Which, if you've seen the the other movies in this franchise, is a fair assumption, I must admit. However, that's not really what this movie is about. I mean, it does involve boxers punching each other. There ARE a couple training montages, and the finale IS a big fight. But it's not about a guy who wants to win a big fight and become a champion.
It's not even really a sports movie. It's an indie-film character study that contemplates the meaning of determination and how important it is to take control of your own life instead of just going with what other people tell you to do. And it really zeroes in on the meaning of taking an opportunity that is offered to you, rather than turning it down out of fear.
SPOILER ALERT: I'm going to analyze this film, and I will spoil the ending in the process. If you don't want to know how it ends, stop reading when you get to the part where Rocky's kneeling down to pray before the fight and skip to below the blogathon button at the bottom.
I grew up watching the Rocky movies. My dad would rent one every now and then, though usually Rocky II (1979) or Rocky III (1982). In fact, I don't think I saw Rocky (1976) until I was in my teens, and then only once. Probably, my parents thought parts of it were too intense or scary for us kids. Although this is rated PG, it would've been PG-13 if that rating had existed in 1979.
But growing up watching these movies with my dad made me kind of a little bit equate my dad with Rocky Balboa. I think he probably identifies a lot with Rocky. They both were told they were dumb when they were kids, and yet, they aren't. They both worked hard to overcome learning problems and both pursued dreams that others told them they weren't good enough for. I have a lot of respect and love for my dad, not just because he's my dad, but because of the fierce determination inside him. Which he passed on to me. Like Rocky and my dad, I have a great drive to prove myself TO myself. If I prove myself to others at the same time, great, but I have a strong desire to see if I can do things that look hard. Sometimes I can, and sometimes I can't, but I keep trying hard things anyway.
Um, anyway, time to dig into the film :-)
It starts with a little local boxing match with the Italian Stallion, Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) versus some random other due named Spider Murphy (I think? Spider something). Rocky and the other guy bash each other for a while as the meager crowd yells insults at them and even throws trash at them. Rocky wins, so he gets the glorious sum of $41 and some odd cents. The loser gets $15. As they wait in the locker room to get paid after the fight, they're both quiet, withdrawn, maybe even sullen. You can see Rocky in particular wondering if $41 was worth getting his head split open.
Rocky lives in the decidedly unglamorous part of Philadelphia. He's friends with people who stand around on street corners around a barrel of burning trash, sharing a bottle of cheap wine and singing aimless songs. (One of them is played by Stallone's brother Frank Stallone.) Their lives are empty, almost dystopian, and if this is Rocky's world and his people, is his life empty too?
Yeah, it kinda is, to be honest. He lives in a trashy little apartment, basically just one room that's kitchen and living room, with an alcove for his bed. He's got an old mattress wrapped around part of a wall for a punching post. He hangs his coat and hat on metal bars jutting out of the wall. And who does he have to welcome him home? Two turtles named Cuff and Link and a goldfish named Moby Dick. Rocky's thirty years old, he's not married, he's got no girlfriend, and he lives in what is basically a hole in a wall.
Yet, he's not depressed. He's not mean. He's kind to his pets, he's polite to his boxing opponent and the guys out on the street. You can see already that he is a genuinely nice guy who's just living a messy, no-where kind of life.
Rocky doesn't have a girlfriend, but he's sweet on a girl named Adrian (Talia Shire) who works at a pet shop near his apartment. Every night, if he passes the pet shop before it closes, he stops in and tells her a joke he made up. Every morning, on his way to work, he stops in and tells her another one he made up. They're pretty terrible jokes, but he keeps telling them anyway, as an excuse to come see Adrian.
Adrian is painfully shy. As in, it's painful to see how shy she is. She barely looks at Rocky. She only nods or answers him in single words. She's closed off and bound up and walled off. But if he's talking to the animals in the pet shop, she looks at him. She has a kind of frightened longing when she looks at him that shows us that she really wants to like Rocky, even if she's afraid of that desire, afraid to talk to him, afraid to even make eye contact with him.
