There are certain films where the story is so rich and compelling that the performances are merely catalysts for the plot and it doesn’t matter if the actors are remarkable or not (I noted this in last year’s 1917). “Rocky” definitely isn’t one of those movies; the story here is as old as the hills and rests entirely on the unbelievably raw and iconic performances of Sylvester Stallone as Rocky and, without exception, surely what must be one of the stronger supporting casts in cinematic history.
Sylvester Stallone was famously offered $350,000 for the rights to the script, so long as an established Hollywood leading man play the titular role. He had $106 in his bank account and at the time was trying to sell his dog because he couldn’t afford to feed him, but was still adamant that he star in the film. Had Stallone not played Rocky, I think this film would have been forgotten six months after it came out. Instead, Stallone made what really should have been a mediocre action flick into something much more special. What makes Rocky so involving is the fact that the central crux of the story (Rocky being approached by Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) with an offer to fight for a chance at the heavyweight champion title) probably doesn’t even come up until about half way through the film. Instead, director John G. Avildsen takes his time with slowly establishing Rocky as a character until we know him inside out; his walk, the way he talks to himself and to his pet turtles, how he walks past the local pet store every morning and night with a new joke to impress the quiet shop assistant Adrian (Talia Shire), how he’s kind hearted but angry when mistreated and disappointed in himself for the opportunities he’s squandered by drinking and “screwing around”. The dialogue, particularly Rocky’s, is absolutely inspired; its not driven by meandering plot points or exposition but by what these people would actually say in this little corner of the world.
One of the best pieces of scriptwriting in the whole thing comes from a pretty brutal scene in which Rocky and his girlfriend Adrian are sitting watching T.V. when Adrian’s brother and Rocky’s friend Paulie (Burt Young) comes home and begins bashing up the living room with a baseball bat, drunkenly accusing Rocky of forgetting and abandoning him, while blaming Adrian for him never marrying or succeeding in life. Adrian finally snaps back at him, (Talia Shire as Adrian is particularly powerful) and her whole facade of mousiness and timidness is smashed to a thousand pieces – “I take care of you Paulie, I don’t owe you nothing! And you made me feel like a loser Paulie! I’m not a loser!” If anything sums up why “Rocky” received Best Picture, its this scene. There is a poetic and raw quality to “Rocky” which is particularly memorable, and something which I wasn’t anticipating.
Then of course is the sporting element of the film; its understandable why the training montages and those shots of Rocky running up the Philadelphia Museum of Art steps are so iconic. There’s no sugar coating of any of this, you can see the pain and the sweat Rocky puts into his training and by the time of the boxing match you feel and wince with every single blow. Apollo Creed was never intended as a villain, and he’s not. Its just that we’ve grown to love Rocky so damn much over the course of the previous 110 minutes that we want him to succeed. And yet when Creed is declared the winner of the match, (surely this can’t be a spoiler by now) it doesn’t even matter because we’re so proud of Rocky for getting up every single time he was knocked down and for standing there battered and bruised against the heavyweight champion of the world. All that matters is that he completed what he set out to do, he got the girl and that he’s done something he can be truly proud of.
I haven’t rooted for a character in a film nearly as much as I did for Rocky Balboa. “Rocky” taps into every possible emotion I could have experienced while watching a film; I laughed, I was inspired, I felt sad for the wretchedness of some of the characters and proud when they overcame adversity. Stallone brings to life a flawed, insecure, hot-tempered but kind hearted and tough man who embodies everything that personifies a true Hollywood hero. And I loved every minute of it.
By Jock Lehman