Sunday, March 25, 2012

ROCKY (1976)


ROCKY (DIR: JOHN G AVILDSEN) (SCR: SYLVESTER STALLONE)

The Academy's choice of ROCKY as best picture of 1976 seemed like an obvious one: here was a low budget, uplifting film with no big stars that became the biggest hit of that year, and whose unlikely star's rise to fame  paralleled that of the character that he played in the film.  Personally, I think there were better films released the same year, and that the film is a bit overrated, but it is so eager to please, so aggressively in favor of its underdog hero, that it's hard to resist.
Its journey to the screen began  when struggling actor Sylvester Stallone heard the story of Chuck Wepner, a little known boxer who in 1975 got a chance to take on Heavy weight champ Muhammid Ali and managed to fight him for 15 rounds before losing on a technical knock out.  Stallone obsessed over the story, and wrote the script for ROCKY in a week, channeling his own frustrations as an actor trying to make it into the title character.  It is widely reported that the studio loved Stallone's script, but wanted an established star to play the lead, and that Stallone refused to sell his script unless he himself were cast in the lead, even though he had little money in the bank.  But, according to the 2010 movie trivia book BLOCKBUSTING, this was a lie concocted by the marketing department to promote the film that Stallone dutifully repeated in interviews.  In any event, Stallone was cast, the budget was around one million dollars, and John Avildsen was picked to direct, mainly on the strength of his finishing the film JOE on time and under budget in 1970.  Shot almost entirely in Philidelphia, the film went half a million dollars over budget, but eventually returned over one hundred million dollars at the box office.
I should mention that it is difficult for me to watch ROCKY objectively, seeing as how the film would be followed by five disappointing sequels, and that, along with those sequels,  Stallone, would go on to make some of the worst movies of the 1980's and '90's, killing all the goodwill he had built with this film.  So much so that in 2000 he was given the "Worst actor of the Century" award by The Golden Raspberry Award foundation.  And yet, when I try to forget Stallone's subsequent career and look at ROCKY as a singular film, I do find it rousing, well made, and effective.  Much like THE GODFATHER had refurbished the gangster film a few years earlier, ROCKY took elements of old boxing films like BODY AND SOUL and GOLDEN BOY and modernized them for a new audience with winning results.  
It tells the simple story of Rocky Balboa, a small time boxer who lives in Philadelphia. He lives in a run down apartment and makes ends meet by being an enforcer for a local loan shark (Joe Spinell).  His best friend, Paulie (Burt Young), has a sister, Adrian (Talia Shire) that works at a pet shop, that Rocky starts dating.  Meanwhile, heavy weight champ Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers), discovering that his challenger for a title fight has had to pull out, picks out Rocky as his opponent literally at random, giving Rocky his one chance at greatness.

Sylvester Stallone

Director Avildsen uses the Philadelphia locations well,  and gives the film a nice, gritty, urban look. From Rocky's filthy apartment to the battered down gym he works out in, the world the characters reside in looks lived in, adding to the realism and relatability of the story.  And Avildsen hits all the uplifting moments right, from Rocky's iconic fist raising run up the steps of the Philidelphia museum of art as Bill Conti's horn heavy score blares, to the exciting final title bout, (all of which was carefully choreographed by Stallone and Weathers). 
The film is mostly well cast, with Talia Shire making a sweet Adrian who's often quiet character can say a lot with a look,  and she has surprisingly good chemistry with the hulking Stallone.  Meanwhile, Weathers makes a most formidable opponent to Rocky, and I like the way that his Apollo is flamboyant in public (he arrives for the July 4th. title fight dressed as George Washington!) and a canny businessman behind the scenes.  And Burgess Mereidth as Rocky's  elderly fight trainer Mick manages to be both crusty and likable, and he has a really good scene in which he pleads with Rocky to let him be his trainer for the big fight after kicking Rocky out of his gym earlier.  The only weak link in the acting to me is Burt Young as the overbearing Paulie; this character is so obnoxious and loud mouthed that I often wonder how Rocky can stand him, and I find myself cringing every time he's onscreen.   As for Stallone himself, he has an undeniable magnetism and charisma here, not unlike Marlon Brando's Terry Malloy in ON THE WATER FRONT. And even though his Rocky is a motor mouthed fool (he even talks to his pet turtles when no one else is around), he has a tender streak of vulnerability, especially in the moving moment when he admits to Adrian that he doesn't think he can possibly beat Apollo ("all I wanna do is go the distance".)  I do think making Rocky an enforcer for a loan shark early in the film was a miscalculation on Stallone's part, as it makes it hard to completely sympathize with him; even if he is clearly reluctant about using force.  I also find it hard to believe that Apollo would choose to fight Rocky sight unseen, just because he likes his nick name ("the Italian Stallion", a  name that Stallone got from a character he played earlier in a soft core porn movie!).  Still, these are not major flaws in what was an otherwise solid script.

Talia Shire and Sylvester Stallone

Although this is considered a sports movie, it is just as much a love story, and while Rocky and Adrian may not make the most likely couple, their scenes together have a definite charm to them; like the now famous scene in which Rocky rents out a closed ice skating rink and walks by her as she awkwardly skates.  And I like the way the film presents the change that Adrian goes through as she gets more attractive and less shy the more she is with Rocky, leading her to stand up to the repellent Paulie.  It is therefore totally appropriate at the end of the film that Rocky and Adrian embracing and declaring their love for each other is more important than the results of the fight itself; clearly, Rocky's ability to go the distance, even if he officially loses the fight, is not only a victory for him but for her as well.

SO DID THE ACADEMY GET IT RIGHT?

As endearing a film as this is, I don't think it was the best in what was a very good year for films.  Martin Scorsase's dark classic TAXI DRIVER, Sidney Lumet's scathing TV satire NETWORK, Alan Pakula's ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN and Marin Ritt's THE FRONT are all films that I admire more. But ROCKY was more crowd pleasing than any of those, and it's had an undeniable influence that lasts to this day, so it was an understandable choice.