Friday, October 1, 2010

Day Ninety: Rocky

Ranking on IMDb Top 250: #210
Year: 1976
Director: John G. Avildsen
Starring: Sylvester Stallone and Carl Weathers

In 1976, one of the greatest years in the history of film, a movie about an unknown boxer from Philadelphia – played by a then relatively unknown actor in Sylvester Stallone – who gets a shot at the heavyweight title won Best Picture. It beat out fellow all-time classics Network, All the President's Men, Taxi Driver and Bound for Glory in the process, and it single-handedly put its lead actor on the map as a legitimate force at the box office. Every sports movie since Rocky, including its five sequels with varying degrees of necessity, owes Stallone and director John G. Avildsen a huge debt. From the down-on-his-luck relatability of the protagonist to the inspirational training montage and subsequent title fight, almost every movie to make sports its central theme has been influenced by Rocky, many to the point of blatantly ripping it off.

But just because it was first, does that make it great? Well, in this case, it does. Rocky essentially created a formula appreciated by most American movie fans and critics and did it better than it would ever be done again. It won a Best Picture Oscar, for crying out loud. It is a great movie regardless of genre. To address the point in a less specific context, though, I think Rocky is the exception to the rule. Usually when a film is the first of its kind, it takes a few more attempts to work out the kinks in the subgenre. The Jazz Singer was the first "talkie," and it doesn't even have a reputation as a good film anymore, let alone an all-time classic. Rocky is driven by iconic scenes (like the training montage), iconic lines ("Yo, Adrian!"), an epic ending, and a workmanlike lead performance by Stallone, and it would be a great film regardless of when it came out.

Perhaps the most notable thing about this movie is the ending. SPOILERS lie ahead, so tread carefully. In the title fight against Apollo Creed, Rocky loses. He goes the distance, avoids a knockout, gets his face beaten to a bloody pulp, and loses. What makes it perfect is that it doesn't even matter. While most movies that show us a boxer or a golfer or a high school football team training and preparing for their shot at the championship actually let us see them win that championship, Rocky forces the audience to cope with the protagonist's ultimate failure. True, he goes the distance, which is all he ever wanted, but the closing shot isn't Rocky hoisting a belt; it's a battered, bruised, bleeding Rocky crying out his girlfriend's name because he can't see with his eyes swollen shut and hugging her. That's it. The antagonist prevails, and Rocky will presumably have to go to the hospital. I think, in a nutshell, that's why this movie is so great. It builds tropes and conventions that it had no way of knowing would be aped by a thousand films in the succeeding twenty-five years, and yet it defied them as well.

Well, that and the fact that it made me want to take up boxing.

The Good: The expectation-defying ending.

The Bad: I didn't really enjoy the training sequence paired with the now-ubiquitous music. Blasphemy, I know, but as a piece of cinema, it's far less inspiring than it thinks it is.

The Skinny: I wouldn't put it much higher on the list than it is, but it's a truly iconic film that deserves to be on.

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