Directed by: John G. Avildsen
Premise: Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) is a small time fighter eking out a living in the boxing clubs of Philadelphia while romancing Adrian (Talia Shire), a shy pet store clerk. As a promotional stunt, heavyweight boxing champion Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) gives Rocky a shot at the title.
What Works: Over the past forty years, Rocky has become a cultural touchstone and its title character is as essential to American fiction as Holden Caulfield and Atticus Finch. But those seeing this movie for the first time or revisiting it after a long absence might be surprised by what they find. Rocky was a product of the 1970s, a period of American cinema that was cynical and morally ambiguous; titles released the same year as Rocky include Taxi Driver, All the President’s Men, and Network. Stylistically, Rocky is of a piece with its contemporaries but thematically Rocky was optimistic. In many respects this was a film of an earlier era and Rocky recalled the pictures of George Cukor and Frank Capra. There is a creative tension in this movie that’s best observed in the contrast between James Crabe’s gritty cinematography and Bill Conti’s romantic musical score. These things shouldn’t go together but they do, to near perfection. The visuals are bound to the gutter of the Philadelphia streets but the score uplifts the characters and fills in the aspiration for something better. Following in the tradition of Horatio Alger, Rocky taps into the belief in meritocracy in a way that few films have but the picture doesn’t oversell itself. The optimism of Rocky is limited. In the most critical scene of the movie, Rocky says that his goal is not to win the bout but to “go the distance” against Apollo Creed and prove that he’s “not just another bum from the neighborhood.” That focus on the character’s deeper, interior struggle—as opposed to the fleeting glory of competition—distinguishes Rocky from its imitators and gives this film its power. That deeper understanding of the human character extends to the entire core cast. The film is teeming with characters who are human and damaged. That is perhaps the greatest asset of this film; Rocky is full of memorable characters who are brought to life by perfect matches of actors with their roles. The central performance is of course Sylvester Stallone as Rocky Balboa. Stallone’s acting career has been uneven but there was always something special about his portrayal of Rocky. The character is tough and simpleminded but he is also earnest and good hearted. That, along with Stallone’s charisma, makes for an irresistible character. Talia Shire stars as Adrian, the love of Rocky’s life, and she has the most dramatic character arc of the movie as she gradually opens herself up to love and discovers her own voice. Their unlikely love story enhances the romantic sentiment at the core of the film. Also notable are Burt Young as Paulie, Adrian’s brother and Rocky’s friend, and Burges Meredith as Mickey, the boxing trainer. Paulie is a bitter drunk who ought to be insufferable but Young infuses the character with pitiful humanity; he’s the pessimistic shadow of Rocky. Mickey is the no-nonsense father figure and he too has moments that reveal his own frailty. The complexity and humanity of these characters is what makes Rocky so impactful. This movie isn’t about conquest. It is about the struggle for dignity. And the filmmakers are clearly self-aware of that fact; the sequence in which Apollo Creed and his people hatch the plan that will ultimately bring Rocky into the ring isn’t borne out of altruism but out of crass commercialism. They are cynically playing to the sentimentality of the common man. In this moment, the filmmakers become almost self-reflexive; the appeal of the fight is the same as the appeal of the movie. And because the film acknowledges that and then fills its story with authentic characters heaving with pathos, Rocky cuts to the core of the American Dream.
What Doesn’t: Fans of the later Rocky films and of Stallone’s filmography will be surprised to find how little boxing action there is in this movie. The picture opens and closes with fight sequences but aside from the famous training montages, much of Rocky is subdued. This is a movie about people rather than punching. That’s not a flaw of the movie but it is likely to catch uninitiated viewers off guard. Rocky was a small scale production—the budget was allegedly just over a million dollars—and at times it shows, especially in the climactic fight scene. Careful viewers will notice that the arena is actually quite empty and the use of stock footage is sometimes obvious. Rocky is also a rough-looking film. The coarse visual style suits the subject matter and the tone of the story but some editions of Rocky are visually uneven with some shots excessively grainy.
DVD extras: The edition of Rocky released in “The Heavyweight Collection” has been remastered in 4K. Special features particular to Rocky in this set include commentary tracks, a documentary, featurettes, interviews, and trailers.
Bottom Line: Rocky is an extraordinary film not for its athletic scenes or even its inspirational qualities, which are considerable. What makes Rocky impactful is the way it captures the struggle of everyday people to assert themselves against a callous world. Four decades later, that idea still resonates.
Episode: #623 (November 27, 2016)