Release Date: December 3rd, 1976 MPAA Rating: PG
Director: John G. Avildsen Actors: Sylvester Stallone, Talia Shire, Burt Young, Carl Weathers, Burgess Meredith, Thayer David
or anyone deterred from seeing “Rocky” because of a lack of interest in boxing, just know that the specific sport isn’t the focal point – it is merely a device for developing the roles, a moving love story, and the themes of fighting against the odds and never giving up. It isn’t the first encouraging movie to feature an underdog that is entirely likeable and sorely outmatched, but it is one of the absolute finest – and possibly the definitive exemplar of the inspirational drama subgenre. It’s lasting power and greatness aren’t in the technically impressive fight choreography or even the nuanced, subtle acting, but in the creation of timeless characters that provide an unquestionable hero, an uncommon heroine, and quirky supporting players – and in the resonating story that dares to prove that winning isn’t everything.
In 1975 in Philadelphia, slovenly southpaw Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) alternates competing in small boxing matches with leg-breaking, money-collecting errands for his loan shark boss Gazzo. When heavyweight champion of the world Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) fixes to exploit America’s “land of opportunity” attitude by staging a fight with a local talent, Rocky is selected for the chance of a lifetime. While Creed plans for the big New Year’s Day show with splashy costumes and gimmicky theatrics, the “Italian Stallion” prepares for an honest fight. For Rocky, it isn’t about victory, but simply to remain standing during the grueling 15-round match.
His father convinced Rocky that he’d better learn to use his body, since his brains wouldn’t get him far. Neighboring pet shop employee Adrian (Talia Shire) was given the opposite advice: she didn’t have much of a body, so she’d better use her brains. Rocky has little experience with women, but is determined to court Adrian, who is painfully shy and lives rather sheltered in her brother Paulie’s (Burt Young) house. The two make a perfect, contrasting onscreen couple; a frequently comedic and awkwardly heartwarming romance, akin to the wholesome relationship in1955’s “Marty.” Paulie is also Rocky’s best friend, a meat factory worker who dually supports the newfound chance at success and regrets his inability to advance his own meager existence.
Rocky started fighting to prove he wasn’t a bum; is eventual trainer Mickey (Burgess Meredith, who practically created the template for the irritable, insulting, angry, old, yet wise mentor) sees the potential but scorns him repeatedly for never having put his skills to use. For the titular fighter, the ultimate goal is respect – something he strives for in his reputation, and a concept few people readily award. It’s not until the night before the championship bout that he realizes that self-respect means more to him than the adulation of others – which Apollo Creed and television reporters attempt to take away during moments of meaningless publicity.
The film isn’t flawless, especially with the first section noticeably lagging on the technical front and facing occasional pacing issues. But witnessing a 50-to-1 underdog rousingly living a Cinderella story, discovering unusual but true love, and sorting out the importance of uncompromisingly “going the distance,” is enough to make up the difference. “Rocky” also contains perhaps the most famous montage of any film: a music-driven training sequence culminating in a triumphant dance atop the Philadelphia Museum of Art. With the everlasting themes, uplifting characters, and stirring music, “Rocky” went on to win the Academy Awards for Best Picture, Director (John G. Avildsen), and Editing; Stallone, Young, Meredith, and Shire all picked up acting nominations and the superbly catchy Bill Conti song “Gonna Fly Now” also received a well-deserved Oscar nod.
– Mike Massie