A movie that came out of nowhere thanks to the work of star/producer/writer Sylvester Stallone, Rocky is that quintessential American underdog story, one that more than ever probably resonates with sports fans today 30 years after it was in theaters for the first time. Watching it now in 2010 after five sequels, I had to remind myself that this movie was like a breath of fresh air in 1976 as it won the Best Picture and Best Directing Oscar along with nominations for stars Stallone and three co-stars. It most definitely still has an impact today watching it, but not so much as a large scale, epic sports story, but as a character driven drama.
Living in Philadelphia, 30-year old Rocky Balboa (Stallone) works as an enforcer for a second-rate loan shark while training and boxing when he gets the chance to make some money on the side. He drifts along in his life to a certain point, meeting up and drinking with his childhood friend Paulie (Burt Young), trying to convince Paulie's sister Adrian (Talia Shire) to go out with him. On a bigger level, the world's undisputed heavyweight champion Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) has a fight commitment drop out so he needs a replacement for a fight just five weeks away in Philly. Looking for the ultimate underdog, the best story possible, Apollo asks unknown Rocky if he'd be interested. But as a journeyman boxer, does Rocky even stand a chance against the best boxer in the world?
Even with the somewhat weaker sequels to follow, the original still packs a wallop. It's easy to forget thanks to his roles since Rocky, but Stallone can be a great actor with the right part. Balboa is basically that lovable galoot that everyone knows. He's awkward in his interactions, a little dim-witted, but basically a good guy who looks out for the people he likes, and you love him for it. He lives in a little apartment with his turtles Cuff and Link, his fish Moby Dick. Rocky trains when he feels like it and works for the loan shark collecting cash from deadbeats. Then he's given this opportunity to rise up, to be great, and he takes it. As his trainer Mick (Burgess Meredith) says, he always had the talent but never the resolve to put the time in to be great.
After a handful of low-budget movies that didn't do much for his career, Stallone fully steps into the spotlight here to play journeyman boxer Rocky Balboa. By far, this is his best acting performance, and as I write that I'm trying to decide if that's a good thing or a bad thing. He was nominated for his part, but lost to Peter Finch in Network. Personally I would have given it to Stallone, De Niro for Taxi Driver, or William Holden in Network over Finch, but that's just me. As good as the fight is in the finale, the sport is secondary for much of the movie. This is a story about one man with self-doubt and concern living his life given a chance to do something great. What does he do with it? He worries because really, who wouldn't?
Stallone is obviously the key to the movie, but just as importantly the rest of the cast doesn't disappoint. In the Godfather movies, Shire drives me nuts as whiny Connie Corleone, but her Adrian is a great character and a perfect counter to Stallone's Rocky. She's shy and quiet, but opens up when actually given a chance. Young's Paulie is that friend everyone has who you fight with constantly, but typically it's forgotten even before the fight is over. Meredith is a scene-stealer as tough-talking trainer Mick, frustrated by Rocky's refusal to work in the past but willing to work with him if he'll commit. All three were nominated for their performances, and unfortunately all of them came up empty. In terms of pure acting power, 1976 was a crazy year, here's the Oscar winners and nominations.
SPOILERS from here on in SPOILERS I feel stupid warning about the ending because I think just about everyone knows how Rocky ends, but for those that don't, stop reading. The night before the fight Rocky tells Adrian he knows he can't hope to win, but if he goes the distance, all 15 rounds, against the heavyweight champion he'll have accomplished something. And what's he do? Goes all 15 rounds in a brutal fight that has both fighters battered and bloody by the end. The whole fight is an incredible sequence and one of the best presentations of a sporting event ever. Great end to a great movie.
The biggest test for a sports movie and its ability to stay relevant are the moments, the ones you talk about for months and even years to become. Rocky has too many iconic moments to even count, but here goes. There's Bill Conti's amazing Rocky theme over maybe the most iconic moment of all, the training montage. There's the actual montage, Rocky running up the stairs at the Museum of Art. There's the fight, 'Cut me, Mick!' and so much more. One of the best sports movies ever, enough said.
Rocky <---trailer (1976): ****/****