“Hey, Yo ... how're doing'?”
I've always been a big fan of Rocky - the films, the character and the phenomenon - but this is actually the first time in years that I've sat and watched the original movie. Personally, I have always found Sylvester Stallone's Oscar-winning classic of sports-drama the least exciting of the series, and although undoubtedly the best written and best structured of the franchise, I just can't help but be drawn to the storming excesses of Rocky III and IV (even though the latter, if I'm honest, is a really naff film - though nowhere near as bad as the virtually un-watchable part V!). Rocky was a pitch from Stallone, himself, and he should get kudos for writing the film as well, since his understated, ground-roots story went on to become a financial and cultural blockbuster, ushering in a popular new genre and cementing his own leading man status in the process.
“You're a bum! You're a bum, d'you know that?”
The story is simple and everlasting. Skid-row boxer, Rocky Balboa known as the Italian Stallion (Stallone, as if you didn't know), pummels his way through local bouts in his own turf of Philadelphia and is forced to makes ends meet by moonlighting as an enforcer for a small-time protection racketeer called Gazzo (played by exploitation sleaze-ball superstar, Joe Spinell). But although he uses his brawn in the only way he knows how, Rocky still has his heart in the right place and can't help but offer advice and gutter-smart guidance to anyone who will listen. But when the victories stop coming and he drops down a peg or two (in the case of his local gym, literally a peg or two), things seem desperate for the good-natured beefcake. A fledgling romance with Adrien (Talia Shire), another misfit who works in the pet store, offers Rocky some shining glimmer of hope, but life still seems incomplete and going nowhere fast. But then a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity seeks him out in the form of the reigning heavyweight champion, Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers), who offers him, a rank outsider, a shot at the title. The reasons for this dream-show exhibition may not be as clear-cut as Rocky thinks they are ... but that doesn't matter. This is his chance, his one big chance to make something of himself and prove that he has what it takes to rise up to the challenge and, in so doing, fight for the underdogs that he sees on the streets all around him. Thus, the date is set and the gauntlet laid down - cue those trumpets, that unflattering grey tracksuit and the first of many groundbreaking training montages as Rocky gets in shape to face off against destiny. You just gotta love it!
“You gotta pay for that turtle-food, Rock-head!”
Stallone's screenplay is actually brilliant in its naturalised simplicity. Never once does he condescend or patronise, nor bow to the demon of vanity in his portrayal of a man whose life and attitude actually mirrors that of his own. The zero to hero ethic is tireless and well-needed, no matter what the current societal climate is. The confusion of the underdog who cannot see the big picture past his own broken nose is superbly realised by Stallone, who equips his hero with a worldview that is one of pure befuddlement. He may want to step beyond the station that life has dumped him off at, but he doesn't reckon that the world owes him such a helping hand in the first place. And that is the main difference between the fictional Rocky and the gazillion dreamers who seek to emulate his rags to riches journey. Yeah, that goes out to all of you Pop Idol wannabes and fake celebrity chancers. Rocky wants glory and to have pride in himself, but he doesn't want to have it handed to him on a plate. He is prepared to work hard for it, knowing full well that victory tastes sweeter when it has been rightfully earned. Respect is the key word and it rules Rocky's life. Gazzo, the little-league mobster, understands this and proves his fondness for Rocky by helping him out with a little extra cash, though his compassion is fuelled more by sympathy than anything else. Paulie (the awesome Burt Young), Adrien's flea-bitten brother, offers Rocky the frozen carcasses of meat in the factory where he works for knuckle-hardening training purposes, but as much assistance as he may bestow - even hurling his sister into the bargaining pot in the most tactless fashion - he always expects something in return. Apollo Creed has merely seen a chance to showboat his talents and enhance his already sky-high popularity with this “exhibition” bout. Even Mickey (Burgess Meredith), Rocky's dishevelled trainer, who has already cut the bruiser loose, wants in on the act to relive the glory days of his own past. There is that terrific scene when Mickey comes calling to offer his managerial skills and literally pleads his case with a veritable life-story of knocks and scrapping anecdotes. It seems that everybody wants a piece of Rocky. Even the public, who see him as their poster-boy, their mascot, need Rocky to succeed ... because then, by proxy, they are all victorious.
“I'd like to kill the freakin' moron who broke the mirror!”
But even with so much resting on his pre-inflated shoulders, Rocky sees only the simple goal of still being on his feet come that final bell. Check out his awe when he surveys his own huge promotional poster. They may have coloured his shorts incorrectly - as he points out - but the realisation that his dream is finally coming true is perfectly captured in his almost fearful face.
Carl Weathers makes Apollo Creed an indelible character that is so much larger than life that to have continued the series without him would have been unthinkable. Brash, arrogant and immensely self-confident, Creed is the complete antithesis of Rocky. Creed would never concede that he could possibly lose which, of course, would lead to his ultimate downfall in part IV, whereas Rocky is riddled with self-doubt, guilt and a likeable, but somewhat defeatist vulnerability. With possibly the most toned physique seen in the entire series, Weathers sees that Creed owns the ring with much more than mere pantomime villainy.
