Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Write Your Own Part, Remember Your Lines: Why Rocky Works!

The Good: Decent-enough acting, Generally good character work
The Bad: Very basic plot
The Basics: Surprisingly heartwarming and actually containing a level of character depth that is likely to surprise some, Rocky is a decent character study.

With all of the movies I watch, it amuses me to think that before tonight, I may not have seen a film starring Sylvester Stallone. In fact, the only sports movie that easily comes to mind that I've seen is Million Dollar Baby (reviewed here!) which I watched for the same reason I watched Rocky. In my zeal to watch every film that has won the Best Picture Oscar, I had to watch Rocky. And while I expected it to be droll and obvious, what surprised me was how well the film does actually come together. Winning the Best Picture the year I was born, Rocky may have elements that are more mediocre than they are truly unique, but the film works well overall.

I'll start, then, by detailing the two biggest surprises I got out of Rocky. The first is that when the opening credits finally rolled, a full chapter in on DVD, the writer of the film was credited to Sylvester Stallone. No, he wasn't the co-writer or credited with the idea, Stallone wrote the film.

The other surprise is that Stallone acts remarkably well in Rocky. For sure, this ought to be obvious given that Stallone wrote the part for himself and he is playing a character who is dim and generally unremarkable, but Stallone sells it. Mumbling through the title role, Sylvester Stallone gives a great performance of a mediocre personality. And for fans of animated comedies like The Simpsons and Family Guy, what I truly enjoyed about Rocky was getting more allusions than I got on the first pass of some of the episodes. But having seen Stallone truly act, now it makes me wonder if I would actually find him decent at all in anything else.

Opening on November 25, 1975, Rocky Balboa boxes at the local athletic club for less than fifty dollars (take home) and nurses his head long into the night. By day, he works as muscle for a loan shark and he tends to his pet turtle. Criticized for not being brutal enough, he tries to flirt with the clerk at his pet store and he wanders the streets of Philadelphia. When prize fighter Apollo Creed comes to the city, he finds himself in the awkward position of not being able to fight the man he came to town to fight (whatwith his opponent having a cracked skull). Apollo comes up with a great marketing idea; give a local boy (preferably white) a chance to fight him for the longshot. Creed picks Rocky as his desired competitor and he woos the never-been to fight in five weeks.

As the world heavyweight champion, Apollo Creed, moves toward the event with little care (though he is educated and quite theatrical). Rocky, on the other hand, takes the impending match seriously and trains hard for the fight. Getting his shot with Adrian, Rocky trains and prepares for the fight that will give him an unlikely shot out of obscurity.

Just as Jaws was not just a shark movie, but rather had a whole capitalist argument, Rocky is deeper than it initially seems. Rocky is a character study in many ways with Rocky trying to bond with Adrian and escape the influences that have their hooks in him. His friend, for example - Adrian's brother, Paul - continues to use Rocky to try to get in with the mob for enforcing work. As the fight looms, though, he begins to find his sense of self-worth and he makes a decent attempt to rise to the occasion. Rocky is very much focused on the character and his journey.

More than just a movie featuring long training scenes with Rocky running, the film is about a man realizing who he is and taking the road he did not take in his past. His trainer convinces him that he could have been more than what he has been for the six preceding years working as an enforcer. From that point on, Rocky prepares with a mindset that this is the lone shot he has in life to change his circumstances. The moralizing Rocky does to take him from his reluctant self to his determined new self is a surprisingly compelling scene and it works.

There is very little actual boxing in the movie, for those who are not a fan of boxing. Instead, Stallone hits more meat than he does opponent. Only the last twenty-five minutes of the film - which is under two hours long - involves actual boxing. The fight is almost incidental to Rocky and the only real complaint about it (though it has some realistic gore for those sensitive to such things) is that it has predictable elements to it. Early in the film, Rocky proudly tells Adrian he has never had a broken nose before so, of course, to illustrate the shocking difference between fighting Apollo and fighting anyone else he has taken on, Apollo breaks Rocky's nose almost instantly.

Arguably, Rocky is really a love story between a mousy woman and a shy man. The sports element of it barely factors in outside the opening scene and the final act. Indeed, squeezed in between awkward scenes of Rocky getting to know Adrian and Rocky slowly divesting himself of corrupt influences, like Paul, there is only a brief notice by Apollo's manager that Rocky seems to be an actual contender.

After an hour of watching the underdog mope around the screen trying to do good, and getting spat on (metaphorically) in the process, Rocky becomes strangely likable and outside the hype and success of the film, there is the sense that anything can happen when the bout begins. It is not the type of story where it is an obvious "underdog rises to the top" story. And like more recent films, like Swing Vote, Rocky is much more about the process than the results.

On screen, Sylvester Stallone is surrounded by some real talents. Carl Weathers, whom I was only familiar with from his role in the first season of Arrested Development (reviewed here!), appears as Apollo Creed. He is charismatic and seems to fill the same niche as Billy Dee Williams and he makes Apollo both likable and reasonably cocky. One of the best performances, though, comes from Talia Shire. Shire makes Adrian instantly difficult to watch with her tight body language and quiet delivery of her lines. As the film goes on and Rocky falls for her character, Adrian becomes more open. Shire does a great job of making the transition subtle and realistic and the movie becomes a pleasure to watch because of her.

On DVD, Rocky has a ton of bonus features. There is a picture in picture commentary track by Stallone as well as a more traditional audio commentary track. The original movie trailer for Rocky is also on the disc alongside three new featuettes, more on the famous supporting actors in Rocky than on the film itself. Still, there is a wealth of background information on the movie for those who enjoy Rocky. This makes decent use of the DVD medium and it was clearly remastered for the DVD release.

All in all, Rocky becomes a good way to kill a few hours and there is an obvious potential for franchise here (which we know happened). The film works and it deserves its place as a pop culture reference, if nothing else.

[As a winner of the Best Picture Oscar, this film is part of W.L.'s Best Picture Project, online here! Please check it out!]

For other sports movies, please visit my reviews of:
Whip It
Harry Potter And The Goblet Of Fire
Chariots Of Fire


For other film reviews, please visit my index page on the subject by clicking here!

© 2011, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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