“It really don’t matter if this guy opens my head, either. ‘Cause all I wanna do is go the distance. Nobody’s ever gone the distance with Creed, and if I can go that distance, you see, and that bell rings and I’m still standin’, I’m gonna know for the first time in my life, see, that I weren’t just another bum from the neighborhood.”
I wonder about how history will treat today’s big movies. You can’t find a college in America without a Rocky or Star Wars poster somewhere in its dorm rooms. The first I ever heard of Rocky was from a giant poster in my local pizza place when I was a kid. Rocky was standing at the top of the steps, his arms in the air, and it seemed like one of the truest indicators of a cultural phenomenon: having your poster in a pizza place. In forty years, could the same be said about The Avengers? Jurassic World? At risk of sounding like an old man complaining about how things have changed, I’d like to revisit the energy that was racing through the New Hollywood movement and why it found its way into pizza place posters nationwide.
Nobody knew what Rocky would become when it rose from uncertain beginnings to a triumphant box office reign in 1976, grossing $225 million on a budget of just a million. You could also look at the gamble of Taxi Driver, or Carrie, or Chinatown, or countless other disjointed works of acclaim, all bred from the idea that Hollywood was changing. What if we put an unknown lead actor at the center of a rags-to-riches boxing movie? What if he doesn’t win the fight, but it doesn’t matter because he proved to himself that he’s not just another bum? What if he had pet turtles? It’s not that cinema isn’t being challenged today, but when it is, I don’t think it reaches very deeply into our movie culture. I enjoy the MCU, for example, but I don’t admire it. And I think Rocky has a lot to admire.
Immediately, it’s a joy to see Sylvester Stallone play such a warm, clumsy figure who is thrust into a random chance for greatness. His courting of Adrian (Talia Shire) is silly and genuine, though it would warrant some tweaking for a wide appeal in 2019. Adrian’s shy nature and her hot-tempered brother, with Rocky playing the dopey romantic at the center, makes for an often uncomfortable but always engaging dynamic that the movie spends a lot of time tapping into. Rocky is of course famous for being a movie about a man trying to rise above who he fears he’s become. It’s more than a boxing match.
The film is whimsical, with sharp writing from Stallone including details about Rocky’s love for animals, his motivation for being a boxer (“I can’t sing or dance.”), and his skepticism of Apollo Creed and the media for trying to make a patsy out of him. He’s the tough-guy debt collector you would expect to be an asshole by all accounts but isn’t. It’s a careful character study that Stallone crafts beautifully both on the page and in the acting. The training montage holds up as a “smile on your face” moment, with the comically loud, triumphant soundtrack and the brutal depiction of exhaustion and pain in Stallone’s portrayal culminating in true movie joy when he makes it to the top of the steps.
Movies like Rocky are why I adore 70s Hollywood. I still enjoy the touchstone franchises of 2019, but they aren’t surprising or personal. The studios are in a place of stasis, one that will surely last a while given the box office success of tent pole franchises (perhaps Rocky now included as one of them). But there’s something deliberate about Rocky. It’s a movie dreamed by a man, not one planned by committee. With the goal of making movies that appeal to everyone, I fear that Jurassic World and its cohorts are touching the hearts of no one. It might not be fair to compare the two, but I wonder whether we see more of Rocky or Star Wars: The Force Awakens in pizza places forty years from now.
Films Left to Watch: 816