Friday, November 20, 2020

"Rocky" (1976)

So, if you've never seen this movie, I'm guessing that you think it is a typical feel-good sports movie about a guy who wants to prove himself and become the champion.  You figure it involves a lot of training montages and pep talks and some big fight scenes, and probably glorifies the manly art of punching people.

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?

Certainly, Rocky is nicer than a lot of the people around him.  And I mean, he is genuinely nice.  On the way home the next night, he sees a young girl from his street hanging out with a lot of older teens, drinking and smoking and talking trashy.  He pulls her away from them and walks her home.  While they walk, he explains why guys don't respect girls who talk dirty and act tough, and why you should want a guy to respect you.  He says if you talk like a whore, it doesn't matter what you do, people are going to think you're a whore.  Maybe he's secretly wondering if, because he talks like a bum, it doesn't matter what he does, because people just assume he's a bum.

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 and Adrian are seeing each other more now. Adrian is blossoming under his attention.  She's smiling, she's buying and wearing pretty clothes, she's sitting by him while they watch television in her living room, and she's even reaching out and touching him, shyly and hesitantly.

Paulie, who had pushed her to date Rocky, is not so thrilled with this.  Because now she listens to Rocky and thinks about Rocky and doesn't jump up to get Paulie a beer the minute he finishes a can.  So he makes fun of Rocky, pointing out that TV reporters made Rocky look really dumb during a press conference announcing the big fight.  Rocky shrugs and smiles and says that didn't bother him none.

And then privately confesses to Adrian that it did bother him.  A lot.

It's not just Adrian who's opening up an growing and learning to trust, folks.

Adrian surprises Rocky one day at his apartment.  She's bought him a big, slobbery dog named Butkus that Rocky always talked to at the pet shop.

(Random fun fact: Butkus was Sylvester Stallone's own dog.  He reportedly got so poor and desperate when studios weren't buying his Rocky screenplay that he sold his dog for $50 so he could eat.  As soon as he signed the deal with United Artists for this movie, the first thing he did was buy back his dog.)

Contrast this pretty girl in the fashionable coat and hat to the closed-down, dowdy woman at the beginning.  Is it Rocky's attention that's changed her?  Did she just need a man, and now her life is great?  I don't think that's the point here.  Yes, Rocky's attention has changed her, but it's because she's gained confidence in her self, gained self esteem, realized that she's not the worthless, ugly, helpless, pitiful freak her brother has been calling her all these years.  She knows now that she's her own person, and her relationship with Rocky has given him the same gift.  Both of them needed the nudge of thinking, hey, if this person who is pretty great likes me, maybe I should take a fresh look at myself and see what it is they like.

Now, Paulie is not pleased with this.  He has insisted that now that Rocky's going to be training for a big fight and getting all this money, Rocky should hire Paulie to be his promotor, or his water boy, or anything.  Rocky doesn't feel comfortable spending money he hasn't earned yet and won't do it.  And then, close to Christmas, Paulie comes home to find Rocky and Adrian snuggled up watching a Christmas movie on the TV, and he goes berserk.  Rocky won't give him a job?  When he gave Rocky all that support and encouragement?  Even gave Rocky his sister?

Rocky tries to talk Paulie down, but he's kinda scared of Paulie's bat.  After all, Rocky's in the hurting-people business, in more ways than one.  He knows how much damage a bat can do.  But look at this picture -- both Rocky and Adrian are scared, but who's protecting who here?  Adrian sure looks like she's trying to shield Rocky.  And she does.  This is the moment when she comes into her own.

Paulie smashes a lamp and a silver teapot while screaming about how both Rocky and Adrian owe him for all he's done for them.  And Adrian rises up, grabs Paulie by the coat and screams back.  She doesn't owe him anything!  She's been cooking and cleaning and keeping house for him all these years, and putting up with his nonsense.  She does not owe him, and neither does Rocky.

