Rocky is another movie that’s always been part of my life. It was one of the first movies I ever remember seeing on TV, which would have been 1990 or so. Always around in some form or fashion. Always as a series of movies rather than just the first one. And I loved watching them, so it was easy for these movies to become part of my life. Either I was renting the first three, or the first two are playing on TV. All-day marathons are another excuse to watch them all. It’s a series that lends itself well to that — fans of this series usually can’t watch just one in my experience.
But what about the first Rocky? All by itself. What do we have when we just focus on the first chapter in the life of boxer Rocky Balboa, as he tries to court a girl he likes named Adrian, fight in bleak Philadelphia sweatboxes for scraps, and try to get by from one day to the next?
It’s a perfect film that arguably doesn’t need anything else or any other movies. It’s a perfect Hollywood movie watching experience from start to finish, a timeless summation of the best qualities of that film type.
Rocky is an endlessly quotable underdog story that doesn’t even require you to like or even fully understand the sport of boxing in its depiction of the life of a Philadelphia loan shark enforcer. You don’t have to care about any of the sequels or spinoffs if you don’t want to. All you have to be interested in is a good cinematic story told well despite a low budget and general disinterest from the studio (United Artists) that was releasing the film in the first place.
Famously, the movie is based on a fight between Muhammad Ali and Chuck Wepner. Also famously, a virtual unknown named Sylvester Stallone refused to let anyone else play Rocky, taking an extremely bold chance that the studio responded to by barely getting the movie made. They wanted someone like Burt Reynolds or Ryan O’Neal (Jesus wept). It’s hard to imagine we would still be talking about this movie, which on paper sounds like a lot of sports dramas made before and after its release, if anyone but Stallone had played Rocky Balboa.
For a variety of reasons, Sylvester Stallone made Rocky something special. Its uniqueness still shines, especially when compared to the very weird journey the sequels would take us on, both stylistically and with the character. Rocky still feels and plays like a desperate last chance at something more than just survival. That’s probably how Stallone, a better actor than he sometimes gets credit for, really felt at the time. It’s an energy that exists around the emotional, effective Bill Conti score, around the editing, the cinematography, and around the presence of established actors like Burgess Meredith and Talia Shire.
There’s nothing quite like the 1976 Rocky. At least, I haven’t seen that movie personally. Plenty of films feel a bit like Rocky, but nothing with this sincerity and entertainment in the form of a rallying cry to go for broke one more time. If you can.
Climb up loads of steps or read the rest of MTSBYD? Tough choice.
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