It’s 1976, America’s 200th birthday. We’ve been celebrating our freedom and uniqueness, our historical ups and downs, our heroes and villains. Near year’s end a movie is released, one with a familiar story and familiar characters; the down-and-out fighter who is given a last chance to prove his worth, something Americans can relate to. As immigrants we all share the common message of making a fresh start in a new land where anyone can succeed if they just work hard. Some will argue that in today’s desperate economic climate the archetypal “American Dream” seems more out-of-reach than ever. In any case the story resonates with audiences and is still making converts 35 years later. We have an at-once familiar movie, with Bill Conti’s iconic themes and background score, that never seems dated or played out.
Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone), an over-the-hill club fighter, works in Philadelphia as a collector for a local loan shark, Gazzo (Joe Spinnell). He hangs at Mickey’s neighborhood gym, cleaning up the mess the would-be fighters make and staying close to a world he wishes he were still part of. Mickey Goldmill (portrayed by the wonderful veteran actor Burgess Meredith) is the retired ex-fighter turned trainer who constantly berates Rocky for never rising to the pugilistic heights he should have attained. Rocky knows this is true but somehow refuses to back away from the only world he really knows. He enjoys hanging out at the gym even after Mickey finally takes away his locker. Rocky likes Adrian, the shy girl who works at a near-by petshop. He can still swagger and try making jokes in her presence but she’s too overprotected by her brother, Paulie (Burt Young) to ever acknowledge Rocky’s attempts at humor. We have been introduced to all these characters in their Philly neighborhood early on in the film. We assume this lifestyle has been going on for years already and won’t change much.
But Fate steps in in the form of the World’s Heavyweight Champion, Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) who will hold a title match in Philadelphia for Independence Day. He’s beaten every challenger and cannot find a suitable opponent for this all-important match. It’s a publicity-man’s dream but without a decent candidate Creed’s dream will wither. Creed says let’s give a nobody a shot – “It’s very American”, says the promoter. “It’s very smart,” Creed comes back. They search the records of fighters in and around Philly and come up with “The Italian Stallion”, Rocky Balboa. It’s the chance of a lifetime, a one-in-a-million shot, the proverbial knock on the door. Rocky grabs for the brass ring.
But it represents the chance of a lifetime for the entire neighborhood, for all of Rocky’s friends and his new girlfriend, Adrian. Talia Shire portrays the demure shopgirl deftly hiding the obvious beauty we’d all recognized in The Godfather. As she and Rocky come closer the lovely butterfly emerges from the cocoon. The scene where she dresses up and comes to Rocky’s shabby tenement flat still impresses me. Everyone starts to look at Rocky as a local celebrity. He winds up humbly asking Mickey for help in training after Mickey comes to the Rocky and pleads his case. His shot at fame and fortune has long gone. This will be Mickey’s second chance. The two begin to bond as we watch the training regimen begin at 4:30AM on a cold winter morning as Rocky cracks raw eggs into a glass with one hand and then drinks the whole thing in almost one gulp. Suited up in worn-out track clothes he leaves the flat to run through the nearly-deserted city streets. A lonely existence where his only challenger is himself.
Many critics and reviewers couldn’t resist panning the movie because of its obvious sentimentality and oft-told story. The down-and-outer rises from the depths of his own despair and failures, pulling along his friends and family, to win the battle and triumph in the end. Well, yes, it had been done many times prior to 1976, certainly in literature and, of course, in dozens of movies. But there’s nothing wrong with seeing someone do exactly that. We can relate to second chances. We can all talk about people we know and love who’ve risen above their circumstances and re-made themselves. Today’s stark headlines and tough economic news affect everyone – unless you’re wealthy. That is the universal appeal of this movie. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington: the little guy fights the special interests and wins. America likes the “Little Guy”; we cheer for him to win. Our roots are everywhere else in the world and if that’s a story common to most of us it’s because it’s probably true. Start over again, maybe you win, maybe you lose. You fall off the horse, you get up and climb back in the saddle. The Big Country shows Gregory Peck doing just that, eventually taming the wild bronco. The settings can be different, the characters familiar, the themes resemble other films. That is okay. Boosting our sagging morale is one of the movies’ responsibilities. The 1930’s saw some the cinema’s greatest film vehicles and the largest attendance records. We are seeing this phenomenon again so many decades later.
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