Movie Marathon: ‘Rocky’


Every movie buff has their “Confession Movie” – the one they haven’t gotten around to. Maybe it’s Star Wars, or a Scorsese and DeNiro collaboration. Something that has shaped cinema and pop culture in the past century that they just didn’t see. For me that would be the Rocky movies, and surprisingly long running franchise with a new entry this month in the form of Creed II that was kicked off with an Oscar winner.

Well, it’s now or never.

Title: Rocky

Year of Release: 1976

Director: John G. Avildsen

Cast: Sylvester Stallone, Talia Shire, Burt Young, Carl Weathers, Burgess Meredith, Thayer David, Pedri Lovell

Plot: Small time Philadelphia boxer ‘Rocky’ Balboa survives on meagre winnings supported by collecting debts for a local loan shark. When heavyweight boxing champion Apollo Creeds concocts a publicity stunt around giving a local fighter the chance at the championship Rocky is faced with the opportunity to prove himself.

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Review: With the iconic nature of the movie, it’s characters and it’s soundtrack…not to mention multiple major awards…it’s hard not to go into this with high expectations. It currently has a 93% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, so it’s still striking a chord with audiences and critics.

But…

Ok, I’ll come to the problems a bit later. Overall this is a good film. The focus on character and the situation they live in certainly elevates it above the usual boxing film, and it’s had a huge impact on sub-genre since. It really is the down-to-Earth characters that make the movie what it is. Rocky Balboa (Stallone) is a victim of circumstances, representative of a proportion of society who don’t have the opportunity to make the most of their skills and talents.

The film takes place in Philadelphia in the mid 70s and follows Rocky, an amateur boxer and loan shark enforcer who is being faced with the fact that he’s ageing out of the sport without ever getting his chance. He’s surrounded by a cast of similarly trapped people working menial jobs and scratching out their day-to-day living, frustrated by their lot or accepting of their reality. It’s one of the definitive underdog stories, giving us a relatable cast who can work hard even if it doesn’t get them anyway. In spite of his efforts, Rocky is being pushed out of the gym for a younger crew and his opportunities are drying up.

Things change when world champion Apollo Creed (Weathers) finds himself without an opponent for a special event match. Creed is a well crafted character, not a bad character by any stretch but one who escaped his roots and forgot to look back. He seems genuine in his idea to give a local amateur their chance to take the championship but fails to see how his ego and showboating come across to the people he expects to connect with. When he arrives in the stadium, showboating in ridiculous outfits, we see it from Rocky’s perceptive, which shows him as a ridiculous and pompous figure.

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At the core of the film’s success is Rocky’s ultimate realisation and decision that he cannot win this fight, but he can prove himself to the world by “going the distance”. Rocky doesn’t want to a player in the charade but a real fighter who will go down swinging. This gives the story some real pathos and creates a different kind of hero, the one who will push himself to the limit regardless of the end result. Rocky flooring Creed in the first round of the match, when the champion is still acting cocky, is a genuinely powerful moment and an excellent prelude to the savage battle that it becomes.

But…

Watching the beginning of the relationship between Rocky and pet show worker Adrian (Shire) is one of the most uncomfortable viewing experiences we’ve had this side of the Saw marathon. This wouldn’t have been so shocking if we’d seen this commented on before but it feels like the movie has been given a free pass. Where the relationship winds up is great – Rocky breaks through Adrian’s severe shyness and she finds a new strength in that and stands up to her brother Paulie (Young). But how the relationship starts out is horrible.

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Rocky meets Adrian working in a pet shop and keeps visiting to crack jokes and flirt with her. She’s unresponsive to these attentions, and Rocky keeps plugging away to a point that it constitutes harassment in her own workplace, Yes, Adrian is shy and may not being able to open herself up to Rocky’s affections, but that doesn’t make it OK. Unable to make any progress Rocky goes through her brother and his friend Paulie, who sets up a date for them without telling Adrian. She’s caught off guard when Rocky arrives for their date and doesn’t want to go, but Paulie berates, insults and abuses her until she gives in. When she points out that she’s cooking a turkey for Thanksgiving, her brother takes it out off the oven and hurls it into the alleyway.

When she gives in to the very literal abuse from her brother her date his friend who has been harassing her, the date seems to go fairly well and she opens up a bit. Rocky seems to care for her and her happiness and insists that she comes up to his apartment where he starts stripping off his shirt. She’s deeply uncomfortable and wants to leave. She tells him that she wants to leave and he demands that she explain herself. She physically tries to leave and he – a trained boxer – corners her in the room and starts taking off her glasses and accessories before insisting that he kiss her.

It’s only at this point that she opens up and returns his affections and they go into a positive relationship. It’s unfortunate that it’s marred by the parade of bulling, threats, abuse and harassment that the movie feels is an essential starting point. It’s downright gross.

That isn’t to say that Talia Shire and Sylvester Stallone aren’t good in their roles. Shire puts in the most interesting performance to watch in the entire film and Rocky seems perfectly suited to Stallone’s limited range. The support cast, including Young and a gravelly voiced Burgess Meredith, don’t have much room for movement being roles that exist to deliver inspirational speeches. The more you break this film down the more it looks like an Oscar bait template.

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In regards to the Oscars it took away, Rocky felt like an odd choice for the highest of film industry accolades. When we looked at the competition, it made sense. Rocky is the soft and fluffy non-political choice when looking at better films like Taxi DriverNetwork and All the President’s MenRocky, like it’s title character, is a crowd pleaser.

Rating: EIGHT out of TEN

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