By: Garrett Collins
Starring: Sylvester Stallone, Talia Shire, Burt Young, Carl Weathers, Joe Spinell and Burgess Meredith
What is it about the underdogs that make us root for them? Why is it, when we have two powers of contention in a competitive environment, we want the team or individual not given a chance to win, win? Chances are the roots of these instincts stem from Rocky. Written under financial duress by Stallone (who famously would not sell the film unless he was given the lead role, even though he had a much-needed $325,000 and bankable stars like Burt Reynolds flashed in front of his face), Rocky’s reputation more than rises to the occasion. I am willing to bet that all this duress is what contributes to its success. And, from the moment the word ‘Rocky’ goes across the screen, the trumpets blare through the speakers and the Christ like imagery pans down to our hero fighting some chump named Spider Rico, all the way till the end credits, Rocky charms and punches its way to your heart. And, if you are not rooting for him by the end of this film, then I would question whether or not you had one.
Rocky is one of those rare films in which the script and direction can both be construed as flawless. Because, both Stallone and director John Avildsen stage a series of events in the first 40 minutes to endear us to him, which in turn makes him sympathetic. They knew that the best way to get to know a character is not to see him in his element. It is to see him outside of it. Some examples of this are scenes like Rocky taking a girl away from troublemakers and telling her about where her life could end up if she keeps hanging around people like that. All of this is for naught, however, as the girl repays his advice by telling him to ‘screw off’ and calling him a ‘creepo.’We also see Rocky working for a loan shark, but not breaking the thumbs of someone who owes them money. Why doesn’t he? Somehow, someway, Stallone has molded his loan shark working character from Philadelphia into someone who we care about. Rocky won’t do it because he cares. If he cares, and we see him talking to his two turtles like they are his friends, then we as an audience are endeared. Rocky successfully takes all conventions of an underdog and molds them into one lug character that is worth rooting for.
There’s Rocky’s supporting cast, who are all not larger than life and could literally live right down the street from you. There’s his drinking buddy Paulie (an Oscar nominated Young) who has great lines and, while not necessarily endearing, we are on his side just for his association with the woman of whom Rocky likes. He is Adrian’s brother, and is the man responsible for introducing her to our hero. Shire is excellent in her role, as Adrian is not a sexpot. But, we can see why Rocky has feelings for her. She is the one who laughs at his jokes. She is the one who talks to him. And, she is the one who believes in him. All of this is emoted brilliantly by both involved, and Rocky’s courtship of Adrian may be the sweetest courtship of a woman ever seen onscreen. Then we have Mickey, the hard-nosed grumpy trainer who thinks Rocky has enough talent to be a great fighter, but feels he is wasting his life away as a loan shark. As a result, there is a fighter trainer relationship that develops between the two is almost as sweet as Rocky and Adrian’s. Now, while these are characters we know and love, there is one that is not in the realm of being right down the street. In fact, he can be seen as larger than life. This, of course, is World Champion Apollo Creed. Avildsen wisely introduces us to him through the same way Rocky sees him, with his image on a TV set, trying to convince kids to stay in school and ‘be a thinker, not a stinker.’ Weathers is more than suitable for the role, and you can tell that his arrogance wasn’t far from the character of whom he portrayed onscreen. But, as an Ali type champion that we need to fear, Weathers is fine. And it would be foolish to think he doesn’t have much to do with the success of the film, as his performance does all it can to make us want to see his face bashed in.
I don’t know what it was about movies from the mid 70s. But, between this and Jaws, you have two films whose production hamperings contribute to their brilliant storytelling. For example, the first date between Rocky and Adrian was supposed to take place with 300 extras in tow. However, due to extenuating circumstances, they were not able to get the extras they wanted. This production stall made for, to this day, the best date I have ever seen onscreen. We are in the midst of every interraction and conversation, as Rocky explains the definition of the word southpaw to Adrian and the person who runs the ice rink yells how many minutes they have left. Also, production stalls led the crew to be forced to shoot the famous scenes of Rocky not being able to, then subsequently succeeding, at running up the steps, on the same day two hours apart. As a result, the scene in which he fails there is no sun. And, the time he succeeds, the sun is peeking through. This hampering made for perhaps the most symbolic parts of the film. And, like the title character, this guerrila crew came through even in the worst of circumstances.
Make no mistake about it. Rocky is the best and most touching example of why we root for the underdog. What makes it great is that it is so well written we root for this character on all aspects. Rocky doing things like wanting to keep the piece of paper that summons him to Apollo’s manager is a part of his personality that gives us no choice but to do so. We want him to get the girl. We want him to succeed at running the steps. And, of course, as we get to the final fight, the journey is almost complete. Because, as Rocky tells Adrian the night before, all he wants to do is last through until the end. That’s it. That’s the bar he has set for himself. But, of course, we want more than that. And, while the fight isn’t the most fluidly choreographed of the series, it gets the job done of framing Rocky’s unwillingness to quit. Rocky is about so much more than winning. It’s about not staying down, and rising to the occasion when it seems impossible. It is also about trying to grab that ring when it’s dangled in front of you. Rocky is the quintessential film about not just underdogs. It’s about looking yourself in the mirror and saying I did my best. If you have seen this film, watch it again. If you haven’t, do yourself a favor and do so. There was a time that people like Stallone would not have been given a chance. Truth is, this film getting made is proof that underdogs don’t quit. And, when Adrian is ushered in the ring right to an embrace with the man who had spent 3/4 of the film trying to win her heart, you get the feeling that was his best victory of all.
5 out of 5