Writer: Sylvester Stallone
Rocky vs Spider Rico (Winner: Rocky)
Rocky vs Apollo Creed (Winner: Apollo Creed)
Frank Stallone: PRESENT
One training montage, ending with Rocky running up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the slomoing his way into a freeze frame.
One fight montage during the big fight at the end.
Pets: Cuff and Link (turtles), Moby Dick (a fish), Butkus (a dog)
Tragic deaths: None
Level of Racism: Moderate.
Bartender calls Apollo Creed a jig clown.
Mickey calls Rocky a dago.
Apollo assumes that as an Italian Rocky can cook.
Best Joke Told By Rocky: The turtle food last week had more moths in it than flies. And the moths get stuck in the turtle’s throats and they cough – and I have to then smack them on the back. And they get what? What do they get? They get shell shock.
Romantic Rocky: [To Adirian] I think we make a real sharp couple of coconuts – I’m dumb, you’re shy, whaddaya think, huh?
Most Inspiring Mickey Line: [After Apollo knocks Rocky down in the big fight] Down! Down! Stay down!
The Tao of Paulie: [Talking about his sister Adrian] Sometimes she gets me so crazy I could split her head with a razor.
Song Title That Sums Up Theme of the Film: Going the Distance
Awesome appearance by: Lloyd Kaufman as a drunk; Joe Frazier as a Joe Frazier; Michael Dorn as Creed’s bodyguard; Joe Spinell as a mobster.
Did I Cry? YES
The Tale of the Tape: Rocky Balboa is a nobody. A self-professed ham and egger, we meet the boxer fighting in the gym of a local religious school. His opponent, Spider Rico, goes down and Rocky wins a purse totaling forty dollars and fifty five cents.
But he’s a nice guy. On his way home from the fight Rocky stops to play with some puppies in a pet store window, and to make a bit of small talk with some very confused white people doing street corner doo wop in 1975; kindness to animals and the chronologically displaced makes us like the beat up boxer. As if that wasn’t enough, we soon learn that Rocky has a couple of turtles and a fish at home, and that they’re kind of his best friends. They certainly give him about as much conversation as Adrian, the mousy girl who works at the pet store and who Rocky stops by and visits every day.
In fact, Rocky is such a nice guy that he can’t even do his day job right. Rocky’s an enforcer for local mobster Gazzo, and he can’t even bring himself to break the thumbs of a guy who is delinquent on his gambling debts. He also wears granny glasses while taking down the names of skells who need their various bones readjusted. Hell, later on in the movie Rocky pulls a weird looking midgety girl away from a group of street corner weiners and drags her home before she earns a ‘reputation,’ leaving her with this solid advice: ‘Be a thinker, not a stinker.’ Rocky is more or less a complete and total saint.
But he’s down on his luck. At Mighty Mick’s Boxing Gym his locker has been cleaned out, given to another fighter who can pay the rental. The tiny, angry, racist proprietor of the gym, Mickey, can’t even be bothered with Rocky, who is approaching 30 and squandered his talent to become a leg breaker. Mick calls him a tomatah, which is a Hebrew word for tomato (spoilers: Mickey is Jewish. This feels like the weirdest reveal in Rocky III because the character seems totally Irish the rest of the time. Even his nickname, The Mick, feels racially motivated. Even though his name is Mickey, so I guess it’s just a generic shortening). Poor Rocky. Cue sad version of the Rocky theme.
Bummed out about his life, Rocky heads to a local bar and continues his attempts to be canonized by helping a drunk inside. There he meets with his friend Paulie, a fat, greasy and probably smelly little fucker who works at a meat packing plant but has aspirations to one day be a mob enforcer. Dream big, Paulie. Paulie’s drunk, as usual, and being a complete and total fucking creep about everything, including his sister, who happens to be Adrian from the pet store. Paulie tells Rocky that the big lug should come over for Thanksgiving, as it’ll give Rock a chance to put some moves on the paralyzingly shy Adrian.
