Directed By: John G. Avildsen
Written By: Sylvester Stallone
Starring: Sylvester Stallone, Talia Shire, Burt Young, Burgess Meredith, Carl Weathers
There’s a moment in Rocky where Carl Weathers (evoking Muhammad Ali as the sharp tongued champ Apollo Creed), hatches a plan for his next main event fight in the absence of any high profile opponents. He’ll fight an unknown, a random local contender, and it’ll work. It’ll work because, as Apollo says “I’m sentimental, and a lot of other people in this country are just as sentimental.” The scene plays like an admission from writer Stallone and director Avildsen. Rocky is here to prey on our sentimentalities. It’s completely predictable, hopelessly clichéd and glaringly transparent in its schmaltzy coaxing of our sympathies. You’d be forgiven for thinking of Rocky as On the Waterfront’s parallel universe, in which Terry was able to break away from his seedy world just long enough to become a contender. What Sylvester Stallone and John G. Avildsen offer us is by no means anything new, yet for all its missing subtleties, it’s impossible to deny that Rocky works.
Why is this? It’s because it speaks to a fantasy that’s innate in all of us. It’s a film which gives us the right moment, and the right characters, in which that story we all wish to lose ourselves in can be realised. How easy is it to place yourself in Rocky’s shoes? How fun to release your cynicisms and live those childhood fancies if only for a short while?
And we get the perfect vicarious underdog in Stallone’s title character. His is a fantastically charming performance. As well as Terry Malloy, there are also traces of Herman Munster in Stallone’s benign but droopy features, and Rupert Pupkin in his clumsy talkativeness and lame humour.
Rocky would like to think of himself as an older brother to those dwelling in Philadelphia’s chilled streets. He spouts his advice and tries to help, but we know he’s really trying to convince himself he’s something more than a two-bit debt collector working the docks. He thinks of himself as a bum, as do most people, and he fights nobodies for little money. Boxing is his real passion.
In other hands the plight of Rocky Balboa could have been an awfully ham-fisted one, but Stallone allows us to fall in love with his character. We want Rocky to succeed, to prove everyone wrong and realise his self worth; when we see Rocky raise his arms in fantasy atop of those famed stairs, there’s little doubt as to how affected we’ve been by his story.
Rocky gets his chance to become something more when Creed selects him as the local contender who gets a shot. Rocky is gifted an opportunity to be “somebody” (as Brando would say) by stepping in the ring with the champion, but this isn’t where the true drama lays. What’s surprising about the film is how little of it is about boxing.
Most impressive about Stallone’s writing and Alvidsen’s direction is how devoted they are to their characters, letting them materialise into much more than the mere archetypes they so easily could have been. It’s the attention they pay to their characters that allows the championship fight to be so dramatic, to become something much more than a punch-up for a belt.
Talia Shire plays Adrian, the love interest of Rocky, a painfully shy pet store clerk who he drops in on like clockwork to crack “dad” jokes and babble to. Their story is the true heart of the film, and it’s one of genuine romance, the two finding a much needed appreciation for themselves in their affection for each other.
Burt Young plays her belligerent, heavy drinking brother Paulie, a friend of Rocky’s and a volatile schlub who’s at once envious of Rock’s new success, and latches to it like a determined leach.
Burgess Meredith plays the trainer at Rocky’s gym, the irritable, gravel voiced Mick who resents Rocky for never fulfilling his potential. He senses a chance for Rocky to finally redeem himself, but it’s also an opportunity for his own underachieving self to find redemption. In the film’s most downbeat moment, Mick grovels to Rocky, begging for the chance to train and manage him, despite so many years of browbeating. It’s a harrowing moment of vulnerability, and the film is drip fed many moments just like it, moments which bring our sympathies to life for the characters, moments which surely strip away each of their initial cliches.
Rocky’s transparency is a problem. It swings sentimentality around like a flail and it treads narrative ground that has been stomped to the crust, its obviousness in doing so always threatening to take us out of the moment. But Apollo’s right. We are sentimental, we love being sentimental, and Rocky has enough passion and enough heart to make such sentimentality work.