It was appropriate that I did “First Blood”. Good build-up to THE Sly Stallone film. Because it will always be the best movie of his career. That’s not from lack of trying mind you. As I said in “First Blood” Rewind Review, Stallone has proven his abilities as an actor over the years. However, I also said that, unfortunately, once you define a genre or two, anything else you do would pale in comparison. Especially a story that, let’s face it, was lightning in a bottle. A defining picture of both Stallone’s career and filmmaking in general. A film that defied all odds in it’s creation and, ultimately, went home with the coveted Best Picture Oscar at the Academy Awards. Filmed in 28 days on a budget of $1.1 million, ladies and gentlemen, I give you a special review for the 40th anniversary of 1976’s “Rocky”.
The backstory to the film is as legendary as the film itself. Stallone went to see a fight between Muhammad Ali and third-ranked fighter Chuck Wepner. Wepner was never expected to last long against Ali but ended up knocking Ali down in one round before Wepner lost in the 15th to a TKO’d. It was a real-life underdog story that inspired Stallone to write the story, taking possible inspirations from Rocky Marciano (Who was mentioned in the film) and Joe Frazier along the way. Not only did this story come out of the heavens to grace the near-broke Stallone (Who had sold his dog in real life for a petty sum to make money), but it was here Stallone fought every expectation.
An unknown actor who begged producers Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff to let him play the role even though actors like Burt Reynolds and Robert Redford were considered for the role by studio United Artists. Ultimately, thanks to a contract the producers had with the studio, they were able to greenlit the film as long as the budget was low enough. With that, the production faced many challenges where corners had to be cut. Stallone’s mother actually did make-up for the film and various parts of the script deemed too expensive were altered such as the ice rink scene which was suppose to have hundred of extras in it, but ultimately involved Rocky bribing a janitor for him and Adrian (Played by Talia Shire) to skate on after hours. Yet all the improvising, in front of and behind the camera, led to one of the most iconic films in movie history.
Stallone is unbeatable as the down-and-out boxer Rocky “The Italian Stallion” Balboa. His performance weaves his real-life, contemporary desperation with that of an aggressive and sometimes absent-minded dreamer. Rocky is no Einstein, but Stallone compromises that with a determination in his eye that, at first, seems buried behind pain and low self-esteem. It’s something anyone can relate to, the feeling like your life isn’t what you hoped it would be but you deal. It’s real life, as much as any critic dared to argue against that point (Some called it “schmultz”). However, many saw that the Frank Capra-like hope in this film was exactly what people needed at the time and, as Stallone himself showed, you’re never out of the fight until you stop breathing. So even though the optimistic nature of the film seems so unrealistic, Stallone’s mesmerizing and grounded performance guides him through his self-written narrative with believe. However, Stallone can never say “Rocky” was just him.
It seems that Stallone’s best films will always involve a mentor. While Richard Crenna would advise Stallone years later in the “Rambo” films, his first mentor was that of Mickey Goldmill, played with a withered wisdom by Burgess Meredith. A sour and brutal boxing coach who hates excuses and demands commitment. His relationship with Rocky is iconic for a reason, for he crucifies Rocky at first for wasting his talent and then, when asked to step into the ring for an exhibition with Heavyweight champion Apollo Creed (Played by Carl Weathers), he wishes to make sure he doesn’t waste his chance. This is a factor that made “Rocky” so memorable was a supporting cast that intricately connected to Rocky’s journey yet had their own tales to tell during the story.
