Wednesday, July 7, 2010
AFI Top 100 Ranking: 57
Writer: Sylvester Stallone
Director: John G. Avildsen
Star: Sylvester Stallone, Talia Shire, Burgess Meredith
Like its title character, the film “Rocky” is a huge underdog. Bluntly cut from the fabric of a thousand other sports films, the film layers cliché upon cliché on top of a (admittedly) preposterous premise…and yet it works. Works wonderfully, as a matter of fact. There are a hundred small reasons for this, but the one big one is Sylvester Stallone, who anchors the film with one of those “lightning in a bottle” performances that come along once in a generation.
Stallone (who also penned the screenplay) slowly lets us get to know the character through the opening sequences, first at a fight, then on his long journey home through the slums of Philadelphia and finally in his apartment. We see him talking to his turtles (Cuff and Link) and fish (Moby Dick), lamenting to them that if they could only sing and dance then he wouldn’t have to go out and fight. It’s crucial that we follow the Rocky character through these scenes, because without them we might be quick to judge or mock him and his persona. But thanks to these scenes, we like the schlub, and by the time he walks into a pet-shop to buy some turtle food and try once more to catch the eye of the pretty-yet-painfully-shy clerk Adrian (Talia Shire), we are rooting for him to get a smile from her.
On the other end of the city sits Apollo Creed. When his rival for the World Heavyweight Championship is injured, he picks out Rocky as his rival on a whim. He likes Rocky’s figter name: The Italian Stallion. Everyone thinks it must be a joke, but soon Rocky is in training with a piss-and-vinegar ex-fighter (Burgess Meredith), punching a lot of raw meat and praying for nothing more than to finish the match. When the match comes, he summons up everything inside him and surprises Creed with his resilience.
As I alluded to earlier, everything in this movie is riddled with clichés of hundreds of sports films. But then again, what’s wrong with taking a simple story and telling it exceedingly well, which is just what Stallone has done with his screenplay. It doesn’t matter anyway, the movie isn’t about boxing at all, is it?
It’s really about the love between Rocky and Adrian. The love story is one of the best told in all of film, because Stallone and director John G. Avildsen aren’t afraid to spend time with the characters. Romances in these types of films are often an afterthought or completely ignored, but here the love story is given all the space it needs to blossom.
I’m not sure how long Rocky and Adrian’s first date lasts onscreen (a half hour? More? Less?) but I adored having the opportunity to watch the two people feel each other out slowly through the course of the evening. Rocky asks Adrian’s brother what she likes to do and, when told that she likes ice skating, ensures that she gets to do just that…even though the place is closed. Even though he has to pay off the janitor. Even though it’s only for ten minutes. And even though he doesn’t skate.
Adrian asks him why he fights. His answer just about sums up his character as perfectly as any other could: “Because I can’t sing or dance.” By the end of the night, when Rocky asks Adrian to take off her glasses and tells her how beautiful she is, we not only believe them as a couple, but we care more about them than the Championship match. When he is asked about their relationship, Rocky says “She fills gaps. She’s got gaps. I got gaps. Together we fill gaps.” There’s so much brilliance in simple turns of phrase like that, moments that remind you what a fantastic writer Stallone can be when given the right material and characters.
In both his writing and performance, Stallone keeps Rocky vulnerable by making him more honest than he probably should be, both about his feelings and how much of a longshot he is. Avildsen puts Rocky alone in the frame as much as possible (except when he is with Adrian) and often putting him in shots with things much bigger than he is, reminding us that while Rocky might be big in stature he is small in comparison to so many other things. The streets he walks along are mostly empty and loom large over him. We see Rocky dwarfed by large boats, huge buildings and, near the end of the second act, his own poster.
If there is a major fault to the film, it’s in the supporting performances. Meredith and Burt Young are both excellent actors, and yet their characters here grate and creak from the stereotype. Perhaps in 1976 they were doing great work that was pioneering, but we’ve seen so many variations on these same bullheaded characters so many times that it’s difficult to see the performances as anything but cliché.
I realize I’ve gone the entire article without talking about the big fight, and perhaps it’s because most of it is anticlimactic. We inherently know Rocky is going to hang in there until the end and know that he won’t win—he tells Adrian as much the night before. The entire affair is about seeing just how far Rocky is willing to go to make it to the end, and seeing him be brutalized--and give it as good as he’s getting it—is both cheer and cringe-worthy. By the time he is asking to have his swelling eye cut back open, it’s almost too much.
You go into “Rocky” thinking you’ll see a film as blunt as an uppercut to the jaw. But its magic lies within its subtleties, and because it builds its story slowly and takes time to build to its big moments they have all the more impact.
My Score (out of 5): ****1/2