Rocky retrospective Part 1: ROCKY (1976)

Luke Williams
10/01/2016 10:00am

With CREED released in the UK on 15 January, Luke G. Williams re-examines cinema’s greatest boxing hero - the one and only Rocky Balboa - for Boxing Monthly Online. Today, he casts a critical eye over the first entry in the series, the multi-award-winning ROCKY …

Today – with overblown action movies such as THE EXPENDABLES and TANGO AND CASH littered liberally across his showbiz CV – it’s easy to forget that Sylvester Stallone was once touted as the natural successor to Marlon Brando and James Dean.

The Italian-American icon’s career ultimately took a dramatically different direction, but re-watching the first film in the ROCKY series again it’s easy to see why some cineastes regard him as one of the great, lost talents of cinema.

Mind you, the ‘Stallone as wasted talent’ theory is not a viewpoint I subscribe to. After all, if ‘artistic integrity’ had won out, we never would have got a ROCKY II, III or IV, and that would have a tragedy, because if sheer emotive, pulse-quickening, soft-rock infused flashy violence is your bag – and I admit with no sense of shame that, on occasion, it’s most definitely mine – then nobody has ever done it quite as well as Stallone. 

But more on that later in this series … for now, let’s focus on the resolutely unflashy and down-to-earth film that spawned the whole Balboa phenomenon in the first place – namely, 1976’s John G. Avildsen-directed ROCKY.

The story of how this landmark film came into being is as familiar as a traditional fairy tale – seeking his big break in Hollywood, and drawing on the basic concept of ‘underdog versus super-champion’ having watched Chuck Wepner’s valiant challenge against Muhammad Ali in 1975, Stallone crafted a screenplay for his own boxing opus during a frenetic three-and-a-half day writing frenzy – fuelled by the economic desperation of only having $106 in his bank account, a pregnant wife, a starving dog and an unpaid rent bill.

The screenplay elicited much interest around Tinseltown, with several studio execs clamouring to cast Burt Reynolds, Ryan O’Neal or James Caan as the film’s eponymous hero. Stallone stuck admirably to his guns, though, insisting that he would only sell the screenplay on the condition that he was handed the central role himself. Eventually, with producers Robert Chartoff and Irwin Winkler on board, United Artists agreed to fund the film, but only because one of their executives had mistaken Stallone for his square-jawed, blond-haired, blue-eyed co-star Perry King while watching the 1974 drama LORDS OF FLATBUSH.

With a derisory budget of around $900,000 and a mere 28-day shoot, studio expectations for ROCKY were low - as director Avildsen later quipped: “We thought [the film] was going to be the bottom half of a double bill in a drive-in in Arkansas.”

Once the cameras rolled though, cinematic alchemy took root. A perfect cast and faultlessly structured script, combined with brilliant editing by Richard Halsey and Scott Conrad, Avildsen’s adroit direction and a wonderful musical score by Bill Conti, ensured that when early audiences saw the film after its premiere on 21 November 1976, word of mouth was rapturous.

A series of glowing critical notices followed, and soon a film that was as much of an underdog at the box-office as Rocky had been against Apollo Creed in their World Heavyweight Championship bout, was riding a wave of enthusiasm which enabled it to top the global box office and secure ten Oscar nominations, with Stallone following in the footsteps of Charlie Chaplin and Orson Welles by becoming just the third man in history to secure nominations for Best Screenplay and Best Actor for the same film.

Come Oscars night, ROCKY was the winner by knockout, conquering the likes of Martin Scorsese’s TAXI DRIVER and Alan Pakula’s ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN to win the Best Film Oscar, while also picking up gongs for Best Editing and Best Director.

For me, the most essential component in the success of ROCKY is that – unlike its successors in the franchise – it is an incredibly plausible film, with a convincingly down-and-dirty visual texture and a landscape populated by a series of likeable but flawed characters. Stallone’s Rocky Balboa, for example, is far from the simplistic caricature he would later become; at times thuggish and bad-tempered – he is a loan shark, after all – he is ultimately redeemed by his relationships with Talia Shire’s shy and utterly endearing Adrian, who he courts with surprising tenderness, and Burgess Meredith’s gruff and uncompromising Mickey, a boxing mercenary if ever there was one, who Rocky nevertheless forgives for only showing an interest in him once he gains a shot at the title.