His love interest, Adrianna “Adrian” Pennino, is a role that Talia Shire seemed destined to play, having previously played Connie Corleone in “The Godfather” films. Like in “The Godfather”, Shire plays a gentle and quiet character who faces verbal abuse at the hands of her brother Paulie (Played by Burt Young). Rocky, who always loved Adrian, gets her to see her beauty and Shire shows a talent for showing Adrian slowly changing from a gentle soul to a tough woman, eventually able to stand toe-to-toe with her brother. “I am not a loser!” she screams in defiance halfway through the film. However, Paulie is far from just a bad brother. He’s shown as conniving, but Young (A former boxer himself), brings understandable angst to what otherwise would seem like a pathetic, cruel character. Much like Rocky, Paulie has a crappy job and no future. I suppose, in some strange way, “Rocky” comments on the real world. How misfortune can make people desperate and bring out their worst. Rocky’s anger, Paulie’s cruelness to his sister, Adrian’s meek personality in response to that cruelty, and Mickey’s frustration. It’s this simple, but relatable character narrative that speaks to the audience. A reality that many were facing in that era and, let’s face it, we face today. But without a doubt no film would be complete without the somewhat minor, but significant presence of Carl Weather’s character Apollo Creed, the Muhammad Ali-based boxing champion who challenges Rocky as a promotional gig after a former challenger drops out. He is not in much of the film, essentially a background presence for most of it until the climactic fight between him and Rocky, but Weathers makes sure his charisma and ego stand out and leave a mark for the audience to recognize he is the opponent of the film.
That finale is exceptional. Not just on the grounds that Stallone actually choreographed it himself in a desire for it to feel as real as possible, but how no part of the fight feels unwelcome to the overall scene. That’s just a commentary on the whole film’s ability though to carry itself so effortlessly as it follows Rocky’s progression to the exhibition fight against Creed. This has to do with the impressive ability to keep the film interesting at all times, whether it’s the various elements of set-up for the final fight or the interpersonal relationships of the characters that never falter or lag. No scene is wasted.
This film was lucky enough to be part of the New Hollywood era, in which the idea of film was being changed, more grounded and in-depth stories were being done. But also, being out the year before “Star Wars”, it just happened to also be part of an era of new technical achievement. One such invention that lent to the film’s look was the newly-invented Steadicam that would film that defining scene of Rocky running through Philadelphia, following him up the steps of that Art Museum to the moment that Stallone himself admits probably defines his career.
That Steadicam would ultimately pay off in constructing an Oscar-worthy edited film by editors Richard Halsey and Scott Conrad. It would make sense that a film that relied on good camera work and steady pacing would see also director John G. Avildsen winning Best Director for his work in this film. On such a small budget, it’s rather impressive how he guides this little film from the opening scene of Rocky fighting Spider Rico to the closing moment where Rocky loses the fight…
However, like “First Blood”, it’s all tied together by the wonderfully inspirational and contemplative score, this time by composer Bill Conti whose theme song “Gonna Fly Now” ultimately becomes a chant, a declaration of the titular character’s rise to glory. It’s a song, and the lead piece of the score, that makes you want to get up and do something with your life. It is for this reason, above all else, that no matter what anyone will ever say, Sylvester Stallone is an everyman who knows what you’re going through because he went through it himself. And he took that experience to craft a story about fighting back against the beatings the world will give you. How it mirrors much of Stallone’s own life somehow adds to the connection the audience has with the story. It doesn’t feel like fiction, but a dramatic extension of reality. And the reality is that Stallone would go on to be the third actor to be nominated for both Best Actor and Best Original Screenplay at the Academy Awards. It’s also reality that Stallone used his pay from “Rocky” to find his dog and that dog, it turns out, was Rocky’s dog Butkus on-screen.
“Rocky” is 40 years old today. It began one of the longest-running film series in history that still continues on today with it’s seventh installment, the 2015 spin-off “Creed”. And, wouldn’t you know, Stallone was nominated for the role again in a supporting capacity for that spin-off. He should have one. But does it bug him? No. It shouldn’t. Rocky Balboa will go down as one of the greatest film characters of all time and “Rocky” as one of the greatest films of all time. Stallone didn’t lose. He was a winner in the end after all. That’s the best lesson of life I think anyone can learn. You don’t always win the fights you want…but you win the fights you need.
Good: All the performances are incredible, the narrative compelling, the direction humbling, the editing rightfully award-winning, the cinematography memorable, and the score impossible to deny as iconic.
Bad: Please…let’s not kid ourselves huh?
Well then: I guess I should be consistent today. Let’s all get pumped shall we?…