Knowing ahead of time that Rocky is a classic, I had certain expectations. For example, I had seen clips of the various other Rockymovies and knew that they included inspirational work-out routines with the music to go with it. This is, after all, the franchise that spawned "Eye of the Tiger". I also knew that my high school track coach, during his inspirational speeches about working hard and constantly pushing the envelope to make exercise a truly sacrificial art, would reference this film all the time. If there was one thing I learned from this series without having ever even seen it, it's that character doesn't come to a person in one magic moment; a true champion needs to give his everything all the time and always has to fight as if he's the underdog. He has to live every moment of his life as if it's that "big moment."
Therefore, I expected Rocky to be the ultimate workout movie, especially since it was the first and probably the best movie in its six-movie franchise. Having now seen it, I can say that it's really not that kind of movie. There's perhaps a full three minutes of the film dedicated to working out, and the rest is a slow drama. While I can say that this is without doubt a sports movie, it has all the makings of a Best Picture winning, Best Director winning movie in the subtle storytelling of Rocky's everyday life.
The movie opens right away with the title scrolling across the screen in plain white block text, and a succinct rendition of Rocky's famous theme. Enjoy it while it lasts, because the fanfare doesn't appear again until an hour and a half into the film, which is when the first real workout montage starts. Otherwise, the movie hardly has any music and is very choosy about where to use it. For example, after an opening fight and a minute spent recovering in the locker room, music finally plays again as unceremonious, white, unstylized credits appear on the screen. The only thing about these credits is that Sylvester Stallone wrote the screenplay.
This is where I have to give Stallone a lot of credit beyond the typical 80's action hero. He's genuinely a good actor, and beyond that he's also a good director and a good writer. I think that without him writing, this film would not have received the acclaim that it did, because I cannot help but detect a note of sincerity in the film that few people could grasp, and I suspect that Rocky speaks with a voice that comes from experience. When the end credits affirm that Stallone also choreographed the boxing scenes, and his body itself testifies to experience with working out (and still does to this day), it shows that Stallone is more than some brutish grunt. Pegged in the film as the "underdog" who "went the distance," I think a lot of people can relate to him. This isn't a story that glorifies power and victory, nor does it dramatize his personal life, so it all feels real and grounded enough that I couldn't help but think "This could be me."
Since Stallone and the others are genuinely good actors, I can understand why this film also won Best Director. John G. Alvidsen recognized this fact and put his trust in them instead of the typical tricks of the trade used by directors. Most directors will assume that the audience doesn't know what's important and they will attempt to draw your attention to significant parts of the narrative, but Alvidsen seems to think his audience is smarter than that. Hence, he rarely cut in close to dramatize an actor's performance and attempted to put the movie's power in its pacing and rhythm. His approach might have been a bit simplistic, not very artistic, and to-the-point, but they were certainly the right calls, as this was a story that, as written, could only find its heart in the actors' performances. It would not have been so true-to-life if it had been fast-paced. If anything, getting ahead in life is something that feels like it takes forever, much like a workout. Therefore, Rocky has characters and relationships that feel very real, almost as if I was sitting there myself and part of it. I wrote something very similar about The Godfather, and indeed I find these films stylistically vey comparable. That, and they both revolve around the antiques of an ambitious Italian.
Therefore, since the pacing is real and mostly dedicated to the actor's performances, I might also say that Stallone, Shire, Young, and Meredith were brilliant actors. As I said before, not much was dramatized, and instead their performances were subtle and entirely natural. They weren't at all times the most charismatic, but I noticed something: I kept on saying to myself while watching the film "Yeah, that's how people act. Yeah, that's how they say things, and how they think, and how they express themselves." I don't know how they did it, but they managed to capture in very subtle ways the reality of people, so none of them felt like actors. No, not even Stallone, which is saying something because since that movie he became really recognizable. I have to hand it to him that he dealt with a demanding role, which not only required physicality but a sense of emotional depth as he tried to capture the complex reality of the character, who's a club boxing, debt collecting, nice-guy who gives teenage girls advice on not swearing, happens to be just the perfect guy for the shy and introverted Adrian, has mixed feelings about fighting a championship boxing match, and yet has no obvious charisma all at the same time. He's still charismatic, but mainly in the sense that he's willing to work hard, even when he doesn't have the spirit, so it's all in the content of his character. He's just quiet about it.
Shire's performance as Adrian is meanwhile equally worth paying attention to as she evolved from the shy girl to a mature woman who for once in her life is content with what she has. Like everything else in this film, little is dramatized about her development and it doesn't flow like a typical high school romantic coming-of-age story. It's subtle and natural as she learns to be herself around Rocky, after he first chases after her. Learning to be herself around him isn't the pinnacle of her personal development, either. She also has to deal with her brother, give him encouragement, and in a general sense grow as a person who Rocky could be comfortable with and love for the rest of his life. By the end of the film, she was a mature adult, and along the way I couldn't help but think, more than with any other actor, "Yeah, that's how people act." I know several people like her. In fact, back in high school I fell in love with one like her, and she's actually come some ways now and has developed as a person, and I can think of plenty of other people who give me a similar impression, so Adrian is certainly someone who feels like she comes from my real-life experiences. I wonder if Shire knew someone like her, which is very probable, in which case her performance would not have been possible without first being a very good observer.
Mixed in there are several other simple stories, including Rocky's opponent Apollo Creed's business antics, Rocky's friend's insecurities, Rocky's work with his loan shark employer, and a relationship between Rocky and his manager all rolled into one big story about life that makes way with surprisingly little pomp and circumstance. It was all connected to the sport genre premise of the story, but at the same time it felt so much like something else, like something that transcended genre. I like to call this transcendent non-genre the "Classic Movie Genre," which can only come about when a good story is a great story. It's one of those stories that remind us why we love movies or why we read books. It's the type of story that gets me to like stories.
With the conclusion that Rocky is a classic out of the way, I do have to wonder about the quality of its many sequels. Why would they bother live up to the one that started it all? Surely none of them would be of Oscar quality, but then I realize that that's the point, sort of. The first film did not necessarily set the tone, but rather it set the stage. His journey is incomplete. As I said in the beginning, the Rockyseries told me that no one is ever truly done, that there's not one defining moment where you no longer have to try hard. Staying on top of things is just as difficult as getting to the top in the first place. You're only a winner when you're actively winning; not after you've completed he job and won, because that only proves that you were a winner. The story of Rocky has plenty of room for development, and even if some of the sequels aren't quite as classy as the first and more traditionally sports oriented, that first story could only be done once. Looking at the tone of the original, I don't think that if the movie itself has a consciousness, it would judge the others for what they were. They carry on the legacy quite well with a narrative of their own, one that proves that in order to be a winner one must continue to win, as one cannot simply rely on having won in the past. Therefore, each film is truly its own, as each time Rocky "[rose] up to the challenge of [his] rivals" he had to repeat the same journey. That reflects the rise and fall of career sportsmen throughout their lifetimes. I'm under the impression that this as autobiographical: so long as Sylvester Stallone was up to the physical demands of the role, he wanted to come back to it again and again because making the movie, much like making it to a championship, is its own reward.
That having been said, yes, the workout scenes are pretty cool and by the time I finally got to them I felt like raising my hands in triumph. It was worth the wait, and I finally got to see the iconic staircase scene. The final fight was also very awesome, even though it didn't play out as dramatically as I thought it would and it didn't conclude as I thought it would, either, but Rocky still proved himself and "went the distance." That Rocky Balboa is one manly man.