Everyone loves an underdog. And #6 showcases the best of them all.
It gave us one of the all-time great cinematic characters, burned a theme song into our minds forever and taught us that sometimes, there are more important things than winning.
Sometimes, you just gotta go the distance…
#6. Rocky (1976) Sylvester Stallone, Talia Shire, Carl Weathers, Burgess Meredith. Directed by John G. Avildsen.
What can I say about this film? Why do I love it so much? Well, it has everything.
If you like;
- an inspirational underdog story,
- a loveable hero,
- a surprisingly-underrated performance from a lead actor,
- a solid, well-rounded script,
- a three-dimensional, so-called ‘villain’,
- an iconic music score,
- a touching, romantic sub-plot,
- and a mentor figure for the ages…
… chances are you’ll enjoy Rocky.
The movie teases a grand story with its opening shot. The screen-high titles and horn section fanfare promise the world, only to open in a dingy little gym filled with drunks and layabouts, watching a slugfest between two lesser-than-great fighters. Funnily enough, the movie actually begins and ends with a boxing match; however, they couldn’t be any more different.
It’s common place for heroes to have humble beginnings, and in this opening sequence, Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) couldn’t be any more humble. Yes, he gets the win against Spider Rico (Pedro Lovell), but it isn’t pretty. As he’s told later, Rocky has heart, but he ‘fights like a goddamn ape’. There’s no skill or talent in this victory, much less any honour.
It’s interesting to see Rocky’s early mindset in his first fight. He has no real willingness to be there, and he only wins after losing his cool. He is booed and jeered by the crowd. He has no real mentor in his corner and no one he cares about (or who cares about him) is present to watch or support him. It’s a far cry from where we’ll find Rocky by the end of the film.
Stallone of course, plays Rocky, the southpaw boxer given a one-in-a-million shot at the World Heavyweight Title, but Stallone also wrote the movie’s excellent script. With yet another character-driven seventies film, Stallone focuses on his creations rather than a complicated plot.
The story arcs for the film’s characters are superb. As we continue looking at Rocky, we see in the early moments of the film how he truly has nothing. His shabby apartment is a mess. His only real friends seem to be his goldfish and baby turtles, he practices talking to an unknown person, who we’ll later learn is pet shop worker, Adrian (Talia Shire), and he boxes simply because he can. Rocky is also under no illusions as to his lot in life. The young pictures of himself seem to remind Rocky of what might have been.
We see that his main source of income is acting as a heavy for Gazzo (Joe Spinelli), the local loan shark. But instead of breaking his target’s thumb as instructed, the good-natured Rocky lets the guy off, much to his boss’s chagrin.
No one respects Rocky early on. Not the boxing crowd. Not the owner of the pet store. Not Gazzo or his mouthy driver. Not little Marie, the smart-mouthed teenage girl Rocky walks home to keep safe (who then flips him off), and especially not local boxing trainer, Mick (Burgess Meredith).
Upon arriving at the gym he’s trained at for six years, Rocky finds his gear has been removed from what is no longer his locker to make room for a new ‘contender’ that Mick seems eager to train.
The initial dynamic between Rocky and Mick is one of antagonism. Their confrontation in the gym literally stops a room full of training tough guys in their tracks. Both Stallone and Meredith are wonderfully-intense in this scene and it only helps build their relationship as the story continues.
Especially once Mick learns of Rocky’s later title shot. All of sudden, it seems that the elderly trainer can see a pay day. It’s only when we learn that Mick sees Rocky’s opportunity as his possible last shot at the big time that we understand the old man’s plight, but his offer to manage Rocky against World Heavyweight Champion, Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) falls on deaf ears at first.
Stallone’s Academy Award-nominated performance is probably at its peak in this scene. His reluctance to even look at Mick soon moves to resentment. Once Mick leaves and Rocky explodes with anger (saying all the things to the door that he couldn’t say to Mick’s face), it lays everything out in the open, both belittling Mick and himself at the same time.
However, in true Rocky fashion, as Mick leaves a broken soul, Rocky takes all but a minute to change his mind and go after the old man in the first of what would be many touching scenes between Stallone and Burgess over the years.
I’ve always said Mick is a trainer you’d go to war for. Just like Mr. Miyagi from director John G. Avildsen‘s other underdog film, The Karate Kid. Say what you will, but the man knew how to direct underdog stories with inspiring, father-like mentor figures.
One crucial piece of the Rocky puzzle is the relationship that develops between Rocky and Adrian. It has to be one of the most endearing love stories in all of Hollywood history.
We first meet Adrian when Rocky visits her pet store to make uncomfortable small-talk and charm her with his bad jokes (which, thanks to Shire’s subtle ‘blink-and-you’ll-miss-it’ smile, seems to be working). She is clearly intrigued by Rocky, but her shy and sheltered personality won’t let her hang around long enough to learn more.
