Rocky (1976) — Underdog boxer punches his way into our hearts

“Yo Adrian!”

Drew’s rating: If this film were a boxing match, I’d go all 15 rounds. And that is the worst metaphor I will ever use.

Drew’s review: You might think that, as a relatively athletic person, I’d be a good choice to review Rocky, or at least would have some insight into the main character’s frame of mind. But while I do hope to do it justice, the truth is that Rocky is really not a “sports movie.” Not that there’s anything wrong with sports films, but they tend not to win Best Picture awards — after all, there’s a reason Major League and The Mighty Ducks were never Oscar contenders. (Well, many reasons.)

It’s true that in Rocky, a sporting event is a major plot point, and the main character spends much of his time engaging in that sport. (Boxing, in case you were wondering.) But it’s not the major theme of the movie, any more than Casablanca was a film about World War II.

Instead, Rocky uses boxing as a means to an end, a vehicle to tell the actual story: That of a man rising from nothing, being given a shot at greatness and achieving it through dedication, sacrifice, and perseverance. While boxing in particular lends visceral impact to his struggles and makes for some great cinematic sequences, it could just as easily have been acting, or politics or cooking. The inspiring tale of a down-on-his-luck street punk working in a soup kitchen, suddenly given a chance to square off against Chef Morimoto in a nationally televised match on Iron Chef? You laugh, but the story would play out identically, with only the trappings changed. No one might go see it, of course, but make no mistake — my earlier article notwithstanding, that’s what differentiates Rocky from a true sports movie.

What Rocky IS is an update of the classic Horatio Alger “rags to riches” tale of the everyman who makes good, pulling himself up by his yadda yadda yadda. Nothing at all new, but the success of the movie lies in the execution, not innovation. I’ll be the first to say that Stallone is not known as one of this generation’s greatest writers or actors, but in this film at least, both his screenplay and his performance ring true. I’m not sure Rocky’s the kind of guy I’d want to spend a lot of time with in real life, but I completely buy Stallone in the role. Actually, the same is true of every character — Adrian, Paulie, and Mickey would all drive me nuts, but it’s a testament to the actors that they make them so real. Burgess Meredith in particular is outstanding as crotchety manager Mickey, and everything about the film’s scenery really drives home what depressed, jobless South Philly must have been like in the late ’70s.

When we watched Rocky together, my wife thought it was stupid that (spoilers ho) Rocky doesn’t win. What I tried to explain is that he wasn’t out to win… he says it himself, he knows he can’t beat Creed. (Until the sequel, but let’s not go there.) All he wants is to prove he’s not a loser, that he can go the distance and last 15 rounds with the world champion. That speaks volumes to me as a swimmer, because in any timed sport your main opponent is yourself — you may want to beat the guy next to you, but you’re really racing the clock. I never placed first at national championships in anything, but in the last race of my career I beat my best time by 10 seconds and broke a school record in the process; I promise you, I couldn’t have been any happier if I’d won. In my mind, the same is true of Rocky — in the end he’s gotten his girl and proved to himself that he can compete with the best, whether he won the physical match or not is incidental.

I’m not going to claim to you that Rocky is a perfect movie. There are things I didn’t quite get (he just… yells his anger at Mickey out, then they’re friends?), and while I know the scene in Rocky’s apartment with he and Adrian is supposed to seem heated and romantic, it’s the most uncomfortable love scene ever. But it’s worth making an effort to get past any minor stylistic elements you might not enjoy, because at its core, Rocky truly is a great movie, and no one can take that away from it. It’s not necessarily one you want to watch every day, but if you’ve never given this movie a chance, you owe it at least one shot at the title bout.

Shalen’s rating: Mutant Shalen has been rated R for fantasy violence, thematic material, and occasional language. This movie, however, gets a whole bunch of thumbs up.

