To read the previous review on Rocky IV – please click here.
To read the previous review on Rocky V – please click here.
To read the previous review on Rocky III – please click here.
To read the previous review on Rocky II – please click here.
To read the previous review on Creed – please click here.
To read the previous review on Rocky Balboa – please click here.
With barely a hundred dollars in the bank, only a couple credits to his name and an unproven writer, Sylvester Stallone wrote a script in 3 days in desperation. The idea sprung from watching a boxing match between Chuck Wepner and Muhammad Ali and shadowed much of Stallone’s own life, about an underdog knowing he didn’t have many more chances to “go the distance”. And luckily, Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff decided to take a chance on this young kid and produce his film. And that’s how Rocky was born.
Back in 1976, who knew that this small budgeted film would generate seven sequels and a formula that would spawn other films, from Karate Kid to Bloodsport and bring about a whole new genre of films – that of the underdog story. From action figures, a resurgence of Burgess Meredith’s career and a statue in Philadelphia to memorable montages, inspirational songs and a “Yo” thrown in here and there, Rocky would be the beginning of a whole new era.
The film memorably begins with Rocky (Stallone) facing Spider Rico (Pedro Lovell) in front of a mural of Jesus Christ, foreshadowing a theme of resurrection. A depleted audience watches the fight and when the two boxers return to the locker room, Rocky earns enough money to go back to his worn-down apartment with his two roommates, two turtles named Cuff and Link.
I love the beginning of the film because it sets an example of exactly what a screenplay should do. Rocky is poor, depressed, alone….we feel for him at this point. It sets up the whole story because we are unsure (at least if you watched it for the first time in 1976) where the story is going to go. A great introduction to a great character.
The one element that makes Rocky the best film in the series in my opinion is the quiet moments, the moments where you look into the eyes of a character and know what the person is feeling. There is a subtle scene in the beginning of the film that is an example of this – where Rocky stares at a picture that is placed in the frame of a mirror in his bathroom. The picture is that of Rocky as a boy and as he picks it up and just stares at it, once again it’s not Stallone telling the audience how to feel, but the audience is feeling the solitude of the character in those moments.
The following scene introduces one of the greatest love stories in cinema history, at least from my point of view. Rocky meets a bespectacled girl in a pet shop – none other than Adrian Pennino (Talia Shire). Again, look closely and you will see a subtle look from Rocky to Adrian, and that look tells the whole story of who Rocky wants to be and whom Adrian is.
There’s a whole other subplot here with a character named Gazzo (Joe Spinell, who would be gone after the next film). Rocky is a struggling boxer and to make ends meet, he helps Gazzo with retaining money and valuables. Yes, Rocky works for a loan shark. Rocky’s job is to use any means necessary to get Gazzo what he wants, even breaking thumbs. But the character of Rocky is sympathetic and understanding, thus he goes against the orders of his boss and lets the guy go. We meet Gazzo with his bodyguard (Joe Sorbello), who gets about as close to a villain as you’ll get in this film. For whatever reason, Rocky and the bodyguard don’t get along, but Gazzo’s bodyguard does give Rocky the great idea of taking Adrian to the zoo…where he will eventually propose to her…so I guess you take the good with the bad.
We are introduced to Mickey (Meredith) in the next scene. If Rocky is the “heart” of the story and Adrian is the “soul” of the story, then Mickey is the “blood” of the story, the character that keeps the characters pumping and motivated. In the scene, Mickey doesn’t have time for Rocky, while Rocky wants to prove that he’s not a “bum” (the word Mickey uses for every one of Rocky’s opponents). “You ever think about retiring?” Mickey asks. Rocky says “No.” And Mickey’s classic response and the reason why this movie is great – “Well…think about it.” Great dialogue brings about great characters and if you need any proof…there it is.
There is a character introduced in the film and it really doesn’t pay dividends until five movies later, but the character is “Little Marie” (played by Jodi Letizia in this film). He walks her home, getting sassy remarks, putting her sassy fingers in her pockets, chewing gum sassily, and finally a sassy “Screw you, Creepo!” (Ouch?) Again, it goes to show that Rocky wants to be someone, but even teenage girls are able to walk over him.
In the meantime, there is a man named Apollo Creed (played by Carl Weathers), who is frustrated and angry at the thought that his opponent won’t be able to fight him, but Creed is a fighter and charitable and so he decides he’s going to extend his love to an unknown and show some brotherly love in…well, “the City of Brotherly Love”. And so he opens up a hardcover book, a “Boxers Almanac” of some sort and discovers a local fighter that goes by the name of “The Italian Stallion”. And because Creed is convinced that the country was founded by an Italian and he represents the real American hero, they must fight on the bicentennial date of its founding (which really doesn’t make sense because Columbus didn’t “find” America on July 4th…but we’ll leave it at that.) So Creed wants to fight this Italian boxer (who is, of course, Rocky Balboa) in the hopes of embarrassing a Philadelphia local. Rocky eventually agrees to the match and the fight is set…Apollo Creed, the champion vs. Rocky Balboa, the “Italian Stallion”.