Adrian also seems an unlikely target for Rocky’s affections. Typically, we’d expect to see a character like him chasing after some big-haired, buxom blonde. But such is the nature of these enduring characters. Rocky is the epitome of the old saying, ‘looks can be deceiving’.
When Rocky returns a second time to the pet store, he nervously asks Adrian to a basketball game. She pretends she didn’t hear him and he pretends he didn’t ask, instead switching the conversation to his woes with Mick at the training gym. Hearing a seemingly-confident and physically-powerful man like Rocky lament his treatment by others strikes a chord with Adrian, who suddenly seems even more enamoured with Rocky.
Their makeshift ice-skating date opens Adrian’s eyes to the person locked away within Rocky. His would-be boxing anecdotes, while intended to be good-natured chit-chat, actually reveals Rocky’s charming, self-effacing and subtly-introverted personality. Adrian finally sees through the outer shell to witness a person just as ‘damaged’ as she is.
The contrast of Rocky telling Adrian he doesn’t have much of a brain, so he learned to use his body, compared to Adrian’s opposite advice from her mother about not having ‘much of a body’, so she developed her brain, sets them up as a perfect, romantic odd-couple.
As he says later in a wonderfully-Rocky-styled summary of co-dependence, “She’s got gaps, I’ve got gaps… together we fill gaps.”
This changes everything for Rocky. He now has someone to come home to, someone to make all his fighting seem worthwhile. And while Rocky becomes physically more confident from this point forward, Adrian becomes visibly more assertive the longer the film goes on. Initially covered in drab clothes and hidden behind a pair of ugly glasses, by the end of the movie, she is full of colour… and life.
Yet the peak of Adrian’s rebirth is when she finally stands up to her overbearing slob of a brother, Paulie (Burt Young).
Again, while the franchise soon became all about in-ring action and montages, the original Rocky remains determined to focus on characters. With Paulie, we get one of the most multi-faceted supporting characters of all time.
Minutes after first seeing him trying to comb ‘his hair’ in a soiled bathroom and learning he’s Adrian’s older brother, we immediately understand why Adrian acts the way she does. He mentions how he thinks she’s nothing more than a ‘barren loser’, who at the ripe old age of thirty, is in serious danger of ‘ending up alone’.
Stallone’s script isn’t afraid to make Paulie unlikable. He thinks the world owes him a living. He has several Philadelphia-sized chips on his shoulder, especially once Rocky gets his title shot. At this stage, the once nagging Paulie becomes even more jealous and incensed by Rocky’s very presence.
When Paulie brings Rocky home for Thanksgiving (unbeknownst to Adrian), this scene really showcases their abusive relationship (at least in the original film). These moments are easily Paulie’s worst in the entire film series, but it does snap Adrian into taking Rocky up on his offer of a date; if nothing else but to spite Paulie.
Rocky finally has enough when he meets Paulie at the meat plant, after Paulie implies he ‘offered’ Rocky his sister so Rocky would introduce him to Gazzo. But instead of taking his anger out on Paulie, Rocky pounds his fists into one of the nearby beef carcasses in a scene that has become indelible to the franchise.
It’s a great scene, since we get insight into Rocky’s character (yet again). He isn’t willing to beat up a waste-of-space like Paulie, so instead he sends a silent message by pounding the beef. The expression on Paulie’s face as he realises exactly what Rocky could do to him if pushed is priceless. Truly the look of a man with a big mouth who can’t back it up.
Every great hero needs a compelling villain. And while I wouldn’t exactly classify Apollo Creed as an out-and-out villain, he certainly is one massive obstacle to overcome.
Having the first glimpse of Apollo be via the television set was a genius decision, in my opinion. It really establishes the enormous divide between where he and Rocky find themselves at that point of the film. Apollo is on top of the world as he promotes his latest fight, while Rocky looks on from the bar of a seedy dive.
Only in his next scene do we learn Apollo’s opponent is unable to fight him, which triggers Apollo’s creative juices. Weathers does a terrific job portraying Apollo as a man who is just as great a business man and promoter as he is a boxer. And the idea to give a nobody like Rocky a shot at his Heavyweight Title sets in motion an underdog story for the ages.
It’s ironic that for a man with as many in-ring nicknames as Apollo, it’s Rocky’s own moniker that ultimately gains him his chance and sets up, The Italian Stallion Vs Apollo Creed.
It’s a nice touch to have Apollo take the lead-up to the fight entirely too lightly. He’s seen to be clearly more interested in the business side of things. Only his trainer, Duke (Tony Burton) seems to notice how dangerous Rocky might actually be when he sees him punching the meat on television.
Training montages have become synonymous with Rocky and of course, this is where it all started. But like the characters and the fighting, the montages also help further the story and add character development.
Look at Rocky’s first sombre, early-morning training session. There’s only a dour sprinkling of Bill Conti’s quintessential theme (which, by the way, will make me attempt almost anything if played in the background).