Shalen’s review: I would like to have seen Rocky when it first came out. There was all the interesting (though patently phony) hype about unknown actor/writer Sylvester Stallone talking a major studio into making his little movie for $18,000, and there was the thrill of seeing it in a theater on a big screen in a crowd of people who had also never seen it before, and there was the spine tingle of hearing “Gonna Fly Now” when it was both new and in a musical style much more popular than it is now. Through a sad twist of fate, however, I wasn’t actually born until five years after the movie was released. Further, I squandered many subsequent years eating canned pears and playing with plastic donuts, totally ignorant of what I had missed.*

It wasn’t until college that I ran across this movie. I had just gotten a new DVD drive in my old HP computer**, and unlike my hometown’s library at the time, the local library had a collection of DVDs for loan. So, while females of contemporary age were out playing Rufampin Roulette with horny college boys, I was in my room watching — oh forbidden joy! — as many movies as I could get my stubby fingers on.*** Among others, this was how I first saw Aida with Pavarotti, The Addiction with Lily Taylor, Terminator 2 with, well, you know who, and Rocky.

This is the kind of movie I normally would not watch. I tend to eschew sports movies in general, because the number of attractive males on display doesn’t make up for the horribly clichéd plots plus large number of musical montages.**** The only other boxing movies I’ve really tried are Ali, which was okay, if occasionally dull, and Raging Bull, of which I couldn’t sit through more than twenty minutes. I think the reason I even bothered watching this was because it was such a cultural icon. I’d heard jokes about Rocky and seen parodies of Rocky and even seen a Nestea commercial involving a claymation version of the title character, and I was curious to see what had inspired a boxing movie made in the ’70s to endure for thirty-odd years.

And now I know.

Because Rocky is a very, very good story. This is not a gedankenexperiment. This is not a “Hey, Oscar over here!” movie about crushing existential despair or how hard it is to be middle-aged and rich in America or redemption through being shot to death. This is a movie about a guy and a girl and a dream, not necessarily in that order. Normally such a description would cause me to sneer so hard I would develop a cramp in my upper limp, then go watch something about people being eaten by a giant spider, but with Rocky it’s the unvarnished truth.

I’m not going to tell you the plot and so on because I’m going to assume you got that already. It doesn’t have quite the ending you’d expect, but it’s not one you’re going to be sorry you watched, either. Trust me on this. I hate pathetically sad movies. This isn’t one. I also hate sappy romances. This isn’t one of those, either. That particular aspect and how it’s handled is one of my favorite things about it.

The only thing you really need to know from this review is that you should watch this movie. Even if you never see any of the sequels or buy the commemorative Sylvester Stallone collector’s plate or whatever, even if you can’t stand a single other movie Stallone is in, you should see this one.

*Brightly colored blocks and a yellow Tonka dump truck were also significant themes during this period of time.
**It came with a 600 mhz Celeron, a 40 gb hard drive, and 256 mb of RAM. It cost $700, and at the time, that was cheap. When I am old and gray and cannot remember the names of any of my relatives (insert joke about Sue here), I will still be able to rattle off this information at will.
***And I’d like to stress, in case my mother should be reading this review, that I did it only in order to survive the stress of long, long hours of exhaustive studying for each and every class. Really.
****I think I’ve now said enough shallow things about display of the male body in movies that I no longer have the right to sneer at Kyle for doing the same. Except with girls. Because Kyle is not gay.

Justin’s rating: DeNiro, Smith, Crowe, Swank… hang up your gloves for the true contender.

Justin’s review: When you’re somewhat known to your friends and family members as a movie reviewer, there are certain expectations brought to the table in any film-related discussion. The first is the blanket assumption that you’ve seen every single movie under the sun. To not have seen a movie that someone considers a “classic” is an, I don’t know, automatic disbarment from the pretend movie guild. The other expectation is that you are infallible in recommending films to others, and if you recommend a movie they end up hating, they are legally entitled to spit in your face. Twice.

Mom, Dad, Lance, Greedo, Mr. President… I’ve never seen any of the Rocky movies. Ever. Until now. The time of my shame has come to an end.

Part of the reason for this oversight is that sports movies never registered very big on my radar while growing up. Despite being prone to anti-football rants during Superbowl week, I actually do enjoy many sports-themed films (it’s a miracle how editing and kung-fu can make a three hour soccer match seem interesting). I just don’t go out of my way to find them.

