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Bucket List Movie #458: Rocky (1976)

Updated on October 2, 2014
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John G. Avildsen.
John G. Avildsen. | Source

All artists want to achieve greatness. Many try, only a few succeed, but a certain immortality is that brass ring that artists attempt to grab, or at least graze lightly.

Unfortunately, there is a price attached to a work that is successful and touches the masses: it becomes so frequently referenced, ripped off, and parodied that it eventually loses meaning or becomes difficult to take seriously. "American Gothic" is a great painting, but it's been parodied so many times, it's taken for granted and rarely appreciated. There isn't a fairy tale around that hasn't been retold or "fractured" in some way. And how many pop songs, even the really good ones, seem to become jokes overnight? But film is the medium that shows the price of greatness and/or popularity the most. I confess I didn't even see Gone with the Wind until ten years ago, because everything about it has been absorbed in pop culture, to the point where I felt like I didn't need to see it (I'm glad I did, because I love it).

That's how I about today's BLM, Rocky. Yes, yes, I only just saw Rocky. In my defense, growing up and watching as much TV as I did, do you know how many parodies of Rocky I'd seen? All That, Saturday Night Live, The Critic, Fresh Prince of Bel Air, an ice tea commercial, and those are only a few off the top of my head. I knew going in all the iconic moments: punching the raw meat at the packing plant...

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The slugging back of raw eggs...

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And, of course, the greatest friggin' training montage/running upstairs scene EVER!

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No, I'm not even joking around. I have no idea if Rocky started the craze of "training montages", but I don't care how many post-70s sports movies you've seen, I don't care how sick some might be of Rocky, the training montage is the best I've ever seen. It really shows the grueling dedication that boxers have to put in, and I'd have to have ice in my veins not to grin like an idiot when the strains of Bill Conti's iconic (there's that word again) theme music swells to Everest heights. Seriously, get the tune in your head and I dare you not to want to run up a great flight of stairs.

Now that I've waxed hyperbolic, is Rocky a genuinely good movie? I certainly think so. Sylvester Stallone is said to have written the screenplay in three days, which only made me aware of what a hopelessly slow writer I am. Rocky is often dismissed as a cliched "underdog making good" story; in fact, Cracked.com published an article about how movies like Rocky ruined the world (http://www.cracked.com/video_18409_the-3-worst-lessons-rocky-movies-taught-us.html) because apparently it teaches us that working hard will get you want you want, every time, guaranteed. I know that articles on Cracked should usually (if not often) be taken with a grain of salt, but some people truly agree with the article. I must offer my own rebuttal, because it's too easy to overlook Rocky's deeper message.

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Just like in my review for The Matrix, it feels utterly pointless summarizing Rocky, but since I've got to fill my quota, here goes: Rocky Balboa (Stallone, as if you needed reminding), is a local prizefighter with sad brown eyes and a permanently hangdog expression who lives on the uglier side of Philadelphia. Though he is 30 years old and barely ekes out a living either as a boxer or as an occasional mob enforcer, Rocky is a surprisingly decent guy. Yeah, he may work as an enforcer, but he'll only rough someone up lightly (his boss chews him out for not breaking the guy's finger as instructed). He's in a profession as brutal and merciless as boxing during the day, but at night we see what a gentle, childlike soul he is as he chats with his pet goldfish and turtles, and rehearses corny jokes to tell to YO, ADRIAN!- er, sorry, Adrian (Talia Shire), a painfully shy employee at the local pet store. Crusty old Mickey (everyone's favorite scene stealer Burgess Meredith), who runs the gym where Rocky trains, considers Rocky a bum (he even gives the poor guy's locker away!), and Rocky seems resigned to this fate.

But people resign themselves to fate, not the other way around, and when heavyweight champ Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers), seeking someone to fight on New Year's Day 1976 (our nation's bicentennial), finds Rocky in a copy of Who's Who (or something like it), he decides that this Rocky Balboa, this "Italian Stallion", sounds like a worthy opponent. Not that Rocky is any match, but that's the point: "America is the land of opportunity!" Creed loudly reminds his naysayers. Why not take a chance on this unknown, give him his fifteen minutes of fame, and show this great country that a Cinderella story can happen to anybody?

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Despite his misgivings, Rocky accepts the challenge and pours his big lug of a heart into training. Mickey appoints himself Rocky's manager, and gives him loads of colorful pep talks ("You're gonna eat lightning and crap thunder!"). As the big fight looms ever closer, Rocky, in one of the most unsung moments in the film, confides to Adrian that he doesn't believe for a second that he'll win, but he's willing to try to go the distance. I don't know if I'm spoiling anything, but just in case:

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Rocky's right, he doesn't win… but he sure as hell goes the distance. He goes 15 solid rounds with Creed, and he loses by an eyelash, but it doesn't matter. This is why the snarky Cracked article needs to be debated: Rocky lost. He worked hard, came close, but he didn't win. He lost… but he isn't a loser. That's what's so wonderful about Rocky: sometimes the journey really is more important than the destination. Rocky didn't win, but he accomplished so much more by taking a risk and working hard than if he hadn't. And that's what we should be teaching our kids: that awards and trophies are good, but they aren't the end all and be all of achievements. Improving yourself and testing your limits are just as important as winning. Just doing something, anything, and applying yourself will open doors (or even just one). Rocky has received something so much greater than a title, and that's self-confidence and validation.

Rocky launched a slew of sequels, all unseen by me, and I prefer to keep it that way, thanks. I prefer to think of Rocky as a standalone movie, about an ordinary guy who achieved a taste of greatness just because he went for it. To have a bunch of sequels where he either wins or loses completely misses the point.

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Stallone really did hit the bullseye with Rocky, both in terms of writing and acting. Hardly a great actor, he nonetheless does a fine job playing Rocky as an oafish, gruff, but ultimately sweet palooka you can't help but root for. It's too bad that, with the exception of the Rambo movies and the Expendables series, Hollywood never knew quite what to do with Stallone; that, or Stallone never knew what to do with himself. Who knows? Maybe he could have taken more chances in low-key indie films where he could have tweaked his Rocky image a little more.

But Stallone will never fully escape Rocky. There will always be the Rambo fans, or those who still like to snark about Stop! Or My Mom will Shoot, but Rocky is Stallone's legacy. He helped make a great film, and it's his to either cherish or live down.

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