I’d never seen the original 1976 Rocky in the past, because it seemed to be a “boxing” movie, and watching people hit each other into a bloody mess has never been my bag. Somewhere along the line I watched Rocky III, which was a decent enough film. It was sad and then triumphant. But I never became a Rocky fan. I did see Rocky IV, but thought that one wasn’t good, and then gave up on the whole thing as more decades of Rocky and Rocky-adjacent films passed me by.
With Creed II killing it in theaters, all the Rocky movies have been re-playing on TV, so I DVRed I-III for a newbie review. I can’t quite call it a Virgin Review, since I did see two of the eight films in the franchise (although if you ask me for any details, all I remember is III is the sad one and IV is the one with the blonde Russian boxer.)
I figured it was time to see what the fuss was about with Rocky the First. I recently watched Jaws this summer, to prep for The Meg, and thought Jaws was truly an A+ film. I was too young to appreciate Jaws when it came out, thinking it a horror monster movie, when it really is not. It’s about three men and what they are made of when it counts. (Jaws is a perfect film. I gave it an A+ and posted a glowing rewatch review here.)
Well, Rocky is not really a boxing movie. The cold open shows Sylvester Stallone in a match, but we don’t see any more fighting until the end with the big champion-ship match. The plot is really more about this somewhat under-educated man with an unappealing job of collecting loan debts. He’s rough around every edge, but as you watch, you can sense he’s also so much more: he loves animals; is enamored with the shy bookish woman at the pet store; he tries to help a young girl on the streets, and, most tellingly, doesn’t break the thumb of the man he’s ordered to hurt when collecting a debt. Rocky also loves music. He fights because it’s the one thing he feels he’s really good at. He’s as insecure as everyone else seems to be in the story. One could argue Rocky is more about overcoming your self-loathing than fighting.
More than being a sports movie, it’s a love story and a drama. The scenes where Rocky tries to bring Adrian out of her shell are unusual: he likes the quiet girl that doesn’t speak words if she can help it. He gave her enough self-confidence to tell off her abusive brother, in a wonderfully acted and taut scene. I don’t understand why Rocky is even friends with Paulie, but I think we are given to understand Rocky likes everyone, and doesn’t hold their personality defects against them. What a rare trait, and something to consider in our own lives.
Rocky is also clearly a drama. The two fight scenes are more efficient than gripping, and I have no problem with that. But the scenes that truly stick out show Rocky with coach Mickey, Rocky with Paulie, and Rocky with his strangely sympathetic loan shark. The one big scene with Coach, played in an astoundingly profound, yet gruff way, needs to be seen once, then seen again. It’s sorrowful, hopeful AND hopeless, and features two significant monologues, spoken to a closed door in one case, and then from listening alone in a stairwell for the second. This turns into a masterful, surprising, and deeply moving pair of performances. Rocky and Mickey are damaged people who don’t know how to trust or feel hope again…yet the two men come together as the camera pans out to a wide shot on the streets, without any words at all. Its beautiful. You could cry right there. I hope this scene, and Burgess Meredith in particular, won an award. It’s that good. You feel you’ve witnessed a great moment in cinema.
Here’s a video of this duology of monologues. Watch this again, because scenes like this don’t come around very often:
I had no idea Rocky was a good movie, let alone a great one, which puts me in my place. It’s got seven sequels for a reason. (Maybe I need to see the first Fast and Furious, by my logic?) 😉
Many iconic moments stood out that I only absorbed through pop culture til now: when Rocky cracks five raw eggs into a glass and sloppily gulps it down. When Rocky, trying to make a point with Paulie, beats up a side of beef so furiously that he breaks its ribs. When Rocky runs through the streets of Philly, pre-morning, and triumphs over the stairs that left him winded earlier, as the Rocky theme song we all love crescendos all around, Rocky’s arms making a V to the skies as the dawn emerges from the night. (I’ve got goosebumps remembering this.)
The training montage scene that should never be considered a Peetime:
And then, of course, the climax: Rocky blinded, bloody, and beaten, calls plaintively for Adrian. When she makes it through the throng, I thought this would be the time to say they love each other, which they do. I lapped up every second of that. Remember when this film came out in 1976, audiences were still hopeful movies would leave them happier than when they came in. Now we are cynical and a bit jaded, so it’s nice to see an early film that awards the viewers for their patience, as a slow tale reaches a beautiful conclusion.
I think the only reason this film doesn’t get a Plus on that A, is from the confusing ending. Who won the fight? I have no idea from watching it. I asked my mother, also watching, who won and she had no clue either. Nobody was punched out on the ground. We re-wound the scene and still didn’t understand what happened, although I could barely make it out that Apollo Creed mumbled something about a re-match. So, was it a tie?
I texted a friend and asked WHO WON IN ROCKY? He said Creed did, from “points” — and the denouement is about Creed respecting Rocky enough to give him a real chance for the title next year. Or something like that? When I watch Rocky II I might understand better, but I think it’s unforgivable to keep your non-sport oriented viewers this confused. At that time in movie history, sequels were not much of a thing, so this might have left us confused forever. I don’t mind him not winning: I just want to know what happened without asking the Wikipedia. (It turns out they professed love and a vow to not have a re-match? I am not sure how I’m supposed to know this from watching it on film.)
There’s a nice bit of background to Rocky: Stallone himself wrote it, and the story says he was down to around $106 left to his name. The studios offered him $300, 000 for the script and wanted to put someone like Burt Reynolds in the role. Stallone turned it down, insisting that he should star in it. The rest, I guess, is history, as per Wikipedia:
The film, made on a budget of just over $1 million, was a sleeper hit; it earned $225 million in global box office receipts, becoming the highest-grossing film of 1976, and went on to win three Oscars, including Best Picture. The film received many positive reviews and turned Stallone into a major star. In 2006, the film was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant”. Rocky is considered to be one of the greatest sports films ever made and was ranked as the second-best in the genre, after Raging Bull, by the American Film Institute in 2008.
Movie Grade: A
The Rocky theme music for your nostalgic enjoyment, and good luck getting it out of your head:
PS: I’ve started noticing the use of holidays in films. Well, in this case, Rocky could be called both a Thanksgiving movie and a Christmas flick. Pay attention the next time you watch it. 🙂
Here are our detailed Rocky I–Creed II reviews, from a Rocky Virgin who’d never seen any of the films in the franchise before.
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Co-Creator of RunPee, Chief of Operations, Content Director, and Managing Editor. RunPee Jilly likes galaxy-spanning sci fi, superhero sagas, fantasy films, YA dystopians, action thrillers, chick flicks, and zany comedies, in that order…and possesses an inspiringly small bladder. In fact, that little bladder sparked the creation of RunPee. (Good thing she’s learned to hold it.)