[Originally published in Movietone News 54, June 1977]
Sylvester Stallone’s meticulous job of screenwriting—street-poetry dialogue coupled with a healthy sense of humor and a sharp attentiveness to odd colloquialisms and fight-ring dialect—is largely responsible for making Rocky such an interestingly compassionate treatment of big guys against little guys. You might not think so as the film gets under way—a deliciously seedy venture into the life of a loser, a 30-year-old prizefighter named Rocky Balboa who never made it to the big time and has pretty much lost any hope of doing so. But thenceforth, Rocky tempts us onward and upward towards a crucial and emphatically hope-filled personal resolution in Rocky’s life, and that antagonism between (or perhaps balance of) the big against the little becomes not only Rocky‘s foremost theme but a part of its inner logic. There are the Apollo Creeds against the Rocky Balboas, but there are also the Big Moments against the privileged, nuanced, and seemingly offhand ones.
To pick on a single point, the stuff involving Burgess Meredith as Mickey, the old trainer and onetime fighter who wants to take part in getting Rocky ready to fight Apollo Creed, strikes me as being slightly overblown, maybe partially as a result of my own personal hangover from watching Meredith’s hammy pathos in Day of the Locust. He’s sometimes nearly as grotesque here, a bent old man, still sinewy, but given to groveling when the bandwagon appears (Creed has set Rocky up as his opponent in a bicentennial gimmick, a fixed battle of champion against guy off the street, after his intended opponent has backed out of the appointment) and he has the chance to train a world champion “contender.” I can’t shake loose the sense that Meredith is always acting, while the perfectly in-character behavior of Stallone is sometimes brilliantly understated and easy to pass by—especially in such instances as the pre-fight business when Apollo Creed is strutting around the ring like a big nag (in Uncle Sam getup) and Joe Frazier is making an appearance as Joe Frazier, a very different kind of “hero” from either Creed or Ali (whom Creed seems to be loosely modeled after); Rocky, definitely not the center of attention here, is slightly amused, a little shocked, but as self-assured as he’s going to get, and—almost magically—suddenly a kind of professional himself.
I’m not saying that such a schism between pointedly forceful scenes and ones that seem to come of themselves is necessarily inimical to Rocky‘s ground plan. Stallone and Avildsen seem to be pushing (although maybe not consciously, or even in league) for a poetic blending of fairy tale and gritty realism. Rocky lives at the center of a world as small and purposeless as a slummy Philadelphia backwater, but as large as an unbridled dream of putting one’s life together and becoming, suddenly, one’s own person. That’s cause for a good deal of optimistic uplift, but Rocky is not just a movie that wants to say nice things in the course of manipulating us towards heightened emotional climax where we can bask in release from ordinary life, suddenly swept up in this tremendous upset of underdog over champion (although Rocky doesn’t really win the fight, he gives Creed more than his money’s worth). It is also simply a good film, strongly written and well acted by a low-keyed, non-superstar cast comprised of faces you’ve seen around in other movies: Talia Shire as Adrien, the ugly duckling hidden beneath cloaks and spectacles whom Rocky coaxes into womanhood; Burt Young as her dumdum meatpacker brother Paulie; Joseph Spinell, who plays Gazzo the loan shark and Rocky’s part-time employer; and Stallone himself, who most recently appeared (as far as I know) in Capone, a Corman-produced Godfather ripoff where he somewhat prophetically played the gangster’s understudy and usurper, and continually upstaged Ben Gazarra in the title role.
I can’t deny that I did feel good at the end of Rocky, but in spite of the resounding upbeat on which the film ends, I find my memory still replaying all the allusions to lost primes, wasted years, and buried hopes that recur throughout the script. Not that such a gloomy undercurrent of loss prevails. Rather, it tends to imply a credible sense of time in and beyond the story, the time that the characters exist in, time which suggests the real possibility of failing as well as the heady chance of making it. Stallone, whose screenplay comes from a very personal spot, is apparently well-familiarized with the chancy nature of fame and fortune, and facing up to those sorts of possibilities, in a film that might easily have found less complex means to a similar end by sacrificing real-life texture to emotional effect, I find admirable and uplifting in itself.
Direction: John G. Avildsen. Screenplay: Sylvester Stallone. Cinematography: James Crabe. Production: Irwin Winkler, Robert Chartoff.
The players: Sylvester Stallone, Talia Shire, Burgess Meredith, Burt Young, Carl Weathers, Thayer David, Joseph Spinell.
© 1977 Rick Hermann