The “Rocky” Series: A beginner’s guide (part I)

The Rocky films are what franchises should aim to be. There is only one outright poor film of the bunch and another I don’t care for – but four out of six is a good success rate. Plus, if one includes the Creed franchise in the count (fair considering Sylvester Stallone reprises his Rocky role in each), then we get a success rate of 6/8 good movies – a rate Star Wars could only dream of hitting, and which most unplanned, episodic franchises fall well short of. Based on the overall quality of films in the franchise and the superb quality of its foundation, the first Rocky film, one could argue that Rocky belongs among the greatest franchises of all time, if not the greatest. How many people have been playing one character as long as Stallone has been playing Rocky? The first film came out in ’76, and Creed II (his latest appearance at the writing of this post) was released in 2018. That’s 42 years of Rocky.

The best way to approach understanding the films of the Rocky franchise is to see them as both a reflection of the times in which they were made, and as a parallel of Stallone’s career. Any one individual film immediately betrays the trends of its day – they are not “timeless” like Brazil, 2001: A Space Odyssey, or Branagh’s Much Ado About Nothing. The original Rocky is very much a hard, grimy ’70s film in the vein of Taxi Driver, Dog Day Afternoon, and The French Connection. It comes from a time when movies were rough around the edges, and pulled together by shoestring budgets. Just read the story about how Stallone got the movie made in the first place, and how he had to take a pay cut just to star in his own project. The subsequent sequels fall victim to the rising ’80s aesthetic, getting bigger and dumber, until Rocky is little more than another muscled-up action star. The ’90s is where everything went wrong, and the mid 2000s sees the series trying to modernize, and Stallone trying to redeem himself. More recently, Creed II: The Album featured Kendrick Lamar, Nicki Minaj, and other big artists of today.

Therefore, one could argue that the Rocky series is artistically weak, or that it “doesn’t hold up.” The movies are relics of their time. And to be sure – there are lots of things throughout the series that don’t hold up (I’m specifically thinking of a scene in Rocky IV, when Paulie is introduced to a robot which will be his servant and plaything. The future!). But the series, like Rocky himself, succeeds in spite of its flaws. It has an uncanny ability to come back – to rise up from the ashes of its lowest points. Stallone, too, has redeemed himself and found favor among film-goers in recent years. His project of rebooting his old franchises (as with the Rambo film of 2008) has paid off. Stallone can now enjoy his elder-statesman status, as opposed to the deflated burnout he was in the mid-’90s. No one character has ever been synthesized so closely with its actor. After all – 42 years later, it’s hard to believe we even distinguish between the two. They have become one in the same – iconic, always a little silly, and always deserving of our awe.

Rocky (1976)

The first and best movie of the series, Rocky was an instant classic upon its release. It beat Taxi Driver and Network that year for Best Picture at the Oscars, and has consistently been ranked as one of the greatest sports movies of all time by film publications. That’s because – don’t be fooled – it’s not really a sports movie. Rocky enthusiast Tom Dagnino once described it as akin to a three-man play. The production design and effects are bare-bones due to the film’s tight budget. Its strength relies entirely upon the profoundly human drama in the script, and the fine performances of its cast. Although the film is directed by John G. Avildsen, an industry veteran, it is hard to see Rocky as anything other than a Stallone film. It is perhaps the closest a movie has gotten to an auteur’s work without actually being directed by the auteur himself. The movie is about Rocky Balboa, a would-be thug for a low-level crook whose boxing career is stagnating. Right away, however, we sense that he’s not cut out for a life of crime – Rocky is not a bright man, but has a good heart. He can’t bring himself to seriously injure a man he’s sent to rough up – he lets him off with a warning. Rocky personifies the idea that good is power married with judicious application. That’s the interesting thing about the character. His situations and his predicament, are ever changing, but he himself has no arc. Rocky is always the fool with the heart of gold. He makes mistakes, but in the end he does the right thing.

Rocky is about perseverance. Life in Philadelphia is rough and unforgiving. The movie never hints at thoughts of suicide, but one can imagine how, under a different director, the film could have been much darker. The ’70s were full of downbeat films. Depression looms over the entire movie, supported by dingy lighting and grainy, cold cinematography. Rocky’s “friend” Paulie (Burt Young) is a cruel drunk, stuck in an endless cycle of self-implosion that damages his relationships. In a drunken rage, he even throws the Thanksgiving turkey out the door – just to spite his sister, Adrian. He really is a despicable garbage bag of a human being. Burgess Meredith plays Mickey, the salty old trainer who lives his life full of regret. He’s a sad, broken man who tries to find meaning for himself when he has a chance to train Rocky for the big fight. Their oft-parodied training sequences together are legendary – featuring one-armed push-ups and the famous “Rocky steps” sequence. In the original film, no-one is around to see Rocky raise his arms in victory. He does it for himself. It’s a personal achievement.

