It’s fashionable to take shots at “Rocky” and at Sylvester Stallone which is probably based more on the direction Stallone’s career went after “Rocky” than with the actual film. People like to say that Stallone is a dumb guy, that he mumbles and slurs his speech and that in “Rocky” he is basically playing himself so it’s not really “acting.” It’s a bunch of nonsense. I have always liked Stallone as an actor…yes, an actor. Movies like “Cobra” and “First Blood” may not be high art but they are fun and I believe that Stallone knew exactly what he was doing when he made those big movies that defined his career. It’s presumptuous to suggest that he just didn’t know any better and was incapable of doing better work. His performance as Rocky Balboa is an outstanding piece of acting. Stallone obviously knew this character backwards, forwards and upside-down. He so fully embodies his creation (Stallone wrote the script; dumb people don’t write brilliant scripts like this!) that he created one of the most memorable and lovable characters in movies. Actually that goes for all of the major characters. For Adrian, Pauly, Mickey, Apollo. Once you get to know them it’s just that much more exciting to revisit them and love them.
I just watched “Rocky” for the first time in several years last night and was instantly reminded of just how good it is. It may make my list of untouchable movies; movies that represent the best of the best to me. It’s interesting to read some of the criticism of “Rocky” now and when it was released in 1976. There is a resistance to praising “Rocky” too strongly. Some people may like it but can’t help but see it as a little silly. It’s too much of a fairy tale; doesn’t have any basis in real life. Some cynics go so far as to dismiss the film outright for these reasons. The premise is based on a real event when Muhammad Ali gave an unknown fighter named Chuck Wepner a shot. Wepner, against all probability, lasted all 15 rounds and lost by TKO. One of the most appealing aspects of “Rocky” to me is that fairy tale sense. A nobody being picked at random, and given the chance of a lifetime to go the distance, 15 rounds, with the champ, not to win necessarily, but to prove to himself that he can still be standing after 15 rounds, that he can be as good as the best. It’s a great metaphor for life really. When opportunity knocks are you ready to prove yourself?
What makes “Rocky” even more poignant is that Rocky isn’t just a nobody. He’s lower than that in some ways. He fights in these dingy halls for $40 a fight; he works as an ineffectual arm breaker for some small time Mafioso; he’s not smart at all; he has no real ambition, no skills; nobody believes in him; and he’s 30 years old, a bit late to start a career as a big-time fighter. All he has is will and some under-developed fighting potential to get through life with. The reason I think that Rocky the character is so appealing and likeable is that he is so sincere when he speaks, despite perhaps a limited vocabulary to express himself with. He is simply a decent, righteous, big-hearted guy in a very uncomplicated way. This is one of those characters that are very hard to analyze because he simply is what he is. There isn’t a lot of complexity to him and he doesn’t require it either. There are only two other instances where I’ve seen characters in films that have this mysterious quality of simple decency: Henry Fonda’s Lincoln in “Young Mr. Lincoln” and James Stewart in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” They are good guys who want to do good things; untarnished and incorruptible because they seem to lack that part of the brain that makes some people succumb to negative temptations. It is a big mistake to assume that this simplicity is a result of poor writing or lack of characterization. To create a character like this, to do is well without cheating or turning him into a joke, is quite a feat I imagine.
Aside from the fight story, at the heart of “Rocky” is perhaps the sweetest, most innocent love story I’ve ever seen depicted. It’s between Rocky, the big, dumb oaf and the pathologically shy and timid Adrian, the sister of Rocky’s best friend Pauly. Pauly is such an interesting character too. So needy, so insecure, sometimes very cruel to both Rocky and Adrian and yet you still love him. You can love him because Rocky and Adrian love him. You can forgive him his faults because Rocky and Adrian do. It’s that simple.
“Rocky” is melodrama; it is a fairy tale; it is simple; it is crudely shot but beyond all of that it has that magical, mysterious ability to move you as few films can. The more films I watch and study and analyze the more I realize it is the power to move the viewer, that feeling like being hit in the gut, that supersedes all the other components that go into making a film — all the dazzling camerawork, pyrotechnics, intellectual gimmicks, clever, snappy, Tarantino-esque dialogue and all that stuff. Rocky works and is great for that reason. The director Sidney Lumet once said that people are changed by great work. Not in the sense that you become a better or worse person by watching a movie but that to be exposed to great work stirs up your insides in some way. It affects you on a cellular level. And because not all movies can do this (in fact, very few do) it makes a movie like “Rocky” that much more special.