From the Shelf – Rocky

What makes a film appeal to one person more than another? How does a film impact someone so much as to make them want to watch it over and over — to the point where they can reenact every scene and quote every line? What actually makes a film significant and memorable? Does it have to impact cinema as a whole or just impact a single person profoundly?

In this periodic column, the Inside Pulse Movies staff delves into their own collection of films in order to discover the merits of some of their favorite movies. Today’s feature is the 1976 Academy Award winner for Best Picture: Rocky.

When we think of “undeserving” Academy Award winners for Best Picture, a handful of films always come up. Dances With Wolves famously topped Goodfellas, Forrest Gump walked away with the little golden man over Travis Leamons’ favorite film of all time, The Shawshank Redemption, and Titanic took the Oscar from L.A Confidential. It’s easy to proclaim something as “unworthy” from years of hindsight, as sometimes the Academy shows its human side. Not every winner is a classic for the ages; some are forgettable parts of the era they live in. Crash feels that way, not even a decade removed from its win, and every year there’s always a Top 10 list of either films that should, or shouldn’t, have won an Oscar.

Rocky is usually the one proclaimed to be the biggest of the latter variety.

In a year that also saw All the President’s Men, Taxi Driver and Network arrive in theatres, Rocky often gets maligned because we’ve elevated these three films over the years much higher than we have Rocky. But that’s not the fault of the film Sylvester Stallone wrote; look at where the other three stand in today’s modern cinematic lexicon. It’s hard to compete against the elevated standings of films that have taken on almost unwarranted importance. Merely being a masterpiece of a film has made Rocky seem undeserving of its win because its competition has been given what some could call an unreasonable elevation in the world of cinema. But for good reason, though.

You have a political thriller about recent events that became the archetype to be followed ever since, as All the President’s Men developed the style that nearly every film in the genre has followed since. Taxi Driver is often considered Scorsese’s finest work, no small feat. And Network has gotten much more relevant over the years as the focus and tone of news coverage has shifted in the modern world. It’s hard to compete against that and Rocky can’t because of everything that has come after.

The tale of the underdog against the invincible champion has been to death in the sports genre (almost to the point of self-parody) and Stallone went on to do less serious work over the years. His career could’ve gone differently afterwards if he’d remained a serious dramatic actor, as opposed to the man who headlined such gems as Rhinestone (where he becomes a country singer) and Over the Top which Norm MacDonald famously made fun of in a Saturday Night Live sketch starring Stallone. These things tend to take away from Rocky because we view it in the same way we view the rest of his career. It’s a shame, really, because Rocky is still powerful because it did one thing that no film before (or since) did: perfect the underdog formula and use it to spectacular effect.

A Character for the Ages

Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) is just another professional boxer in Philadelphia, PA, trying to make it. Fighting in clubs for small purses, and moonlighting as a collector for a local mobster, “The Italian Stallion” could’ve been a great fighter if he’d pushed himself harder. As it is he stands as a good fighter in a sea of them, probably retiring to the applause of a handful and a job as a mob enforcer in short order. He’s the equivalent of the guy who played college football at a Division 1 school and never got a sniff from the NFL or a career minor leaguer who never got past Double A Baseball. There are more guys who never made the big time than those who do; Balboa is seemingly destined to be one of them.

That is until he’s given the chance of a lifetime: a shot at Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers), the reigning, defending heavyweight champion of the world. His opponent is hurt and can’t fight. With a New Year’s Eve fight scheduled, and every available contender of note unable to take the fight, Creed decides to take a marketing ploy and run with it. Offering the fight to Balboa, based almost solely on his nickname alone, Creed figures this to be a good way to pop a rating and get an easy victory. Balboa had a good record on the club circuit but beating taxi drivers and burgeoning talent is a long way from fighting the best in the world. Creed is a wrecking ball who should make short work of the nondescript challenger: no one has lasted the distance (15 rounds) with the champ. Balboa is just another victim, a bum fighter being picked for an easy win by the champ due to unusual circumstances.

At least that’s what is supposed to happen. Balboa has other plans.

Rocky only wants to do one thing: go the distance with the champ. For him it’s a chance to prove he’s not just another bum from the neighborhood, that he’s not just some guy being picked for an easy win. It’s not about the outcome of victory or defeat; it’s about doing something no one else has done before.

From there it’s a matter of training for the fight under the tutelage of former bantamweight fighter Mick (Burgess Meredith), sometimes in an unorthodox manner like punching hug slabs of meat under the purview of his friend Paulie (Burt Young), and preparing for the big fight. Along the way he falls in love with the local pet store clerk Adrian (Talia Shire), Paulie’s sister, further complicating things.

