Rocky (1976) – Review

4 Stars

Rocky is a study of isolation and despair, love and triumph and many other facets of the human condition. That the film is wrapped in a Cinderella story of a down on his luck pugilist given a million to one shot at the Heavyweight title, and features one of the screen’s greatest characters of all time, is just icing on the proverbial cake. Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) is a broke down fighter, past his prime and never much good anyhow, these days he works as a part-time leg-breaker/collector for a local mob figure. The problem is Rocky is too compassionate for the job, when he’s ordered to break a guy’s thumb for late payment, Balboa instead tells the man “he should have planned ahead”. He walks the cold and desolate Philadelphia streets alone, bouncing a rubber ball like an over-grown child and wearing a floppy fedora, that gives the character a Chaplin-esque quality.

Rocky’s only friend is a neighborhood drunk named Paulie (Burt Young), a selfish brute of man grown weary from years laboring inside a chilly meat packaging plant. The constantly inebriated friend has a way of saying the most offensive things and getting away with it, he’s the cynical yin to Rocky’s optimistic yang. The object of affection for the man-child slugger Balboa is Adrian (Talia Shire), the shy introverted girl who works at the pet shop across the street from Rocky’s gym. To complicate matters Adrian is Paulie’s sister and Rocky can’t get a beat on her level of interest in him. Everyday he stops by the shop and tries to make her laugh with corny jokes, and sincere offers to walk her home through the rough neighborhood. Of course Adrian’s particularly shy nature won’t allow her to accept his attempts at courting.

It’s holiday season in the heart of the city; and Paulie invites Rocky over for Thanksgiving dinner with him and his sister. This turns disastrous and leads to a beautifully awkward first date at an abandoned ice-rink. As the pair of social outcasts circle the empty rink and exchange stories the connection between the two is palpable. Before long Rocky and Adrian are a couple and they are nearly inseparable, causing a bit of jealousy for the ever attention hungry Paulie. While things are looking great on a personal level, Rocky’s boxing career is at an all-time low. His trainer, an old hard-nosed pug named Micky (Burgess Meredith) has relegated Rocky to the back-burner. Mickey is more interested in training prospects than the washed up goon who had the talent to be a contender but decided to become a two-bit hood. When confronted with this appraisal Rocky counters, “It’s a living.”, to which Micky accurate replies, “It’s a waste of life”.

Meanwhile the braggadocios Heavyweight Champion of the World, Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) has just been informed that his mega-hyped New Years’ Day match has fallen through. Any worthy replacement won’t step in on such short notice to square off with the baddest man on the planet. Looking for a ‘sellable’ angle, Creed becomes enamored with The Italian Stallion nickname given to Balboa, sensing a promotional goldmine, Creed decides to give the local fighter the shot of a lifetime on the country’s bi-centennial birthday.

Rocky all but introduced the training montage and the series would perfect the editing gimmick by the third and fourth films in the series. The inspiring run up to the final bout is thrilling and anyone not caught up in the excitement may need their ticker checked. One of the best scenes in the Oscar-winning screenplay from Stallone, is a quiet moment between Rocky and Adrian on the eve before the fight. Shaken and realistic of his chances, Rocky confesses that he just wants to go the full distant with the Champ, since no one has gone all 15 rounds with Creed, Rocky figures if he can make it then he would be remembered as something other than just “another bum from the neighborhood”.

The final moments of Rocky are perfectly handled and the image of Rocky and Adrian proclaiming their love for one another, while Creed is crowned victor sends goosebumps up this reviewer’s spine, to this day. The iconic trumpet heavy-score from Bill Conti is an invaluable asset, along with breakout performances from Stallone, Young, Weathers, Meredith and Shire. John G. Avildsen’s wonderful direction of the outstanding script is also noteworthy in its starkness and assured nature. Rocky is one of the greatest movies ever made with perhaps the single best ending freeze frame in cinema’s long history.

Director: John G. Avildsen
Stars: Sylvester Stallone, Talia Shire, Carl Weathers

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