Friday Film Focus: Rocky

I have seen Rocky more times than I can count. I grew up cheering on the fictional character alongside my dad in our living room. Rocky is a story about a punk club fighter from the back streets of Philly who gets a crack at the world championship. This description may sound like a cliché from beginning to end. But Rocky isn’t about a story…it’s about a hero.

On Nov. 21, 1976, Sylvester Stallone was vaulted to “the hottest new star” of the year with the debut of Rocky. The film — which claimed the Best Picture Oscar at the 49th Academy Awards — became a pop culture milestone. It then developed into an enduring franchise for Stallone. Rocky is a not-too-bright yet decent young man. He also happens to be a third-rate heavyweight working out of a second-rate gym in South Philadelphia. On the side (for eating money), he works for a loanshark by breaking the thumbs of delinquent debtors. On paper, the character may not seem terribly appealing. However, on screen, he steals your heart away.

Rocky was actually the creation of Stallone. He wrote the film, and with Rocky-like spunk and determination, badgered producers into allowing him to do it. Rocky comes from a dead-end neighborhood. It’s the type of place where kids hang out on street corners talking tough, and their elders sit in dim bars drinking beer. Rocky himself has few expectations about his future. He would love to make it as a boxer, but so far the kinds of fights he’s been winning barely pay for the necessary repairs to his battered body. The film inhabits a curiously deserted Philadelphia. There aren’t any cars parked on the slum street where Rocky lives — nor is the slightest sign that anyone lives there. His world is rather small.

By day, he works as an enforcer for a small time criminal. In his spare time, he works out at Mickey’s gym. Stallone’s Rocky is a plodding thinker equipped with a boxer’s traditional compassion for people more fragile than himself. He puts his arm around angry (and aging) trainer Mickey (Burgess Meredith) just as Mickey is showing an interest in Rocky as a fighter. Rocky also feels protective toward the painfully introverted girl in the pet shop (Talia Shire) with whom he has a wonderful love affair. He has a couple turtles at home, named Cuff and Link, and a goldfish named Moby Dick. After he wins forty bucks one night for taking a terrible battering in the ring, he comes home and tells the turtles: “If you guys could sing and dance, I wouldn’t have to go through this crap.” When the girl asks him why he boxes, he explains: “Because I can’t sing and dance.” The film then ventures into fantasy when the world heavyweight champion Apollo Creed (played by Carl Weathers) decides to schedule a New Years Eve bout with a total unknown. Creed — a character with a clear similarity to Muhammad Ali — wants to prove that America is still the land of opportunity.

Rocky gets picked because of his nickname, “The Italian Stallion.” What makes Rocky so extraordinary is that it doesn’t try to surprise us with an original plot. It instead wants to involve us on an elemental level. It’s about heroism and realizing one’s potential, about taking your best shot and sticking by your girl. It sounds almost cliched and corny. Yet, it’s not at all. It involves us emotionally. It makes us commit to ourselves. We may find ourselves surprised to actually care about the characters. In addition to a heartwarming script, Stallone has created a character of enormous appeal and charm. Rocky is sparingly articulate — but also funny, gruff, and good-hearted. His idea of courtship is to drop by the pet shop where his girl works, and tell her a terrible joke. This happens once in the morning, and once in the evening. There is a supremely touching moment when this uncouth fellow — a cigarette dangling from his lips — carefully explains to a 12-year-old kid why she shouldn’t talk dirty. Another is when Rocky has resentment against Mickey — as the trainer will only manage him based upon Rocky’s newfound shot at the title: “Where were you when I needed you?”

Director John Avildsen correctly isolates Rocky in his urban environment. Rocky is a legend, and his plight is bigger than life. You have to set them apart visually so you can isolate them morally. Avildsen realized  all of this with extraordinary insight. The director also has an even more extraordinary feeling for the rhythm and pace of his film. The performances (Stallone, Burgess, Shire, Thayer David, Burt Young) all seem to respond to the originality and the sense of truth that underlies their characters. Another thing must be said for James Crabe’s incredible camera work. This includes not only his stunning views of Philadelphia’s historic monuments, but also the squalor of the south slums, two breathtaking swoops up the broad steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum, a protracted run past swinging sides of beef in the meat packing plant, and of course the end scene as Rocky and Apollo go head-to-head.

In many ways, Rocky is a picture that made movie history. The film received many positive reviews, and turned Stallone into a major star. In 2006, the film was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” It is considered one of the greatest sports film ever made, and has spawned six sequels. As drenched in sentiment as it is in sweat, and as much a love story as a fight film, this classic tale of a tireless “bum” who makes good is one of the most uplifting films ever made.

Image Source: Variety