Therefore, my Italian heritage calls to me, and the appeal of one of the most famous “long” movie series that is Mutant Reviewers virgin territory beckons to my very soul. So here we go.

Based on a script peddled by a relatively unknown mumbly hulk who wrote it in a mere matter of days, Hollywood took a shot and made Rocky for pennies. Well, about 100 million pennies, but still, that’s a lot less copper than Armageddon. Sylvester Stallone insisted that as part of the sale, he be allowed to star in his own story. It was low budget, unassuming, and — above all — a complete cliché. An underdog boxing movie. Yawn.

And then it made well over $100 million (which was a huge amount in the ’70s and not half bad today), and beat out Taxi Driver and Network to win three Academy Awards, including Best Picture. It’s since been called one of the most inspiring movies of all time, and certain elements of this cliché flick have inspired their own clichés in pop culture.

But since we’re decades distant from this movie, a lot of those things cease to impress any longer. As always, we’re just left with the movie, for better or for worse. Rocky is best described as a movie where a character who is suffering from severe brain damage throws himself into a sport where the potential for even greater damage is present. The movie lives and dies on the thespian acting talents of Stallone, whose trademark blank face and growly monotone belay the chummy, sincere guy that he’s trying to play.

Rocky Balboa is a bit of a boxer and a bit of a street hood, although he’s the “nice” variety. Everyone in Philly seems to like him, including the overly shy Adrian, who works in a pet store and wears the most hideous old lady glasses known to mankind. One day, Rocky gets his “shot” (I accidentally typed an “i” instead of an “o” there, which, I think you’d agree, would’ve changed this whole sentence) at glory when the heavyweight champion of the world, Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) decides to fight a local boy as part of a publicity stunt.

What surprised me is that Rocky is no more a movie about boxing than Karate Kid is about martial arts. Both were directed by John G. Avildsen and feature a big fight at the end by an underdog nobody expects to win. Also, training montages. Gotta love those! Rocky spends most of its running time developing the titular character, showing his stale life and his struggle to reach something above and beyond that. It also has a touching little romance that grows to overshadow the boxing match (there’s a reason why this movie is best-known for its “Yo, Adrian!” quote).

The final boxing match itself is swift but effective — you will be mesmerized by the two tanks trading blows and beating each other up into man putty. I like how Creed takes Rocky as a joke at first, until Rocky delivers a first round knockdown that turns things serious in a heartbeat.

Still, I’d classify Rocky as more “quaint and charming” than “awesome and spectacular.” The ’70s backdrop is overly drab, and Stallone’s acting is simply outpaced by the demands of the story. Yet for some reason, America fell in love with big muscled men who couldn’t talk so hot, so much so that by the ’80s, they were our heroes.

Yo.

Didja notice?

  • I’m not even a boxer, but I’d like to fight a guy named “Spider Rico” once in my life.
  • Fun drinking game: have a beer every time Paulie is visibly drunk on screen. You’ll be unconscious before Rocky ever fights Creed.
  • Or you can just take a sip every time Rocky says “y’know” and be out in 5 minutes. Stallone must’ve been getting paid by how many times he could utter it.
  • Not a lot of guys would say “Forget my sister, you can do better.” Paulie’s great.
  • I… don’t think that’s really where the term “southpaw” came from.
  • Converse hi-tops as running shoes? Dude, that’ll kill your feet.
  • Heh… my coach used to say “Women weaken legs!” to us before big meets too. Good times.
  • The 70s was often infested with barbershop quartet gangs on street corners
  • The eyebrow drawn onto Rocky’s eyebrow patch
  • Those glasses aren’t doing any woman any favors
  • Ever see a dead turkey fly? Now you have.
  • It’s a running monologue of a man who really doesn’t have much to say
  • If a girl says she’s not feeling comfortable and she wants to leave, just put your hand on the door and say “no”. Then kiss her.
  • Argh! Wood paneling!
  • Mmm raw egg… it’s a healthy breakfast!
  • Apollo’s entrance – as George Washington, in a boat

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