The first Rocky film was being made when I was a mere fetus. I’m only bringing this up because when you’ve only discovered the Rocky films at the age of 38, it’s rather tempting to watch the whole series for insights into just how much the world has changed over the course of your life. With a whole new spin-off film franchise in the making (no, not the fight-of-the-fossils flick, Grudge Match, but the forthcoming Creed, in which Rocky will train the grandson of his first boxing adversary) this temptation is likely only to intensify.
Rocky’s release in 1976 came at a rather dark time for America. As noted in this article, the combative but optimistic spirit of the civil rights era had all but completely fizzled out and an awful backlash had begun. A new political type was emerging: the resentful working class white male. Rocky himself is not this type; he cannot be resentful because, of course, he has a heart of gold, and is utterly committed to the ethos of individual achievement. Nevertheless, in the film’s long and unvarnished shots of gritty Philadelphia, you can see the conditions that might give rise to a certain hopelessness or anger. If you don’t somehow transcend this, the film suggests, you really are a loser and a bum.
No matter what criticism can be directed at the first Rocky or its sequels – the racism, the neo-liberalism, the naked patriotism, nostalgia and manipulative sentimentality – it would be hard to argue that these films aren’t important. It would also be hard to argue, I think, that there isn’t a heckuva a lot of talent on display here. Stallone’s screenwriting, at least in the first two films, is absolutely top-notch. The acting, not only Stallone’s but also that of all supporting stars, is naturalistic and compelling. You’ve also got to respect Stallone’s audacity. Having successfully found a studio to buy his screenplay, he insisted that only he – a total unknown – play the lead, otherwise, it was no deal. We’re talking about a man who was at the time so poor that he had to sell his beloved bull mastiff for fifty dollars.
There is a rather compelling parallel here between the rise of the fictional Rocky Balboa and the rise of Stallone himself. This probably explains why scores of tourists every day run up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and pose with the Rocky statue. Genuine rags-to-riches stories are hard to find and they don’t get much better than this.
When Rocky opens, we see our soon-to-be-hero, almost thirty, struggling against another pugilist in a small, grubby cigarette-smoke filled arena. Even though he wins the fight, the general consensus is that he’s a has-been, no longer taking on any real contenders. He’s also broke. He makes only forty dollars from his night’s work. His real job, if it can be called that, is helping an unscrupulous loan shark collect on debts.
About an hour passes and everything reinforces our initial impression that Rocky is not only a bum and a loser but also quite thick. However, one thing he most certainly isn’t is a quitter.
Rocky fancies the woman working at the pet store where he goes regularly to buy food for his pet turtles and fish. Despite the woman, Adrian, delivering about one nervous word to every fifty of Rocky’s, a romance blossoms. Adrian still lives with her brother, Paulie, one of the oddest characters I’ve ever seen in American film. Paulie is a drunk, he’s lazy, he treats his sister deplorably, and yet he’s there, with all his flaws, totally irredeemable, in all six films. He is the resentful working class white male type that Rocky never could be. I think it’s fair to say that characters like Paulie’s are rarely portrayed in film at all, let alone as unsympathetically as this.
It is, of course, rather obvious that Rocky is going to make good—that’s the whole premise upon which the film has grabbed our hearts. Yet Rocky is one of those rare films in which the fact of its happy ending at no point diminishes the intrigue of every scene. Simply watching melancholy Rocky in his squalid home talking to his fish and turtles has more entertainment value than all of the Fast and the Furious films put together. At one point, Rocky grabs the fish bowl and places it next to the terrarium so that his animal friends won’t be so lonely. Like so many moments in this film, the poignancy makes you want to cry.
When eventually Rocky gets his break, it’s from Apollo Creed, a veteran heavyweight who doesn’t have any viable opponent for the time being. So he schemes up the idea that he’ll fight a total unknown in Philadelphia on the bicentenary of America’s founding. That unknown, of course, is Rocky—his face and profile appealing to Creed as he flips through a guide of potential contenders.
