These days, the Rocky name is bigger than the movies themselves and the main character’s transcendence into a pop-culture icon means that even the younger generation know who Rocky Balboa is without necessarily watching any film in the series. Trendy fitness classes work out to Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger”, tourists make a point of sprinting up the Philadelphia Art Museum steps and there are a galaxy’s worth of training montage parodies. It’s easy then, to forget that the original Rocky is actually a gritty, character-driven story and upon recently re-visiting it, I was struck by just how good the writing for this movie was.
Balboa is a washed-up semi-pro boxer living day-to-day on the rough, run-down streets of Philly. A nice guy with a big heart, he nevertheless failed to work hard enough to reach his potential and earns a living by collecting on debts for a local loan shark and fighting in low-rent boxing matches. It’s easy to pick out parallels between Rocky’s life story and your own if you too are working an unsatisfying day job with an unfulfilled dream gathering dust in the back of your mind. Perhaps not so relatable is what happens next when heavyweight champ Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) offers a shot at his title to an unranked nobody and sets his sights firmly on Rocky “The Italian Stallion” Balboa. Now Rocky has to train like never before to make up for all of the years of bumming around but not before a scathing reality check from trainer, Mickey (Burgess Meredith), winning the heart of painfully shy pet shop employee, Adrian (Talia Shire) and suffering his friend, Paulie’s (Burt Young) bitter cynicism.
The thing that makes Rocky so great is not the boxing itself but these characters because they are so well written and believable that you can’t help but get invested in them. This is especially true of the supporting characters. Paulie for instance is an eternally angry, grumbling, drink-loving bum and yet you know that – deep down – he is a good guy so you can’t help but like him anyway despite his general scumbaggery and the way he puts his sister, Adrian, down.
Then there is Adrian’s initial stone-walling of Rocky and how she gradually thaws, ever-so-slowly emerging from her shell. The thing that makes Adrian great is that she is attractive but not too attractive and this makes her character so much more believable and endearing than if she had been an obvious stunner or classic, sexy girl-next-door. Adrian only works because she is an average (by Hollywood standards at least) and realistic woman hindered by her shyness. During the course of the movie, she becomes Rocky’s strength and serves as one of the major catalysts for his transformation from a could-have-been into a revitalised man with new purpose. Rocky still wants to go the distance with Creed to prove his to himself that he can do it but from that point on, he is also fighting for Adrian.
Burgess Meredith is superb as Mickey, Rocky’s fierce, no-nonsense trainer who defies his age and stature with the sheer charisma he brings to the role when in full flow. Mickey is as real as Paulie or Adrian though and harbours disappointment in Rocky as well as regret on his part. The two have to repair their relationship and share some difficult home truths. Mickey is angry that Rocky got lazy and squandered his potential. Rocky is angry that Mickey wasn’t there for him in the past.
The movie slowly builds up to the big finale and Rocky’s showdown with Apollo Creed, a battle that is extremely well choreographed to resemble a real boxing match. Creed is a formidable opponent: proven and with an abundance of self-confident swagger. Yet, he never crosses the line into villain territory and even though you root for Rocky the entire time, it isn’t due to any resentment for Creed or his character – something which can’t be said for Rocky’s later opponents in the sequels. The fight is genuinely gripping (even on a repeat viewing) and the blows explosive, packing plenty of punch (pun fully intended). Bill Conti’s score should never be discounted as one of the major elements that makes Rocky such a memorable movie and there are some truly epic, rousing pieces reserved for the finale that rival anything by the likes of John Williams.
The finest piece of writing is saved for the very end however because against all silver screen tradition, the unlikely underdog actually loses to a judge’s decision after fifteen gruelling rounds. The thing is though, you know that the real winner is Rocky and Creed’s celebrations being swallowed up by a crowd that belongs to the ‘nobody’ confirms that. Rocky came from the streets of a decaying neighbourhood and went the full distance with the world heavyweight champion without being knocked out. Creed won but Rocky’s victory means more. It’s a very clever bit of writing that has stood the test of time.
Ultimately, Rocky is one of the true greats and so much more than the blockbuster action image it has garnered over the years. In fact, I would argue that Rocky is almost the complete opposite with the action coming at the end and the first three quarters being about establishing these believable characters and going on a journey with them. If you do want to look at Rocky with a view to analysing the entertainment factor first and foremost however, then it’s impossible to ignore the genuinely motivational elements. From the famous training montage – that sees Rocky wake up and really work for something he believes in – to the film’s underlying message about giving it your all in order to go for something no matter the odds, it’s a movie that can encourage you off your backside to chase your potential.
If you haven’t yet watched Rocky or were put off by preconceptions based on it being a Stallone movie or a boxing/sport movie, then I highly recommend laying those reservations aside and giving it a shot. If you have seen it before then definitely watch it again. If you’re only going to watch one film in the series then the original is by far the most essential with Rocky II a close second (but not entirely necessary given the powerful conclusion to the original). The sequels gradually descended into ‘popcorn’ territory and stopped being so intelligent. They are still enjoyable though and come with their own life messages but I’ll be looking at the follow-ups in a separate article.
[On a personal side-note, I really enjoyed the grainy, interference-laced picture on this DVD copy I have. It added to the gritty setting and imagery of urban decay in a way that I can’t imagine a super cleaned-up HD copy managing. Obviously I’ve not watched a Blu Ray version or anything like that so I can’t comment.]