While it is a cliche, it’s easy to forget what a talented actor and writer Sylvester Stallone is. Much parodied and maligned, ‘Sly’ has managed to reinvent himself for each generation, maintaining box office pull into his late 60’s. While he has had significant other roles, he will always be best known for the down-and-out Philadelphia slugger, Rocky Balboa.
In simple terms, Rocky is a masterpiece, and the 1976 best picture Oscar confirms this. Made on a budget on $1m, it went on to gross $225m worldwide. Director John G. Avildsen is experimental with his choice of shot in the film, sometimes a little too so, but nothing can detract from the awesome performances in this movie. Stallone is fantastic, eminently watchable as the punch-drunk, loveable fighter/gangster enforcer. Talia Shire is perfect as the cripplingly shy Adrian. Burt Young is Paulie, the hard-drinking, self-centred brother of Adrian, holding on to Rocky’s coat tails as the boxer gets his shot at the big time. Carl Weathers, as Apollo Creed, treads the fine line between a convincing individual performance and a parody of Muhammad Ali perfectly. You believe in Apollo Creed, he is not an Ali clone. And, of course, Burgess Meredith is Mickey, Rocky’s Trainer. Meredith looks like he was born in a Boxing Gym.
There is a lack of sentimentality in this film, something that was abandoned for the sequels. The characters have nuance and depth, light and dark sides. We are rooting for Rocky, but know he makes money by collecting for the local mobster. Paulie provides comic relief, but his tirades of drunken abuse towards those close to him is disturbing. Apollo is effervescent and lights up the screen, but has an ego the size of the planet. Actually, on thinking about it, Paulie is pretty much a jerk in all the films.
The film has a big idea, but feels small and intimate. Like Adrian, we fall in love with Rocky, we care about him. We feel the punches he takes, and cheer him on when he swings at Creed. The subtlety of Stallone’s writing linked with Weathers performance enables us to like Creed. He is not a cartoon-villain. He is a rounded character with believable motivations. This is an artistic decision that would pay off in the sequels.
While maintaining the Rocky franchise over 4 decades, Stallone tried many times to reinvent Rocky in other roles: Over the Top (1987) – Rocky drives a truck, Cliffhanger (1993) – Rocky on a mountain, Copland (1997) – Rocky as a cop, Grudge Match (2013) – Rocky as, well, Rocky, it looked like to me. He wanted to capture the lightening in a bottle formula, the character that we would believe in. But we don’t want Rocky as anyone else, Rocky in different clothes, or in a false beard. We want Rocky. We don’t even want him to box anymore, (Creed 2015). We’re happy just to have him around.