Welcome to Week 3 of the 52-Week Movie Challenge. Or, as I like to call it, Week 3 and half, since I keep missing my self-imposed deadlines. Anyway, this week’s challenge was to watch a “Low Budget, Big Box Office” Film. So, I chose the granddaddy of them all, ‘Rocky.’ This film had a production budget of $1 million and grossed in the neighborhood of $225 Million in the box office. Talk about a good investment!
It has been a long time since I’ve seen ‘Rocky’ and I can honestly say I don’t think I have ever watched it straight through in one sitting. I was excited for the chance to revisit this multi-generational phenomenon and find out what it was that captivated audiences around the country back in 1976.
DAH Duh duhduhduh duhduhduh duhduhduh
DAH DAH duhduhduh duhduhDAH duhduhduh
I honestly considered just phonetically writing the full “Theme from Rocky” and nothing more for this week’s blog but that actually seemed harder than the alternative. I’ll spare you the nonsense this week.
‘Rocky’ is a 1976 film written by and starring Sylvester Stallone (that’s ambitious). The film follows 30-year-old Philadelphia boxer Rocky Balboa who, as his semi-professional boxing career seems to be coming to a close, is randomly selected to fight the greatest fighter in the world, Apollo Creed. Over the last 40+ years, ‘Rocky’ has become synonymous with the city of Philadelphia and an unquestionable symbol of the American spirit. Today, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who isn’t able to sing their version of the famous fanfare from ‘Rocky’ on command. Needless to say, I was anxious to get another look at ‘Rocky’ with my critic cap on to get a better sense of why this film, and its subsequent sequels and spin-offs, still live deep within the heart of American pop culture.
Though ‘Rocky’ is the youngest of our challenge movies so far, weighing in at 44 years old, it is still far from “modern.” Pair that with the low production budget and you wind up with a movie that has some good aspects and some bad. We’ll start with the bad so we can end on an up note!
This movie is unmercifully low-budget. From the very first scene, you can feel a difference in the sound mixing that leaves you with an empty, almost erie feeling as you watch. In some scenes, you can see the camera visibly shaking during certain shots and at times it is too severe to ignore. The screenplay is predictable and sometimes painful when it comes to the more dialogue-heavy scenes. Though, for a screenplay that was reportedly written in three days (!!), you could do much much worse. Even still, at times I found myself mentally checking out because the current scene was a bit melodramatic or not relevant to the overall plot.
Additionally, and this could probably be said with just about any 40-year-old movie, some scenes did not age well. Particularly the nature of Rocky’s first few encounters with Adrian (Talia Shires), which can only really be described as stalkerish. And this includes their first date where Rocky simply will not take “no” for an answer and all but forces Adrian to kiss him. Luckily, things between them smooth out and seem to become much more consensual for the remainder of the film but I was definitely squirming in my seat through a good portion of their scenes.
What ‘Rocky’ lacks in budget and production value, it makes up for in heart. If you listen to the podcast, you know I love a passion project, and this more a passion project than anything else. Stallone clearly pours everything he has into this character. The scene where he is laying in bed with Adrian the night before the fight talking about how he just wants to “go the distance” against Creed as the camera slowly zooms in, is goosebump-inducing magic. I felt as pumped up in that moment as I did during ‘The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King’ when Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) gave his famous “But it is not this day” speech.
My favorite scene in the whole film comes somewhere around the halfway mark. Upon hearing the news that Rocky will get a chance to be a world champion, the local boxing trainer, Mickey, visits Rocky at his home. Earlier in the week, Mickey told Rocky he was washed up and gave his locker away to a younger boxer who, in Mickey’s words, “is a contender.” Insulted by the hypocrisy of Mickey, Rocky tells him off. He screams, punches the walls, and orders Mickey to leave immediately, a command that Mickey reluctantly obeys. But then something magical happens. As Mickey descends the stairs leading to Rocky’s apparent with his head hanging, Rocky appears to have a realization. Without a word, Rocky follows Mickey outside, grabs him by the shoulder, says a few inaudible words to him, and shakes his hand before returning the same way he came.
It is a subtle moment but easily the most powerful in the entire film. In that moment, I believe the realization Rocky had was that he and Mickey are the same person. They are both past their prime and chasing their dream at all costs. For Mickey, reaching out to Rocky was an act of desperation. Mickey knew he wouldn’t get another chance at his dream and that Rocky is the closest he’ll ever come to training a boxer for a big fight. Rocky understands this and, in a much deeper sense, understands that dreams are hard to come by in Philadelphia’s inner city, so he agrees at that moment to put their differences aside. In that one scene, there is a socioeconomic message that far exceeds any of the other themes or messages in the film. A message that you don’t have to tear others down (no matter how much they deserve it) to be successful.
Scenes like this are everything for this movie. It is what makes this movie withstand the test of time, even though technically it is not the most well-made film. And again, this movie brings back a theme from last week, which is that simpler is oftentimes better in film. I love a layered and complex story but a simple story can be much more effective if executed properly.
If it was unclear to me before, it is clear now why ‘Rocky’ has been woven into the fabric of American pop culture. There is, perhaps, no movie that is more American than ‘Rocky’ top to bottom. I wouldn’t say that this movie is my favorite by any means, and I am not sure I would even go as far as to call it great. But I understand why ‘Rocky’ means so much to so many and why it will continue to be one of the most revered movies of all time.
Kernel Score: 7.1/10
Our next challenge is “A Movie Starring an Animal.” Selfishly, I am choosing one of my favorite films of all time, ‘Babe.’ If you have not seen this movie, you are in for a real treat. If you have seen it, give it a rewatch and join in on the conversation this time next week. Thanks for reading!