At a certain moment while watching Rocky, it occurred to me why people love this movie so much: It doesn't care about winning. Which makes it a winner. It's funny. I wonder if audiences today would embrace this movie the same way they did in 1976. We have an acclaimed, crowd-pleasing movie from the Rocky Balboa Universe this year called Creed. I haven't seen it yet (I wanted to see this first.), but I wonder if it succeeded for the same reasons...
So, yeah, Rocky is a good movie because it pays so little attention to the inevitable concluding prizefight and instead focuses every single bit of its energy on character. And we love every single one of them, even Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers), the classic fool, thinking he's got the bum beat when he doesn't realize the bum has love on his side.
Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) is a film character who demands our full attention and our immediate sympathy. He is a fighter, probably a good one, but he never really had a prime and didn't get the attention he needed from his gym's trainer, Mickey (Burgess Meredith). He doesn't really have anybody to cling to, only a rundown apartment in a rough part of Philly where he talks to his gold fish, concussed from the fight he just gave his all to for a measly $40. Rocky gets something out of it at least. What little money he gets, he spends on visits to the pet store around the corner, where he rambles on and on, mostly about himself to Adrian (Talia Shire), the shy, quiet girl who works there.
When he's not at the pet shop, Rocky does tough guy work for a loan shark named Gazzo (Joe Spinell), but he's not really even good at that. He's too nice. When he sees the neighborhood kids, standing around boozing and smoking on the corner, he gives them pep talks, advice. When he goes to call on Adrian for the first time, at the insistence of her brother, Rocky's best friend, Paulie (Burt Young), he is as shy as she is, insecure, but able to charm his way in with his humble way of talking about life, "I think we make a real sharp couple of coconuts--I'm dumb, you're shy, whaddaya think, huh?" It's so sweet. This movie is full of lines like that.
It really is. Stallone wrote the screenplay himself, most likely looking for some way to break into the business, creating a role for himself. Forty years later, he is still playing Rocky Balboa and being rewarded for it. After his Golden Globe Win a couple weeks ago, he claimed his pride in this character, his "imaginary friend." The chemistry shows between Stallone as creator of Rocky and as embodiment of Rocky. He is full of lines, witticisms about life that work for everyone. He is a bit dumb, oafish, simple, but that's why we like him. We feel like we know him. That all stems from Stallone's wonderful words, the way he makes Rocky sound. It's comforting.
We are well into the movie when Heavyweight Champion Apollo Creed comes in with a plan to find a hometown hero to face off in Philly for America's Bicentennial on New Year's Day. Rocky, the "Italian Stallion," as he was once called seems like the best fit. It'll be like a "monster movie," Creed gleans, just thinking about the epic poster to promote the fight. Of course, Rocky reluctantly takes the opportunity. If nothing else, he'll make a lot of money for the first time ever.
When Rocky begins his training, it is as humble as the man himself. And iconic. For a guy who's never seen any of the Rocky movies all the way through, I sure felt like these scenes were already a part of me. Rocky weaving through the slabs of cold meat, where Paulie lets him in to train. Rocky running up the famed steps to much pain then further glory. Rocky falling in love with Adrian, the sweet girl coming out of her shell as family life during the holidays plays out.
John G. Avildsen's direction is worth the Oscar he won. Just as this reaction I've written sort of meanders, so does this movie. And that is the right direction. It just paints a picture of a guy and those who surround him. All the characters have solid dramatic arcs. They all fight and grow and learn. The boxing is secondary. It is a film driven by small moments, not huge spectacle. It is the opposite of the sport it portrays in that way. There is no sporting event more overblown and glittering than a huge prizefight. Wisely, this film plays that down, makes that mentality a bad thing. The inevitable fight scene is brutal and well-made, culminating in a moment that is fully heartbreaking and happy and not in any way for the reasons we might expect. Even at the film's biggest moment, it is all about the small stuff.
Consider my favorite scene, probably a lot of people's favorite scene. When Mickey comes to Rocky after hearing news that Rocky is the one chosen to fight Creed, Rocky sends him away, angrily, rightly so, "Where were you ten years ago, huh?", but then begins just breaking down emotionally, screaming through the door, knowing Mickey can hear. Mickey sort of turns on the steps and just looks back. Sadness on his face. It's such a tender, vulnerable moment for everybody, written, directed, and performed to absolute perfection. We are Rocky in this moment. The underdog. And we finally have some people, all of these people, a family on our side.
When you have that, it doesn't matter who wins. Yes. That's why we love this movie.