Think of every sports movie you’ve seen and know that none of them would be the same without “Rocky.” Not only did Sylvester Stallone’s underdog tale inspire generations of wannabe stars to dream big, it was highly influential in defining the emotional and heroic conventions of the modern zero-to-hero sport flick. It doesn’t check the boxes, it created many of them. In perfect counterpoint to cinema’s other big boxing event, “Rocky” remains highly optimistic in the face of its critics and continues to shine, even in the wake of five sequels (some better than others) and 35 years of Stallone’s career which could go only one way after this high – down. Perhaps most importantly it’s a masterclass of a case study in how to create cinematic gold with only the most limited of means and on a virtual shoestring budget. Watch and learn.
Ageing second class boxer Rocky Balboa (Stallone) doesn’t have much to live for. However when heavyweight champion Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) is out of a challenger and decides for an easy match against an unknown, Rocky is given an unexpected shot at a championship. Suddenly all those around him, including drunkard friend Paulie (Burt Young) and big-mouthed yet failed manager Mickey (Burgess Meredith) who previously passed him off, want in on the action. All this spectacle however, bothers Rocky less than Paulie’s sister Adrian (Talia Shire) who works at the local pet store and for whom he has always had feelings. Their romance develops slowly, awkwardly but surely and with some training, Rocky might actually have a chance in this fight. It’s easy to see where the film is going throughout but Stallone’s Oscar-nominated screenplay constantly one-ups the viewer with knuckle smart dialogue and clever exposition. Granted, there probably wasn’t much of a script in the first place – Stallone is simply playing himself throughout – but anyone who would doubt the macho’s brain capacity will be stumped at his instinctive feel for natural situations and flow of narrative. The fact that many sequences, including the film’s most beautiful on an ice-skating rink, were created out of necessity is testament to his talents as a filmmaker.
There are so many aspects of “Rocky” that make him so amiable: Firstly, he’s a gentleman and not a bum, he thoroughly admires his opponent and doesn’t actually want to win. Where the bull is raging, it’s “Rocky” that has the heart and hence the likability. There is one less-mentioned facet of the film though: While it is in essence Stallone’s film, it’s the supporting roles that are often overlooked. Talia Shire should be specifically mentioned for her flawless playing as an unusual romantic interest because in many ways the main focus of the film’s plot is a tender love story about two people that lead normal lives, only briefly emerging from oblivion – boxing is merely the stage for the drama. The first kiss she shares with Rocky is extremely poignant to watch. Sadly, her career in Hollywood never took off and is otherwise best remembered for her role as Connie Corleone in “The Godfather.” Not to diminish the film’s amazing triumph over adversity side though: There’s a very good reason tourists flock to Philadelphia every year to run up those steps in front of the city’s Museum of Art in track-suits and blaring out music. Sylvester just continues to inspire.
The film also launched the career of composer Bill Conti. Without doubt one of “Rocky’s” most iconic parts is the title theme “Gunna Fly Now,” written by Conti to accompany the movie’s major training montage. The song is largely responsible for the enduring popularity of the soundtrack release, as inspiring as the film itself and shamelessly optimistic. The remainder of the score tends to be somewhat neglected next to the song but is nevertheless a very strong effort by Conti and will likely remain the defining music of his career. Unfortunately, the album presentation is far from optimal, both in audio quality and length. In terms of a rounded score, some of the material Conti wrote for the subsequent sequels is superior. Do not let that deter you however. Even if only heard on a compilation, Bill Conti’s score is a worthy addition to every score collection and ranks next to Jerry Goldsmith’s works like “Hoosiers” and “Rudy” among the best in the sports genre.
Truly a classic for all ages, “Rocky” is the feel-good experience that justifies endless repeats on Christmas television and a whole cult-following. Regardless of what Sylvester Stallone has made since, this remains the absolute top of his game.
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