The final major character we meet is Adrian’s brother and one of Rocky’s best friends (or maybe his only friend, if we don’t count the beloved hard-shelled Cuff and Link). This is Paulie Pennino (Burt Young) and we learn many things about who his character is with his interactions with Rocky and Adrian. He’s an alcoholic, he’s loud, he’s obnoxious and he bullies his sister. Everything about him screams that this guy is a major jerk, but there’s a part that makes you feel sorry for him, too. He forces his sister to retreat to her room, allowing one of the greatest conversations between a human and non-human ever. “Rocky, meet Mr. Door – Mr. Door meet Rocky.” There’s no doubt that Rocky stroking the door in a gentle up and down motion has the door falling in love with him, just as much as the woman behind it. Eventually, woman wins and out the couple go on a date in an ice skating rink, taking the advice of Paulie, who is convinced that his sister’s favorite hobby is skating. Of course, we find out that Paulie doesn’t know anything about Adrian and so we cope with the fact that one has to jog around the rink, while the other flutters on her skates.
The next part of the date goes to Rocky’s house, where Adrian feels nervous and Rocky ignores it. She wants to go home, but Rocky wants her to stay. She feels uncomfortable, but he still wants her to stay. He tries to kiss her, she tries to push him away. The more I think about it, the more this scene would probably not fly today. Adrian does finally give in as they hold and kiss each other.
One of my favorite scenes is the scene at Rocky’s apartment with Mickey. Mickey now knows that Rocky gets to face the champion and Mickey wants to be a part of that. He makes some small talk with Rocky before telling him that he wants to take his role as his manager, which Rocky declines. Because Mickey doesn’t take “no” for an answer, Rocky’s emotions finally come out in the form of anger. He yells at Mickey about coming over to his place all these years later…and elbows the wall. And then as Mickey slowly walks out and towards the darkness, Rocky runs after him and gives him a hug. We can’t hear what they say, but before that moment, we can feel what Mickey feels and we can feel what Rocky feels – sadness, anger, frustration, loneliness, aging – it all comes together in a mutual admiration between mentor and student, and symbolically, father and son.
From this point, some of the workouts and montages begin. You’ve seen them here, you’ve seen them there, you’ve seen them everywhere…the drinking of the raw eggs, the running with the dog, the punching of the bag, and the running of the steps with the song “Gonna Fly Now” in the background. And we can’t forget the bloody hands from using a meat rack as a punching bag, either.
And then comes a key scene that tells us everything we need to know about the relationship between the Penninos. Paulie hears Rocky talking about him, where he feels betrayed and wants Rocky to leave, but Adrian begins to stand up for herself and tells Paulie that Rocky is going to stay. Paulie goes on a tirade with a baseball bat. “You owe me!” Paulie screams and this enrages Adrian even more as Adrian screams back at him – “What do I owe you?” Paulie whimpers at this point. There’s an underlying message here that the relationship between Adrian and Paulie has come to this point since their parents died. Paulie, just like Rocky, is lonely, but instead of calm and quiet, he is enraged and frustrated and most of it comes out on his sister. Adrian has now gone from the shy, meek girl who was bullied to the girl who now stands up for herself and won’t take it anymore. The character arcs in this film are phenomenal.
The next couple scenes are key in that it’s the final motivation and realization of why Rocky is doing this. He stands alone in the middle of the Philadelphia Spectrum and looks at a poster of himself. The promoter, Mr. Jergens (played by Thayer David), walks in and when Rocky tells him the shorts in the poster are wrong, Mr. Jergens replies with a “It doesn’t really matter now, does it, Rocky?” Rocky’s eyes tell the story – he’s hurt and everyone thinks he’ll be forgotten after this whole ordeal. And when he returns to the apartment and lays next to Adrian, he tells her that all he wants to do is “go the distance.” The relationship has now gone from just a casual acquaintance to friends to boyfriend and girlfriend and here to a relationship of support. Rocky needs Adrian there to tell her he’s not a loser or a bum, that he’s someone and she needs the same.
And so we finally get to the main event….literally as it’s time for Rocky and Apollo to square off. With a little Joe Frazier cameo at the beginning, the two begin a memorable fight to the end. Adrian stays in the back, while Rocky fights his heart out. Creed gets knocked down, Rocky gets knocked down, both bleed with Rocky’s eye cut. The fight becomes a back and forth event, assisted by the amazing Bill Conti music that plays over it. Apollo thinks this fight would have gone easier, but Rocky shows that he’s going for it all. And when it’s all said and done, both men are left standing with the crowd on their feet. The heartwarming ending with Rocky screaming “Adrian” while being interviewed tells the story of what the film is really about – not a fight, but love. Apollo is announced as the winner, but Rocky did it – he went the distance and he may have lost a match, but he gained a new love.
And as we fade out, little did we know, the film would become a cultural milestone in film history, earning itself awards across the year and becoming a forerunner of many other films to come.
FINAL GRADE: A
What did you think of the first film? Do you agree it’s the best in the series? Whether you love the film or think it’s outdated, please send a comment. Next week, I take a final look at the whole Rocky series.