Sylvester Stallone wrote this gem and wisely insisted on starring (possible replacing, if you can imagine, Ryan O’Neal, Burt Reynolds or Robert Redford), leading to many more Rocky movies, and some Rambos, and a dozen other mumbling portrayals. Say what you will about what it spawned, but Rocky is near flawless.
Rocky is a busted up club fighter living in the bleak hell that is mid 70s Philadelphia. He’s a sweet guy, but he is an admitted bum, getting a fight every few weeks and paying the rent by collecting for a local loan shark. We meet Rocky after a sixth round knockout of another bum nets him $40, and he’s just been unceremoniously evicted from his gym by its manager, Burgess Meredith. His best friend is a meat packing cretin (Burt Young) who lives with his paralyzingly shy sister (Talia Shire), who Rocky is sweet on. Rocky’s fortunes change, however, when the champion, a Muhammad Ali figure named Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers), has a ranked contender drop out from a well-promoted fight. Creed fixes on a gimmick – give a nobody – the “EYE-talion Stallion” – a shot at the title.
This is often heralded as the quintessential boxing movie, but boxing is secondary to a moving, beautiful love story between Shire and Stallone, and the portrayal of a Philadelphia so cruel and cold that Rocky seems like its only validation.
Shire is so withdrawn, a character taunts Rocky, suggesting she is “retarded.” She is not, but she is painfully muted. Rocky’s persistence, and the innate sweetness in him, pulls her out. The scenes of their first encounters, and particularly, the scene where he takes her on a first date, are realistic, poignant and heart wrenching. As they come together, you can see that each provides the other a confidence and support they’d never known. Stallone and Shire share a haunting chemistry of losers, and their story really is the movie.
As is the city. Director John Avildsen uses the gritty corners and grimy haunts of poor and working class Philly and the verisimilitude contributes heavily to the drama. Rocky lives in a hell, where folks sit on the cold streets, trash is strewn everywhere, and it is not enough to ignore someone – you must abuse them. So, Rocky’s loan shark boss has a driver who mocks Rocky mercilessly. When Rocky tries to tell a neighborhood girl to get off the streets or she’ll get a “rep,” she responds, “Screw you, creepo” and when he is kicked out of his gym, Burgess Meredith humiliates him publicly.
Of course, when Rocky gets his shot, Meredith, hat in hand, comes to help. The result is one of the most beautiful scenes in Hollywood history:
The picture received 10 Oscar nominations, including ones for Stallone, Shire and Meredith, and it deservedly won Best Picture.
The only fault is the fight itself, which is hampered by fighters who look buff and have some moves (Weathers simulates a nice stinging jab), but unrealistically degenerates into a clumsy brawl. While Avildsen does the best he can with the budget (a mere $1 million shot in less than a month), his interspersing of stock arena footage cannot save the fact that the Rocky-Apollo fight looks very small indeed, and you can see empty seats in the background of various shots of the fighters. Given the budget and the quick pace of filming, these weaknesses are easily overlooked.