This is all cliché ridden stuff but Stallone, who wrote the film, does something different with the character as both a writer and as an actor. Usually with sports underdogs they are blank characters for the most part, meant to be identifiable by the audience so that you will cheer for them when they win the day. Most actors play it that way as well; there’s nothing really different between most protagonists in the genre because they’re all written in the same way and acted in the same manner. While Rocky Balboa may have elements of a stock character in him, it’s the man playing him that separates this man from the rest.

Stallone at this point had a sort of raw, smoldering intensity as an actor that Pacino did before Scent of a Woman. He has moments where he loses his temper, et al, but it’s not those moments of explosion that are intriguing. It’s the moments up to them. Roger Ebert compared him to a young Brando when the film came out and yet everyone is always surprised when he brings out great performances. I always talk about an acting fastball but Stallone isn’t a pitcher; he’s a power hitter. When he sees one down the middle he’ll hit it farther than Barry Bonds on steroids. But usually he’s getting intentional passes in action films, where he can mail it and such, thus he never really gets a chance to show off the acting chops he has. It is weird to think of Stallone with a brilliant performance in anything, mainly because of films like Over the Top, but there was a time when he was a hot young actor because of his chops and not because of his biceps. It’s a different side for anyone who grew up or knows of him mainly because things tend to explode whenever he’s on the screen.

He did get an Oscar nomination for this film as an actor, as well as winning one for the film’s screenplay, and neither of those get categories get nominations handed out like an AOL CD in the 1992.

Perfecting the Clichés

When we discuss Rocky, the one thing that comes to mind is all the clichés that have come out of it. More likely we remember the training montages from all the other films, all sort of mimicking this film because it works so well. We remember “Gonna Fly Now” because of its crescendo on the stairs of the Natural History museum, of Rocky running through the streets of Philadelphia and all the hard work he put in to get ready for the fight. Over the years since the film came out we’re used to seeing training montages in every sports film; it’s a staple of the genre. Why? Because it’s like any staple or cliché from a genre film: one film did it perfectly and everyone else copied it.

The Maltese Falcon created the rules by which every film noir piece has functioned ever since, as did Halloween for slasher films. A genre piece can create the rules by which nearly every film has to follow afterwards and Rocky did that for the sports underdog tale. Underdog tales in sports films are as old as sports films themselves but Rocky did it so well that it’s become the standard by which every other film in the genre is judged. It’s why people were excited for Rocky Balboa, if only to see Stallone do a training montage in the correct manner.

You can tell the influence of Rocky by looking at what John Avildsen did after this film: The Karate Kid: A film that copied all of the same types of sequences eight years later but with karate as its combat art of choice.

A look at boxing the way it used to be in our minds

To be the heavyweight boxing champion of the world used to make one the baddest man on the planet. Before the volume of titles and weight classes made half of professional boxers into world champions for some organization, seemingly, boxing was a sport of mythos like baseball. Boxing, like baseball, is a sport that has always been (and will always be) filled with crooks and con artists looking to exploit people who can throw a punch better than most. Or take one, even. But we still see something pure about a sport that’s been crooked as long as it’s been around. That’s why Rocky still appeals to us, why people still want to mimic the legendary run up the stairs of Philadelphia’s Natural History Museum humming “Gonna Fly Now.”

Rocky and Raging Bull have the same kind of correlation that The Godfather and Goodfellas do. Two are about a mythicized version of an American institution borrowed from another country. Boxing may not have been born in America, far from it, but there’s something about the sport that appeals to the whole “American Dream” bit. Anyone can be the champion of the world if you work hard enough and are talented enough; at least we want to think that. In reality it’s a matter of promoters squabbling, et al, but we want to think that if you have talent and the work ethic that being the best fighter in the world is within your reach.

We want to think that in every phase of life and that’s why Rocky still resonates, despite the plethora of god-awful sequels used to advance Stallone’s career after misfires in other films like Rhinestone and Over the Top. We want to think of boxing as a sport and not something that’s got a huge rate of fights probably being fixed by crooks like Don King and Bob Arum. A fighter like Rocky Balboa is a guy we want to see succeed, the guy we can believe in.

The boxing world is closer to the darkness of Raging Bull and Jake La Motta in the same way we want to imagine the mob being run by decent men doing indecent things like the Corleone family as opposed to Hank Hill and the other members of the Lucchese crime family. We want to see the good in it all, the romance and the myth, as opposed to the seedy underbelly that makes up the truth. We want to think of La Cosa Nostra as about being honorable gentlemen engaged in dishonorable things in the same way we want to see two boxers in the ring to establish the better man and fighter between them.

