For no other reason than that I feel like it, I hereby declare this to be Sylvester Stallone Month here at Missile Test. For the next 31 days, this site will feature reviews of Sylvester Stallone films, from the early days of his career into the 2010s. I did this a few years back with Arnold Schwarzenegger because, not only do I like his films, I found myself fascinated with the progression of his career. I have a similar regard for Sly. Taken at face value, he’s just another action film star from the 1980s. But pay attention to the credits in his films, and one will find that he wrote and directed many of the films in which he appears. Sylvester Stallone is a filmmaker, and one who has been very successful in plotting his own course through Hollywood.
I thought about starting out this month with The Lords of Flatbush, or Death Race 2000, or even Party at Kitty and Stud’s. But really, if one is going to do Stallone Month, there’s only one film with which to begin — Rocky.
From way back in 1976, Rocky is the quintessential underdog tale. It was written by Sly and directed by John G. Avildsen. Sly plays Robert ‘Rocky’ Balboa (I’ll bet you didn’t know the character had a first name), a boxer who fights in the worst rings in Philadelphia, pummeling other fighters for pennies. When he’s not fighting or working out in the gym, he’s employed as a thug for a loan shark, collecting on overdue accounts. He lives on his own in a ratty apartment in North Philly and has a schoolboy crush on a woman named Adrian (Talia Shire) who works at a local pet shop. There isn’t a whole lot going on his life. He’s settled into mediocrity and poverty, with no indication that things will get any better. But...
Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers), the heavyweight champion of the world, has a problem. He’s supposed to fight on New Year’s Day at The Spectrum in Philadelphia, only his opponent has to back out due to injury. There are only five weeks until the fight, and no other contender is willing to step into the ring with so little time to train. In a moment of inspiration, Apollo decides to find a local fighter and give him a shot at the big time. He picks Rocky because he has a catchy nickname — The Italian Stallion. Creed sees in Rocky a narrative that can be marketed, and thus recoup any potential losses incurred at not facing a contender. Rocky, for his part, is too naïve to realize he’s supposed to just put on a show. He struggles with the idea of fighting on a grand stage, more concerned that he doesn’t have the heart to acquit himself against the champ than anything else.
The movie is divided into two acts, essentially. There’s the time before the fight, which focuses almost exclusively on Rocky’s life, and the fight itself. In the first act, we see how Rocky lives, how he interacts with other people in the neighborhood, and how he trains. His trainer, Mickey, is played by Burgess Meredith, in arguably his most recognizable role (the other being The Penguin in the old Batman TV series). Mickey is nearing the end of his life, and sees in Rocky a last shot at the big time. Rocky is fine with Mickey’s motivations, as he needs proper training.
Rounding out Rocky’s life is his growing intimacy with Adrian, and their relationship with Adrian’s brother, Paulie (Burt Young). Adrian appears to suffer from extreme social anxiety, and it’s Rocky and Pauley that drag her out of it. Pauley has problems of his own, as well, and the interplay of these three characters is every bit as important to the film as the fight at the end.
What we have, then, is a very heavy character-driven drama that happens to have a boxing match. It doesn’t matter at all that Rocky is a professional boxer. What is important is that he is a fighter at a crossroads. His life stretches out before him and it’s empty and dark. He is fortunate that this moment finds him, but it’s a testament to his character that he seizes it. He could have just stepped into the ring, taken his punches and his payday, and gone back to his anonymous life in North Philly. No one would have looked down on him for doing so. But the film makes clear that Rocky is a stronger person than that. He intends to step into the ring and give Creed everything he can handle. It’s very satisfying to see this man apply all his life lessons and all his morality in the ring. We root for him not just because he’s the underdog, but because he’s a man who deserves a break.
The performances from the cast are uniformly good. My only criticism of the performances is that Rocky talks too much. He seems incapable of letting a moment pass by without filling it with words. Rocky has observations on life and a personal philosophy that he will share with anyone he encounters. It’s useful as insight into his character, but more than once I just wanted Rocky to shut up.
Burgess Meredith’s gruff performance can be encapsulated in the scene where he pitches becoming Rocky’s trainer. Mickey had little regard for Rocky, but after learning of the upcoming fight, he’s practically on his hands and knees begging to be Rocky’s trainer. It’s a humiliating moment for Mickey, and Meredith plays the scene so well that it’s a hard watch. It’s embarrassing for Mickey, but also something he brought upon himself. Mickey is a vulnerable old man, fast approaching feebleness. Taking him on as trainer feels like charity from Rocky, but it turns out to be a great decision.
The standout performer for me was Burt Young. He’s inseparable from the character of Paulie. Whether he’s at his job or drunkenly berating Adrian, his performance is the most naturalistic and believable of the bunch. There’s a lot of complexity to Paulie, and Burt Young nailed it.
There’s not much more to add that hasn’t already been written or said before. Rocky is a timeless classic of cinema. It’s a character study of gigantic proportions — a result of Sly’s dedication to the project. No viewer’s understanding of cinema from the 1970s is complete without it.