Starring: Sylvester Stallone, Talia Shire, Burt Young, Burgess Meredith, Carl Weathers
Director: John G. Avildsen
Screenwriter: Sylvester Stallone
Note: There are spoilers in this review. For reviews of films over 20 years old, I have no issue with giving spoilers, but I still feel the need to note that they’re here, in case you haven’t seen the movie.
For years I had heard about Rocky, about it being touted as the greatest boxing movie of all time, and one of the greatest sports movies of all time, and one of the most inspiring movies of all time. What surprised me after seeing it, however, was that it holds more layers of depth humanity that its publicity has lead on, and stands on its own not simply as a generic “boxing movie”, but also as a drama in its own right.
By now everyone knows the story; Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) is a down and out boxer. He seems to have failed in that category, and so he makes most of his money by collecting debts for a loan shark. He keeps trying to get training from Mickey (Burgess Meredith) in his gym, but Mickey won’t give him the time of day. He’s infatuated by Adrian (Talia Shire), who’s shy (an understatement) and reserved (another), and works in a pet shop, and is the sister of Rocky’s friend Paulie (Burt Young). The U.S. Bicentennial is coming up, and the opponent of the current World Heavyweight Champion, Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) is injured, so Creed comes up with the idea of fighting an unknown underdog. It’s the American dream, right? The fighter picked is, of course, Rocky.
What surprised me when I first saw this movie was how, for a “boxing” movie, there are only two real boxing scenes: the beginning, which is an amateur fight Rocky has, and then the final bout at the end between Rocky and Apollo Creed. The entire rest of the film is focused on not just Rocky training for the fight, but with Rocky’s relationships with other people, and the development of those relationships. These are some of the films most powerful moments; when Paulie verbally attacks Adrian over the thanksgiving dinner; when Mickey comes to Rocky after learning he’s going to be in the fight, practically begging him to train him; when Rocky confides in Adrian that all he really wants to do is go the distance because he could never beat Creed. These scenes, by now well-known, with homages and parodies galore, hold what I found to be most appealing about Rocky.
The end of the movie is uplifting, and it is inspiring, that’s true. And it leaves the audience feeling good. But those things aren’t what make Rocky so special. If it was a simple feel-good movie, I don’t believe it would be remembered as fondly as it is. If we didn’t get the scenes prior the final fight, and didn’t connect with the characters, especially Rocky; and if we didn’t believe in him, and believe in his relationship with Adrian, then the ending wouldn’t work as well as it does. As much as Rocky is about the payoff at the end, it’s also as much, or perhaps more, about the journey getting there.
This is a human drama. Rocky is a real person, with hopes and dreams and fears. Sylvester Stallone imbues him with characteristics that could have felt contrived, but here feel down to earth and truthful. The movie was made on a small budget (even for the time), only $1.1 million, and ended up being a phenomenon, making over $100 million and winning three Oscars, including Best Picture. Re-watching Rocky, it’s not surprising to me that it got such a response from audiences. Even though Rocky loses, he does go the distance. That’s the point, and it’s the metaphor for the average person. Although you can’t win every time, you can always do your best, and always go the distance like Rocky did, even against the odds.