The 1970s was a golden era in Hollywood. Challenging, artistic films were winning awards and topping the box office.
“Rocky” doesn’t fit in with the era. It’s a formulaic feel-good family movie. It has no intellectual point and no surprises. But, darn it, I love it just the same.
Sylvester Stallone stars as Rocky Balboa: a sweet, lovable goon trying to make a life for himself on the mean streets of North Philadelphia.
By day, Rocky collects money for the neighborhood loanshark. By night, he fights brutal boxing matches for comically small purses.
Rocky doesn’t have big thoughts or big dreams. His only goal is to go out with the painfully shy shopgirl at the local pet store – Adrian (Talia Shire).
In a magical and ridiculous turn of events, the heavyweight champion of the world – Apollo Creed – decides to challenge Rocky Balboa to a title fight at the Philadelphia Spectrum. The savvy Creed recognizes that white America will eagerly line-up behind an ethnic underdog.
The magic formula of “Rocky” is the juxtaposition between the grittiness of the neighborhood and the humanity of the people who make their lives there.
“Rocky” is a splendid time capsule that shows us a blue-collar white section of Philly in all its filth and hopelessness.
Screenwriter Sylvester Stallone exhibits a genuine love of people and empathy for every working-class man and woman we meet.
We’ve never seen a leading lady as introverted as Adrian. But the script slowly reveals her inner life.
Talia Shire does a marvelous job of showing us the swirling emotions going through Adrian’s head during her first night at Rocky’s place. With almost no words, Shire makes us feel Adrian’s uncertainty, awkwardness, and fear of sexual assault. But simultaneously, Shire shows us that Adrian already views Rocky as her partner and she can barely contain the passion and joy.
Burt Young is terrific as Adrian’s abusive brother Paulie. In an average movie, Paulie would simply be a villain to be defeated. He puts Adrian down constantly. He loses his temper and yells at the drop of a hat.
But Stallone makes us view Paulie with empathy and forgiveness. We see that every insult he levels at Adrian is partially aimed at himself. We see the confusion and sorrow in his eyes after he has gone off on one of his furious rants. Poor Paulie is a lost, lonely man who sees his life slipping away and he barely got to live it.
Incredibly, the script even presents Rocky’s sleezy-looking loanshark boss as a decent man who earnestly cares about his employees.
Does it make any sense that Rocky Balboa is able to go toe to toe with the undefeated champion of the world? It does not. But by that point we are so emotionally invested in Rocky we just sit back and root for him with all our might.
“Rocky” is a pointless, artless crowd-pleaser that doesn’t fit with the other Best Picture winners of the era – like “The Godfather,” “The French Connection,” and “Annie Hall.” But, darn it, I think “Rocky” is every bit as great as those other films.