Then there’s the villain – Apollo Creed, played wonderfully by the great Carl Weathers. Rarely has a bad guy ever been more likable – so much so that Stallone kept the character around to become a major protagonist later in the series. Mainly, Stallone really liked working with Weathers. His performance rises above the cheap Muhammad Ali impersonation it could have been, and cements the film with an air of legitimacy. Apollo is a perfect antithesis to Rocky – he is loud, braggadocios, confident – and doesn’t take his opponent seriously.

Talia Shire plays Adrian, the unassuming pet store clerk who Rocky woos with corny jokes and persistence. She starts out as a bit of a wet blanket – an awkward personality – but finds something endearing about Rocky. Their courtship is one of Rocky talking and Adrian listening. She is convinced to follow him into his apartment – this is the first time she’s been in a man’s apartment. Rocky might be the only person who ever loved Adrian unconditionally. They make for an odd but charming couple. Throughout the series, Adrian would serve as Rocky’s moral compass – always there to keep him on track and provide him with support. And through all of his trials and tribulations, infidelity is never even hinted at. Rocky is committed to Adrian, and she is to him. They are the perfect couple, but not in an unattainable way. They are complimentary to each other’s personality. One of their best scenes together is near the fight, when Rocky voices his doubts. All this training, all the preparation – but he knows he can’t win. Adrian may be asleep, or just choosing to keep her mouth shut. A person so full of apprehension needs a good listener around, and Adrian serves that role.

And then we come to the unlikeliest of stars – Stallone himself. A man with no notable prior roles, he insisted on starring in the film. His gamble on himself paid off. The clichés write themselves, but Stallone really did have to “fight” to get the movie made. Like Rocky, Stallone burst onto the stage out of nowhere, earning a Best Actor nomination (which he lost to Peter Finch in Network – an overrated performance if there ever was one). Rocky is a quiet, humble man, but his instant likability won him a lot of fans. How can you not like Rocky? Stallone’s acting in the first film is also probably his best work. You can tell the role is intensely personal for him, and gave him a chance to vent his frustrations as a struggling artist. He is at his acting best during big, emotional scenes. Rocky only has a few – a highlight is when Rocky initially declines Mickey’s training offer. Old wounds are opened up, and Rocky gets a chance to show his frustration. Mickey has treated him badly in the past – he hasn’t been there for him. And right when Rocky has a big opportunity in front of him, now Mickey wants to make up. We all know the feeling, in the moment, of cussing out someone you’ve wanted to cuss out for a long time. Right when they’re at their most apologetic. It feels good. And then, instantly, the feeling dissipates. A dejected Mickey slumps down the stairs, only to have a consoling Rocky chase after him. We know how Rocky feels. We’ve all been there. And we know reconciliation is often too little too late, but better than nothing at all.

Rocky also contains one of the best “twist-endings” of all time. We expect the heroes of our sports movies to come through in the end, to win the ballgame on a hail Mary, to hit that 3-pointer at the buzzer – and you could be forgiven for expecting Rocky to win. But he doesn’t. Don’t cry “spoilers!” though – the movie isn’t about winning the fight. Rocky’s victory is in proving himself. He stands in the ring with a vastly superior opponent, and through sheer force of will, “goes the distance.” Rocky takes a punch better than anyone. He endures Apollo’s barrage, frustrating his opponent who wasn’t expecting a serious fight. Although Rocky is a characteristically ’70s movie – with its gritty, urban feel and downbeat mood – it ends on an up-note, unusual for the time. We haven’t followed Taxi Driver‘s Travis Bickle on a murderous rampage in a whorehouse. Film-goers at the time were given a rare chance to jump up and applaud. Much like Star Wars of the following year, Rocky lifted the spirit of the audience out of the despair of the ’70s. There were stories to be told about triumph, about the human spirit.

The real climax of the film is when Apollo knocks Rocky to the canvas, and it looks like he has scored a knockout. Whenever I watch that fight, and I see Rocky struggling to his feet – I can’t hold back tears. I don’t mind admitting it. What gets me is a shot of Apollo, realizing that Rocky is still in the fight, ready to take more abuse. Weathers (who was probably really exhausted, anyway) reacts with disbelief. What is keeping this man going? He sells it perfectly. It’s the best moment in the movie and one I watch on YouTube whenever I feel like pumping up the feels. It’s easily the most heartfelt, painful, and emotional film of the franchise, but is also the quietest. There are lots of small moments like this which tell the story – not big blowups accompanied by dramatic music. All emotion is realistic, relatable. It’s a minimalist film, and the movie does nothing to manipulate the viewer. The story speaks for itself. No later Rocky film would manage to find a quiet, nuanced way to tell Rocky’s story. Apollo’s look of disbelief is what the whole movie is about, and it’s why the fight’s disappointing outcome doesn’t matter – Rocky challenges you to keep pushing, no matter how hard things get. Getting up on your feet, gloves at the ready, is the only thing you can do.

Read about the sequels, Rocky II and Rocky III, in Part 2.

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