Film Review: Rocky (1976)

in #aaalast month (edited)


Bicentennial was a challenging time for United States. 200th birthday of the most powerful nation in the world reminded its citizens of past glory and made inevitable comparison with bleak present, marked by aftermath of bloody military fiascos, political scandals, economic and environmental woes, and many began to fear that the future will be even darker. Any film that would convincingly portrayal different vision and give hope to Americans was bound to become spectacular success. Such film was Rocky, the best known and most successful sports film of all times.

The title protagonist, played by Sylvester Stallone, is Rocky Balboa, 30-year old professional boxer from Philadelphia. With his best days apparently behind him and even his trainer Mickey (played by Burgess Meredith) giving up on him, he makes a living fighting boxers who are, like him, unknown and winning humiliatingly low prizes. In order to makes ends meet, he is forced to work as debt collector for local gangster Gazzo (played by Ben Spinel), but even that career is not very successful because Rocky happens to be kind-hearted man. This, on the other hand, serves Rocky very well when his best friend Paulie (played by Burt Young) arranges date with his sister Adrian (played by Talia Shire), plain-looking and shy pet shop clerk who gradually begins to like huge man who compensates his lack of education and finesse with persistence and good heart. Rocky’s life unexpectedly changes when Apollo Creed (played by Carl Weathers), flamboyant heavyweight boxing champion of the world decides to celebrate Bicentennial by staging a match in Philadelphia between himself and completely unknown boxer in order to show that anyone in America has a chance. Rocky is picked as a challenger and, unlike Creed, who sees this as nothing more than promotional stunt, takes the match seriously and begins to prepare.

Stallone wrote the script for Rocky partially inspired by 1975 fight between legendary boxing champion Muhammad Ali (which served as a model for Creed) and unknown contender Chuck Wepner. But the real source for inspiration for Stallone came from his Hollywood career, which, just like Rocky’s, was going nowhere at the time. Faced with numerous rejection and almost penniless, he managed to talk producers Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff to buy his script and allow him to star in its production. Just like in the film, the underdog defeated its much bigger and prestigious opponents at the box-office, becoming one of the greatest hits until that time and even managed to snatch “Oscar” from the likes of Network and Taxi Driver. Success of Rocky was continued with the film series that lasts to this day and the word “Rocky” entered many vocabularies as a synonym for underdog who triumphs over overwhelming odds.

Some critics and film scholars dislike Rocky for the simple reason that it deprived more deserving New Hollywood classics of the prestigious “Oscars” and often try to explain it by comparing “fairytale feelgood fantasy” of Stallone’s film with raw and uncompromising realism of Lumet’s and Scorsese’s film. Such claims are not founded because Rocky, at least for the most part, looks very much like an ambitious New Hollywood film. Director John G. Avildsen doesn’t shy away from portraying decline of 1970s America through dirty, graffiti-marked streets with bored, impoverished youth having nothing to do except hanging at street corner. Avildsen’s pace is deliberately slow, perhaps too slow for today’s audience, but it allows us to get well-acquainted with the title character, his fears, dreams and desires and actually root for him at the fight scene at the end. This approach allows audience to see Stallone as surprisingly serious and quite talented dramatic actor. His performance was such that even some critics compared him with legendary Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire, something that was hard to imagine in other Rocky sequels and less demanding action film roles that would comprise much of Stallone’s later career. Stallone was helped by extremely talented Talia Shire who convincingly portrays rather unglamorous character, creates great chemistry with Stallone and even transcends some of the melodramatic sentimentality at the end. Not all cast was good – Burt Young was slightly irritating at time, and Burgess Meredith occasionally went over the top. Carl Weathers as Rocky’s opponent was actually least memorable of all character and the fight scene and whole boxing match subplot at times looked like a distraction in comparison with more intimates story about Rocky and Adrian. The fight in the end nevertheless delivered goods for the fans of boxing action. Rocky as a whole served its purpose well – by providing inspiration to the anxious Americans in 1970s, by making Stallone into Hollywood superstar and, finally, showing audiences that sometimes fairytales can become real life.

RATING: 7/10 (++)

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Critic: AA