In celebration of the newest installment in the Rocky saga, Creed, I thought I’d go right back and look at where it all began. Rocky is often dismissed as being a typical, uninspired American Dream sports film compared to another Academy Award contender for that year, Scorsese’s study of isolation Taxi Driver. However, those who criticise Rocky in this manner do not give the film its due credit: Rocky is not a typical American Dream film, but a realistic, powerful subversion of the it, and shows that going the distance is more important than making it.
Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone), is a down-and-out Philadelphian boxer and loan collector, who, apart from not getting many fights, being a southpaw, is also a fairly lousy fighter. As his trainer Mickey (Burgess Meredith) puts it “you got heart but you fight like a god-damn ape”, just after Mickey has given Rocky’s locker at the gym to a more promising fighter. He’s in love with Adrian (Talia Shire), the shy sister of his alcoholic best friend Paulie (Burt Young), but apart from that he’s going nowhere and getting there fast. That is, until the world heavyweight champion Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) offers Rocky a chance at the title for three reasons: 1) His original opponent injured himself, 2) he liked Rocky’s nickname “The Italian Stallion”, and 3) he was certain he could beat Rocky. Rocky now faces not only the challenge of confronting a fighter who is completely out of his league, but also the static nature of his life.
Just as interesting as the story of Rocky is the story of how it was made. The screenplay was written in less than a week by a starving, unknown actor named Sylvester Stallone, whose lack of work forced him to sell his dog (who was eventually bought back and makes an appearance in the film). His script was well liked by the producers Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff, but they weren’t so keen on Stallone’s insistence that he play the title role. A deal was cut that Stallone would be paid less for his screenplay and that the film would have a budget of only a million dollars, which Stallone gladly accepted. And one could argue that the film was improved as a result, as what it lacks in production values is made up for with a kind of beautiful grittiness.
This grittiness feeds itself into the performances, particularly those of Stallone, Young and Shire. Sylvester Stallone was compared to Marlon Brando at the time of the film’s release, and though Sly lacks the finesse of Brando’s performances, his turn as Rocky is raw and full of heart, and his talent really shines through in two scenes where he feels the immense weight of the challenge before him, responding the first time with explosive anger, the second with quiet resolve. Young as Paulie is shrill, unpredictable, and borderline despicable, showing the amount of effort he put into his character’s credibility; and Shire is perfectly fitting as the shy, bookish Adrian, who isn’t afraid to convey a touch of the defensive antagonism that extremely shy people are prone to. Meredith and Weathers are enjoyable as the cranky old trainer Mickey and the cocky, energetic champ Apollo, respectively, and all the performances were enhanced by a fantastic script from Stallone that captures the tone and tempo of real speech while also being as passionate as the work of Tennessee Williams.
Rocky was directed by John G. Avildsen, who would go on to direct The Karate Kid, and unfortunately little else of note, but his visual style perfectly fit the tone of the story. Though the cinematography in Rocky is not what you’d call pretty, it is very effective. Most of the dialogue scenes are captured in inconspicuous long takes that focus more on the drama than looking nice, and the lack of close-ups, limited colours, use of zooms, extensive use of wide shots, and alternating use of handheld and Steadicam all contribute to an aesthetic I’d call “robust”, that combines the intentional imperfections of European cinema with the wide-angle steadiness of traditional Hollywood films (contrary to popular belief, Steadicam wasn’t invented for Rocky, but was popularised by it, particularly in its use for the iconic steps sequence). Of course, the score by Bill Conti, particularly the song “Gonna Fly Now” has worked it’s way into the cultural psyche and the playlist of joggers around the world, but I find the score is most effective at its most sparse, particularly a recurring theme on solo horn, piano and strings that perfectly encapsulates the strength and vulnerability of the hero.
But for all it’s strengths artistically, what separates Rocky from other sports dramas? Primarily in that it focuses less on the training and participation in the sport, and more on the athlete, his mental and emotional struggles, his everyday life and the impact of the event on those around him.
And is Rocky really just American Dream tripe as many people easily brush it off as? According to the plot summary I gave above, it is easy to see how it could be: a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity lands in the lap of a deserving down-on-his-luck hero that hasn’t had the chance to shine. However, for it to be a true American Dream story, traditional success in the form of coming out on top and acquiring wealth, needs to be present. And while Rocky does succeed, I cannot say how or in what form he does… but his success gives us arguably one of the finest climaxes in cinematic history, that defies clichés but nevertheless provides a triumphant, joyful ending.
Unfortunately, the subsequent films fell into self-parody, becoming the American Dream tripe that the first film masterfully inverted, possibly having something to do with Stallone’s rising stardom and personal wealth, distancing him from the realism that made the original such a triumph. That was changed, however, with the excellent Rocky Balboa, and now with Ryan Coogler’s magnificent Creed, which I can gladly say held its own against the undisputed original.
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(I have decided not to include a trailer, due to severe spoilers)