An Appreciation – Rocky
And then there’s Mickey. Throughout the early passages of the movie, Mickey continuously calls Rocky a bum and treats him almost like the black sheep of his boxing family. Just prior to Rocky signing on for the fight, he and Mickey have an argument in front of the entire gym, with Mickey finally revealing that his animosity towards him is because he once thought that he could have been a great fighter, but squandered it away by becoming a collector for a loan shark. It’s a double-headed statement, complimenting Rocky for his potential but then chastising him for his unwise decisions. This sets up what is arguably one of the best scenes of the movie, where Mickey visits Rocky’s apartment in hopes of becoming his trainer. Watch Stallone and Meredith work this scene, done so perfectly within their characters. Mickey has seen and experienced greatness once long ago, and through Rocky he believes he could recapture that, one last time. For Rocky, it feels almost like Mickey’s sincerity has come too late. Upset that his offer has come at this particular point, Rocky at first rejects Mickey in a great monologue. With Mickey out of the apartment and walking down the stairs, Rocky screams and yells, letting out all the frustration that has been building up inside of him for years. It’s a tremendous moment for his character, but even more touching is how Rocky understands that he doesn’t stand a chance against Apollo without help, and allows his anger to step aside for acceptance and assistance.
I’ve gotten this far and I have yet to talk about the boxing elements. This is because I find them to play second to the more substantial, character-driven aspects of the movie. I find the scenes of Rocky interacting with the other characters, his relationship with Adrian, and the contemplation of his own self worth to be much stronger than the athletic scenes. The famous training montage, which includes Rocky drinking a glass of eggs and running up the stairs of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, may hit the point about “overcoming obstacles” a little too obviously, and has been mimicked and parodied so often that it has almost reached the point of self comedy. But what makes those scenes still work within the greater scheme of the entire movie is that the filmmakers were able to realize Rocky as such a complete character that at that point in time, we are already rooting for him. It’s almost kind of surprising that there are only two fight scenes that bookend the movie, but if we compare the opening fight scene to the last, we can chart how Rocky has developed as both a boxer and as a man. His life seems much more stable and complete by the time the last fight begins. Win, lose, or draw, he has already become a better person, and we cheer him on as it all climaxes at the final scene.
While I do believe that the boxing elements play a supporting part compared to the character moments, there is no denying the fact that the final fight is an exciting display of athleticism put on screen. There are many factors that make the showdown between Rocky and Apollo work. The first is the character aspects, and second is the fact that when this movie came out, audiences certainly didn’t have an idea of who would win. In my opinion, this is still the best fight scene in the entire Rocky series, because this is the only one where he was truly the underdog. The failure of the subsequent films was that they became more and more over the top, with an opponent that continually became more of a cartoon character than an actual person. Apollo has always been the best adversary for Rocky, in both his physique and in his demeanor. Remember, Apollo was not the iron villain that Clubber Lang (Mr. T) or Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren) would be, but a realistic person with believable weaknesses. He was clearly the favorite to win the fight, but underestimated Rocky’s determination and came in ill-prepared. This opened the door to an intense and epic final match, with both men ending up exhausted and battered. Set to the now iconic music by Bill Conti, the scene never fails in raising my heartbeat and putting me at the edge of my seat, even though I already know what the outcome will be. The beautiful thing about the final fight is that Rocky didn’t even expect to win. All he wanted to do was to go the distance, to prove to himself that he’s more than just a bum from the streets, and to lift himself up even when everyone else yells at him to stay down.
The story of how the film came to be is an underdog story itself. Sylvester Stallone, for years prior to the making of the movie, played minor roles in films. With very little to show from his acting gigs, Stallone became inspired when he watched a boxing match between Chuck Wepner and Muhammad Ali in 1975. A huge underdog, no one considered Wepner to be a legitimate challenge against Ali. However, Wepner gave Ali all he could handle, even knocking Ali down in the ninth round. Although Wepner ended up losing the fight by TKO in the final round, Stallone saw what it meant to give something your all despite tremendous adversity. This gave Stallone the inspiration to go and take his career in his hands and write a story for himself. He would famously write the first draft of the film in three days, sell the rights to producers Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff, and win the lead role without a writer’s fee and for scale as an actor. No one at United Artists wanted Stallone to star in the film, but how very wrong they would end up being. Stallone’s performance here is one of the best he would ever give in his career, combining machismo and physicality with tenderness and grace. I would compare his performance with that of Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront (1954), also about a boxer in dire straights. The film would propel Stallone into the spotlight, making him one of the biggest stars in Hollywood. While many of his later works would fall in quality, Stallone’s work in this movie—as both writer and actor—would show tremendous potential, his talent shining through a very personal and passionate story.
1976, the year that the movie was released, is arguably one of the best years in film. A handful of great and important movies would be released at this time. Just looking at the Oscar nominees for best picture—we have this, All the President’s Men, Bound for Glory, Network, and Taxi Driver. Rocky is perhaps the most emotional and moving of the group, and would end up winning the award. Its reach has withstood the test of time; everyone knows about this movie and its sequels. It would popularize boxing in America, resulting in Stallone being inducted into the Boxing Hall of Fame, even though he’s never been in a real boxing match. The statue of Rocky still stands in Philadelphia today. I’d like to think that the popularity of the film was the result of audiences at that particular time. The feel-good aspect that we get from this was something that people were in need of. They were trying to move past a terrible war and felt lied to by those that they thought they could trust. They were looking for something to lift their spirits, and through this movie they found the encouragement that they were looking for.