Now, what kind of a day job does Rocky have? Since clearly, $41 for a fight every week or two isn't going to pay for even his dumpy apartment. Well, he works for the Mob. He's muscle. He threatens people who owe the Mob money, or who did something to annoy the Mob. He doesn't kill people, but he might break an arm or something. Which would make us start to be very unsympathetic to Rocky, except that he's still clearly a nice guy. Like when he gets sent to break a guy's thumb for not paying up on a gambling debt, and instead he just threatens to do it and lets the guy off unharmed.
Also, Rocky has a learning disability. He doesn't read well, and he's not great with numbers. He has trouble remembering things, so he writes them down in a notebook. Some of this may be from too many bouts in the boxing ring, but he says his dad told him he was dumb all his life, so he'd better learn how to make money with his muscles, so I think probably he has dyslexia or something similar. This is a pretty masterful stroke on the part of Stallone the screenwriter, because Rocky's insistence that he's not smart and his obvious trouble with reading creates a lot of sympathy for him and keeps us squarely in his corner. (Boxing allusion intended.)
Yes, Sylvester Stallone wrote this screenplay. He had trouble selling it to studios because he insisted in starring in it himself, but finally won United Artists over. The film had a budget of only $1.1 million, and it went on to win the Oscar for Best Picture and made Stallone a huge star.
Rocky insists over and over that he is not a bum. He tells his boss that, he tells a friend that, he tells the manager of the boxing gym that. But secretly, he wonders. Is he just a bum? Just like all the other bums around him? Is he a bum like his friend Paulie (Burt Young), Adrian's big-talking brother? Or is does he have an actual future?
When he gets the girl back to her home, she calls him a creepo and says several other rude things in thanks for his kindness and advice. Sure enough, it seems like no matter what he does, people still think he's a bum.
Enter Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers). By the way, this is what Greef Karga from The Mandalorian looked like 40 years ago, my friends. Anyway, Apollo Creed is the Heavyweight Champion of the World. And he's going to do a charity match in Philadelphia to celebrate America's Bicentennial, and he's going to make a ton of money at the same time. But he has a problem.
The guy Creed was supposed to fight is injured. Broken hand. Can't fight. So Creed comes up with a great idea and pitches it to his management team: he'll fight an unknown. A local boy. Some random wannabe. It'll make Creed look good cuz he's taking the whole "land of opportunity" thing to the max, and he'll have an easy fight. Knock the chump out in the third round, no problem.
Now he just has to find the perfect local boy to fight. Creed wants someone with a snazzy name, so he starts looking through the fight promoter's book of fighters. And he lands on, you guessed it, the Italian Stallion, Rocky Balboa. He'll give this nobody a moment of glory and everyone can go home happy.
(Random bit of trivia: Sylvester Stallone really is Italian, and in Italian the word for 'stallion' is 'Stallone.')
Meanwhile, it's Thanksgiving. Paulie tells Rocky that Adrian has invited him over for Thanksgiving Dinner. Rocky asks Paulie over and over if Adrian is really expecting him. If she really wants him to come over. Paulie swears she does, that it was her idea. Rocky doesn't want to call Paulie a liar, but Adrian's still been kind of giving him what he thinks is the cold shoulder, so he's not sure.
Um, yeah, Paulie's totally a liar. Adrian gets upset when he shows up with Rocky and hides in the kitchen. She says she can't have people over, she's not dressed for company, she's got a turkey in the oven, and she just can't handle it. Paulie yells at her, calls her stupid and broken, takes the turkey out of the oven, and throws it out the back door!
Adrian does the only sensible thing she can do: she locks herself in her bedroom. Rocky tries to leave, because this is clearly a very embarrassing situation. Paulie insists Adrian will be fine, especially if Rocky suggests they go somewhere fun. Rocky talks awkwardly to her door a little, and asks if she'd like to go for a walk, maybe go to the ice rink.
Ice rink it is.
I think this is the first time Adrian ever looks him in the face. She has changed her clothes, put on her hat and coat, and she is looking Rocky in the face and going out to the ice rink with him, and if you don't think this is a HUGE deal for her, you don't know anything about shy, emotionally abused women with bullying brothers and no hope (until now) of ever changing their lives.
