“A Philadelphia fighter who never made the big time…He showed he could take on a challenge…and won something bigger than a championship bout.”
Director: John G. Avildsen
Cast: Sylvester Stallone, Talia Shire, Burt Young
Synopsis: Rocky Balboa, a small-time boxer gets a supremely rare chance to fight the heavy-weight champion, Apollo Creed, in a bout in which he strives to go the distance for his self-respect.
It’s late 1975 in a cold and grim Philadelphia. Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) works as a debt collector for a money-lender. He’s a big man, with fists like slabs of meat, but he also has a gentle nature that is at odds with his hulking frame and a job that often requires him to deliver beatings to late-paying clients. Rocky also earns pocket money fighting in boxing matches. He once had potential, but his lack of discipline meant that he never quite achieved the status in the fight game that he might have had if he’d applied himself. It’s a fact that grates with Mickey (Burgess Meredith), the owner of the local boxing gym who, after six years, has Rocky’s things removed from his locker and hung from a hook in the area known as Skid Row by the patrons of the gym.
Rocky drifts through life, secretly haunted by the knowledge that he let his talent in the ring go to waste. He’s sweet on Adrian (Talia Shire), a painfully shy sales assistant in the local pet shop. She’s the sister of Paulie (Burt Young), Rocky’s semi-alcoholic friend who works in an abattoir, but who keeps pestering Rocky to get him a job with his boss, Tony Gazzo (Joe Spinnell). Paulie sets up a date between Rocky and Adrian without his sister’s knowledge, but she goes along anyway, and a hesitant romance begins between them. This patient pursuit of Adrian by Rocky demonstrates the sweet, caring nature that lurks beneath his bruising exterior, and Rocky’s playful sense of humour allows the audience to warm towards him. Unlike Terry Malloy, the tortured hero of On the Waterfront to whom Rocky is often compared, Stallone’s character is essentially a warm and humane one. Rocky has no-one to blame for his stalled boxing career other than himself, a fact which he regretfully accepts.
While Rocky goes about his daily business, Apollo Creed, the undisputed Heavyweight World Champion (modelled on Muhammad Ali) learns that his intended opponent has had to pull out of their championship bout, and decides to offer an opportunity to a no-hoper as a publicity stunt. He eventually selects Rocky, attracted by his nickname, The Italian Stallion. Rocky’s immediate reaction is to turn down the offer, but he eventually realises that he won’t be able to live with himself if he lets such an opportunity pass him by. When Mickey visits Rocky asking for the opportunity to coach him, Rocky eventually overcomes his anger and consents.
The movie is in no rush to get to the bout with Creed. It takes its time getting to know the characters, and the run-down working class environment in which they live, and nearly an hour has gone by before Rocky begins his training in earnest for the bout. The now-obligatory montage sequence played out against pounding music follows, topped off by the iconic shot of Rocky bounding up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art which he had earlier barely been able to ascend and bouncing, on his feet with his arms aloft.
It’s a testimony to the simple power of Rocky that the fight with Creed, which takes up about ten minutes of screen time, still manages to have the viewer on the edge of their seat even after repeated viewings. There’s no denying that it’s shot with manipulation of the audience in mind, and that the fighting style of both men would have them cold on the canvas within seconds in a real fight (Mickey clearly doesn’t teach his fighters how to block), but by now Stallone’s script has succeeded in allowing us to overlook the artifice in order to root for the underdog. The story might be as old as the hills, but it’s told with a belief and vigour which invests it with a renewed spark of life so that it is this movie that now stands as the benchmark of its genre.
I think much of the movie’s success lies with the fact that Stallone managed to fit realistic, working-class characters into his familiar story. Paulie, Adrian, even Tony Gazzo, the money-lender who berates Rocky for not breaking the thumb of a late-payer, are all recognisable figures from a dying, desolate urban landscape. Their authenticity adds an unexpected depth, while that grainy realism peculiar to movies of the 1970s is succinctly captured by James Crabe’s cinematography. Of course, given Stallone’s subsequent writing credits, there is the suspicion that Rocky is something of a fortunate accident, but that’s all the more reason to embrace it as a crowd-pleasing modern classic.
(Reviewed 31st March 2013)