This plot contrivance is the franchise’s most brilliant move, and it has to be said, nothing in the following five films can quite match it. Creed himself gives away the whole theme: it’s a shot at the American Dream. Despite these being lottery-style odds, the film still makes Rocky’s break seem inspiring to us, because, you see, he still has to work hard to cash in on his once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. There’s a lot of skipping rope, a lot of running, a lot of weights, a lot of sparring – not to mention the quitting of smoking cigarettes – to be able to stand a chance on the Big Night.
When Rocky was released to widespread critical praise and public adulation, it seemed that a new type of leading actor had emerged. Sure there had been actors who had carried movies with an impressive physical presence (Marlon Brando, most famously), but never before had an actor been defined first and foremost for his athleticism. Stallone, quite simply, became ripped. No actor had ever been ripped quite like this. Furthermore, he claimed to represent an old fashioned kind of masculinity, one that was reputed to be disappearing. He said to the New York Times:
”If macho means I like to look good and feel strong and shoot guns in the woods, yes, I’m macho…I don’t think that even women’s lib wants all men to become limp-wristed librarians. I don’t know what is happening to men these days. There’s a trend toward a sleek, subdued sophistication and a lack of participation in sports. In discos, men and women look almost alike, and if you were a little bleary-eyed, you’d get them mixed up. I think it’s wrong, and I think women are unhappy about it. There doesn’t seem to be enough real men to go around.” New York Times.
There is a fantastic scene in which a swooning TV reporter comes in with a cameraman to record one of Rocky’s stranger training routines. He quite literally punches animal carcasses hanging from hooks. “Do you know of any other boxers who pound raw meat?” the TV reporter asks. Without even a hint of irony, Rocky replies, “No, I think I’m the only one.”
Rocky is not aware of how silly this sounds but more to the point, because he’s a real man, he doesn’t even seem to be aware of, let alone question, his sexuality. Of course he’s desirable, but to even think so would be vain. He loves his wife: that is all. And he is a fighter, that’s all he ever was and will be. This definition of masculinity, with Stallone as the standard-bearer, narrows even further as the 70’s give way to the 80’s and Arnie, Van Damme, Segal, etc. join the pantheon of the blockbuster bruisers.
But Stallone mapped this territory first, and Rocky is not a combat-robot, or simply a muscle-bound jock with an unbeatable work ethic—he feels like somebody who might have actually existed in a given neighbourhood at a given moment in time. And so his rise to the top really does seem—even if farfetched—nevertheless plausible, and it is earned. As viewers, we cannot help but cheer for him.
I can’t imagine there are many readers out there who, like me, were Rocky virgins up until the year 2014, but just in case there are, I’m not going to give away the ending of Rocky I. But I’d be remiss to not point out that after the Big Fight, one of the first lines out of Rocky’s mouth, as his beloved Adrian rushes into the ring to embrace him, is “Where’s your hat?” (Her posh hat fell off in her mad dash through the crowd). It’s thanks to lines like this that Rocky makes for such great viewing. You always think you know what to expect, because the story line is predictable, but Stallone’s writing is weird enough and specific enough to consistently serve up memorable, unrepeatable moments.
And there’s the rub. Stallone did attempt to repeat the magic of Rocky. Again and again. And so we have Rocky II (1979), Rocky III (1982) Rocky IV (1985) Rocky V (1990) and finally Rocky Balboa (2006). Stallone directed all of them except the first and the fifth one, and penned every screenplay. This is quite a body of work. In that 1976 interview, he articulates the kind of legacy he hopes for:
“I want to be remembered as a man of raging optimism, who believes in the American dream. Right now, it’s as if a big cavernous black hole has been burned into the entertainment section of the brain. It’s filled with demons and paranoia and fear.” New York Times.
In Rocky II, we quickly learn the cautionary tale that fame and money can quickly be frittered away. Rocky’s rather pathetic attempts to do commercial endorsements are a failure. Out of financial obligation he must accept the challenge of a rematch with Apollo Creed. Drama, soul-searching and gut-checking ensue. We’re on very similar territory here to Rocky I, only with fewer memorable moments.
