|Written by Bill Warren|
|Tuesday, 24 April 2001|
In 1976, the five candidates for the Oscar for Best Picture were 'All the President's Men,' 'Bound for Glory,' 'Network,' 'Rocky' and 'Taxi Driver'. And the underdog won, even though 'Rocky' is the least of the five. It seems to have won primarily because it was the least controversial of the five, and because it seemed to be the movie equivalent of its star and screenwriter, Sylvester Stallone: the underdog who made good. Stallone's perseverance in marketing his screenplay was legendary around Hollywood.
Producers Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff took a chance on Stallone; their deal with him ensured that he'd star in his movie, or it wouldn't get made. Finally United Artists took a fling. Director John G. Avildsen made his (brief) reputation by directing the film -- which also won Avildsen an Oscar as best director.
Seen today, 'Rocky' is a corny but engaging story about a doofus from the streets of Philadelphia who gets a once-in-a-lifetime chance to face off in the boxing ring against the World Heavyweight Champion. (It's too bad it didn't remain Rocky's only chance -- the sequels are negligible at best.) But corny though it is, 'Rocky' rings with conviction and sincerity; Stallone and Avildsen believe in these characters and in Rocky's story -- and it's still Stallone's best performance as an actor.
It doesn't need to be. Among the extras on this 25th anniversary disc is a "video commentary" by Stallone -- he looks straight at the camera and tells how the film came to be, with only minimal cutaways to other footage. (Notably to the fight between Muhammad Ali and Chuck Wepner that was his original inspiration.) Stallone is eloquent, charming and very likable in these 28 minutes, which never get boring at all. Why can't he be this ingratiating and natural in his performances?
Rocky Balboa a club boxer who earns a few bucks by defeating other guys in Philadelphia who aren't much different from him. He works part-time as a collector for a loan shark (Al Lettieri), who's fond enough of him that he has been overlooking the fact that Rocky's just too soft-hearted to be an effective leg-breaker. Rocky's not young -- he surreptitiously dons glasses when necessary -- and pretty lonely; he doesn't seem to have any family. His only friends are his dime-store turtles Cuff and Link, and his goldfish Moby Dick. He's kind of interested in painfully shy Adrian (Talia Shire), who works in a pet shop; he's uncertain how to indicate his interest to her, but he keeps trying. They do begin a romance, however, complete with the scene where the hero takes off the heroine's glasses and tells her how beautiful she is. (And true to movie form, she never puts them back on again.)
Rocky's hurt when aging gym owner Mickey (Burgess Meredith), once a fighter himself, demotes him from the use of a locker to just a bag hanging on a line, and tells him that he fights like an ape. He coulda been a contender.
But all of a sudden, he is a contender. Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers), the Ali-styled World Heavyweight Champ, has a Bicentennial bout set for New Year's Day, 1976, right there in Philadelphia -- but all his potential opponents are unavailable. So he gets an idea: a novelty match with an unranked local boxer; he happens upon Rocky Balboa, the Italian Stallion. "Apollo Creed meets the Italian Stallion," he muses. "Sounds like a damn monster movie."
In one of the best scenes he's ever played, Stallone expects to be auditioned as Creed's sparring partner, but instead is offered an actual bout. Stallone's understated reaction is touching, funny and completely believable.
Rocky trains by himself for a while, running up the steps of the art museum, punching sides of beef at the packing plant where Adrian's loathsome brother Paulie (Burt Young) works. But finally, Mickey becomes Rocky's trainer.
Burgess Meredith's strong, nervy, slightly frightened performance as Mickey remains as impressive today as ever: Meredith defies us to love him. His naked appeal to Rocky, surrendering all dignity, is almost embarrassing; Rocky angers us when he spitefully refuses to hire Mickey as his trainer. But Stallone and Avildsen follow this up with another understated scene, played without dialog and in a very long shot, that's deeply moving.
'Rocky' is not a great movie, but it's very satisfying on a simple emotional level. The movie is modest, and so are its goals, which it achieves. Sure, one of those other movies should have won the Best Picture Oscar, but it's easy to forgive that lapse on the part of Academy members, who are just as sentimental about underdogs triumphing as we are.
For the 25th anniversary of 'Rocky' MGM has issued this attractive DVD. The print is in excellent shape, but it was also good on laser -- what's special here is the sound. It's not brilliantly emphatic, in the manner of the films of the last ten years, but like James Crabe's low-key photography, it's solidly realistic. The movie was made for a million dollars, a very low budget all things considered, and the sound recording sometimes is a little raw because of that. Especially impressive is the big fight scene at the end, since, of course, the blows actually rarely connected -- the sound of the punches was looped in later. On the commentary track, Steadicam inventor/operator Garrett Brown points out that in one sequence, you can faintly hear the camera running. At other points, the ambient sounds produce a kind of hiss on the track -- but this is in keeping with the film itself, and makes it seem more realistic, even though, as almost everyone says at one point, it's basically a fairy tale.
Chapter 14 is Rocky's first training run, on his own; he trots through the darkened Philadelphia streets, nearly collapsing in exhaustion. In Chapter 18, Paulie blows up at Christmas, smashing up his front room with a baseball bat; the sound is particularly sharp and startling here. Chapter 19 features what's probably the most famous scene in 'Rocky:' another morning run (and montage) when he's in great shape. This is where "Gotta Fly Now" comes in. Chapters 22-24 feature the brutal 15-round bout between Rocky and Apollo; again, the sound is cranked up.
There are two brief documentaries, both tributes to 'Rocky' participants who are now gone. Eight minutes are devoted to Burgess Meredith, who probably deserves two hours worth, with three or so given over to Avildsen's fond recollections of his frequent contributor, James Crabe. Avildsen himself also hosts some 8mm movies he shot as training aids, principally for Stallone and Weathers. Amusingly, since these were shot silent, the sound of an 8mm projector is heard.
The commentary track is "hosted" by Burt Young, who rarely resists the temptation to grab as much credit as he can; other participants include director Avildsen, producers Winkler and Chartoff, Talia Shire, Carl Weathers and Garrett Brown, all recorded separately. It's well-organized and often very interesting.
'Rocky' remains, like its hero, the million-to-one shot that made good. It's not a classic, but it's a good-hearted, honest little movie with some memorable scenes.