Friday, September 18, 2015


Welcome back to FlashBack Friday! It's been a little while since I've done one of these, and while I was hesitant to commit to the Rocky series with another installment of the Star Wars franchise so near in the future, I figured there was room to do both! For the next six weeks, I'll be covering another Rocky movie until the release of the upcoming Creed on November 25th. My childhood was riddled with movie franchises, from Indiana Jones to Jurassic Park (both of which I've covered on previous FlashBack Fridays), but Rocky was just as influential to me as either of those. Surprisingly enough, most of my childhood memories are from the third and fourth installments in the series. Though I definitely remember seeing the first Rocky on multiple occasions, I think it was just a little too talky for me at the time to really get into. This suited me perfectly, however, as I came into this movie as an older person with a built-in love for the character and a taste in movies that has matured exponentially over the years. While it wasn't the most exciting of the series, my older self was able to more fully appreciate this low budget character drama in a completely different way. As usual in these FlashBack Friday reviews, a SPOILER ALERT is in full effect from here on out!

Rocky Balboa is a struggling boxer in Philadelphia, fighting "bums" for grocery money and working on the side as an enforcer for a local loan shark. Despite his unfavorable condition, however, Rocky makes the most out of life, going out of his way to visit the animals in the pet shop in order to flirt with his longtime crush, Adrian. Though it takes some convincing (and a brutally harsh act of tough love on a cold Thanksgiving night), her brother, Paulie, is able to set up Adrian and Rocky on their first date, where the couple ice skates around a deserted rink and gets to know each other better - though Rocky does most of the talking. As time goes on, Adrian continues to come out of her shell, gaining confidence from Rocky's undying acceptance and encouragement. However, things are about to turn upside down in Rocky's life, as the world heavyweight champion, Apollo Creed, is about to pick the down-on-his-luck southpaw to compete for the title belt on New Year's Day as a self-described publicity stunt after his previous challenger dropped out of the fight.

I'll get to the film's conclusion in a minute, but first I want to talk about the mood of this movie in comparison to the rest of the series. Obviously this was made on a pretty low budget ($1 million), and perhaps most surprisingly, the focus of the movie isn't on boxing. This is the definition of a character study, all the way down to the film's title. Though this eventually evolved into an almost superhero-esque series as the films progressed, this first movie is solely interested in exploring the arc of our titular character. Rocky is in a pitiable state, for most people in America watching this film, but one of the things that makes him so great is that he doesn't spend the movie feeling sorry for himself. He tries to make the best of it, doing what he enjoys without any delusions of grandeur or dreams of fortune and glory. The one thing we see that would make his life complete isn't a chance at the world heavyweight championship, but the companion of a woman who "fills gaps" in his life. There is so much fertile ground for further exploration with this character, which is astounding considering his intellectual limitations.

Though a lot of people talk crap on Sylvester Stallone these days, there's no denying that the guy is incredible in this movie. Not only does he bring the character to life in such a believable way with his acting, but he wrote the screenplay as well, a feat for which he never seems to get enough credit. It was nominated for Best Original Screenplay at the 1976 Academy Awards for a reason, and the character dynamics portrayed in such a realistic way makes it nearly impossible not to get involved in the lives of these hard-luck people. Despite this film's peripheral reputation, I think the love story between Rocky and Adrian (though a little awkward at times) is probably the best part of this entire film, and I find myself tearing up every time I see them reunite in the ring once the fight is over. Talia Shire is great in this role too, just like everyone in this cast, and her transformation from a defeated, introverted girl into a strong, confident woman is pretty remarkable while still maintaining its plausibility. All four principle actors were nominated for Oscars, and I have to say that each one is well deserved.

The other part of the story that really resonates with me is how Rocky approaches this seemingly impossible challenge. While he has no delusions that he will actually win the fight against Apollo, he trains harder than ever and goes into the bout with only the hope of "going the distance" with the undefeated champion. His attitude is such that he doesn't need the attention and riches that this fight is likely to provide, but he does want to prove to himself that he's more than everyone around him seems to think. That internal battle is one with which everyone can relate, and the fact that he rises to the challenge by giving it everything he has and not giving up, cements his legacy as a true fighter in the eyes of the world - but more importantly in his own eyes.

There are lots of things I can talk about with this film, but let me just say that this is the quintessential underdog movie that is also a dramatic character study with universal appeal. It's incredibly inspirational, but not in a superficial way. The fact that the love story is such a central focus should tell us what this movie's intent really is, and I love the fact that it's so much more than just a boxing movie (not that there's anything wrong with that, as later films will prove). In short, this is an iconic film that I've come to appreciate more and more with age. From the instantly recognizable score - including the amazing "Gonna Fly Now" song that will be stuck in your head all day after just reading this sentence - to the infinitely quotable lines, this is a movie that has permeated pop-culture to the point that you may not feel the need to go out and watch it. But you do need to see it. There's so much more to it than the cliches this movie spawned, and you'll only get that after seeing this movie with an adult's eyes. There's no way I can give Rocky anything other than four stars. Go watch it now!

ROCKY is rated PG for boxing violence and some language