Here is a good trivia question to ask. That question is, “What was the first sports movie to ever win Best Picture at the Oscars?” The movie with that special honor is 1976’s Rocky. This movie is an American classic and it’s widely known to be one of the most influential sports movies of all time. This movie spawned many sequels and a spin-off movie. The character of Rocky Balboa remains to this day a heavy cultural presence. In fact, if you travel to the Philadelphia Art Museum, you’ll be able to see a statue of Rocky at those famed steps. There is nothing special about the story itself. It’s a by-the-numbers underdog story, but it’s the underlying themes that make this movie so special. The themes of heroism and being the underdog really elevated this movie.
The making of this movie is part of that underdog theme, and it took a very long time for this movie to make it to the big screen. Sylvester Stallone wrote the screenplay and it was widely acclaimed in the movie industry. The studios felt it could have been a star vehicles for the likes of Robert Redford. But Stallone only wanted the movie to happen if he can act in the movie as the lead role. The studio executives thought that wouldn’t work because of his lack of acting experience. But with a very low budget, MGM/United Artists was able to get the movie made with Stallone in the lead role. This is an example of those classic underdog stories that I love to see.
Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) nicknamed “The Italian Stallion” is a boxer who is struggling to make the big-time. He earns some money by collecting debts for a debt collector. He gets his lucky break when heavyweight boxing star Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) arrives in Philadelphia to set up a match for show. In order for “nobody” to become a “somebody.” Apollo Creed chooses Rocky Balboa because of his nickname. Of course, Apollo believes he will win. But with the help of his trainer Mickey (Burgess Meredith) and his oft-quiet girlfriend Adrian (Talia Shire), Rocky seizes this opportunity to leave his struggles and bring a name to himself.
The film is an American classic in part due to its iconic performances. Sylvester Stallone wasn’t a name before this movie, so that makes it even more amazing the success of this movie. I previously seen him in 1971’s Bananas as one of the hoodlums on the subway. But here, with his heavy physical presence and his instant recognizable voice, he brings himself into the public spotlight and forever, Stallone will be known as Rocky Balboa. Stallone drew inspiration from the likes of Joe Frazier and Mohammad Ali. He created such a tender performance in my eyes. He may act tough in the ring, but he had such a good heart otherwise. A classic example is where he would visit the very shy Adrian in her pet store job just to visit her. Speaking of Adrian, Talia Shire delivered a good performance as Adrian. Her character is vastly different than her Connie Corleone character from The Godfather and I appreciate that. Carl Weathers does a great job as Apollo Creed. The look on his face when he realized Rocky was trying to beat him was just a priceless look. Burt Young, who portrays Adrian’s brother Paulie, also does a solid job. He was a very abusive brother and the scene where he destroys the house with a baseball bat because he was not pleased with Adrian, added more drama to the movie and it showed the kind of man Paulie is. Last but not least, I must mention Burgess Meredith in his incredibly powerful performance as Mickey. Meredith was cast against type and despite being an old man, he helped Rocky get into the ring against Apollo Creed.
The movie has many iconic scenes to it. There is the training scene where Rocky is punching the meat carcasses. I loved that scene, but here’s another trivia. That scene was actually influenced by the training of Joe Frazier. Then who can forget about the iconic scene of running up the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum and punching the air to the tune of Bill Conti’s “Gonna Fly Now.” I loved that scene and I loved that music-both which remain cultural influences to this day. It’s just worth watching Rocky just to see these awesome training scenes.
Overall, I enjoyed watching Rocky very much. Admittedly, I am not much of a boxing fan. However, I was able to get engaged in the movie because it’s not just a story about boxing. It’s story about being a underdog, a true American hero. The story itself is a simple story and nothing that hasn’t been seen before, but it does draw you in and it keeps you engaged. I enjoyed the underdog aspect of the film. To see Sly from collecting money to facing the heavyweight champion, a feat that most people can only dream of. If you watch this movie, you can see why this film remains such an inspiration for many-especially athletes. Keep an eye on the performance by Stallone. A very incredible performance. One that was so good, that Roger Ebert compared him to Marlon Brando. The film lacks originality, but it makes up for it in everything else. John G. Avildsen directed a wonderful engaging sports film and one that will live on and on.
My Grade: A-