For the month of January, the contenders of Deadshirt are looking at the high highs (and low lows) of Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky franchise. For each installment, Deadshirt film editor Max Robinson sits ringside with another Deadshirt staffer to discuss the film. Up first: Dominic Griffin and Max sing the praises of the original Rocky.
Directed by John G. Avildsen
Max: It’s fair to say that Rocky is an enduring classic: You don’t inspire seven sequels if the original film doesn’t have SOMETHING special to it. For me, what makes Rocky such a compelling movie is it isn’t a sports movie in the traditional sense. Obviously boxing’s a huge part of the film, but Stallone’s Rocky Balboa and the world he lives in is what really stays with me after I watch the film. Stallone’s great here, but more than that, there’s so much character in the bombed out bars and crumbling alleyways of Rocky’s North Philly stomping grounds. Dom, this is the first time you’ve watched Rocky, I’d love to know your first impression.
Dom: Yeah, so the only Rocky film I’d seen in full before this was Creed. I’ve seen maybe half of Rocky IV but never sober. Based on what I understood about the franchise’s tone and iconography, I anticipated a more tightly plotted picture, but I was kind of amazed at how loose and observational it tends to be. The final third functions extremely well and is arguably one of the most satisfying conclusions in film history, but everything that comes before it is so low-key and frustrating. Not because it’s boring or uninteresting, but because it really forces you into Rocky Balboa’s shoes and his life is super fucking sad. It’s a necessary journey, though, because the more we sympathize with this meathead bum the more we want to see him get the due he deserves.
Max: This movie wants you to know that Philadelphia in the 70s fucking blows and, man, mission accomplished. Rocky’s a loser who has to shake guys down for a (surprisingly genial) mobster, his best friend’s an even bigger loser with a short fuse, and the only person to seems to like him at all is the bookish pet store employee he keeps harassing. The moment I always come back to is when Rocky’s talking to the racist bartender about Apollo Creed. Rocky admires Apollo for his accomplishments, and when he calls out the bartender for never “taking a shot in his life,” the guy can’t even wrap his head around wanting more out of life besides running a rundown bar in a failing neighborhood.
Dom: Yeah, that’s an incredible scene, not just because the bartender is a racist piece of shit and Rocky is having none of his casual hatred, but because it’s the first real inkling we have of Rocky’s inner life. Up until this scene, he doesn’t exactly seem content with his circumstances, but he definitely seems a little too dumb to realize that they could ever change. I never realized how interesting Stallone’s performance in this movie was, either, and I imagine at the time, people may have assumed he was just playing himself. But he makes a lot of deliberate choices, from a writing perspective, with the loping rhythms of Rocky’s speechifying, to his decision as an actor to pace his words and delivery at the relative speed of his thoughts. Rocky is a lug, but he’s a self-aware lug. When Apollo Creed’s promoter invites him down for a meeting, Rocky can’t fathom this being anything more than a job interview to be a sparring partner. Once the bombshell is dropped that they want him to fight Creed, the way he says “I’m a ham and egger” almost made me cry. He knows what he is. He knows what he isn’t. Or at least, he seems to think he does.
Max: Coming to these films knowing the later sequels are going to establish Rocky as like one of the greatest boxers of all time, it’s kind of wild that the big conflict in the film is less whether Rocky will win his fight with Apollo Creed and more that Rock’s trying to get up the nerve to actually do that damn thing. Rocky has no illusions about how this fight’s going to go, but even then, this is the biggest chance to be Somebody he’s ever going to get.
Speaking of Apollo Creed, Carl Weathers is so good in this movie! The racial politics of Rocky are…complicated, to say the least, but I dig how Creed seems like a pretty decent guy (if kind of pompous and vain). Creed’s on TV telling kids to stay and school, be a doctor! It’s kind of interesting that the African-Americans we see in Rocky are Creed, his entourage, and the lady newscaster who interviews Rocky. They’re all working professionals. Compare those characters to Rocky’s deadbeat friends and neighbors.
Dom: I was pretty taken with Apollo Creed, because he’s essentially one of the coolest characters in any movie ever. I grew up knowing Carl Weathers from, like, Happy Gilmore and Predator, and I knew who Apollo Creed was but I didn’t realize how brilliantly he was written or performed. He comes off like some kind of postmodern Doc Savage, where’s he’s an absolute paragon of human excellence. My favorite thing about Creed is the scene where he’s going over all the business and marketing elements of promoting the fight while his trainer watches Rocky punch meat in a freezer on the news. The trainer, for the first time, is realizing Rocky might not be a chump, but Creed has to worry about ad buys and shit. My other favorite thing is him coming out to the fight dressed like Uncle Sam. He’s this ultimate showman.
I also like that even when Rocky is the butt of jokes in the fight’s promotion, from Creed’s end it’s just good natured ribbing to sell the story to the public. He never seems to be an actual asshole who thinks lowly of Rocky. He just knows that on some level, he’s the heel in this program. Creed’s aware that working class white dudes are going to be rooting for him to get his ass kicked, even if he himself knows he’s not going to get beaten. Creed’s arc makes for such stark contrast with Rocky’s. He’s far further along in his own personal narrative, where Rocky’s is just beginning.
