Boxing is at the centre of a number of great films, whether it’s Raging Bull, The Fighter or Grudge Match. One of the most iconic is of course Rocky, starring an inaudible Sylvester Stallone. Is there any other kind?
Stallone also wrote this classic underdog movie, about a small-time boxer who gets his big chance to fight heavy-weight champion Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) and falls in love with the shy girl from the pet store Adrian (Talia Shire). The film won three Oscars including Best Picture, beating Taxi Driver to the title. It was 1976 and Stallone went head-to-head with Robert De Niro, like Grudge Match but set in a bizarre parallel universe where they’re both highly regarded artists. The writing and acting talent of the young Stallone is plain to see, seeding expectations of greatness that he was never to completely achieve. Unless you consider Stop or My Mom Will Shoot! or The Expendables 2 to be great, which they are.
According to IMDb, Sly would only sell the script on the condition that he plays the eponymous lead, and with a character this good it’s easy to see why. Rather than write himself a suspiciously heroic part, such as the vanity-fuelled projection of John Turturro’s Fading Gigolo, Stallone’s Rocky is a bit of a loser. Unable to make a living from boxing, he works as a debt collector for a local loan shark, a job for which he’s really too nice. He lives in an unkempt Philadelphia apartment, totally empty except for his pet turtles. He looks and talks as though he’s spent the last decade getting punched in the face. Audiences probably assumed that Stallone’s performance was a masterclass in characterisation, staying in character during interviews, awards speeches and even other movies. Let’s face it, who’s Rambo if not Rocky with post-traumatic stress? Incidentally, Rocky and First Blood are both set at Christmas. But it’s an impressive performance despite these similarities, Sly Stallone’s underdog proving as good as Sly Stone’s 10 years earlier.
1960s funk references aside, the film benefits from its unconventional love story, which ducks and dodges Hollywood glamour in favour of a touching and believable relationship. Talia Shire is well cast as Adrian, despite looking exactly like Sue Perkins. The rest of the cast are solid too, with Arrested Development‘s Carl Weathers making a strong rival, fleshed out by the screen time devoted to his side of the story. Burgess Meredith rasps his way through memorable scenes as the scratchy-voiced boxing coach Mickey and Burt Young is sufficiently irksome as Rocky’s friend Paulie. Stallone writes good dialogue, peppered with colloquial insults that sound like they’re straight off his shopping list, including “lemons”, “coconuts” and “yoyos”. This helps give Rocky its strong blue-collar setting, which is so essential to this classic tale of rags to riches.
The film’s popularity is cemented by iconic music, a quintessential sports montage and the universality of the story, which isn’t really about boxing at all. The fight scenes are impressive, in that we’re made to care about such an obviously stupid sport, thanks to the drama outside of the ring, John G. Avildsen’s direction and Mike Westmore’s makeup, which does to Stallone’s face things that would later be accomplished by the passage of time. This is Stallone at his best, excluding The Expendables 2, making Rocky a well-rounded sports movie that successfully lands like a jab to the jaw. Just be sure to use subtitles.