It’s why both of Scorsese’s flicks cut so deeply while the other two are much more about the largesse of it all. There’s a grand myth of the rise and fall of a man in both, albeit for different reasons. Michael Corleone dies at the end of Godfather 3, a broken old man in a rocking chair. The whole trilogy is about his rise to power and his ruthlessness killing the good inside of him. Rocky Balboa rises from being another nobody to being the biggest fighter in the world, from being the champion of the world to a retired boxer turned restaurateur. Rocky Balboa is about his one last chance, to go the distance and prove it all wasn’t a dream.

Rocky and The Godfather are fictional pieces. Raging Bull and Goodfellas were both based off of biographical novels (“Wise Guy” by Nicholas Pileggi and “Raging Bull: My Story” by La Motta”). It’s why the mythos of the fiction resonate so much more than the pathology (if you can call it that) of the latter do. We want to be reminded of the goodness of it all like when Joe Louis knocked out Max Schmeling and not be reminded of all the flaws of the “Brown Bomber.”

Muhammad Ali inspires a struggling actor

Every good fiction has a place in reality and Rocky was inspired by an actual fighter: Charles “Chuck” Wepner. Stallone himself credits the Wepner-Ali fight with the inspiration and creation of the screenplay behind Rocky.

Better known as the “Bayonne Bleeder,” Wepner lasted nearly 15 rounds with Muhammad Ali. I say nearly because he was knocked out with less than 20 seconds to go in the 15th and final round. Wepner was a fringe contender, knocked out by both Sonny Liston and George Foreman, but gave Ali a heck of a fight before going out on his shield. It would be his biggest moment as a fighter, as he wasn’t given much of a chance and gave the former Cassius Clay a fight for the ages. He took one of the greatest fighters of his era, perhaps the best of all time, to the final minute of the final round in a fight that wasn’t supposed to.

Stallone was then a struggling actor and screenwriter. With a handful of credits to his name, he had found some work but had never broken through to be a regularly working actor. His most prominent work as an actor had been a starring role in The Lords of Flatbush, headlined by Henry Winkler, and as Machine Gun Joe in the Roger Corman produced Death Race 2000. He had done on some writing work on Flatbush but he wasn’t a name yet. Corman had thought of him as the next great “heavy,” the badass who serves as the muscle for a main antagonist.

And then he saw that fight.

The first script to Rocky came out of this fight and it was a brilliant one at that. Stallone got a massive offer for the script as it was going to be a starring vehicle for James Caan, Burt Reynolds or someone along those lines. He wasn’t a name and this film was going to have one as Rocky Balboa. This was never going to be his to star in if he’d let go of it and Stallone had a gut instinct. It inspired Matt Damon and Ben Affleck years later to do Good Will Hunting only if they could star in it.

Stallone was given a massive offer to hand over the script, rumored to be in the seven figures, and yet something deep inside him said no. This had to be his starring vehicle and he bet everything he had on it. The film eventually got greenlit with a small budget as United Artists didn’t have that much faith in it. Something magical happened despite all the odds going against it: The film became a massive hit.

Grossing over $225 million worldwide on a budget that was less than $1 million, the film made Sylvester Stallone overnight into an A-list actor. He would garner a Best Acting nomination to go along with one for Best Original Screenplay, which eh won. After Rocky hit, becoming both a massive commercial success as well as winning a handful of other Oscars, Stallone could write his own ticket. The rest, as they say, is history.

An Unorthodox Love Story

Why does Rocky work beyond the underdog tale? Because of Sylvester Stallone and Talia Shire being two halves of one of cinema’s great love stories: Rocky Balboa and Adrian Pennino.

This isn’t the usual meet-cute of a romantic comedy. Rocky and Adrian have known each other for some time, as her brother is his best friend, and he stops by to talk to her at the pet store she works at on a regular basis to talk. They’ve known each other for some time but he probably never found the right time to ask her out properly. When they finally go out it’s awkward but there’s something there between them that is palpable. Why does he box she wonders. Because he can’t sing and dance he replies. She’s painfully shy and he’s outgoing to a fault. They shouldn’t work but they do; credit a couple things for it.

