In anticipation of the November 25th release of CREED, we’ll be taking a look back at the ROCKY franchise and discussing why these characters and this world are still relevant and necessary forty years later.
Rocky (1976) is where it all began.
I was still twelve years away from this world when Rocky was released and thusly imprinted on the face of America. Although I know I didn’t actually watch the movie until my second decade of life, I can’t remember a time when I didn’t have images from the film in my head. Because of this, so much is made of the film being part of the American experience and deservedly so. Rocky throws us into the melting pot of this country and proves to us that no matter a person’s upbringing, hard work and belief in oneself are powerful, life changing qualities. For a country built on an unlikely revolution, there isn’t a much more poignant message to tell. Each film in the series is able to serve as an extension of the country itself during its respective time of release. The first, Rocky, shows a country reflecting on what it has become and what it aspires to be during its bicentennial year. Beyond its inextricable ties to America, what makes this film a truly indelible experience is the creation of and dedication to the character of Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone).
Rocky Balboa is bad at his job. Serving as the muscle for local loan shark, Gazzo (Joe Spinell), Rocky is unable to enforce Gazzo’s rule over the delinquent. Tasked with breaking the thumbs of a debtor, Rocky merely accepts partial payment and tells the man to pay more next week. When explaining to Gazzo why he didn’t break the man’s thumbs, Rocky rationalizes that if he broke his thumbs, the man wouldn’t be able to work at the dock, thusly making it more difficult for him to pay back his debt. Does this way of thinking make sense? Probably. Is it bad for business? Yes, for Gazzo and yes, for Rocky as his employee. What it does is show us that the underbelly of this oafish fighter might not be an underbelly but rather an overt sense that he can do no true harm to anyone other than himself.
Rocky is a lover. This is a man whose version of crushing on a woman is visiting her at the pet shop twice a day, telling a bad joke (though never dirty) and buying turtle food. Once he has Adrian (Talia Shire) out of her shell, it’s clear that his life revolves around making her happy by being the best Rocky he can be. He pays off a skating rink attendant to leave the ice open an extra ten minutes. He uses an inopportune moment during a television interview to give Adrian a shout-out. He confides in Adrian when things look the bleakest before the fight. He only thinks of Adrian as soon as that final bell rings, signaling the end to his epic showdown with Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers).
Rocky is a guiding light to everyone around him. Nothing exemplifies this more than his oft-parodied run through Philly, culminating at the top of the stairs in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Those around him aren’t quite sure what to make of the man sprinting toward what is sure to be grand defeat. He wasn’t always sure of himself either, until finally facing his past grievances when his manager, Mickey (Burgess Meredith), comes calling for the first time. When his friend, Paulie (Burt Young), gets too drunk and out of control, Rocky steps in to defend Adrian who is also Paulie’s sister. Rocky is also the one to tell a neighborhood girl that acting tough and cursing at strangers with the bad boys of the neighborhood is something she will come to regret (and in his own special way, “You hang out with yo-yo people, you get yo-yo friends”). He doesn’t care the fashion in which he comes across, he knows what’s right.
Sylvester Stallone would be an American icon if this was the only film he made. Stallone was nominated for two Oscars with Rocky (Best Actor in a Leading Role and Best Screenplay), a feat that anyone born in the last few decades might deem unbelievable. He brought a slack-jawed bravado and simplicity to a role that could have come off as overly oafish or brutish in less deft hands. Sly understood that his character was always more about the journey than the end and played him fearlessly as a result. One scene involving Rocky’s courtship of Adrian in his apartment could very well have come across with Rocky as the creep (and it definitely straddles that line) but it doesn’t get there because Stallone knows how to undercut his advances. The script by Stallone also serves the point that Adrian has been pushed so deeply inside herself from her brother’s constant negative remarks that it takes Rocky cornering her and complimenting her in order to break her wall. It’s a true testament to Stallone’s talents here that he is able to do the things he does and get away with them so nicely.
Rocky isn’t afraid to hint at the ugly or the fear that peers in at the edges. Its Philadelphia is a dreary city, awakening only as Rocky finds his footing in training and in the ring. The side characters are shady, drunks, accepting of their less-than-stellar lot in life or a combination of the three. No one has faith in Rocky or Adrian and they can only begin to dig out of the gloom once they find each other. The movie may have been a perfect fit for 1976 America but it transcends period as it hits the very essence of what we aspire to be, bruises and all.
Now, strap yourselves in as we continue our trek through what becomes one of the most absurd and entertaining series in American history. The masterpiece that is Rocky casts a shadow over each other entry, but damn it if everything doesn’t become a lot more fun and also awful.