Review by J.T. Johnson
ORIGINAL RELEASE DATE: November 21, 1976
DIRECTOR: John G. Avildsen
CINEMATOGRAPHY: James Crabe
WRITER: Sylvester Stallone
MUSIC: Bill Conti
In 1975, Sylvester Stallone was a struggling actor who was having to fight back assumptions that he would be nothing more than a big screen heavy and never a leading star. He decided to channel his energies into writing a screenplay that he could star in himself and establish that he truly was leading man material. Inspired by the real-life Rocky Marciano, Stallone wrote a story about a no name amateur boxer named Rocky Balboa and began a franchise that has continued on to this day.
Much like Stallone was during the making of this film, Rocky is a man who is just wondering if he’ll ever get his shot at the big times. While he does moonlight as an amateur boxer, he’s also having to pay the bills as an enforcer for a low-level loan shark in Philadelphia. While Rocky does try to do the right thing, such as attempting to steer a girl away from a delinquent lifestyle or dealing with his volatile and alcoholic best friend Paulie (Burt Young), he gets no respect from anyone including his own trainer Mickey (Burgess Meredith).
However, the heavyweight champion of the world Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) has come to town for a bicentennial bout. Unfortunately, his original opponent had to cancel the fight due to an injury. In order to give the audiences and promoters a fight, Apollo decides that he’ll give an underdog a chance at the title and Rocky is the one that they choose.
From here, Rocky and his trainer Mickey begin the process of building Rocky to peak physical condition. Rocky has all heart, but he hasn’t necessarily treated his body right over the years so it’s time to give up the cigarettes and the beer. Despite this being the tale of an underdog with a chance to take on the champion, though, the true heart of the film is the character himself.
You immediately want to cheer for Rocky. He’s had it rough in spite of always trying to do the right thing, except for being a loan shark’s enforcer and even there, he tries to avoid physically harming any of the people he’s sent to collect from. Rocky himself knows that his life hasn’t really amounted to much up to this point and this has built into a rage that he’ll hopefully unleash in the ring.
On the other hand, you’re also cheering for the film’s absolutely adorable and real love story. Throughout the movie, Rocky is trying to impress the incredibly shy Adrian (Talia Shire). She is shy because she lives with her violent brother Paulie who has always looked down on her, but Rocky does nothing but look up to her and eventually, he is able to break her out of her shell and she not only loves Rocky, but she begins to she her own self-worth.
These are two people who ultimately help each other out. She supports Rocky as he trains for the big fight and he gives her the confidence that she always had behind her shy exterior. It helps that both Stallone and Shire have an unbeatable chemistry on film and they may be one of the best romantic couples to ever appear in a movie.
The performances all around are rock solid as well. Rocky is Stallone’s signature role, so there’s not much more praise that I can give that he hasn’t gotten already. I can pile on a load of praise onto his supporting players however.
As mentioned before, Shire is great as the crushingly shy Adrian that eventually becomes a strong support for Rocky. Meanwhile, Meredith’s now classic portrayal as Mickey is as great here as it ever was and it’s always fun watching him tear Rocky down in order to build the kid back up into something stronger. After all, he saw years ago that Rocky could be a great fighter but hated that Rocky had resorted to becoming an enforcer while never living up to his raw potential.
Then there is Weathers as Apollo Creed, a wild mixture of Muhammad Ali, Sugar Ray Leonard and Jack Johnson. He is the champion, but he may also be clouded by promoting himself more than focusing on the upcoming fight. Despite warnings from his trainer Duke (Tony Burton), this may prove to be his greatest weakness since Rocky has been training for war while Apollo has been getting ready to sign autographs.
The final fight of the film still holds up remarkably well 42 years later, but it really isn’t what the film is ultimately about. It is about living in a world that may knock you down more times than you can count, but as Rocky proves in the movie, if you can manage to get back up and keep on swinging, then you can truly achieve anything despite the odds against you!