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REVIEW: Rocky Balboa (Stallone) is a low-grade amateur boxer fighting under the name “The Italian Stallion” getting scraps for a couple of rounds a few nights a week. He makes ends meet by being an enforcer for a two-bit loan shark named Tony Gazzo (Joe Spinell), collecting money or breaking limbs (but not always). Either way, most everyone thinks Rocky is a bum, including Mickey (Burgess Meredith), the owner and trainer at the gym wear Rocky has a locker and works out. Mickey’s got no time for losers and lets Rocky know it by putting his gear in a bag and giving his locker to Dipper (Stan Shaw), a solid fighter with real potential. He tells Rocky that Rocky has heart but fights like an ape and outta retire. It’s a hard truth.
Adrian works at a pet store across from gym. She’s a mousy, awkwardly shy woman who dresses thirty years older than she should, hiding in her clothes like they’re a cloak of invisibility. She notices the charming boxer and his outward attempts at showing his affection. She is nebbish and coy, a woman fearful of her own shadow its seems. She barely speaks, her words like fragile bits of broken whispers as her eyes trace patterns in the floor. But there is a sweetness in her tiny frame, a hope in her gentle smile. Seeing her is the best part of Rocky’s day, even if it is for only a moment and time enough to tell a bad joke.
Unbeknownst to Rocky, there are some deals being made by some very important people. The current heavyweight boxing champion of the world is planning a match to be fought in Philadelphia for the country’s 1976 Bicentennial celebration. Problem is, his opponent has injured his hand in training and there’s no one ready or willing to take on Apollo (Carl Weathers) in such short notice. Inspired by the Founding Fathers and the underdog mentality they represent, he and his staff concoct an event that will pit the champ against an unranked amateur to give one boxer a chance at the world heavyweight belt. Intrigued by the name, he chooses “The Italian Stallion.”
Directed by John G. Avildsen and written by Sylvester Stallone, Rocky is a boxing movie that is never about boxing. The come from behind story of a down on his luck loser given one last shot is as old as storytelling itself, but this is not a movie about telling a story. This is about a character, Rocky, so richly conceived and crafted, it feels like nothing seen on screen before. Stallone embodies him so fully, it is a genuine lead performance. No matter the course the action star journeyed in the years to follow, in this film, at this time, he was as good as anything there ever had been. Rocky was here to stay.
Stallone makes him a decent man from the start, never so down that he gives up, but always in a little over his head. Rocky could have been great as a boxer. He has the power, the skills, and the heart, but not the ambition, nor the training. He smokes, he drinks, and is with the wrong people. Even though he’s a success in the crude boxing world he fights in, he is a nobody anywhere else. With Apollo’s fight, he is given that one thing so many hope for but so few ever get: a chance. What’s he going to do about? He’s not a man seeking glory, he doesn’t see any financial gain or the fame that it will bestow upon him as any kind of motivation. The fight is not even about the fight. Creed is not even the enemy he really faces. Balboa is fighting himself, the demons that have forever kept him where he is, the monster in his head that bellow in his mind, telling him he is a bum. He confesses to Adrian that all he wants to do is go the distance. That’s significant. That Stallone never makes this overly sentimental, that he allows the audience to identify with and feel connected to Rocky is a real testament to his achievement.
There’s no surprise to the ending of Rocky, nor does it set out to make that so. The real surprises comes from the way we get there, and that is owed a lot to Stallone, but also Avidlsen, who keeps this story always small, where it should be. The bustling city of Philadelphia is more like the streets of London in Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later, empty and deserted. Rocky’s world is close, almost claustrophobic and populated only by the people he must interact with. There are moments so personal, sometimes it feels like we should look away. When Rocky tells Adrian he wants to kiss her, her hesitation and their embrace is one of the most sincere ever filmed.
Rocky is always at or near the top of lists of the greatest sports movies ever made, but it should be ranked with so many others. Timeless in its tale, and supremely acted, this is a movie for more than just sport’s fans. It is for anyone who has a dream.
Scene Set-Up: When Rocky gets a call to go see Apollo Creed’s manager, he assumes it is because the champ needs some sparring partners before his fight. Rocky heads downtown to the office and meets Miles Jergens (Thayer David), who has some real news. Creed doesn’t want Rocky to spar with him. He wants to fight him . . . for the title. This is shocking to Rocky who sits in quiet disbelief. “Do you believe America is the land of opportunity?” Jergens asks. He convinces the young fighter to do it, that he has obligation to do so. But he has no representation, and no manager. Just previously, Mickey, the gruff trainer at the gym where Rocky works out, flat out told him is a waste of life. He mocked his past and insulted him in front of the whole gym. Mickey wants nothing to do with The Italian Stallion, he makes that clear.
The Scene (Timestamp 01:02:41): Things change when Rocky gets the offer. He goes on TV with Creed to announce the fight and this get’s Mickey’s attention. Now he sees a chance for the hapless boxer but also, maybe, something for himself. He drops by Rocky’s apartment with a deal.
The scene starts with the old trainer climbing the long narrow, darkly lit steps up to Balboa’s door, already a great metaphor for rising above one’s pride. When Rocky let him in, Mickey starts in, telling the young man that he’s got freak luck; lots of other guys better than him -they’re colorful and they have better records, but he’s got a shot at the title. And he needs a manager. Mickey knows it’s gonna be a hard sell. He’s hurt Rocky. He’s put him down, but he’s got to turn him around. So he goes in hard hard. He’s been in the racket for 50 years, been in the ring, knocked guys out but did he get the fame? No. Why? ‘Cause he had no manager. He grabs a light and starts showing the scars on his face, a patchwork of lines that testifies to a lifetime of battering. But Rocky isn’t interested. He walks away from the little man, into the other room. Mickey keeps trying for the sell, pushing him to be his manager. Rocky keeps his cool and eventually escapes into the small bathroom, and yet Mickey never stops talking, but he gets nothing for his effort. He finally backs away and shuffles quietly out of the apartment.
Alone in his apartment, facing the closed door, Rocky breaks down. He shouts in anger about the unfairness of all of this, how he waited for ten years to have Mickey give him this chance and now has lost his prime. He berates himself, his house, and Mickey for his pains and empty life. Mickey stands in the stairwell, listening and then gives in, exiting the building and leaving the still shouting Rocky to the echoes.
The moment brings these two opposing characters together, just as we suspected they eventually would, but what is unexpected is how raw the these men are. We feel the urgency in Mickey. He’s an aged man with a lifetime of potential that has been squandered, never getting to where he fought so hard to be. He took abuse after abuse in the ring but stayed with it, thinking someday it would give him glory. Balboa has that shot and what’s most revealing, is how much that chance utterly terrifies him. That’s what this moment is about, how each man fears what lies ahead. Not that they will have this shot but do they have the ability to face it and do it. The key here is that they need each other. Neither can make this happen without the other. They both know it, and the first step, and what is shown to be the hardest, is accepting that, admitting that they are, alone, unable to beat the greatest challenge of their lives.
This is where we learn everything there is to know about Rocky. Everything comes back to this moment, from Creed to Adrian, here is where Rocky sees his true self and the life (or lack thereof) he has fallen into. “It stinks!” he angrily shouts, bashing a door. Suddenly exposed for what he is, for the mistakes he’s made and continues to make, he sees he’s blaming an old man for his own failures. Mickey, the weathered elderly fighter, is the face of his biggest demon and has been for a decade. That Rocky recognizes this and does what he does marks the first turned corner. It’s a powerful cinema moment.