Director: John G. Avildsen
Cast: Sylvester Stallone, Talia Shire, Burgess Meredith, Burt Young, Carl Weathers
Plot: A humble boxer (Stallone) struggles to make ends meet and convince his best mate’s shy sister (Shire) to date him, when he is given the shot of a lifetime.
What ever happened to the Stallone that made Rocky? Sylvester Stallone has some solid films to his name, but the original Rocky movie is in such a different league of story-telling and film-making that it is surprising that Stallone never quite managed to achieve this same level of prowess, even with the several sequels that followed.
Forget the glamour and cheap thrills of the Rocky films to follow, the original Rocky isn’t even so much about boxing as it is a humbling character piece. Stallone plays the title character, Rocky Balboa, a fighter who is trapped in the poorer areas of Philadelphia. He takes any fight that is thrown his way and moonlights as a debt collector/enforcer for a shady loan shark. Seeing Rocky chase down a dock worker and demand cash in return for not breaking someone’s fingers is a sobering experience, miles away from the good-natured Rocky the later films have. But that charm is still there, as Stallone takes us through the life of his hero and proves that he is a kind-hearted soul. He strolls the streets of Philadelphia, upholding his values and trying to enforce kindness on the world around him. Stallone plays Rocky as a dim-witted yet endearing character, one that is clearly not smart enough to do anything else other than boxing. But the movie asks us if that means there isn’t anything else for him other than his miserable life in the ghettos of America. Most of the opening act of the movie doesn’t use boxing as anything but a backdrop for Balboa’s life, as he tries to persuade the shy Adrianna, or Adrian as he lovingly calls her, to go out on a date with him. He is a hard man not to like, especially in a wonderful touching sequence where he takes Adrian to an abandoned ice rink. Filmed with a ‘back-then-almost-unheardof’ steadicam tracking shot, it is a great sequence as Adrian quietly listens to Rocky rambling about the only thing he knows: boxing. He is a man down on his luck, but determined to see the distance. This is an important point in the first Rocky, because in many regards this underdog story doesn’t have to be about boxing. It is about making the best of a bad situation, something that Rocky always appears to try and be doing.
And then we get to the boxing side of things. It is refreshing to see the boxing movie out of the Rocky staple of the 80s. As much as we all love the over-the-top cheesiness of some of the later films, there is definitely a more honest edge to this movie. As Stallone forces himself through a rigorous training regime, we feel his pain and exhaustion, rather than anything as elegant as a 80s montage. Some of the cult moments are present here, but they don’t try to be anything more than another notch to the story. Rocky using a hunks of meat as a punching bag might be one of the more iconic Rocky images, but here, it is nothing more than that: Rocky punching slabs of meat. Carl Weathers’ Apollo Creed is also side-lined, the movie not really needing a villain at this point in time. His job is to send the movie off, not fuel the build-up. As the movie gets closer to the endgame, we are allowed to embrace a little more fun, especially as that Rocky theme music kicks in for one glorious moment. And the fight itself is a worthy pay-off of the extensive build-up. The movie insists that the important factor of the fight is the fact Rocky is there, rather than anything as slim as winning the fight. As he insists, all he wants to do is ‘go the distance’. And as you watch Balboa take punch after punch, you are glued to the screen, mesmerised at the titanic battle between Stallone and Weathers. Every jab is felt, every punch to the gut earning a wince. And when that bells rings, the movie ends on a beautiful moment, where Stallone ignores the media and the fame, simply turning to the side-lines, blind from swollen eyes, and calling out to Adrian. The beating heart shown here is something the sequels always struggled to replicate.
Final Verdict: Stallone’s best work, the true underdog story, surprisingly more focused on character and acting, rather than a glamorous build-up to the main boxing event.