I’ve seen Rocky so many times now it’s hard to separate the memories of watching it from the film itself. It’s gotten so bad that I often think scenes from the next two movies were in the original.
The best sports movies are often less about the sport and more about the men and women involved. Rocky is no exception. No doubt, the final match between the underdog Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) and the cocky heavy weight champ, Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers), is emotionally charged like no other. That bout is also a giant step forward for filming boxing, as it was the first to use what became the steadicam. But to focus on that big showdown is to miss that Rocky is really a character study.
The glamorous life of boxing is not so glamorous as we watch Rocky barely get by. He boxes in small events that earn him little money. He works as an enforcer for a loan shark. He loses his locker at the local boxing gym, as the owner, Mick (Burgess Meredith), is not interested in supporting an athlete who seems content with wasting his potential. The highlight of his day is visiting the pet store where he enjoys checking in on the animals and his friend’s sister, Adrian (Talia Shire). That friend is like no other. Paulie (Burt Young) is an alcoholic who sees himself as the king of his world. He treats everyone around him in anger. Not satisfied with ruining his own life, he goes out of his way to put down his sister and everyone close to him any chance he gets.
The first two thirds of Rocky are filled with a certain sadness. There are laughs mixed in but they come at the expense of characters who seem destined for dead ends. Regardless, there is a kindness in Rocky and others that keeps hope alive. That hope ends up coming in the form of an invite for Rocky to take on the current heavyweight champ, Apollo Creed. The champ is having a hard time finding an interesting opponent. He keeps destroying the competition. He figures he needs to do something different that will capture the imagination of boxing fans so he finds Rocky, an unknown fighter in Philly who has the irresistible nickname, The Italian Stallion.
The transformation of Rocky from the smoking, drinking, seldom motivated individual to the lean and mean boxer is always inspiring. The soundtrack and montage of Rocky training endlessly can take credit for that. With that said, it’s easy to overlook the fact that Rocky is not ready to the win fight. He spends the night before looking at the ring, wondering what he’s got himself into. As he enters the fight he has less the look of a man ready to upset the champ and more the look of one who is about to take the beating of a lifetime. Even in its most emotional moments, the movie tempers those emotions with reality. The ending, as emotionally charged as it is, maintains that reality. And that may be why Rocky is one of the all time great sports movies. We love our sports heros and we love them even more when they have flaws (just like us) and overcome them, even when it means not obtaining the ultimate fairy tale ending.