Going the Distance: Rocky (1976)
I used to have major hangups about this damn film. You can imagine years of children screaming things at you like “Adrian!” or “Hey, Rocko!” taking their toll on a kid. I felt like Rocky had nothing to offer me and that I had pretty much seen the whole film because people quoted it to me so much. So, in my late twenties, I finally sat down and watched the darn thing. By the time the film had ended I was a sobbing mess. This story hit me like a counterpunch, one that struck me when I thought I had the damn thing figured out. I let a silly thing get in the way of a spectacular movie. Lessons learned: do not knock it until you try it and holy shit, I actually have a cool name. Yeah, it’s spelled with an “IE” and not a “Y,” but I’ll take it.
Rocky is that film everyone needs to see at least once in their lives. Not because it made Sylvester Stallone a huge star or that it eventually went on to win Best Picture, it is because of its grounded underdog story that is strong enough to make you cheer, cry, and remind you that sometimes the “nobody” deserves victory.
Apollo Creed, played with a Muhammed Ali dash of arrogance by a young Carl Weathers, is the boxing heavyweight champion and, wouldn’t you know, his fight fell through due to his opponent fracturing his hand. Instead of cancelling the fight, Apollo decides to pivot and let a complete unknown from the lower ranks have a shot at the champ as well as his title. His team and management agree, so the hunt for the fighter is on. Finally, Apollo sees a name that practically jumps out out him: Rocky “The Italian Stallion” Balboa. Creed has made up his mind and everything is set in motion instantly. Can a regular Joe from the streets of Philly compete with the champ? Will he fall in the opening rounds due to being out of his league? Rocky is a great guy, but how far can passion take you, especially when the entire world is watching? He is barely holding on at his local gym, thanks to the ultra crabby owner named Mickey, played by the indelible Burgess Meredith, and he is head over heels in love with Adrian, the local girl who works at the pet store. Thing is, Adrian is not a distraction from the boxing; his love for her is equal to his love for the sport and the waves are cresting simultaneously.
Rocky does an incredible job of capturing Balboa’s environment. Philadelphia feels cold enough to rattle bones. The docks and streets are desolate both day and night, showing a poverty due to its bad economy. A doo-wop band sings near a trashcan fire, no doubt providing warmth for both soul and flesh. The large vehicles wide enough to part seas, the tough leather coats and the barflys drinking their dinners all play a major role in this ode to the underdog. While I do feel the story of Rocky is timeless, the mid-’70s Philadelphia urban chill is what makes this thing sing. We would deserve to be knocked out cold for not mentioning the flawless score from Bill Conti. That main theme is recognized across the world with the song “Gonna Fly Now” being synonymous with a badass training montage. Would the picture be weaker without the musical elements? Who knows of course, but man am I glad they exist.
A palooka that will go after someone to apologize for yelling at them, even when that someone completely deserved to be yelled it. A bone breaker for a loan shark who just can’t seem to find it in his heart to shatter femurs when a guy is a couple hundred short. A guy who shocked the world by holding his own with the likes of Apollo Creed and instead of celebrating, all he wants is the love of his life. Rocky Balboa may not be a smart man, but the depth of his love and honor are goals any human should aspire to. Never give up, even when it seems the world is against you. Clutch that dream and follow through. Balboa is all of this and a whole lot more. The soul of Rocky Balboa is so pure that it is not a shocker this film went on to spawn an extremely successful franchise and spin off films with Creed and Creed II. Even when some films get a little too entertainment heavy, they never lose sight of what makes Rocky so special.
Rocky is not a boxing film. It is a human film. It’s a film about the little man who becomes big by earning it. Humanity can learn a ton from Balboa and I would encourage those who haven’t seen it to dive in immediately and if it has been a while, pop it in or stop surfing once it is on TV. Balboa is great for one’s soul and it’s a story that needs to be remembered for all eternity. Be more like Rocky in this life. You’ll be a better person because of it.