It's easy to forget what a quiet, gentle, humble movie Rocky is. The film is now regarded as the beginning of the world's most iconic sports movie franchise and the first major step in the career of a musclebound superstar (and perhaps also as the movie that stole an Academy Award from Network, Taxi Driver or All the President's Men), but all of that is aftermath and hindsight. There's nothing in the film itself that makes it feel like a franchise movie or a piece of Oscar bait. It's an intimate, tender, sincere story about an ordinary guy who gets a chance to turn his life around.
Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone, First Blood) is a bedraggled southpaw who spends his nights in the boxing ring and his days collecting money for a Philadelphia loan shark (Joe Spinell, Taxi Driver). He could have been a great boxer, but he simply failed to devote himself to living right and staying fit. He's the poster boy for wasted potential, but he seems content with his place in life. He scrapes together enough to pay the bills, he feeds his turtles, he smokes, he drinks and he nurses a crush on the shy Adrian (Talia Shire, The Godfather), who works at a local pet store.
Then – because this wouldn't be much of a story without a “then” - Rocky gets the offer of a lifetime. World boxing champion Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers, Arrested Development) wants to give an unknown fighter a chance at the world title, and Rocky is the fighter who's caught his eye. Apollo makes lofty claims about the noble reasons for this decision, but the truth is that he's looking for an easy fight. Rocky knows he'll be crushed, but hesitantly accepts the challenge and determines to give the world champ everything he's got.
The film's big fight (which occupies a sizable chunk of the final act) is thrilling, but the “boxing” parts of this boxing movie are the only elements that feel conventional. Rocky's journey from zero to hero is the sort of thing we've seen in a million sports movies, even if the terms of “victory” are a little different here (the question is whether Rocky will manage to stay conscious for a few rounds, not whether he'll actually beat Apollo). Still, those scenes are more exciting than usual because the rest of the film does such a fine job of making us feel invested in these characters.
Stallone wrote the film's script, and United Artists liked it, but they wanted someone else in the lead – a real star, like James Caan, Robert Redford or Burt Reynolds. Stallone insisted on playing the role himself, and it's a good thing he did: he embodies this part so persuasively that you often forget you're watching an actor. Stallone's acting abilities have often been mocked over the years (I've certainly engaged in my share of that), but in this film, in this role, he's as good as anybody. He perfectly embodies this character, a sweet-spirited scrapper whose compensates for his lack of intellect with an unwavering sense of determination. He calls himself “The Italian Stallion,” and it seems less like a boast than something he finds clever and amusing.
A large portion of the film is devoted to the slow-burn relationship between Rocky and Adrian, and Shire does fine work as a woman making a valiant effort to overcome her built-in social anxiety. There's a beautiful little scene where Adrian declares her intention to leave Rocky's apartment, and Rocky attempts to persuade her to stay. It might have been clumsy or creepy in the wrong hands, but Stallone and Shire turn it into something lovely. When they kiss, it's not a grandiose movie kiss, but something simultaneously awkward, conflicted and hungry – it's real.
The other supporting players are well-drawn, too (four of the cast members received Oscar nominations, although none of them won). Burt Young (Once Upon a Time in America) is a scuzzy delight as Adrian's deadbeat brother Paulie, scratching his beer gut as he casually searches for ways to make a few bucks off of Rocky's newfound fame. Burgess Meredith (The Twilight Zone) brings a great deal of colorful zeal and affecting pathos to his turn as Rocky's aging trainer Mickey, and Carl Weathers comfortably embodies the too-confident charm of a world champion who feels certain that his opponent will be a pushover. The Rocky movies grew increasingly silly over time, but these characters were always a pleasure to hang out with.
The film is certainly the high point of Avildsen's career (give or take Save the Tiger), and he has good instincts for when to break out the high energy montages and when to let the scenes just linger for a while. He's attentive to the details of Rocky's low-rent life, and gives us a version of Philadelphia that feels cold and empty save for the moments of warmth and friendship its residents occasionally grant each other.
Bill Conti's score plays a huge role in the film's success – not just the heroic anthem that plays during the film's most triumphant moments or that surging music during the final fight, but also the delicate material that dominates the bulk of the film's first half. The film's most iconic musical moment features the main theme blaring while Rocky runs up the steps in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. It would be an ironic location for Stallone in many circumstances, but proves an absolutely fitting one here: yes, this is formulaic boxing flick, but it's also a heartfelt and observant work of art, and Stallone's almost childlike victory dance at the top of the steps is well-earned.
Rating: ★★★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG
Running Time: 119 minutes
Release Year: 1976