I said this movie is about needing to take opportunities when they present themselves, and needing to take charge of your own life. Most obviously, it's about how Rocky gets a chance to do that. But that's Adrian's story arc too. She stops and looks at herself in the mirror before she goes out with Rocky, and it's like she's looking at a stranger. A stranger who is going out on a date of sorts. Who is leaving the house for a reason other than her miserable job. She looks scared, but she also looks determined.
(I'm pretty sure that the Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode where Angel takes Buffy ice skating is a nod to this film, by the way.)
Rocky bribes the zamboni driver to let them use the rink for ten minutes even though the rink is closed. He doesn't skate, so he runs along beside Adrian while she skates, both of them awkward. Rocky keeps up a steady stream of chatter, trying to make Adrian comfortable. Trying to get her to respond.
Slowly, slowly, Adrian unfolds. She asks Rocky how he got into boxing, and he tells her it's because he's dad said he didn't have much of a brain, so he'd better make good use of his body. Adrian laughs, because her mother told her the opposite: she didn't have much of a body, so she'd better make good use of her brain.
As they walk down the city streets after they leave the ice rink, they both talk. Both share. Both open up. Neither of them is very comfortable with the other yet, but they're getting there. But then, they wind up at Rocky's apartment. And he asks her inside.
Adrian stands at the bottom of his front steps, and she's unsure again. You can see her weighing her options. She could walk home. She could go inside. She's obviously been told that nice girls don't go in men's apartments. Then again, she's known Rocky for months, maybe years. He stops at the pet shop twice a day to talk to her. He's a friend of her brother. And, you know what? She's almost thirty years old and never been asked into a guy's apartment before.
So she goes in with him. He gets awkward, then she gets awkward. He offers her some doughnuts, and she declines. He sits on his saggy sofa and asks her to sit by him, and she refuses. She's right in suspecting he'd like to do a little canoodling, but she's also right in thinking he's a nice guy who's not going to force himself on her. Still, she stands in the kitchen, near the door, ready to flee.
So he comes to her, little by little. He comes closer, she backs up. He comes closer, she backs up. Finally, she's by the door and wants to run out it. Rocky puts a hand on the door and another on the other side of her, but when she looks panicked and trapped, he drops the hand on the door. She can leave if she wants.
But he leans closer and tells her he would like to kiss her. She doesn't have to kiss him, but he would like to kiss her. And he waits until she nods. When she does, he kisses her. On the cheek.
It's a kind and gentle kiss, sweet and not demanding. Adrian closes her eyes and looks so... unbelieving. A man is kissing her cheek. A very large and muscly man is very kindly making her feel comfortable every way he knows how, but also letting her know that yes, he finds her pretty and attractive and interesting and worth spending time with and worth kissing.
For Adrian, it's basically a miracle.
So she kisses him back. And there's a lot of kissing. Quiet and gentle and desperate kissing. And, the next day, Rocky gets the news that Apollo Creed wants to fight him. Adrian has taken the first steps toward being in charge of her life, and now, it's Rocky's turn.
Rocky thinks at first that Creed just picked him for a new sparring partner. When the promoter explains that no, Creed wants to give him a real fight, and even a shot at the title of champion, Rocky turns him down. He's not interested in being a sideshow for Creed to play off to make himself look good. But the promoter assures him it'll be a real fight, and tells him how much money he'll be paid. It's probably more money than Rocky has ever earned in his whole adult life.
So he says he'll do it. And he asks Mickey (Burgess Meredith) to train him. Or rather, Mickey asks to train him, in an emotionally fraught scene in a bathroom and a stairwell that is so intense it's almost hard to watch.
Mickey is the irascible, cranky, downright mean boxing trainer down at the gym where Rocky used to train until Mickey threw him out because he decided Rocky was a bum. But Mickey's a great trainer, and Rocky's going to need all the help he can get. By the way, we're halfway through the movie before Rocky gets the news that Apollo Creed picked him for the big fight. When I say it's a character study, I mean it -- we spend way more time on developing Rocky and Adrian than we do on fight stuff. Even after Rocky agrees to fight him.
Rocky doesn't want to win. He doesn't want to be famous. He just wants to know if he's got it in him to face the best boxer in the world and stay on his feet. Nobody's ever done that in the ring with Creed, and if he can just stay up for all those rounds, he'll know he's not just another bum. That's all he wants, that knowledge about himself, for himself.