Say what you want about Sylvester Stallone’s career (and you could say a lot) but he did manage to create one of the most inspirational movie characters in sports movies, or in movies in general for that matter: Rocky Balboa. Of course everyone agrees the first movie is the best of the Rocky anthology as it shows Rocky at his weakest, before the fame, the legend, and the fights with Mr. T, Hulk Hogan and Dolph Lundgren. On the other hand, every one of those movies gave exercise enthusiasts some of the best workout montages ever, making “Eye of the Tiger” the song of choice for joggers.
Not that I am a hardcore fan of the Rocky series, but I have seen every movie except the second one. Each movie has a varying degree of popularity, but they are not very difficult to find. I rented the first one from a rental store (a nearly extinct institution) while in college in 2004, only for the movie to play on TV the very next day. If you have access to a movie channel that plays old or classic movies, odds are it will eventually play a Rocky marathon. By the time the sixth, and hopefully last, movie came out in 2006, I was curious enough to see Balboa go out for one last fight at the improbable age of 60. Is it laughably impossible for a fighter to get in shape at that age? Yes, but we go to the movies for the illusion, not the real thing. In fact, I remember that on my university campus, there was one dorm room that had a Rocky poster permanently taped to its window. People like to believe in the improbable.
Again, the first “Rocky” (1976) is the most inspiring of the films as it tells the story of the character in the very beginning when he is just a debt collector for a small-time loan shark in Philadelphia. Not a very honourable job, but the fact is most people in the neighbourhood like Rocky. A simple-minded fellow with very little education, he is not the sharpest tool in the shed, but he has a big heart. He boxes part-time, but gets very little encouragement from Mickey (Burgess Meredith) the trainer at the local gym who confronts him for working for a loan shark. It seems Rocky is destined to walk the streets in near poverty, while beating people he doesn’t particularly hates.
Then one day he gets the chance of a lifetime. Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) the current boxing heavyweight champion is in town and wants to set up an exhibition match after his scheduled opponent suffers an injury. He and his team of publicists and agents pour through the list of registered boxers in America looking for a flashy name. They find one: The Italian Stallion, Rocky’s boxing surname. They like the idea of the clash of two minorities. Creed is African-American and Rocky is of Italian descent, hence it will appeal to the masses. The fact that Rocky is an unknown also adds to the mystique. As one agent puts it, “It’s very American.”
When Rocky is called for a meeting, he has trouble believing his luck. He goes in there thinking they need him to do publicity for the champ, not fight him. Once the news spreads this is actually happening, the neighbourhood rallies behind Rocky and the press starts to follow him around. Mickey the trainer naturally offers his services now that Rocky has a once in a lifetime opportunity, but of course Rocky initially turns him down out of spite. Once they make up, we move on to the training phase of the movie, and to that iconic jogging scene that culminates with Rocky climbing the stairs of the Philadelphia Museum of Art to the tune of Bill Conti’s music.
Of course, where would Rocky be without his Adrian (Talia Shire)? When he is not busy training, Rocky is tentatively dating the sister of his best friend Paulie (Burt Young). They make an odd couple. As they walk on a deserted ice rink, Rocky towers over her and does most of the talking, since Adrian is a shy girl who has never been with another man before. She even seems afraid of him, but once she gets used to him, she is ready to stand at his corner during the big fight. The moment when Stallone bellows her name during the fight’s final round has been lampooned countless times, but in the heat of the moment it all fights together. Rocky has proved to the world he is not a bum and he has the girl. It’s a Hollywood ending for an unlikely character.
The whole story is a good reflection of Stallone’s own career. He wrote Rocky’s script himself and sold it to United Artists, who gave the directing job to John G. Avildsen. It made Stallone one of the most on-demand actors of the 70s, 80s and 90s. When his career took a dive in the early 2000s, he took a gamble and made a fifth sequel. I assume Stallone took a few substances that are illegal for real-life athletes in order to get in fighting shape at his age, but the gamble paid off. “Rocky Balboa” was a surprise hit, breathing new life in Stallone’s career. After all these years, it’s still inspirational to see Rocky climbing those stairs.