The first is a pair of actors who have that “once in a lifetime” chemistry together on screen despite not actually being a real life couple. Stallone was an unknown at this point and Shire was mainly known as the Corleone sister in The Godfather series. Of all combinations you’d think they wouldn’t work, and Shire was a late replacement to boot. Susan Sarandon and Carrie Snodgress could’ve been Adrian but the former’s beauty and the latter’s money demands managed to land Shire the role. She had an Oscar nomination already, garnering another (alongside Stallone) for this film, and this is a brilliant performance in its subtlety. It takes a lot for an actress not known for this sort of role to go inward with a role and rely on another to bring it out. Stallone may have the showier role, so to speak, but it’s how Shire plays off of him that defines their relationship.

The other is the film’s writing. Stallone crafted two brilliant characters and gave them a love story that was simple. These are two people who’ve been damaged and find a way to make a connection few really do. When Rocky loses the fight we don’t seem to mind because in the end he has Adrian. He doesn’t, either. Fights will come and go. He’s going to have her forever, so he’s ok with the loss. He knows he’ll never fight Creed again, he even says so. He’s proven everything he ever wanted to by going the distance with the champ, now he’s going to walk away with the love of his life.

It’s why in Rocky Balboa, when we see Rocky visiting her gravesite and reliving some of the old times in his van with Paulie, that it reminds us how special Rocky is in that regard. What they had was special and now all he has left are his memories of his life with her.

The Heart of the Champion

The beginning of the fight starts out differently than what’s expected. Everyone has expected Creed to dominate and what does he do? He gets knocked down by Balboa, who has come out to make this into a war he’ll never forget. And that’s exactly what he delivers. Everything you really need to know about Rocky Balboa comes in a pivotal moment late in the fight.

It’s the 14th round, a place no one has taken the champ before. Both men are exhausted but Creed pulls out a vicious combination, dropping the challenger with a massive uppercut. This is his signature and he has that killer instinct that gives him a gut feeling that this fight is over. Rocky has been taking an absolute beating and this should be the finish. He’s not even keeping his hands up; Creed tees off on him like he’s working on a heavy bag. And then the kill-shot and Rocky goes down, with everyone thinking this is it.

This is the pivotal moment in the fight; at this point no one has ever gotten back up. Everyone is screaming for Balboa to stay down for the 10 count, including Mick, and Creed believes the fight is done. No one has survived such a vicious onslaught and Balboa, who has fought valiantly at this point, couldn’t be faulted if he went out on his shield at the moment. He’s taken the vicious knockout shot from a man who’s an artist at them after over 40 minutes of fighting. There is some valor in his concession of victory at this point; to take the champ this far, further than anyone even dreamed going in, is a point of pride. No one gave him a chance to survive the first and here he is, further than anyone had ever been with Creed, finally having taken the champ’s big kill-shot of an uppercut. There’s nothing inherently wrong with staying down right now. We’ve grown to love Rocky Balboa at this point and even in defeat he’s proven to be the worthy contender that no one thought he could be. But then something magical happens.

He gets up.

Creed can’t believe it. He’s given everything he has to finish this fighter who isn’t supposed to be in his league and it didn’t work. Balboa is taunting him, telling him to bring it further, and Creed’s a nearly broken man at this point. What on Earth could he do now to finish him? He used his absolute best shot and Rocky willed himself back up, refusing to give up when everything around him says he should. We talk about the heart of a champion in the entirety of sport but this is the only way to look at it.

This is such an amazing scene because it doesn’t need much dialogue or flashy editing. This is all in how Weathers and Stallone are reacting to one another. It’s breath-taking in how the two use non-verbal gestures and cues to relish this moment. The look on Creed’s face tells you everything you need to know about how he’s feeling. He can’t believe it and knows he can’t stop Balboa. This is the moment where he has to try and survive another round, where the predator becomes the prey. He has viciously unloaded and Rocky isn’t backing down; his best shot to stop the unknown local club fighter came up empty, the same best shot that stopped champions and more worthy contenders from around the world before. This is the moment he comes up empty, a moment that has never happened before, and he’s incredulous. The look in his eyes says more than anything a screenwriter could think of; the way he reacts, boxing wise, tells the rest of it. He’s tentative and doesn’t know what to do now, his plan completely foiled. Everything from here is improvisation. It has to be.

The raw hunger of Stallone’s eyes tells the other half of the story. He’s taken the champ’s best shot and survived. He knows he has the champ on his heels now and brings the fight to him. Balboa knows that the rest of this around, and the pivotal 15th, are his time to end things and try to win the final round (and maybe the fight). From there … anything can happen.

Final Thoughts

There are few films that really get as much undeserved criticism as Rocky. People have elevated the films around it so much in the past three decades that it’s forgotten how brilliant this film really is. There was an amazing amount of great films made in the 1970s. This is one of them.

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