Why It Works: Rocky
Why It Works is an ongoing column which breaks down some of the most acclaimed films in history and explores what makes them so iconic, groundbreaking, and memorable.
With the trailer for CREED dropping earlier this month and SOUTHPAW out this weekend, it's quite apparent that ROCKY has left an imprint on American cinema still prevalent almost 40 years later. In the time of Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, and Robert Redford, though, how did a movie about a dough-eyed boxer/henchman light on brainpower launch a franchise and become one of the most critically-acclaimed films of the 1970's? Here's why it works:
WHY WE LIKE THE CHARACTERS:
Right from the get go, we see Rocky beating the snot out of Spider Rico in the ring. This throws us headfirst into the world of boxing and immunizes us to the fact that our pugilistic protagonist is no stranger to violence. Next, we follow him after the fight as he greets puppies in a store window, gives some words of encouragement to a street corner singing group (cue Frank Stallone cameo), and talks to and cares for his turtles and fish. Yes, this is a fighter, but he is certainly a lover as well. Even when he's tasked to strong-arm a guy by his loan shark boss, he lets him off light by not breaking his thumbs like he was told. We're not sure just how meatheaded or aggressive this character is just yet, but there's no doubt he is a goodhearted kid in a heavyweight's body.
More movies need protagonists as endearingly unabashed as Rocky Balboa.
WHY WE CARE:
Like many movies from the 70's, ROCKY takes its good old time settling into a story. We get snippets of Rocky's day to day life- as well as Apollo Creed, Paulie, and Mickey- early on, but the first hour actually unfolds more like a quirky love story than a boxing film. Watching Rocky and Adrian is like watching two tweens at a school dance, and it's pretty frigging cute. Due to the voyeuristic nature of the film, by the time Rocky agrees to fight Creed, he feels more like a close friend than a movie character. It's not easy to achieve this level of intamacy in two hours, but when it's successful, we just want to see the character happy regardless of how or why. What's more is that Rocky's desire to fight comes from a need for personal accomplishment in his life rather than just to make a name for himself. He has identified for too long as a nobody and is finally ready for a change.
Body Language 101.
WHY WE'RE SATISFIED:
Okay, time to address the stallion in the room. The big fight against Apollo Creed? Rocky loses. Of course he loses. Creed has never even been knocked down, and Rocky is not some superhuman prodigy- he's just a guy with drive and a montage. The night before the fight, Rocky tells Adrian he just wants to go the distance with Creed. Since no one has ever lasted 15 rounds with the champ, just staying in the ring is one hell of an accomplishment. It may come as a shock when the judges rule in Apollo's favor, but seeing how thrilled Rocky is at how long he lasted makes us happy. If that's not enough, Rocky dismisses the cameras and microphones just to share the moment with his girl. See, it was a love story after all.
Classic movie yelling must make it rough on people named Adrian. Or Stella. Or Khan.
WHY WE REMEMBER:
Too often, sports movies spend so much time throwing training, stats, and gameplay in your face that the actual characters fall flat, and any B story feels forced and hollow. ROCKY features exactly two fights (one of which we only catch the tail end of) and moderately scattered moments of training and shoptalk, allowing for a much more layered story throughout. Most movies that focus this much on a couple getting together don't feature an old man yelling, "you're gonna eat lightning and crap thunder!" and most movies about a ripped athlete chasing his dream don't focus on the flaws, self-doubt, quirks, and turtles of the main character. Of course, none of this matters without the outstanding performances of Sylvester Stallone, Talia Shire, Burgess Meredith, Burt Young, and Carl Weathers, an incredibly honest script by Sylvester Stallone, and an equal push for realism by director John G. Avildsen. Say what you will about the sequels, but there's no question that ROCKY leaves you wanting more.
Thoughts? What else worked for you? What didn't? Strike back below!
If you have any movies you'd like to see put under the microscope, let us know below or send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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|Extra Tidbit:||ROCKY is one of only three sports movies to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. Can you name the other two? No Googling!|