In the above roles, Stallone, Shire and Meredith all deliver career-best performances, as does Burt Young as Adrian’s pathetic, boorish and selfish brother Paulie, and the charismatic Carl Weathers as Apollo Creed, an adversary who – unlike the one-dimensional foes in later ROCKY films - isn’t really a villain at all, merely a slick, charming and slightly obnoxious sportsman.

However, ROCKY’s brilliant believability is most evident in the fact that – spoiler alert! - Rocky doesn’t actually beat Apollo. Indeed, the fact the ‘hero’ doesn’t win in ROCKY is both the entire point of the film and simultaneously what makes it so special. 

This is made clear by arguably the film’s most pivotal scene, which isn’t a training montage, or a fight sequence, but a beautifully played two-hander between Shire and Stallone late at night in which Rocky – overwhelmed by a visit to the empty arena in which he will soon face his pugilistic destiny – admits to Adrian: “I can’t do it … I can’t beat him … I mean who am I kiddin’? I ain’t even in the guy’s league … I was thinking, it really don’t matter if I lose this fight, it really don’t matter if this guy opens my head … because all I want to do is go the distance. Nobody’s ever gone the distance with Creed, and if I can go that distance, just hearing that bell ring and I’m still standing, I’ll know for the first time in my life, see, that I weren’t just another bum from the neighbourhood.”

Although ‘winning’ is not ROCKY’s raison d’etre –in sharp contrast to the majority of its more simplistic sequels – part of the subtle brilliance of Stallone’s screenplay is the deft way that he convinces us of the believability of Balboa ‘going the distance’. Watch the film closely and you realise that had Apollo prepared properly and diligently for the fight he would have most likely destroyed Rocky in one or two rounds. Ultimately, it is the combination of Apollo’s complacency, as well as Rocky’s inspiring dedication, which enables our hero to maximise his performance.

For example, while the challenger trains like a man possessed by guzzling raw eggs, pounding meat in a slaughterhouse and running up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Apollo sits in an expensive suit drinking coffee, analysing marketing strategy and arranging for his barber to be flown to Philadelphia. A further factor in Rocky’s ‘over-performance’ is Creed’s failure to prepare, or take seriously, the challenge of facing a southpaw.

When it comes to the fight itself, Apollo’s early dominance is negated by a counter-punch from Rocky that floors the champion heavily in the first round. Thereafter the 15-round contest becomes a bloody and thrilling war of attrition, featuring, in this writer’s view, never bettered boxing choreography, albeit at a level of intensity, pace and violence seldom seen in the professional ring.

At the fight’s conclusion, with Apollo tottering perilously close to a stoppage defeat, Stallone and Avildsen pull another masterstroke, disposing of the potential drama of the announcement of the fight scorecards in favour of re-focusing on the human drama and emotions at the centre of the film, namely Rocky and Adrian’s romantic embrace and declaration of love in the centre of the crowded ring. 

For Rocky – and the audience - the result of the fight no longer matters, you see – indeed, it’s easy for a viewer to miss completely the details of Creed’s split-decision victory, such is the emotional intensity of the Rocky-Adrian reunion.

It’s seldom hailed as such – mainly because its cartoonish sequels make it easy to forget just how superlative the original film in the series is - but ROCKY is that rarity among films, namely, a work of art that also possesses mass appeal.

Frank Capra, director of the 1946 classic IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE, once declared of ROCKY: “Boy, that's a picture I wish I had made.” The then 79-year-old Capra even wrote a letter to Stallone in the wake of the Oscars ceremony in early 1977, consoling him for losing the Best Actor statuette.

Capra’s endorsement is a worthy tribute for a film that, like his own best work, is imbued with an overwhelming and wonderful sense of humanity, while also acknowledging the darker side of human existence.

RAGING BULL may be the boxing movie that those seeking to prove their intellect plump for, but those with a heart know that ROCKY is, and will always be, the ultimate boxing film.

ROCKY retrospective rating: 10 out of 10.