Wednesday, October 10, 2012

A Technical Knockout: "Rocky" (1976)

One of Sylvester Stallone's best films put him on the map, and launched a very successful franchise.

Stallone wrote and stars as Rocky Balboa, a down and out fighter getting beat up in smoky clubs for chump change. He has a love/hate relationship with his friend Paulie (Burt Young), loves Paulie's sister Adrian (Talia Shire), and enforces payments to loan shark Gazzo (Joe Spinell). Heavyweight champion Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) is looking for a title fight to celebrate the nation's bicentennial, but his opponent drops out. He and promoter Jergens (Thayer David) cook up a plan- give any mook a shot at the champ, in the name of the American way.

Balboa is chosen, and Creed goes about the financial business of being a champ, not taking Rocky seriously. Rocky enlists the help of Mickey (Burgess Meredith), a gym owner who saw Rocky's potential years before, but the two never acted on it. As the fight draws near, Rocky's relationship with Paulie deteriorates as his love for Adrian takes center stage.

I have not seen the original "Rocky" in well over two decades. I highly recommend the crisp widescreen DVD transfer, which puts all the videotape releases to shame. I literally forgot what a dark and grim film this is. Rocky's Philadelphia neighborhood is a bit run down, his apartment is a pit, and director John G. Avildsen captures it all perfectly, which is strange considering the almost comic book style of the sequels.

Stallone does a fine scripting job. While Rocky's relationship with Adrian takes a while, and the volatile Paulie is never explored too much, Stallone seems to know what the film audience wants. I always thought the fight at the end of the film was longer, but it barely makes ten or fifteen minutes. Weathers' Apollo is not as big a jerk as I remember, until he gets into the ring and must put on his show. Adrian could not be mousier, even with Mickey ears and a tail, but her transformation is believable without being jarring. Young and Meredith also turn in fine performances, not yet the one dimensional characters the sequels would turn them in to.

"Rocky" is not a excellent film. It is certainly a strong film, full of solid acting, writing, and directing. While I cannot fault any one ingredient for keeping it from being perfect, I do highly recommend it. (* * * *) out of five stars.