May 19, 2024

Gabbing Geek

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AFI Countdown Challenge #78: Rocky

Sylvester Stallone trots out his famous boxer character for this first time in this 1976 underdog story.

I had, up until I started this project, only ever seen one of the various Rocky movies, and it wasn’t Creed.  Nope, it was Rocky IV, where somehow Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky Balboa won the Cold War.  By the time that movie came out, and until the aforementioned Creed came along, it’s a bit easy to guess why.  The Rocky movies seemed to be all about Rocky Balboa having a great training montage and then going off to win a fight after taking a bit of a pounding.

But the first movie is nothing like that.

First off, I should probably express some general disbelief as to why I’ve never seen this movie before.  If I were to hazard a guess, I’d say it’s because my dad was not a fan of Stallone’s work.  I know he liked the original Rambo movie First Blood and…that’s about it.  He was more of a Swartzenegger guy.  As a result, so was I.  I never saw a Rocky movie until I went away to college.  And it was Rocky IV, so you can probably guess why I didn’t see any others.  I suspect in my mind I had already stereotyped what the movies were about and didn’t see the need to go watch the rest of them.

Given my dad grew up in what looks like Rocky’s Philadelphia neighborhood, I am even more surprised I never saw this until now.

But the original Rocky is a different animal.  It doesn’t even matter if Rocky wins the big bout at the end.  No, instead, it’s a slow, careful character study that’s more about his tentative romance with the incredibly shy Adrian (Talia Shire).  It isn’t until the movie is half over that the title fight against Apollo Creed is even established.  Rocky is just a low level amateur boxer who mostly works as a legbreaker for the local loan shark, and even then he doesn’t really like to resort to violence if he can help it.  The only collection we see him perform, he doesn’t even break the man’s thumb as instructed.

No, this is a movie about Rocky the person, who happens to be a boxer, and how his gentle giant demeanor helps a woman with severe self-esteem issues open up, allowing the two of them to form a genuine bond at the close of the movie.  I mean, look at one of the posters the studio put out:

Sure, Rocky is in his boxing trunks, but Adrian is right there and is just as important to the movie as he is.

So, what do we get here?  As the movie opens, we see Rocky winning a low level fight, and we’re told his opponent wasn’t that formidable.  He attempts to romance pet shop clerk Adrian with a good deal of encouragement from Adrian’s brother (and Rocky’s good friend) Paulie (Burt Young).  He does the muscle thing for the loan shark while mostly hanging around the neighborhood.  The manager of the gym he uses, Mickey (Burgess Meredith, getting a well-deserved late-in-life career boost) is largely disappointed in Rocky, and about all Rocky has going for him is he does manage to slowly win over the chronically shy Adrian.

Granted, Rocky’s way of doing so is a bit creepy by modern standards…

Rocky has one thing going for him:  he just wants a chance.  Sure, he is a little wary when he gets word from Apollo (Carl Weathers) that he, Rocky, was chosen for a chance at the title for the bicentennial.  Why Rocky?  Apollo’s original challenger had to back out, and whatever professional contenders he and his people could think of were unwilling to jump into the ring with only five weeks of training.  So, he flips through a list of local amateurs and chooses Rocky based solely on liking the man’s nickname of “The Italian Stallion”.

So, really, it’s dumb luck.  Rocky goes off, trains by running up the Art Museum steps, punches a side of beef, and then for the big fight does something that Apollo and his people didn’t see coming:  Rocky is actually trying.  Does Rocky want to win?  He wouldn’t mind, but all he really wants is to go the full 15 rounds.  He does.  He loses on a split decision, but he doesn’t care.  He has Adrian.

As I said, this movie was more of a character study than anything else.  Apollo Creed doesn’t appear often in the movie, and when he does, we see he is more focused on self-promotion and personal profit.  Sure, he picked a local guy to fight, but he wasn’t thinking the local guy would actually win.  As for Rocky, he loves to fight in the ring.  When he finally gets Adrian on a date, all he can talk about is his boxing career (for lack of a better word).  Adrian doesn’t say much of anything, so he has to fill in the gaps somehow.

Essentially, we see Rocky is a good-hearted man who really wants to have a shot and then prove to himself he deserves it, whether its in the ring or with a good woman like Adrian.  He means well, tries to impart good advice, and does his pal Paulie a solid even when Paulie begins to grow jealous of his friend’s sudden success.

I also wasn’t only surprised that Rocky’s first movie was more character study than boxing movie.  What also jumped out was the bout itself.  Taking up only the last twenty minutes of the movie, the fight acts more like a highlight reel.  Whole rounds are skipped to get to the end, and we see a real change there.  Rocky had some pride that, no matter how many times he stepped into the ring, he never broke his nose.  In the first round of his fight with Apollo, his nose is broken.

Sylvester Stallone has something of a reputation to some of not being very bright.  It’s not hard to see why considering where his career went from promising dramatic actor to repetative action movie star, and his most famous personal creation Rocky doesn’t come across as a very smart man.  But there was some real talent here, suffusing Rocky with a soul as a man who doesn’t want to give up again.  When Mickey berates him for being muscle to a second-rate loan shark, it hurts the man’s pride, and Rocky knows he deserves it.  Rocky may come across as an underdog, but he’s also a man who knows what he wants out of life.  He just may not be sure how to get it.  But when that chance comes, oh he will surely take it.

NEXT UP:  We’re sticking to the 70s with a movie directed by George Lucas that involved Harrison Ford and some sweet, fast rides.  That’s right….it’s 1973’s American Graffiti.