Rocky III introduces us to that 1980s icon, Mr. T. By this point, Rocky is filthy rich and wearing nicely-tailored suits. Early on, the ever-shiftless Paulie asks him for financial help. Rocky gives him a stern lecture about how “nobody owes anybody anything.” When he climbs into the ring with Mr. T, known here as Clubber Lang, he is soundly pummeled into defeat. But we viewers know he’s had a lot on his mind. His beloved trainer has succumbed to a heart attack. What follows is yet more soul-searching and gut-checking—even more than in Rocky I or II—because now Rocky is exploring the meaning of “believing in yourself.” Can he beat Clubber Lang in the rematch? Not without a stirring pep-talk from beloved Adrian, and not without the wisdom and advice of Apollo Creed, who is now a friend, not an adversary. There’s a strange moment when Rocky goes to Los Angeles to train in Creed’s gym. Everyone in the gym is African American and, as to be expected, that seething ball of white rage, Paulie, doesn’t like it. Rocky admonishes him. “Well maybe these guys don’t like you either.”
Rocky IV is barely worth discussing. I am pretty convinced that everyone involved, Stallone included, must have snorted wheelbarrows full of coke before making it. Yes Stallone is still very ripped, but he’s also become a caricature of himself. He’s pitted against a seemingly superhuman enemy from the Soviet Union who, to make things really high-stakes, outright KILLS Apollo Creed in the ring. Rocky of course must get vengeance. He travels to Russia, which actually just looks like rural Minnesota or something (presumably because no one could be bothered to actually location scout in the Evil Empire) and, well, look, this paragraph is already longer than I had wanted. If you have to skip one Rocky film, make it this one.
A little bit of Rocky’s mojo returns for the fifth installment. An up-and-comer called Tommy Gun seeks out Rocky as a trainer. But then an unscrupulous manager, who must surely be modeled after Don King, lures Tommy Gun away with the promise of lotsa money, not to mention women with large breasts and bad make-up. Rocky V has a pretty kick-ass ending, which basically sends the message: “the old dog still has a few tricks.”
Which brings us to Rocky Balboa, which, we are to believe, is the final film in the series. It is easily the saddest, and for that reason, perhaps the most interesting film outside of Rocky I. His wife now dead, Rocky gets platonically involved with the woman he gave a scolding to when she was just a girl in the first film, telling her not to be a slut. Philadelphia by this point looks almost post-apocalyptic. His new woman friend lives next to a house that’s been gutted and boarded up. The street corner is desolate. Rocky’s son is miserable at his job and tired of living in his father’s shadow. Thanks to a computer simulation that enacts a hypothetical fight between Rocky, star of the 1970s and 1980s, and Mason Dixon, the current champion, public interest in Balboa is reignited. People want to know, is Mason Dixon a champ of the same calibre as Rocky?
This is where Stallone decides that even though he appears to be taking this film very seriously (unlike the coke-binge/MTV-video style of Rocky IV) he is prepared to throw in the towel when it comes to plausibility. George Foreman famously won his last heavyweight title aged forty-five, but that’s still a far cry from the travesty that viewers are asked to swallow here. Stallone looks every bit his sixty years. His face is as craggy as Mars. Sure he can bulk up like a prize bull who eats steroids for breakfast, lunch and dinner, but the notion that he can even last three rounds with Mason Dixon is outright preposterous.
But we get the sense that Stallone doesn’t care. He wants the perfect sentimental ending. He’s still got just enough of the old writer’s instincts to shoot for symmetry and so Rocky Balboa climaxes much the same way Rocky I climaxed. But it doesn’t work. From 1976 to 2006, everything has changed. Where before the American Dream seemed attainable, by 2006 we’re almost sneering with derision that anyone still expects us to buy this crap. I did admire the way that Stallone was prepared to show us what a shithole so much of urban America has become, but if anyone is looking for a “take-home” message here, it would basically be: quit while you’re ahead.