Max: Creed essentially monetizing a white audience’s desire to see him fail is kind of amazing. I also like that Creed basically picks Rocky almost at random, just because he thought “The Italian Stallion” was a cool name. Weathers going from “I want youuuu!” in his messing around with a big dumb hat on to realizing that Rocky’s a serious competitor is a really excellent moment. That whole end fight is perfectly paced and super engaging, the entire film builds up to it and it never feels like a letdown even when it ends without a knockout. And that’s so crucial, that Rocky doesn’t win in the ring. It doesn’t matter, ultimately.
Dom: While the film’s back half—with all the iconic training montages and the storybook finish—feels like a capital-M Movie, the first parts of Rocky have more in common with an oddball indie drama. If you cut out the boxing stuff, “marble mouthed mafia leg breaker falls for mousy, bespectacled pet store employee” sounds Sundance as fuck. I guess I never knew Adrian (Talia Shire) was such a unique love interest? At first, it was a little creepy, how persistent Rocky is with his corny jokes and his omnipresence, but once they get to the ice rink for their impromptu Thanksgiving date, there’s this undeniable sweetness about their chemistry that’s hard to argue with. Rocky’s just so genuine and patient that when Adrian starts to open up it’s really stirring. The fact that Rocky’s only support system is his new, shy girlfriend and her piece of shit older brother makes for a fascinating dynamic.
Max: The Rocky/Adrian courtship is fascinating because, yeah, it’s definitely creepy at the start! The scene at Rocky’s apartment is, deliberately, uncomfortable. Shire’s really great in how she’s kind of the straight man for Stallone’s dopey puppylove. It’s a surprisingly naturalistic relationship in how…I wanna say mundane it is? It’s a great romance built on very everyday stuff. They basically only have each other in this down and out, crappy neighborhood. Adrian’s brother/Rocky’s best friend Paulie spends most of this movie screaming and generally terrorizing both of them. I like that Paulie doesn’t really get a redemption arc or anything, he’s just Rocky’s asshole friend who ruined two different holidays.
Dom: Yeah, Paulie’s arc ends with Rocky letting him make money advertising shit on his robe and he uses the money to buy a suit and a hooker. He has a sympathetic side, but he’s mostly a slimy ogre with a lot of misplaced anger and regret, making him a great foil for Rocky. Even before he gets this huge opportunity to fight Creed, Rocky is making the best of his life and trying to make a connection with Adrian and fighting and everything, whereas Paulie largely just bitches about his place in the world and lashes out at those around him for his own failings. Along with Adrian, they form an interesting little triangle. Add the friendly, mustachioed loan shark and Rocky’s supporting cast is a colorful one.
Max: I love that guy! You keep waiting for the other shoe to drop and for him to ask Rocky to throw the fight or something but nah, he’s just a gangster who likes Rocky and wants to help him out a bit. We’d be remiss in not talking about Burgess Meredith’s Mickey since 1) he’s a huge part of the movie 2) watching him hoarsely scream motivational insults at Stallone NEVER gets old.
Dom: The scene where Mickey comes, hat in hand, to try to become Rocky’s manager, is pretty incredible. When we first meet Mickey, he just seems like an asshole, but when he ends up screaming at Rocky that he doesn’t like him because he’s disappointed in him, you realize their relationship has real layers. It’s a testament to Meredith’s skills as an actor that he never really seems like the opportunist Rocky suspects him to be. You can tell why Rocky thinks this, but Mickey comes off so broken down and frustrated that you really sense he doesn’t want the same fate for Rocky.
There’s that moment when Rocky is shouting at Mickey even after he’s left the building, then runs after him, and their reconciliation, to us, is wordless. It makes the moment seem so intimate that the audience isn’t even allowed to listen in on this exchange that’s been building up for six years.
Max: We’ve talked a lot about characters here, but Bill Conti’s iconic score and James Crabe’s cinematography are pretty crucial to the success of Rocky. It’s worth pointing out that Rocky was one of the first films to use steadicam, specifically for Rocky’s training scenes and the iconic run up the stairs. It’s a gorgeous flick, and “Gonna Fly Now” *always* gets my blood pumping.
Dom: So, I never knew “Gonna Fly Now” had lyrics, so when I first heard actual singing over that familiar theme I thought I was just so hype that my inner voice decided to start harmonizing. Rocky is such a fluidly directed piece of cinema, with a lot of smooth camera movements and emotionally motivated staging. It really does have a pretty classical approach to visual storytelling, buoyed by this amazing music from Conti. I gather that as the franchise progresses, they move further and further away from the world of realism and become bloated cartoon exercises, but I’m really smitten with how sharp and idiosyncratic a film the original turned out to be.
NEXT: Remember how Apollo Creed said there wouldn’t be a rematch? Anyway, here’s ROCKY II