Should I Watch..? 'Rocky'
What's the big deal?
Rocky is a sports drama film released in 1976 and was directed by John G. Avildsen. Written by its star Sylvester Stallone, the film follows an underachieving club boxer struggling to get by who is suddenly offered the chance of a lifetime against the heavyweight champion of the world. The film also stars Talia Shire, Burt Young, Burgess Meredith and Carl Weathers. Made on a low budget of just over a million dollars, the film became a smash hit and went on to earn more than $225 million worldwide as well as ten Oscar nominations. The film was also lauded by critics and is responsible for helping establish Stallone as a major star in Hollywood. Such is the film's stature that it was selected in 2006 for preservation at the US National Film Registry at the Library of Congress. This film would be followed by numerous sequels, the first of which Rocky II was released in 1979.
What's it about?
Thirty-year-old journeyman boxer Rocky Balboa operates out of Mickey Goldmill's gym in Philadelphia and has sadly squandered much of his talent. Working as hired muscle for local loan shark Tony Gazzo, Rocky isn't the smartest of people but he has a kind heart and is hopelessly in love with the shy, part-time pet store worker Adrian. However, he know that he isn't going anywhere and becomes increasingly disillusioned with his lot in life - especially after his locker of six years is given over to another boxer Mickey hopes to train up. Meanwhile, heavyweight champion Apollo Creed decides to fight a local competitor from Philadelphia after his scheduled opponent for the title pulls out. Largely due to Rocky's nickname of The Italian Stallion, Creed picks a fight with Balboa.
Knowing that he is unlikely to get a chance like this again, Rocky begins taking himself more seriously as a fighter through rigorous training and ditching the cigarettes. But as Rocky gets in better shape, his relationship with Adrian develops which threatens the friendship between Rocky and Adrian's older brother, Paulie. As the night of the fight draws closer, the enormity of the task in front of him - not to mention the eyes of the boxing world - starts to create doubt in Rocky's mind about how the fight will go.
Robert "Rocky" Balboa
Adrianna "Adrian" Pennino
George "Miles" Jergens
Tony Burton, Apollo's trainer
John G. Avildsen
Release Date (UK)
21st April, 1977
Best Film, Best Director, Best Film Editing
Academy Award Nominations
Best Actor (Stallone), Best Actress (Shire), Best Supporting Actor (Meredith), Best Supporting Actor (Young), Best Original Screenplay, Best Sound, Best Original Song
What's to like?
In some respects, Rocky is almost immune for criticism because the entire film has been enshrined in pop culture through memes, parodies and countless imitations. But watching it for the first time today (finger on the pulse, me!), it struck me how much Stallone invests in the film and not just the sheer amount of physical exertion. He genuinely inhabits a character in a way we rarely see these days, reminding us that he is a real actor and not just another muscle-bound meathead. Even his speech, that low and monotonous spiel of his, seems to fit the character well and it's little surprise that it's Balboa and not Rambo which is his signature role.
But Stallone's presence and physicality is just one facet of this film which won me over in spite of deep-rooted cynicism and initial disinterest. Meredith gives a great performance as Rocky's trainer while Spire also provides a reminder of how great an actress she is as Rocky's love interest. The film does feel a little far-fetched at times but it's interesting seeing Rocky as an unpopular thug instead of the baby-faced champion we tend to associate the character with. At times, he's almost unlikable but the script knows the story we want to see and is happy to show us this underdog coming good in the end.
- In the film, Rocky has two turtles called Cuff and Link which he bought from the pet store where Adrian works. After shooting finished, Stallone kept the turtles nwhich are still alive and well as of June 2019. Rocky's dog Butkus was also Stallone's real-life dog.
- Many of the shots of Rocky jogging through Philadelphia were shot on location with no permits or equipment. The shot of the market stall owner throwing Rocky an orange was completely spontaneous as the trader had no idea a movie was being shot or that he would be in it. In reality, many of the onlookers had no idea why Stallone (a relative unknown at the time) was being filmed running up and down their streets.
- Not only was Rocky the highest grossing film of 1976 but it also was one of the very first films to feature the Steadicam invented by cameraman Garrett Brown. A now ubiquitous piece of film-making equipment, the Steadicam was used to shoot Rocky running up the stairs at the Philadelphia Art Museum which was inspired by the footage Brown shot using the Steadicam of his girlfriend running up the same flight of steps.
- This film marks the on-screen debut of Michael Dorn who would find fame playing Klingon officer Worf in Star Trek: The Next Generation and their subsequent movies starting with Star Trek Generations. Dorn played an unnamed bodyguard to Apollo Creed.
What's not to like?
I did feel that many of the early scenes are noticeably under-lit, which doesn't help identify characters of actions as we are trying to do so. It isn't just in Rocky's run-down apartment that could benefit from some illumination - Paulie and Adrian's place also feels obscured by darkness for some reason. I was also bothered by the relationship between Paulie and Adrian which needed some clarification for me. However, my biggest issue - which admittedly might be due to the current climate in Hollywood regarding female representation and sexual harassment - was the relationship between Rocky and Adrian which fails to find any sort of footing in the film. Given the awkward circumstances of their first date, it feels slightly creepy watching Rocky hit on a woman clearly uncomfortable of her surroundings. But before we know it, there are unable to keep their hands off each other despite an obvious lack of chemistry. I felt a little sorry for Shire, to be honest.
The film's pace also seems a little off. Until the prospect of the fight is dangled in front of Rocky, the film drags its heels showing our hero being miserable as his life slowly seems to choke the enthusiasm out of his existence. But the training scenes and the fight itself, brutal and sweaty in stunning detail, run along at such a rapid pace that the film seems to all but forget about the romantic subplot other than the famous "Adrian!" dialogue at the movie's climax. Am I being too picky? Possibly but what's a boxing film without a few cheap shots, huh?
Should I watch it?
For boxing fans, this is a totally unmissable movie that romanticises the sport in a way better than any fairy-tale. Stallone fans should also make Rocky an essential watch as it is a fine testament to Stallone's talents as both a writer and actor which tend to be overlooked these days. Aside from a few minor issues and the awkwardness of the film's two lovers, this film is a country mile better than the slew of boxing movies that emerged in its aftermath (including its own sequels) and has inspired both admiration and imitation in equal measures.
Great For: boxing fans, Stallone's career, United Artist's coffers
Not So Great For: anyone put off by combat sports, the hard of hearing who might struggle to hear Stallone's dialogue, Italian-American stereotypes
What else should I watch?
Rocky also holds another record - it is the leading Best Picture winner to have as many sequels as it does with seven so far. The first - Rocky II - is probably the closest to this film in terms of critical reception (as you may have guessed, I haven't seen any of the others just yet) but the series would get increasingly stagnant over the years until the 2006 reboot/revival Rocky Balboa which saw a now sixty-year-old Stallone return to the ring for one final bout. It might not be the greatest movie ever made but it is a considerable improvement on the wretched Rocky V.
Thankfully, the series took a detour with the release of 2015's Creed which instead focused on the son of Rocky's formidable opponent Apollo Creed. With Michael B Jordan starring in the lead, Stallone wisely moves to the sidelines as Rocky now turns into a trainer himself. With the series revived once again, one wonders how much longer they can keep making these sort of films. However, the critics still hold one other boxing film in higher esteem than any of the Rocky films including this one. Martin Scorsese's Raging Bull is a powerful study of one of boxing's most notorious characters Jake LaMotta with Robert De Niro playing the boxer in and out of the ring. Today, it is often considered as one of the best film of Scorsese's career and arguably the greatest boxing movie ever made.
© 2019 Benjamin Cox