An Appreciation – Rocky
There are many movies that feature underdog characters, but very few are as good and as inspirational as Rocky (1976). Directed by John G. Avildsen and written by and starring Sylvester Stallone as the titular character, the film is a moving emotional journey about a no-name fighter who is given the miracle chance of becoming a world champion. But more than that, the movie is a story of a man who simply wants to be the best that he can possibly be. He wishes to crawl out of the depths that life has put him in and earn the self-respect that even he doesn’t feel he has. The movie is about so much more than just the final fight, and it is about more than just a fighter. It is about a man’s life; it is about that man trying to find his share of happiness, however small that may be.
The film is so beloved because the character is one that we so easily can fall in love with. Rocky Balboa is so inherently good, so lovable and endearing, that it is difficult to not find sympathy for him. Stallone wrote Balboa with dialogue that is not eloquent, but his feelings and emotions are so strong that words don’t even need to be said to express what he is going through. He is of meager living conditions, spending his nights boxing in small, rundown clubs for very little pay. During the day, he works as a collector for a small time loan shark named Tony Gazzo (Joe Spinell). But even though he works for a low rent criminal, Rocky is certainly not a bad person himself. He tries to find the good in people, and wants to help others when he can. When Gazzo orders Rocky to break the thumbs of a person who hasn’t yet repaid their debts, Rocky feels for the man and lets him go, even though he knows that he’ll end up being reprimanded for it. Yes, Rocky fights in a brutal sport and works with brutal people, but he is not a brutal person.
Rocky lives in a very humble environment. The apartment he resides in is quaint to say the least, with empty beers bottles scattered around and loose newspapers adorning his couch and coffee tables. I think the way his apartment is says a lot about how Rocky thinks about himself. It’s clear that Rocky’s self esteem is not very high. He thinks very low of who he is as a person, and admits it often. Philadelphia is portrayed as a drab, cold city, one of dirty alleyways and sidewalks, with suspicious people hanging out on the street corners, seemingly up to no good. It’s a world where one can easily become lost and corrupted, and Rocky knows this. In a poignant scene, Rocky attempts to teach a young girl named Marie (Jodi Lestizia) the dangers about hanging out with the wrong crowd, only to be completely dismissed and called a “creep-o.” Watch Rocky’s reaction as he heads back down the street, calling himself a “creep-o” as well. Rocky knows that people think of him as a nobody, and it is likely that he would agree also. At the boxing gym, his gear gets taken out of his locker for an up-and-coming prospect, and when he asks the trainer Mickey (Burgess Meredith) why, Mickey’s response is because he is a bum.
With his life being so downtrodden as it is, along with people not giving him any kind of respect, it’s almost a relief to see some sort of levity come in to Rocky’s life. Although he comes from a humble background, Rocky almost always goes around with an optimistic, upbeat attitude. He never tries to antagonize anyone, and there are many scenes where Rocky jokes and kids around with other characters. This makes him even more likeable; his warm and kindhearted nature masks a person who is clearly lonely and depressed, and our compassion goes out to him. The one thing Rocky finds that could be a source of happiness is Adrian (Talia Shire), a shy and lowly pet store clerk. What an interesting couple these two make—Rocky as the muscular, simple, low-level boxer and Adrian as the meek, quiet, and introverted counterpart. But they work so lovingly well together. These are two lonely people who want to love and be loved, but their lives in the city have given them very few opportunities for that to happen. And that’s the reason why Rocky pursues her almost every day, coming up with very corny jokes that barely get a smile out of other people. He knows that there is a beautiful person underneath the thick cap and big glasses, and he attempts as well as he can to bring that person out of her shell. Notice in the Thanksgiving sequence, when Rocky takes Adrian out to the skating rink and then back to his apartment, he does all the talking and she says barely a word. But as their attraction and mutual relationship builds, their chemistry culminates in a very touching moment of intimacy.
It’s no coincidence that the movie would come out the same year that the United States would celebrate its bicentennial, because this is easily one of best cinematic portrayals of the American Dream. To be all you can be, work hard and strive to make the most out of your potential, runs rampant as one of the main themes. That opportunity comes to Rocky in the most unlikely of circumstances. With his recent opponent unable to make the fight, the heavyweight champion of the world, Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) handpicks Rocky based off of his nickname, The Italian Stallion. Apollo Creed—in all of his showmanship and extravagance—plays up the idea that picking an unknown fighter from Philadelphia is the ultimate representation of the American ideal, and makes the fight not so much about an actual competition (“I’ll drop him in three”) but about an act of pure patriotism. Obviously, this plot point is pure fantasy that would clearly not happen in any sort of real world. But this isn’t a story about a real world, but a real idea. The underdog, “Cinderella” tone was clearly intentional, for the purpose of giving the Rocky character the final chance of putting his life toward a meaningful direction. To finally find a reason to get everything in order and finally become a “somebody.”
But the situation comes with some interesting character developments. Prior to accepting the fight, Rocky never had much positive interaction from other people. Most people dismissed him, thinking he is someone not headed toward any kind of actual success. When he has the opportunity to become heavyweight champion of the world, the people who once pushed him away turn around and attempt to positively input themselves into his life. This puts Rocky in the middle of a fascinating choice as a character. With years of being kicked to the curb, Rocky harbors many grudges against those who now want to be his friend or assistant, and for a while his pride almost makes him want to train and fight Apollo by himself. Can you blame him? The only reason people want to help him now is in an attempt to attach his possible rewards to themselves. Take for example Paulie (Burt Young), one of Rocky’s few friends and brother to Adrian. The first half of the film had Paulie asking Rocky to help him become a loan collector for Tony Gazzo. But once Rocky got his shot at the title, Paulie stops asking about Gazzo and starts asking whether or not Rocky needs an assistant, even though he knows next to nothing about boxing.