Friday, July 3, 2015

AFI Top 100: #57 "Rocky"

Sylvester Stallone and Burgess Meredith in Rocky (1976)

If ever there was a movie I feel compelled to advocate for, whose memory has been pretty tarnished over the past 40 years by jaded movie-goers, it's Rocky. Not many sports movies grace the AFI Top 100 list (the only other one is, not surprisingly, also a boxing movie). Perhaps this is because, by 2007, the formula for these films became too predictable or cliche for audiences to take seriously. Coming in at #57, Rocky can be credited with writing that formulaor rather, screenwriter and star, Sylvester Stallone can. It continues to impress with its unpredictable and inspiring climax, but what makes this movie stand out, and the reason it has spawned five sequels, is its characters.

Rocky Balboa is humble, small-time boxer edging on the far end of his prime in the City of Brotherly Love. Earning a paltry $45+ to get knocked around in a fight, the southpaw Rocky can still claim with shaky confidence that he's never been K.O.-ed. Making ends meet as the part-time muscle for a local bookie, he lives a simple life, sharing a beer with his buddy, Paulie (Burt Young), crushing sweetly on Paulie's shy sister, Adrian (Talia Shire), and biding his time until his next chance to prove himself in the ring.

When the heavy-weight champion of the world, Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers), comes to Philadelphia for a heavily publicized fight, his opponent drops out due to injury and his team is in a scramble to find a replacement. Creed, ever the showman, proposes finding a local underdog who would certainly jump at the chance to go three rounds with him. The "Italian Stallion" Rocky Balboa, he says, is the man he wants.

The life that Rocky once knew changes over night, as his status as a nobody shifts into that of a local hero. A man that has always taken his punches in stride, Rocky quickly comes to understand that this might be his last opportunity to stop being a chump and do more with his life than hustle.

The role of Rocky Balboa is embodied by Stallone. It is a testament to his acting ability that these two characters have become one and the same. He is like a lumbering oaf version of a young Marlon Brando in the way that he speaks and navigates a scene. There's a strange naturalism about him, most evident in his conversations with Adrian. Shire is perfectly meek in this part, but she's never weak. She's an oddball, just like Rockyokay, maybe not exactly like Rocky, but they compliment each other in their loyalties to the things they care about. These are the best moments of the film. Rocky waxing on about his turtles, oversharing and speaking endlessly about what feels like inane aspects of his life... but it not only endears him to the near-silent Adrian, it endears him to us. Stallone is Rocky, and he is magnificent.

It's the simplicity of the characters that contributes to the simplicity of the story. A boxing flick about a guy who wins simply by never giving up, it defined the sports movie genre, and hardly anyone remembers how truly ground-breaking it was. The film's training montage, a trope we've experienced in every other movie released in the last 40 years (other versions of this include the "makeover" montage, the "dance" training montage, the "experiment" montage)... Rocky inspired them all. To a point, the movie suffers for its innovation, since none of us can watch it without flagging the epic sequence right away. It doesn't help that it also includes one of the most famous shots in film history, the triumphant sunset run up the Art History Museum steps in Philadelphia (which, fun fact, was also the second feature film to use a steadicam, just for this shot; the first movie came out the same year, Bound for Glory, so "first" might be an arguable descriptor.)

The montage cliche contributes to the possibility that Rocky, as a film, might find it difficult to stay relevant over time in terms of being viewed as serious cinema. There's a predictability to it now, with even new audiences primed to anticipate the pacing, the beats. Does that take away from the thrill of watching it? I would emphatically state no. It will always remain the first to do what it did, and the final fight with Apollo Creed will never not be spectacular and inspiring. It was an American classic the moment it was released, and it's bound to stay that way for a long time to come. If anything, it's the subsequent sequels that have done a disservice to the originalit's hard for anyone to take a movie seriously when most have "Eye of the Tiger" playing on repeat in the back of their minds. Even though Rocky III is the guilty party that introduced that cliche to the world in 1982.

Beyond everything you remember about this movie, it has a depth that is often forgotten. There's a reason audiences demanded more and more Rocky Balboa after he screamed out "Adrian!" in the middle of that boxing arena... he's a simple romantic, a brute that is impossible not to love. It popularized montages (which I, personally, am thankful for, because I'm a sucker for them in every way), and it revealed to us the talent that Stallone possessedand frankly, still does.

It won the Best Picture Oscar for all of its successes, the first sports film to do that, with only two other sports movies having won since. This genre is one of my favorites for the simple reason that, if we could walk away from every movie feeling as uplifted as we do after seeing a film like Rocky, we'd all be a lot less jaded about the movies.

Rating:  ★ / 5 stars

Check back later for #56 on the list, Jaws — or better yet, have your own viewing party and watch along with us!

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