1976 was the year in American cinema where the decadence and corruption of its times reigned supreme on the big screen. The shameful antics of the Nixon administration was relived in the investigative drama All the President’s Men; Robert De Niro was laying the scum of the Earth to waste in the gritty streets of New York City in Taxi Driver; and even the son of the Devil was coming in for the kill in The Omen.
Yet with Rocky, a film emerged that touched the hearts of a nation, and brought forward a saviour who came out swinging against a world which had abandoned him.
Written and starring Sylvester Stallone, Rocky is a story about a small time heavy weight boxer named Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone). Living in the mean streets of Philadelphia, Balboa gets by working as a loan shark for a local mob boss (Joe Spinnell), his boxing career is going nowhere, and his best friend Paulie (Burt Young) is a jaded meat packer with a penchant for the bottle.
Rocky’s only solace is Paulie’s sister Adrian (Talia Shire), a terminally shy woman pushing 30 who at first resists Rocky’s advances, but then comes to fall in love with him, finding the sweetness behind his tough exterior.
When the heavyweight champion of the world Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) is left in a lurch after his scheduled opponent cancels their match, Creed decides to give a local fighter a shot at the title, selecting Rocky due to his “Italian Stallion” moniker. Rocky accepts the challenge, preparing for the fight with the guidance of cankerous trainer Mickey (Burgess Meredith), facing impossible odds and taking with him the support of the people of Philadelphia and the love of his Adrian.
Unfairly criticized as schmaltzy and over sentimental, Rocky is in fact a moving, inspirational film which stirs the soul and touches the heart. Written in 3 days, and shot in 28 days on a budget of $1.1 million, this is a movie full of exceptionally well written characters full of depth and emotion.
Stallone – an actor who has made a career of bad performances in bad films – proves that when given the right material, he can act with the best of them. His turn as Rocky Balboa is not only the best performance of that year, but it is also one of the best performances in the history of the silver screen.
His is a performance full of heart, humour and rage, a powerful and sympathetic portrayal of a man at the bottom of the barrel who gets a second chance, and despite knowing that the odds are against him, he pushes on regardless. It is almost bitter sweet to watch, with the success in Stallone’s future though lesser quality endeavours corrupting whatever vision, and artistic credibility and integrity he had.
Talia Shire brings forth the vulnerability and sweetness that is Adrian, while also elegantly portraying the characters emerging sensuality and sexuality. On of the key factors that separate Rocky from other sports related films is the love story between Rocky and Adrian, one of the better and more memorable on screen couples who find strength and redemption through one another.
Burt Young is great as the jealous brother whose alcoholic tendencies lead to many nasty confrontations; Carl Weathers successfully evokes Muhammad Ali as the arrogant and flashy heavyweight champion; and Burgess Meredith is excellent as Rocky’s trainer Mickey, his booming, granite voice and hard demeanour almost stealing the movie.
Director John G. Avildsen captures the complexities of Stallone’s characters through various shots and camera techniques, with Rocky one of the first movies to use the steadicam, enhancing its already gritty atmosphere. Another highlight is Bill Conti’s excellent, driving score which also caters to the films tender moments.
There are many memorable moments to be found in Rocky: A confrontation between Mickey and Rocky in his apartment; Rocky’s unorthodox training methods of drinking rag eggs and beating up slabs of meet; and, of course, the infamous run through Philadelphia and up the famed steps of the Philadelphia museum.
But it is the films eye watering conclusion featuring an embattled Rocky screaming Adrian’s name along with their subsequent embrace with perfectly sums up the films themes of love, honour, and redemption.