She runs off to her room, and Rocky takes his turn yelling at Paulie for how he treats Adrian and talks about her like she's trash to hand to a stranger.  He scares Paulie now, which he's had a lot of practice doing, so Paulie stays scared.

Rocky goes to Adrian's room to see if she's okay.  All she says to him is, "Do you want a roommate?"  And she looks so brave and fierce and strong when she says that, I want to hug her.  Adrian has been pushed around all her life, but now, she's going to make her own decision.  Go where SHE chooses.

By the way, don't misconstrue my love for this film to mean that I think it's okay for unmarried people to live together.  I think you can assume that they are not intimately involved when she moves in with him.  They may have been before now, but Rocky's trainer has reminded him No Women is the rule when you're training for a big fight.  Rocky is show sleeping on the couch while Adrian sleeps on his bed.  In Adrian's circumstances, I think it was her best option.  How long would Paulie stay scared once Rocky left that night?  How long before his rage and frustration came to the surface again and he turns that bat on his sister?

I wonder a little bit if Paulie suffers from some form of PTSD.  There's a photo of him in a Navy uniform in their house, and they live in an actual house, fairly nice, which implies that Paulie probably is retired from the Navy and living on his pension, plus what he makes at the meat-packing plant, plus Adrian's pet shop wages.  He's pretty mercurial, going from fawning to angry to fawning in the blink of an eye.  Clearly, he has problems for some reason.

Anyway, that's when the training montage starts.

Rocky runs on the railroad tracks.

Rocky runs through the trashy Philadelphia streets. (Random fun fact: those are not extras in these shots of Rocky running through the city.  He and a camera guy just went around Philly finding interesting spots, Stallone would get out and run, and the camera guy would drive ahead of him filming him.  This is why all the people in these shots are kind of curious and/or cracking up: they have no idea what is going on.  A guy tosses Rocky an orange, and Rocky catches it and they both laugh because the guy had no idea this dude running behind a car was making a movie.)

Rocky runs up those steps at the art museum and creates an iconic film moment.  

(Also, the inventor of the Steadicam inspired this moment -- he'd used the Steadicam to film his sister running up those steps, and used the footage to pitch his camera rig to studios.  Stallone and the film's director saw it and decided it was just what the needed for a big moment.  And hired the Steadicam inventor to film it.)

There's also a lot of stuff about skipping rope and punching bags and getting punched in the stomach and whatever.  But it's the running that people remember.

The night before the fight, Rocky visits the big stadium where he'll face Apollo Creed.  It's empty and echoing and eerie.  And SO much bigger and nicer than that dive at the beginning where he was fighting.

Rocky goes back to his apartment and lays down beside Adrian and tells her, "It really don't matter if I lose this fight.  It really don't matter if this guy opens my head, either.  'Cause all I wanna do is go the distance.  Nobody's ever gone the distance with Creed.  And if I can go that distance, see, if that bell rings and I'm still standin', I'm gonna know for the first time in my life, you see, that I weren't just another bum from the neighborhood."

(Random fun fact: Stallone saw that moment as the most important one in the film, but they almost didn't shoot it.  They were running over their budget and filming schedule, but he managed to squeeze in enough time for one take of that speech.  And that one take did the trick.)

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.

Fight day arrives.  Rocky prays.

Rocky shakes Apollo Creed's hands.  (Spoilage ahead, so skip to the blogathon button if you don't want to know how this fight turns out.)

Rocky and Apollo Creed slug it out.

And Rocky does it!  He stays on his feet for every single round.  He doesn't win.  But he proves himself, to himself.

And then, when the fight's over and the reporters crowd around him, all he says is "Adrian!"  Over and over, screaming her name, yelling for her, only for her.

And, when she fights her way to the crowd and throws her arms around him, she doesn't say, "You did it!" or "I'm proud of you!"

She says, "I love you."

First time she's said that, you can see.

And Rocky says it back.  "I love you."  

And the final shot is not of Rocky standing victorious over his opponent or being praised by the crowd or getting handed a lot of money.  It's of Rocky holding Adrian close, a look of absolute contentment coming over his bruised and battered face.  He knows now that he has everything he needs.

