There are certain films which you assume you’ve seen. Rocky was one of these films. I could have sworn that I saw it as a kid but having watched it today, I’m now pretty sure that I’ve never seen it before. The film is so ingrained in popular culture that I knew the central characters and story well and recognised a lot of the iconic music and set piece scenes. I watched Rocky as part of my pledge to watch every Best Picture winning film but had been putting it off for a while. I don’t like boxing and I have no affinity for Sylvester Stallone either. The prospect of Sly and boxing plus memories of the bits of Rocky movies I had seen didn’t have me rushing to seek it out. Before watching I kept thinking to myself, “How on Earth did a film about boxing, written by and starring Sylvester Stallone win Best Picture at the Oscars?” Now I’ve seen it I can understand its appeal and enjoyed it quite a lot.
Rocky is a classic rags to riches story of a down and out semi-pro boxer/loan collector who is considered a bum by most of the neighbourhood. Early on it is made clear that Rocky ‘the Italian Stallion’ Balboa (Stallone) had talent but a lack of discipline and fell into the trappings of the mean streets of his home town of Philadelphia. Heavy Weight Champion Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) decides his next fight will be in Philly to celebrate America’s Bicentennial. When his opponent drops out he looks for a replacement and decides to invite a local boxer to challenge him for the title. That challenger is the seemingly down and out Rocky.
Rocky has the 1970s dirt and grittiness which is one of the things I love about the likes of Taxi Driver and Dog Day Afternoon. I’m neither American, nor was I alive in the 70s but my impression from the movies is that US cities back then were grimy and decrepit and falling to pieces. I have a thing for decaying beauty on screen and the Philly in Rocky certainly has it. The neighbourhood is trash littered and grimy, features long disused factories and feels like a working class neighbourhood should. The characters are also recognisably working class in a mould which you rarely see in modern movies. I can think of few successful movies from recent years which tell the story of working class neighbourhoods and people which is a shame because some of the best films in history (Raging Bull, On the Waterfront) do just that. Talking of On the Waterfront, there are shades of Brando’s Terry Malloy in Balboa.
The plot is interesting and engaging and had me hooked. I was interested in Rocky and in Adrian (Talia Shire). As well as being a boxing movie and a redemption story, Rocky is also a family drama and features alcoholism, crime, romance and melodrama. The plot was surprisingly deep for what is essentially a boxing movie written by Sly Stallone. The idea of the final fight is utterly preposterous but I went with it. The thought that the heavyweight champion of the world would pluck some nobody out to fight for the championship is ridiculous and the lack of media circus surrounding the fight was also difficult to believe. The film’s pacing also made it feel as though the fight crept up on us and there was little training besides a typical montage, something for which Rocky films have become renowned for. I did enjoy the “pounding raw meat” line. The movie is chock full of American patriotism and no country does patriotism quite like the USA. The bicentennial fight is covered with flags and Apollo Creed comes out dressed as a Pilgrim before transforming into George Washington. As an Englishman watching in 2013 this looks quite funny but I’m sure to a God fearing, burger eating, flag waving, rifle toting American in 1976, this was one of the greatest things around. I’m certain that in part the film’s success is down to its American Dream story couple with year of release.
I’ve already mentioned that I’m no fan of Sylvester Stallone. I’ve seen his recent Expendables films and Rambo but I generally try to avoid his movies. Bullet to the Head just looked laughable. My admiration for him as an actor has increased now I’ve seen him in Rocky though. Rocky was Stallone’s sixth feature film but it launched him to stardom and ignited a career which is still going strong today. The film captures a more innocent Stallone though, a Stallone before the image and bravado which accompanies him today. It certainly benefits from his lack of fame. His accent is pretty good and his acting isn’t terrible either but he was nominated for an Oscar. Really Academy? Talia Shire, who is best known as Connie Corleone in The Godfather films impressed me greatly. She begins the movie as a shy and coy girl who hides behind her glasses as well as actual props but as her relationship develops with Balboa she comes out of her shell and ends the film in a loving embrace with the star and with the immortal likes “Adrian! Adrian!” ringing out. Carl Weathers isn’t given much to do outside the ring and doesn’t feature heavily but inside the ring, he, Stallone and director John G. Avilsden create some great boxing scenes.
Overall I liked Rocky much more than I was expecting to. The story is good and I loved the grittiness of the Philadelphia streets. It’s nice to see the scene in which Rocky climbs the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art (a scene I recreated on a visit to the city in 2008). The film is not without its flaws and its Best Picture award feels unearned (it beat Taxi Driver !!!) but in general I have little against Rocky. It’s far from perfect but it kept my attention and shows a side of Stallone I hadn’t seen before.
- In the scene in which Rocky punches the slabs of meat, Stallone punched so hard and for so long that he flattened his knuckles and they remain so to this day.
- Director John G. Avilsden had never seen a boxing match before signing on to direct.
- The film makers struggled to find extras for the final fight due to the low budget and lack of fame of its stars. Empty seats are visible in certain shots.
- The film was produced for around $1 million but went on to bring in $225 million and was the biggest film at the 1976 box office.