What is it about Rocky that endures?
For the longest time, I had no idea. In the war of eighties action heroes, I was a much bigger fan of Arnie, Bruce Willis, and Kurt Russell than I was of Sylvester Stallone- and my opinion hasn’t changed in since a childhood devouring every action movie that starred any of these four. Stallone is a solid performer (assuming he’s not required to display any actual emotion) but he didn’t have the classics like Terminator, Die Hard, or The Thing to firmly place him in my all-time list. Sure, there’s First Blood, but that’s more of a psychological thriller (and an excellent one at that) than a straight-up action movie.
Because of this, I found the idea of Rocky quite off-putting. I guess you could call it cynicism: I’m not a huge fan of sports movies mainly, due to the feel-good factor that has always been far too cheesy for my liking, and Rocky was the absolute epitome of that. Yet, cynicism is a a teenage affectation and letting go of it has helped me find great things in musicals so I thought – why not put that cynicism aside for a little, finally give Rocky a try?
Frankly, Rocky is both exactly what I expected and not what I expected at all. Like anyone even remotely interested in film, I’ve seen the high points: the training montage and Adrian!!!, being the most well known and parodied scenes, and I already knew that Rocky loses the big fight to Apollo Creed. So far, so typical.
Rocky’s status as a crowd-pleaser, and the fact that the franchise is still going strong, has added a timeless quality to it, yet this is still very much a film of the mid-seventies, stylistically, musically, and cinematically. It’s a character study and a lop-sided love story, as well as being the template for every sports movie that followed it.
But perhaps the strangest part of Rocky is its stylistic connection to a much more serious film: On the Waterfront, the film in which Marlon Brando faces down corruption in the docks after throwing away his boxing career for money. Rocky acts like a photo negative of On the Waterfront: Brando could have been a contender, but Rocky is one. The scenes where he courts Adrian (Talia Shire), resemble the brilliant naturalist interplay between Brando and Eve Marie Saint but are more straight-forward even if Rocky is doing all the talking, and like On the Waterfront, the fate of a brother comes between both couples.
Stallone, who wrote the screenplay, clearly adores Elia Kazan’s film, but it’s the tweaks that make Rocky a more positive experience. Apart from Adrian’s brother (who also happens to be Rocky’s best friend), his main antagonist in the film is his own self-worth. Yes, he works as muscle for a local gangster, yes, he helps out his friend by advertising the abbatoir he’s stuck in, and yes, he and Adrian don’t seem like a natural fit, but none of this gets in the way of the fight. Any other movie and the gangster would be using Rocky as a way to make a fortune, and Rocky would fall out with Adrian before the fight, but that doesn’t happen.
In a lesser film this would be a bad thing, but what Stallone has pinpointed here is the value of an underdog story. He’s saying with Rocky that the underdog can rise out of the mess of Rocky’s own life, so he can take his shot at the big time.
I finally understand why Rocky is so iconic. While I’m still not a fan of the genre it belongs to, I can see the value of a story like this. If farm boys can become superheroes, neglected children become wizards, and if a hobbit can save Middle Earth, can’t a boxer from Philadelphia take his shot?
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By Kevin Boyle
Feature Image: TIME