Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (May 27, 2011)
Here's an age that has become increasingly hard to recall: the era in which Sylvester Stallone was a respected talent. I don't know which route is more common, but some actors follow one of two paths. On one hand, a few performers start out as popular but poorly-regarded among the critical community, and they later earn respect; Jim Carrey falls into that category.
On the other hand, there’s the Stallone way. Although 1976’s Rocky was far from his first film, it was the one that brought him fame and success, as it earned an Oscar for Best Picture in addition to nominations for Stallone himself in the acting and writing categories.
But it's mostly been downhill since then for old Sly, at least as far as critical acclaim goes. Through the Eighties, he became a huge star but got farther and farther from the sense of realism and honesty that pervaded his earlier work. He clearly believed the hype, especially after the enormous success of Rambo: First Blood Part II in 1985. After that hit, we experienced atrocities such as Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot and the arm-wrestling epic Over the Top. Stallone attempted to regain some of his lost reputation with the more serious and gritty Copland in 1997, but it didn't work; everyone still seemed to view him as a big, dopey galoot.
Was Rocky an aberration, a one-shot deal that spent whatever creative abilities Stallone ever possessed and forever doomed him to be a hack, or did success simply corrupt Stallone and spoil what could have been a nice run of good work? I guess we'll never know, but at least we have the original Rocky to look at as a fine film.
I'm not quite sure it deserved to win Best Picture against some tough competition in 1976. It topped All the President’s Men, Bound for Glory, Network and Taxi Driver. When you combine the continued resonance of both Watergate and Vietnam with the jingoistic glory that surrounded the Bicentennial, it's not surprising that Rocky, the only "feel-good" picture in the bunch, would take home the prize. The fact that the film's success - Rocky also was the biggest moneymaker for 1976 - paralleled the story's "underdog" theme certainly helped as well.
Did Rocky deserve to beat some of the classics against which it competed? Probably not, but that shouldn't diminish the fact it's still a fine and entertaining film. Unfortunately, the combination of some dreadful sequels and Stallone's generally-poor reputation have diminished this movie's legacy, but if it's inspected on its own, Rocky offers a strong experience.
Stallone himself offers a gently sweet and affecting performance as Rocky, a not-too-successful fighter who gets an improbable shot at the big-time. While I wasn't sure I completely bought Sly during Rocky's moments of rage, he made the character endearingly modest and simple without creating a moronic joke. Rocky retained his dignity and seemed surprisingly real.
Also effective was Talia Shire's turn as Rocky's sweetheart Adrian. Oddly, I found her more believable as an intensely shy wallflower than when she grows as a person due to Rocky's affection. One unusual aspect of Rocky is that it actually makes some attractive people seem unappealing. Most movies take good-looking folks and try to make them look ugly, but it rarely works; it almost always appears obvious that underneath some bad style choices exists a hottie. That's not the case here. Both Stallone and Shire look pretty grotty at times in their roles, and this sense of realism helps the film.
Though the plot seems improbable, the film presents it believably and I easily buy into Rocky's story. The movie progresses at a nice pace which keeps the viewer involved and interested, though I think it moves a little too quickly at times. For example, Adrian's transformation from skank to babe happens too rapidly and effortlessly. One minute she's hiding in a corner, and the next she's all dolled up and ready to go!
I also thought the climactic fight flew by too fast. We don't get enough of a feel for what an epic battle this thing was supposed to be, as the montage treatment loses the sense of desperation and weariness it should portray. It's still a fairly rousing climax for the film, but I thought it could have been paced better.
Speaking of the fight, I could never figure out one thing in regard to it: the match is billed as occurring on a big day for the US, and it seems likely this should be July 4. In fact, Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) once refers to the bout as taking place on the nation's biggest birthday. However, the fight actually happens on January 1, 1976. My guess is that they wanted to have it take place on July 4 but production issues caused them to change it to New Year’s Day. In any case, it seemed very confusing since every aspect of discussion about the bout clearly leads one to believe it'll take place on Independence Day.
That oddity excepted, Rocky remains a very good film. The story of the underdog who makes good is as old as time itself, but it continues to maintain appeal and the movie shows how that can happen. I won't argue that Rocky deserved its Best Picture victory over some strong competitors, but I think it's a nice piece of work nonetheless.