This has been my entry for A Blogathon to be Thankful For, hosted by 18 Cinema Lane.  Thanks for reading!  Make sure you check out the blogathon for more posts involving Thanksgiving!

Is this movie family friendly?  Somewhat?  Like I said, I didn't watch it as a kid.  Paulie and his baseball bat is pretty scary, and you do have the issue of Adrian moving in with Rocky.  Plus, a lot of punching.  Some cussing, mostly low-level stuff, not nasty or often, but a bit here and there.  Fine for teens, I think, but too much for younger kids.


  1. My friend grew up with these movies and introduced me to them. They really are about more than boxing and really inspirational.
    I think Mickey is one of my favorites, but I like Rocky and Adrian too.
    I didn't know the story about his dog, I'm so glad he got it back.

    1. Skye, oh, how cool that you like these too! Mickey is really sweet, in a cranky way. Eventually. Lol!

  2. I shouldn't watch this movie myself (bc of Paulie, that would be too much of a problem for me), but I DO love everything you said about Rocky and Adrian's romance and how he encourages her to have self confidence and come out of her shell. And how he respects her boundaries. That's so sweet. <333

    Fun fact! You know the shot you mentioned of Rocky running up the steps of the Philadelphia art museum? My parents ran up those same steps after they decided to get married. It wasn't a proposal, and it wasn't something they'd planned beforehand--they just casually talked it over and said "let's get married," then just as casually, ran up the steps to the art museum because it was a cold day and they wanted to get inside!

    1. Katie, yes, I agree -- Paulie would be a big problem for you in this one. He's much nicer in the others. But it's a shame, because I think you would adore Adrian.

      That's so fun about your parents! It's an impressive set of steps to run up.

    2. It's possible that I could watch "Rocky" but just, like, skip all of Paulie's scenes? xD I DO think I would love Adrian very much!

      I know, right!! My dad was a track & field athlete and my mom was a swimmer, so I guess they just had a lot of energy!

    3. Katie, yes, I think so. I mean, he's important to the story in some ways, but not absolutely integral. You'd still get the gist of it.

  3. Excellent review! I will admit I've never seen any of the 'Rocky' movies. However, your article definitely makes me want to check them out! I've heard the turtles from this film are still living and Sylvester has kept them all this time. Thanks for joining my blogathon!

    1. Thank you, Sally! I heard that a couple years ago too, maybe in 2016 when it turned 40? How cool that turtles can live so long!

  4. I loved, LOVED your review. It's smart and insightful, and you made me fall in love with the movie all over again.

    1. Thank you, Silver Screenings! I'm so glad you enjoyed it :-)

  5. You did such a great job reviewing this! I've been wanting to see this movie for a long time, and now I want to even more. It looks really good.

    1. Thank you, McKayla! I hope you do get a chance to see it -- it's very good.

  6. 1) I had to use this movie to get my wife to watch boxing movies again since she is one of the few people on earth who hates "Raging Bull."

    2) "Rocky" was the first sports movies I used for my series "Sports Analogies Hidden in Classic Movies." I've always thought that if you took Rocky and Rocky II and edited them together into one move about 2:40 long, you'd have one of the bet sports movies ever made.

    3) My family is all originally from Philadelphia, and i will tell the "running" montage drives all native Philadelphians crazy because it is shot in so many different places it doesn't make sense. But for people who don't know the city, it's great!

  7. Popping by to let you know I tagged you with my Delights of Christmas tag:

    Would love to have you join in! <3

    1. Heidi, ooooh! That looks like fun :-D Thanks for the tag!

  8. Very good review! I had basically forgotten about the Thanksgiving / ice rink sequence, and reading it made m realize that Adrian's character arc is as important as Rocky's. The next time I watch this movie, I'll watch only for her.
    Cheers! Oh, and there is a new blogathon announcement at my blog, we'd love to have you taking part!


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