“Cut me, Mick ... cut me ...”
Talia Shire has always been a curious actress and her role here as the heart-in-the-mouth Adrien seems to suit her to a tee - the shy wallflower who gradually reveals the beauty that we always knew was there, but brings with it an even greater fragility. Strangely enough, I find her more attractive in this film in her poor hand-me-down rags and geeky glasses than how she appears in the later movies - particularly the chic-look adopted in Rocky III and IV, which is pure 80's WAG. But her performance is terrific, anchoring Rocky with a love interest that is highly plausible and anything but clichéd. Sadly, she would become a hanger-on in the franchise at large, there merely to (A) reproach Rocky for taking impossible risks and then (B) to ultimately encourage him and, of course, look away when her man hits the deck again ... and again. And, in a bizarre turn, she only regained some tangible presence once more in Rocky Balboa (Rocky VI to us), after the character had actually died. But this is probably as much down to parts 1 and 6's peas-from-the-same-pod look and style as it is to any spiritual residue.
“You're gonna eat lightning and crap thunder! You're gonna become a very dangerous poyson!”
And as Paulie, Burt Young is simply excellent. The greasy sap barely changes from film to film in the series - unlike Rocky or Adrien, who become socialites and veritable statespersons - but is at his sympathetic scumbag best in the original. His drunken, down-at-heel rantings provide some emotional wallop and it is quite refreshing to have a character that is slimy and un-likeable yet still one of the good guys. Curiously, as the franchise fought on and on there were concerted efforts to turn him into a comical stooge, but Young still managed to keep his scuzzy head above the farce of robots and marshmallows.
“Ain't gonna be no rematch!”
“Don't want one ...”
A riveting character study, Rocky is very much a one-man-show despite the good performances from everybody else, Burgess Meredith especially. Director John Avildsen shoots the film in a perfunctory manner - merely setting up the cameras and letting the actors do their thing, although he does manage to build some excitement with overhead shots, snappy editing and prowling camerawork during the big fight. But then again, you've got to hand it to Sly once more, since it was he who designed the boxing choreography as well. Stallone's creation towers over the film, the physical embodiment of the hopes and dreams of the everyday working Joe who wants just one chance, one shot at the title. And coming when it did, just crossing the midway point in one of America's most serious and depressing decades, it gave rise the idea that, maybe with the right amount of determination and guts, the dream could come true ... and the little guy could finally be somebody. “It really don't matter if I lose this fight ... all I wanna do is go the distance,” Rocky mutters in the realisation of his relatively simple aspirations. And this sentiment is a worthy and noble goal in its own right, and one that was a revelation in the dark and pessimistic 70's. Of course, this old-style, humble approach to heroism and pride was knocked out of the ring entirely in the following decade, when the concept of the one-man-army who was big enough and confident enough to take on totally impossible odds, battered all-comers at the box office. It would no longer be enough just to go the distance and still be standing with dignity at the end of it, Schwarzenegger would see to that and Stallone, himself, would fall prey to the great god of buffed-up narcissism and take his more primal alter-ego, Rambo (John, J) to ludicrous extremes. And, inevitably, his fallible commoner, Rocky Balboa, would be dragged along for the high-concept party too with ever-more outrageous bouts of pugilistic banner-waving. But, maybe in spite of all the glory and the elaborate pomp that surrounds the Rocky saga, the character survives, moves on and still, no matter how daft his next instalment might be, comes out with the same likeable, goofball charm and wholly justifiable dignity. Rocky, it seems, just can't be beaten. Life pitches all sorts at him but he just keeps on getting back up, a lopsided smirk on his face, some slurred home-baked apple pie advice (“Screw you, Creepo!”) and wistful, brow-beaten but never self-pitying look in his eyes.
Stallone came to epitomise the troubled hero who had to find the strength to survive from somewhere deep within and his roles, save the likes of those in Cobra or Tango And Cash, or sci-fi pap like Judge Dredd and Demolition Man, have often placed him in search of redemption. Arnie, on the other hand (who, in the 80's, I much preferred) was invincible right from the start, no matter who or what he played. And I find it fascinating that these two icons both managed to influence society and politics - Reagan Commie-bashed to the tune of Rambo's rattling M-60 and Glasnost seemed spurred on by Rocky's chopping of Ivan Drago down to size. And Arnie became the Governor of California! But of all the colourful characters that Stallone has brought to the screen, it is Rocky who is the most loved. As strong of heart as he is of muscle, and as vulnerable as each and every one of us, the Italian Stallion goes the distance to win the affections of a hero-yearning culture.
“Yo, Adrien ... I did it!”