Rocky (1976) / Drama-Romance
MPAA Rated: PG for some violence and language
Running Time: 119 min.
Cast: Sylvester Stallone, Talia Shire, Burgess Meredith, Burt Young, Carl Weathers, Thayer David, Joe Spinell, Frank Stallone (cameo), Joe Frazier (cameo), John G. Avildsen (cameo), Michael Dorn (cameo)
Director: John G. Avildsen
Screenplay: Sylvester Stallone
The idea behind Rocky was partially inspired by the story of Chuck Wepner, a two-bit New Jersey boxer who would challenge the flashy heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali to a title fight in 1975, originally thought of as no contest, but he managed to knock down the champ and nearly go the distance before being TKO'd in the final round. Writer and star Sylvester Stallone (Death Race 2000, First Blood) would complete his first draft of the script in only three days, fight for the right to have it made and star himself in it, and the rest is movie history.
The film tells the tale of Rocky Balboa, a washed-up Philadelphia boxer who just barely scrapes by, fighting in small clubs for meager pay, while supplementing his income as a thuggish debt collector for a local loan shark. He doesn't have many ambitions; his only real goal is to get to go out with the shy, mousy pet store clerk named Adrian (Shire, The Godfather Part II), sister to his friend Paulie (Young, Convoy), Opportunity comes knocking in a big way for Balboa when the world heavyweight champ, Apollo Creed (Weathers, Semi-Tough), wants to fight a "snow white" nobody for the nation's bicentennial. Rocky agrees and becomes a local celebrity, but with less than five weeks to train, this washed-up fighter has to have the strength, agility, and most of all, heart to have a chance with Creed without embarrassing himself in front of millions.
Possibly the greatest of all of the sports underdog movies, it's difficult to remember that Rocky is as much a romance as it is a film about boxing. When most people think back to this film, they probably only remember the final half hour, where the fight with Creed takes center stage, introducing the famous Oscar-nominated song, "Gonna Fly Now", as well as one of the most enduring endings to nearly any sports film. However, all of these great scenes would have been for naught without the preceding ninety minutes of sheer character development, performed brilliantly by a near-perfect cast, giving us fully-realized characterizations and a look at the rundown environs of Philadelphia's poorest of neighborhoods that Rocky calls home. It takes a while before the action begins, but the payoff is monumental.
There are only about a couple dozen movies that get me choked up a bit while watching, and Rocky happens to be one of them. It truly is an inspirational film about how one guy no one thought anything of could still have a chance to make all his dreams come true on the grandest of stages; it's impossible to not be rooting for Rocky to make it with every ounce of their being during the exciting championship match. Shrewdly edited, but still gentle and compassionate to its characters, Avildsen's (W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings, The Karate Kid) direction fully envelops you in Rocky's world, never flinching on showing the seedier aspects, while also not painting anyone as despicable. There are no bad guys in the film for Rocky to triumph over, with even Apollo Creed coming off as surprisingly likable, much in the way that Muhammad Ali would during this same period. Everything smacks of reality -- the dialogue, the conversations, the characters, the locations shots -- it's hard to imagine changing anything about the film to improve it.
Perhaps the most amazing aspect of Rocky when one looks back on it is how much they were able to do with so little. With a budget just barely over a million, they were able to craft a major motion picture release, complete with a very convincing heavyweight bout. Stallone was mostly unknown at the time of its creation, to the point where the studio wanted someone else for the role, but he turned down a great sum of money to maintain his starring appearance. The "little guy that could" story of Rocky closely paralleled the real-life story of how Stallone would go from two-bit player to box office champion for the next fifteen years.
Rocky would become such a phenomenon, it would spawn several sequels, and boxing video games are still being made using characters from the film to this day. It's a populist story with an appeal that will always endure, providing the blueprint for nearly all sports films that would come after. Nominated for 10 Academy Awards, winner of 3 (including Best Picture), this little film was an unlikely candidate for the highest of accolades, but like its title character, overcame all obstacles with heart, determination, and abiding spirit. Without a doubt, Stallone's finest hour.
-- Followed by five sequels: Rocky II (1979), Rocky III (1982), Rocky IV (1985), Rocky V (1990), and Rocky Balboa (2006).
©2006 Vince Leo