Caan to play the title role, but, when Stallone wouldn't relent, production went ahead with a paltry budget of around $1 million. Stallone had the last laugh, however - with great reviews, exceptional word-of-mouth, and nine Oscar nominations, Rocky went on to earn back its cost by more than one hundred-fold. It also spun off four inferior sequels, the first three of which also made more than $100 million each at the box office. The series didn't die until 1990 when Rocky V took a nosedive off the Ben Franklin Bridge.

From a critical perspective, it's hard to justify Rocky's triumph as Best Picture at the 1977 Academy Awards ceremony. Two of its competitors, Taxi Driver and Network, were arguably better films, and certainly more "important." Nevertheless, Rocky was the underdog - the low-budget movie that could. In many ways, its grabbing the title belt of Best Picture was as unlikely as its main character going the distance with Apollo Creed. In the space of just a few months, the film went from being a minor release on United Artists' schedule to becoming a full-fledged cinematic phenomenon.

The aspect of Rocky that many people forget (especially those who have not watched the movie in years) is that it's as much a tender love story as it is about ring action. Rocky Balboa (Stallone) is a boxing bottomfeeder - someone who will fight anyone for a $50 purse. His lone ambition is to stay afloat. He lives in a one-room apartment with two turtles and a fish, and spends his days working as a collector for a South Philly loan shark. Mickey (Burgess Meredith), the crusty manager at the boxing club where he works out, is disgusted with Rocky, because he had the natural ability to become a great fighter, but threw it all away. When Rocky's attention isn't on fighting or his job, it's on wooing Adrian (Talia Shire), the painfully shy sister of his best friend, Paulie (Burt Young). Rocky is in love with her, but his inarticulate attempts to ask Adrian out frighten her off.

Rocky's fortunes change when Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers), the World Heavyweight Champion, hand picks him as an opponent. A fight scheduled for January 1, 1976 (and dubbed the "Bicentennial Match") was to feature Creed against his #1 challenger, but injuries to the opponent cause him to back out five weeks before the event. In an attempt to salvage something, Creed decides to give a local Philadelphia fighter a chance, and Rocky's nickname of the "Itallion Stallion" catches his attention. As a result, a boxer with no apparent future suddenly has a chance at the World Championship title. From Rocky's perspective, however, winning is secondary. He wants one thing out of the fight with Apollo: the self-respect he can earn by going the distance. Even more than that, however, he wants to win Adrian's heart. That's why the film's final scene is less concerned with the result of the match than with the result of the romance.

Sylvester Stallone was not a complete unknown when he starred in Rocky, but he was not a household name. Rocky put him on the map. (Stallone's feature debut, the low-budget, pseudo porn film A Party at Kitty and Stud's, was re-released in 1976 as The Itallion Stallion, to capitalize on Stallone's newfound popularity.) Suddenly, he was a much sought-after talent. He used Rocky to launch a motion picture career that catapulted him to the highest orbit of action stars where, during the 1980s, his international fame was rivaled only by Schwarzenegger, and he ranked as one of the highest paid actors in Hollywood. In Rocky, Stallone showed some legitimate acting talent - it would be 20 years before he tried another straightforward dramatic role in James Mangold's Copland.

The supporting cast featured a number of low-profile, character actors. The most recognizable and colorful of these was Burgess Meredith, whose portrayal of Mickey, the old timer who trained Rocky, presaged the tough, all-knowing trainers who would litter sports movies throughout the next 25 years. Talia Shire, known at the time as Micheal Corleone's sister in The Godfather movies, fashions Adrian as a very atypical love interest. Shy and withdrawn, Adrian never truly blossoms, not even in the full light of Rocky's love. Carl Weathers, who has since moved from the big screen to TV, plays the business savvy Creed, and Burt Young is the often drunk and occasionally abusive Paulie.

As important to Rocky as the stars is the setting. Nearly every frame of the film oozes Philadelphia, from the environs around Rocky's apartment to the Art Museum steps, atop which Rocky raises his arms in triumph as "Gonna Fly Now" reaches its climax. Philadelphia hasn't changed much in the past 25 years; there's still a strange, almost eerie sense of recognition of landmarks and familiar sights more than two decades later. Only the skyline, as seen from the Art Museum, is significantly different. Since Rocky, Philadelphia has received its share of screen exposure (most recently in The Sixth Sense), but the city will always be best known to movie buffs as Rocky's home. Even today, the Art Museum is one of Philadelphia's top tourist attractions, and many of the visitors aren't interested in going inside or seeing the exhibits. They're there to stand where Rocky stood and to gaze eastward.

What makes Rocky special is that it concentrates on characters, not sports. It would be disingenuous to say that the climactic boxing match is unimportant - it is, after all the movie's centerpiece - but that's not all Stallone's movie is about. There are only two fights - one at the beginning and one at the end. In between, every screen moment is used to develop Rocky as a person. He is not traditional hero material - he's crude, stupid, boorish, and has limited aspirations. Nevertheless, there's something likable about the guy, and it has its root in the gentle, caring way he treats Adrian. And it's this relationship that's the key to making Rocky's ending triumphant. He may lose the fight, but he gains so much more.

Throughout film history, boxing movies have often been about characters who regain self-respect and the respect of others through their activities in the ring. Unlike On the Waterfront and Raging Bull, Rocky is only about regrets and lost opportunities in that it gives the protagonist an opportunity to overcome these. Yet Rocky is not the ultimate "feel good" movie. If it was, Rocky would have won the fight and gotten the girl. With the ending, Stallone wanted to emphasize one of life's simplest lessons - that some things are more important than winning. It's a message that became diluted upon the release of Rocky II, when Stallone gave into public pressure and allowed the character to take the belt from Apollo - an unfortunate (yet perhaps inevitable) development.

Rocky is widely considered to be Stallone's movie - in addition to writing and starring in it, he also choreographed the boxing sequences. But he did not direct the movie. That job went to John Avildson, a filmmaker of no particular distinction at the time who was propelled by his success here to a modestly rewarding career. Avildson's work here should not be underestimated. Rocky has a lot of heart, and, while Stallone deserves some credit for this, Avildson's contributions were equally important. And the direction of the climactic fight is masterful - Avildson's handling of this 15-minute segment makes us believe we're watching a real boxing match. In addition to the adrenaline rush, there's the sense of not knowing who's going to emerge victorious. Following Rocky, Avildson found a niche directing sports movies. His other projects included three Karate Kid films, Rocky V, and 8 Seconds.

Considering what the Rocky series became - popcorn action films with little heart, less intelligence, and a lot of testosterone - it's a somewhat refreshing experience to go back and re-connect with the original, which offers a lot more substance than the sequels. Rocky is not a flawless motion picture, but it is a feel-good classic, and well worth another look. The basic storyline has been done to death over the years; this is still one of the most effective and successful applications of the formula.

Rocky (United States, 1976)

Director: John G. Avildsen
Cast: Sylvester Stallone, Talia Shire, Burt Young, Carl Weathers, Burgess Meredith
Screenplay: Sylvester Stallone
Cinematography: James Crabe
Music: Bill Conti
U.S. Distributor: United Artists
Run Time: 1:59
U.S. Release Date: 1976-11-21
MPAA Rating: "PG" (Violence, Profanity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1