Wednesday 17 April 2013

Movie Review: Rocky (1976)

The embodiment of the American Dream where every underdog can strive for glory, Rocky is a well-constructed romance wrapped into a boxing drama. The film carries added poignancy for rocketing Sylvester Stallone into instantaneous superstardom, the dream coming true in real life through a rich work of fiction.

In Philadelphia, Rocky Balboa (Stallone) is a mediocre boxer. Having never dedicated himself to the sport, Rocky is not quite giving up on his dream but gradually realizing that at 30 years old, he may be getting too old to succeed. He makes ends meet by accepting muscleman assignments from loan shark Tony Gazzo (Joe Spinnell). Rocky is good friends with the bearish Paulie (Burt Young), a butcher who works in the freezer of a large meat processing plant. Rocky is also trying to attract the attention of Paulie's painfully shy sister Adrian (Talia Shire), a clerk at the local pet store.

To celebrate America's bicentennial, world heavyweight champion Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) and promoter George Jergens (Thayer David) decide to give an unknown fighter a shot at the title, and they choose Balboa. With just five weeks to train, Rocky dedicates himself to get in shape and embarks on a gruelling fitness regime with the help of his old manager Mickey (Burgess Meredith). With the fight approaching, romance blossoms between Rocky and Adrian, while strains develop in the friendship with Paulie.

Sylvester Stallone has rarely been better as an actor. Rocky is the role he wrote and was born to play, and in his first incarnation as the down-and-almost-out boxer, Stallone is a mix of realism, resignation and remote hope. Finding physical mannerisms to convey inner edginess, Stallone has Rocky looking back at what may have been a better career and looking forward to what may be a once in a lifetime opportunity. But to the credit of Stallone the writer, Rocky spends most of his time in the present making a big effort to nurture a romance with Adrian, Rocky intrinsically becoming aware that until he finds personal happiness not much is going to matter in his boxing career.

Director John G. Avildsen gives Rocky's world a forlorn look, the dank and derelict corners of Philadelphia playing a prominent role in portraying a life at the crossroads. The bleak one-room apartment that counts as Rocky's home is not any better than what lies outside, while the slightly larger unit occupied by Adrian and Paulie is only marginally more liveable. It's clear what kind of life awaits Rocky if his current trajectory continues; only he can make the commitment to try a change for the better.

Talia Shire is almost silent as Adrian, her shyness hindering her just as much as Rocky's lack of focus has burdened his potential. Shire speaks volumes without saying much, and her early scenes are a beautiful study of a tormented introvert as she can't even make eye contact with Rocky, let alone carry on a meaningful conversation.

Burt Young provides a forcefully brusque counterpoint to Rocky, a man unhappy with his lot and waiting for things to happen and others to help, instead of taking any sort of initiative. And when Rocky does begin to turn his life around, Paulie can mostly just offer resentment.

The Gonna Fly Now theme by Bill Conti is the simplest of inspirational anthems, but it's unassuming candour has allowed it to thrive through the ages. Avildsen finds the film's best moments in the climactic training montage set to the music, Rocky finally unleashing his potential and transforming the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art into the stairway to heaven.

Rocky is the story of life through dedication, and it's among the rare films that get the priorities straight: the determination needed to love is much more important than the grit required to fight.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

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