Take 2: 'Rocky' still a knockout

By Joe Leydon

December 3, 2004 | Even after inspiring countless rip-offs and put-ons, not to mention a string of sequels that illustrated the law of diminishing returns, Rocky remains in a class by itself as a true-blue, two-fisted American original.

Never mind that its underdog-against-the-odds plot seemed second-hand even when the movie first appeared in 1976. And pay no attention to the grandiose spectacle that Sylvester Stallone made of himself in several subsequent pictures. Rocky represents an almost miraculous confluence of actor and role, emotion and manipulation, entertainment and zeitgeist. In a post-Watergate era of cynicism and disillusionment, Stallone and director John G. Avildsen (Save the Tiger) found a way to uplift and exhilarate audiences by offering a feel-good fantasy in the credible guise of a street-smart, kitchen-sink drama. And yet, even though Rocky is very much a product of its time, it remains timeless in its appeal.

Indeed, this must-see movie has been accepted as a classic for so long that most folks have forgotten its humble origins. In many respects, this small-budget labor of love — which wound up winning an Oscar as Best Picture — was as much of an “indie” production as anything picked up by Miramax or Fox Searchlight at a typical Sundance Film Festival. At the time he wrote the screenplay, Stallone was eking out a career as a character actor in TV guest spots (Kojak, Police Story) and movie bit parts (Capone, The Lords of Flatbush). And while he evidenced promise, few people took notice. He wrote Rocky almost as an act of desperation, intending the drama as a showcase for himself. And he refused all offers from anyone who wanted to retrofit the script as a vehicle for someone else.

If you haven’t viewed Rocky since its initial theatrical run — or if you’re familiar with it only through its reputation — you may be shocked by how grubby and gritty much of it seems. After an unfortunately pretentious display of the title, accompanied by the cascading trumpets of Bill Conti’s now-familiar score, the movie immediately rights itself by leaping into the unromanticized brutality of a small-stakes prizefight. Rocky Balboa is introduced as a self-described “ham-and-egger,” an unremarkable club fighter who earns chump change in neighborhood matches throughout Philadelphia. When we first see him, Rocky manages to recover from a vicious head-butt, and knocks out his younger opponent. But the rowdy audience remains unimpressed. “You’re a bum!” a blowsy woman shrieks. “You heard that? You’re a bum!” Rocky, it should be noted, doesn’t bother to argue the point with her.

Out of the ring, Rocky struggles to maintain his proud swagger and his tattered dignity, even while he works as a collection agent for a slimy loan shark. Unfortunately, he doesn’t have it in him to be as violent with delinquent debtors as his boss demands. (A nice touch: Rocky has to don reading glasses before scribbling the name of the next guy he’s supposed to lean on.) And despite his best efforts to rehearse snappy patter in front of his bedroom mirror, he can’t quite break the ice with Adrian (Talia Shire), the painfully shy young woman who works at the neighborhood pet store.

Worst of all, Rocky can’t even keep his locker at a dingy gym, because he’s been branded as an undesirable — a “cheap leg-breaker” — by Mickey (Burgess Meredith), the grizzled trainer who runs the joint.

Rocky devotes the better part of an hour to credibly establishing its title character as sorely needing — and, yes, entirely deserving — a shot at redemption. It takes a fair amount of contrivance, but fortune eventually smiles on our hero: Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers), the flamboyant heavyweight champ, chooses to fight Rocky as a well-hyped publicity stunt when a more worthy contender is sidelined. The twist of fate is frankly fantastic — almost as incredible as Stallone’s off-screen struggle to get Rocky made in the first place — but you have no trouble accepting it. Why? Because, by that point in the movie, you want to. Just as you want Rocky to accept the gruff but achingly vulnerable Mickey as his trainer, and to wear that oversized and advertisement-emblazoned robe in the ring as a favor to his buddy Paulie (Burt Young).

But even a fairy tale must be true to its own logic. One of the great things about Rocky is its refusal to pander to its audience by having Rocky score a knockout and grab the heavyweight title. (Compared to most other sports-themed dramas that have followed in its wake, this one comes across as almost cruelly realistic.) Winning, Rocky dares to say, really isn’t everything. Torn by self-doubt, and yet driven by a desire to prove he’s not “another bum from the neighborhood,” Rocky Balboa figures he will do enough if he simply “goes the distance” and remains standing when the final bell sounds. That, the movie implies, is the best any man can hope for.

Sylvester Stallone looks back:

It really was an indie film,” Sylvester Stallone said in 2003 of the movie that launched him as a cinematic multi-hyphenate. “Except indie films really weren’t so prevalent back then. So when (United Artists) agreed to do [Rocky], they approached it more like it was, maybe, second-bill fare for drive-ins. I was told that: ‘This is not “A” material, per se.’ It was done with unknowns, under a budget of $1 million. And we had 28 fays to make it. I never, ever thought it was going to be shown in a first-run theater… The funny thing is, I’ve been told by reigning studio executives that Rocky would today be considered high-concept. And I think, ‘OK. The guy is wearing Converse sneakers, and he lives in a cold-water flat. And this guy is high concept.’ Sure.”

Stallone long ago reconciled himself to the certainty that, just as Sean Connery is James Bond, he’ll forever be known best as John Rambo, the invincible Vietnam vet, and Rocky Balboa, the bloodied-but-unbowed underdog. And that’s not such a bad thing.

“You’re first reaction is, ‘Aw, gosh, they’re trying to pigeonhole me,’” he admits. “ But then again, it’s not bad being a pigeon who’s going to be around for a while.

“You can sit there and play cerebral pinball with yourself -- ‘God, I’m blessed!’ ‘God, I’m cursed!’ – but let’s face it: Basically, you’re blessed

“Something like Rocky eventually gets out of your hands and becomes bigger than you personally could ever be. I’m always taken aback by how long that character has endured. I remember, when I was watching TV coverage of the Iraq War, I saw some Iraqi in some town hold up a flag with Rocky on it. And I thought, ‘You gotta be kidding me! Where did he have this flag for the past 20 years? Under his bed?’ I mean, what was he thinking? ‘Oh, yeah, the day they come here to free us, I’m gonna pull out my Rocky flag!’?”