(Check out the list so far)
The Movie: Rocky (1976)
One Sentence Plot Summary: Rocky Balboa serves as a Great White Hope against Apollo Creed.
Why It’s on the List:
I’m not a huge boxing fan, yet this is the first of three boxing films I’m going to be writing about this week. The story of this movie is almost as interesting as the movie itself. Sylvester Stallone himself was an underdog who wrote a script and was very broke. He got the script into the hands of the right producers, and at a time when cinema was producing some awfully depressing films, Rocky served as hope; the ultimate underdog story. There had been other underdog sports movies before, but this was a whole new level. It incredibly won Best Picture over two of the greatest films of the century, All the President’s Men and Network. While I think those latter two films are indeed better, this is indeed one of the most iconic films ever produced.
This is certainly not a perfect film. There are some awkward moments, and I think audiences would be shocked by how slow paced it was. There’s also very little boxing relative to the sequels and spin-offs as we see Rocky fight Spider Rico and then Apollo Creed. Stallone is as vulnerable as he’s ever been, and the script he crafted feels so down to earth. There are some issues, but Rocky Balboa got a one in a million shot (not unlike Sylvester Stallone), and went the distance. John Avildson makes Philadelphia feel the kind of grimey that so many other 1970s films have.
What struck me so much on the rewatch was how dark the film is. Rocky works for a loan shark and is basically a hitman. Adrian is clearly in an abusive relationship with her alcoholic brother as she can’t even have the confidence to leave the house for a date. There’s also some subtleness that so many modern films seem to be missing. It’s never blatantly obvious Rocky is being set up to failure. No one ever comes out and directly, but the script lays just enough bread crumbs to provide clarity, climaxing with Rocky saying he just wants to go the distance (if ever there was a mantra for our times).
This movie gets so many of the small moments right, from the conversation on the ice skating rink to Rocky wanting desperately to find Adrian after the fight is over. This remains a hell of a film.
*Rocky lifted many elements from Chuck Wepner’s life, and it always felt wrong Wepner didn’t get compensation until decades later.
*Rocky Balboa is a Great White Hope. Apollo Creed may be based on Muhammad Ali in some ways, but the former is much more focused on external things. Ali was someone who cared about humanity and had strong political views. Apollo is very much an empty vessel.
*The Rocky, Adrian, and Paulie stuff is weird. Paulie is clearly abusive toward his sister, but Rocky comes off like a stalker at times. In 1976, this isn’t a problem, but it’s definitely creepier in 2020.
MVP: Sylvester Stallone is the impetus for all of this as both the sole-credited screenwriter and star of the film. You can see the potential of him as an actor. He’s not some jacked up action star here but someone trying to live his life on the streets of Philadelphia. He is only able to better himself through the luck of having a memorable nickname and being a Great White Hope for people wanting to see Apollo Creed defeated. Stallone has showed his ability as an actor a number of times…but maybe not enough. Regardless, this was the start of a near 50 year career and legacy for this franchise.
Best Performance: Burgess Meredith is incredible as Mickey. He’s a very angry and bitter old man, but the scene where he shows real vulnerability, knowing Rocky is his last chance at a contender is compelling. In a movie loaded with great back and forths, Rocky and Mickey have one for the ages. It’s unclear how much Mickey cares about Rocky, but in the end, Rocky realizes they need each other. Meredith is kind of a forgotten man, but he brings so much. In a way, he’s the Alec Guinness of this franchise except with a lot more oneliners.
Best Quote: “Ah come on, Adrian, it’s true. I was nobody. But that don’t matter either, you know? ‘Cause I was thinkin’, it really don’t matter if I lose this fight. It really don’t matter if this guy opens my head, either. ‘Cause all I wanna do is go the distance. Nobody’s ever gone the distance with Creed, and if I can go that distance, you see, and that bell rings and I’m still standin’, I’m gonna know for the first time in my life, see, that I weren’t just another bum from the neighborhood.” – Rocky
Is there a sequel? Boy were there.
How were they? Rocky II is pretty depressing for the first 90 minutes, and Adrian is written as a nag. Rocky III is entertaining, even though Paulie is really racist. Rocky IV might be the most iconic bad movie of all-time. Rocky V never happened. Rocky Balboa was a solid way for the franchise to end once and for all as they returned to the heart of the character. It should have been over, but…