Thursday, April 7, 2016

Classic Movie Review From My Collection: Rocky

It’s easy to forget after the deluge of increasingly absurd sequels through the 80s that Rocky – the original – as not only a great film, but is raw and gritty. I guess because I grew up on the sequels, the whole of the series sits in my memory as polished Hollywood filmmaking. And I even watched Rocky ten or fifteen years ago!

The movie truly feels like something out of another era. It’s low-budget, it’s seedy and dirty. Interestingly, I watched John Huston’s Fat City for the first time last year. That’s another 70s boxing flock that predates Rocky by a few years. I remember thinking how gritty it looked and felt and was shocked to find how similar the pacing and look of Rocky (at least in the first three quarters or so is to Huston’s film. I wonder if it was viewed by director John Avildsen and cinematographer James Crabe to achieve a real brown street look.

Rocky is hardly even about boxing. Certainly not in the same way that all its sequels are. Even Creed, hailed as the next best in the series and having a lot of parallel narrative with the original is very much about boxing. Rocky Balboa fights in the ring because he “can’t sing or dance.” It’s the only thing he can do that has any honor. He makes a living as Gazzo’s, a local mob capo played by Joe Spinelli, hired thug, shaking down deadbeats for their debt money. But he’s too kind-hearted to actually break thumbs. Rocky just wants to survive like anyone else. He’s down-and-out with no real prospects until opportunity falls in his lap.

Rocky becomes the embodiment of the American dream when Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers), the reigning champion, comes with an offer to take a shot at the title. This premise is at the very heart of what made Rocky so popular in 1976 – the year of the bicentennial with a country rife with patriotic fervor. At a time in American history full of cynicism born of the quagmire of the Vietnam War, the Watergate scandal, and the disgraced resignation of President Nixon, Stallone’s movie came along at the perfect time and struck the perfect note of optimism that the country was looking for. Rocky starts the movie at the bottom. He leads what appears to be the saddest life and he doesn’t even seem to draw any joy from anything. But the prospect of opportunity, even if it’s one he knows he won’t win, lifts him up. All he wants is to show everyone that he’s not a bum and that he can “go the distance” with Apollo. If he makes it through a full fifteen rounds, he’s a winner.

There’s that, and then there’s Adrienne, his love interest played by a dowdy Talia Shire, expertly hiding her good looks and tough personality behind glasses, a hat, and frumpy clothing. Rocky talks enough for the both of them and what seems an unlikely romance blossoms between them. He’s a heartfelt nice and gentle giant, not at all what we might expect from a character of his nature in a Hollywood movie.

And sure enough, the film is not without its boxing movie clichés. It’s got a training sequence (the Rocky franchise practically invented it) and a grizzled old boxing veteran who reluctantly trains him. Burgess Meredith was already frail, aging, and wiry by the time he took the role of Mickey, owner of a boxing gym in seedy north Philly.

On its surface it’s not obvious, but Rocky is one of the most quietly patriotic movies of all time. In the year of America’s 200th birthday, it celebrated one of the very foundations of what makes America great: the egalitarian idea – which we are perhaps now more disillusioned to than ever before – that anyone can become anything. Of course it’s not true in a practical sense. Rocky Balboa doesn’t become champion (in this movie), but that a nobody from the slums can even get a sniff of the championship is exactly what it’s about. It’s that hope that if I work hard enough I can achieve my dreams. It’s that attitude that drove America through the 20th Century to become a world power. In the early 21st we are now struggling with that idea and our role in the world, but there’s always Rocky to come home to. He doesn’t win the big fight, but he still gets the girl. In his mind, and hers, he is a winner. Rocky was just the salve that the country needed in a painful time.

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