Dir: John G. Avildsen (Save the Tiger; The Karate Kid I-III; Lean on Me; Rocky V)
While a staple of my childhood on cable, it had been many years since I revisited this landmark film. Rocky beat a host of other great films, including Network, All the President's Men, Marathon Man, and Taxi Driver. I can't say that it is better than all those films, but Rocky is certainly very good at what it does, a clean and pure story of an underdog that is refreshingly written. Stallone's nominated screenplay is the best part of the film, and its economy and voice remain unique.
We may forget how little boxing is actually in this movie. Stallone's courtship of Talia Shire is its foundation. His stupidity is contrasted against her temerity with great charm and compassion, and their dialogue is very believable for the characters. Ruminations about life and love avoid any lofty prose whatsoever, and everything seems so real that it is impossible not to pull for this couple. Shire's brother, a drunken loser, is another one of those characters that seems so real that it becomes complex even while the emotions portrayed and the dialogoue used are completely ordinary. By omitting any pretense, and going for a realistic script, Stallone has written characters that resonate with everyone, a key component to the film's broad appeal.
The boxing itself is, famously, the opposite of realistic. That fight would have been stopped in the first round. But real boxing, especially heavyweight, is often boring; it takes a lot of energy to hit that hard, and doctors step in long before the kinds of horrific wounds that both Creed and Balboa sustain pop up. This may be the most violent boxing scene ever done in a good film (B movies notwithstanding), and yet it still appeals to a broad demographic. But since Rocky has invested so much time in the love story, we forgive his pummeling because we care about him. That is the difference between gratiuitous violence and violence that drives narrative; he must both sustain and inflict that sort of punishment to purge his sins.
Rocky also rightly keeps the focus during the boxing scene on the themes of personal redemption and spiritual triumph. The high point of the movie is the last scene, where the fights official decision becomes inconsequential in the face of Balboa's development as a person. Stallone has captured better than any other sports movie I have seen the essence of competition, especially in a blood sport as punishing as boxing. It redeems the activity and elevates the audience.
No, it's not as good as Network. But Rocky really is worthy of its iconic reputation. The Philadelphian in me also recognizes its local color; I often see people running up those steps as I eat a steak sitting by the fountain at the end of the Ben Franklin parkway before the Art Museum. Everyone knows those steps, as the film has permeated our popular culture. That the film is also an artistic triumph makes it worthy of high praise.
Almost forgot: Rocky had a montage.