He reluctantly drinks down a pair of disgusting raw eggs, and his lethargic run and subsequent meandering up the famous steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum is almost embarrassing. Now, compare that to his second, awe-inspiring charge of glory later in the film. It’s night and day; one more of Avildsen’s many skills at play as he crafts the story and shapes the already-well-written characters.
Adding to these montages, is the fact that the city of Philadelphia is portrayed as a character in its own right. Early on, the bleak, trash-strewn streets are reminiscent of Rocky’s current status, yet as the film moves on, the shadows slowly diminish, the streets seem cleaner and the people, less off-putting.
It’s no accident that the second triumphant training montage is also a basic tour of Philly. Rocky begins his run near the abandoned train lines, continues through a downtown market, moves under bridges and along parkways, down to the docks and most importantly, returns to the museum steps. With a brilliant, circular panning shot to show the city out before him, beckoning him to win (all intercut with training in the gym under Mick), we can see how far Rocky has come.
The bum from the beginning is gone. Now, spurred on by Mick, Adrian, the people of Philly and most of all, his own feelings of self-worth, Rocky is ready for the big fight.
And so are we.
Only one small sidetrack remains, when Rocky visits the empty arena and sees the banners of himself (and more dauntingly, Apollo), he questions himself once more. It’s a poignant scene to see Rocky alone once again, this time on the grandest stage. It hits him hard, but leads to his stellar speech to Adrian about ‘going the distance’. It’s yet another highlight as far as Stallone’s acting goes, as Rocky outlines the whole premise of the film. It doesn’t matter if he loses the fight. He just wants to go the distance. Something no one has down versus Apollo.
The fight, itself is superbly handled. Apollo’s Uncle Sam entrance really sets the stage for both the fictional crowd and the movie-going audience. And once the match begins, it continues telling a story through its characters. We hear the commentators mention how Apollo isn’t in as great a shape (for him) as he has been in the past. He toys with Rocky at first, trying (in his mind), to make the fight ‘last’ three rounds.
Then this happens.
Apollo is stunned. And embarrassed. He comes back with a flurry. But Rocky not only takes it, he continues to fight back, surviving Apollo and annoying the champ to the point of indignation.
Technically, I love how the fight is shot. A combination of wide shots, shots looking down into the ring and several intimate close-ups really help sell the story of the match. By the end of the second round, we’re already at fever-pitch and the following minutes reveal the war both Rocky and Apollo go through as we witness Apollo’s skill versus Rocky’s heart.
The fight also pays off many subtle little story set-ups from earlier. For example, Rocky has never broken his nose and Apollo has never been knocked down in a march. Both events occur in the first round. We also get the famous, “Cut me, Mick,” moment.
One of my favourite parts of the cinematic fight is when Apollo thinks he’s won after finally knocking Rocky down. Only to drop his head with disbelief as Rocky not only rises to his feet, but challenges Apollo to bring more.
As the score surges once again, by this stage we are right there with Rocky, as he refuses to go down.
And that’s when we get the most decisive moment of the fight – when Rocky breaks Apollo’s ribs.
The final round really is a battle of wills, as Rocky can barely stand and Apollo is hampered by injury. Only thanks to the bell, does Apollo avoid a knockout loss, but once that bell rings, Rocky couldn’t care less. When Apollo whispers to him how there won’t be a rematch, I love how Rocky replies, “Don’t want one.”
He’s done what he set out to do. He went the distance. He’s already a winner.
Really driving this point home is the fact that immediately after the fight, all Rocky wants is Adrian, and finally, Paulie comes through by helping Adrian sneak into the ring where she professes her love for him, and vice versa.
Despite the stigma of being a ‘boxing movie’, there’s barely any actual boxing in Rocky. Mostly because, no, this isn’t about boxing. It isn’t about winning, either. It’s about a man, down on his luck, trying to prove himself to the world around him, most of all, to himself.
It’s a beautiful touch to have the winner of the match (Apollo) announced while Rocky embraces Adrian in the ring. Neither of them care who actually won, and by this point of the film, we shouldn’t either.
There’s a reason Rocky won Best Picture. There’s a reason Avildsen won Best Director. There’s a reason why Stallone was nominated for Best Actor and there’s a reason why the franchise made five more films, and is now onto the second movie of its spin-off series.
It’s because Rocky is nothing short of a masterpiece. A brilliant character study in the guise of a standard boxing movie. It’s charming, heart-warming, funny and best of all, inspiring, and whenever I re-watch it, I inevitably know I’ll soon be watching the sequel. And number three, oh, and the one with the big Russian.
But probably not Rocky V…
Rating: 5 out of 5 one-armed push-ups.
Favourite Moment: The fight.
Honourable Mention: “Gonna fly now…”
Next week: #5 – “Whatta you mean, funny?”