Meanwhile, the heavyweight boxing champ, Apollo Creed, is in a situation. His opponent for his next big fight has dropped out with a broken hand and Creed has decided that he wants a novelty match. His big plan: since it’s the Bicentennial coming up, he wants to fight in Philadelphia, and he wants to find a local Philly boy to go against. He wants the other fighter to be a nobody, to give this guy a chance at the spotlight, to do the whole bullshitty American dream thing. Going through a book of local boxers and their names, Creed decides he wants to fight Rocky Balboa, since his nickname is The Italian Stallion, and Italians discovered America. Creed’s guys don’t like it – Rocky is a southpaw and everybody knows you shouldn’t fight Confederates with claws instead of fingers – but the champ insists.
Back in the main story, Gazzo’s lieutenant gives Rocky a recommendation on where to bring Adrian for a date: the zoo. The guy heard that retards like the zoo. While Rocky doesn’t take him up on it in this picture, he does propose to Adrian in the zoo in Rocky II, so it definitely stuck in the back of his mind.
Showing up at Paulie’s house, Rocky discovers that Adrian has no idea that he was coming. She’s upset because she couldn’t prepare, and she doesn’t want to go out with Rocky since she has a turkey in the oven. Paulie, using the kind of finesse and out of the box thinking that could turn him into the next Dr. Phil, throws the turkey into the alleyway and asks Adrian if she wants to eat it now. It turns out that domestic abuse is the best way to get a gal out of her shell; after locking herself in her room for a couple of minutes (Rocky makes an endearingly fumbled attempt to talk to her through the door – seriously, Bambi is more threatening than this guy), she comes out and grabs Rocky and leaves the house.
Rocky takes her to the ice skating rink, but the joint is closed on Thanksgiving. Slipping the clean-up man some money, Rocky takes Adrian out on the ice; she’s awkwardly slipping around on skates while he trots alongside her in his street shoes. It’s all sweet, though, and Adrian slowly warms up to the big galoot, who can’t shut up and keeps regaling her with stories of his fights and his life. They walk back to his place, and he tells her in all his fights he never had his nose broken (shadow? Fored!), and he shows off his pets. In a move of utmost suavity, Rocky clears some of the filth off his landfill of a couch and tries to get Adrian to sit down. But she’s not comfortable – maybe it’s the mattress Rocky has nailed to the wall with a butcher knife (he uses this to spar), or maybe it’s the fact that Rocky appears to live inside the asshole of a homeless man. Not the most lady-friendly apartment. She tries to back out, but Rocky will have none of it, and they end up in a clinch on the floor and all I could think was ‘Oh Christ, that’s so unsanitary.’
The next day Rocky heads to the gym where he has a message from Creed’s people. Thinking they want to hire Rocky as a sparring partner for the champ, Rocky heads over to the office, but when he learns what they really want – to offer him a prize fight with the champion of the world – he refuses. Eventually they wear him down and we cut to Rocky watching himself in a press conference on TV. Creed’s a showman, but Rocky’s folksy stupidity is charming as well. When asked how he got the nickname The Italian Stallion, Rocky says he thought it up while eating dinner. At the end of the press conference Rocky, in full on doofus mode, looks into the camera and says ‘Hey Adrian, it’s me, Rocky!’
Back at home, Rocky gets a knock on the door. It’s Mickey, hat in hand (literally), wanting to help Rocky get in shape for the fight. Mickey has a picture of himself when he was a contender, and he says that he has lots of wisdom to offer Rocky. But Rocky wants none of it – Mickey was never there for him over all the other years, so why now? Mick is totally broken; it’s obvious that he sees this as his last chance to do something good with himself. But Rocky won’t have any of it, and he orders Mickey out while he locks himself in the bathroom. Mickey, all but weeping, fakes Rocky out (this isn’t hard) by opening and closing the front door; when Rocky comes out of the bathroom he yells at Mickey and the old man slouches off, broken.
But wait! Rocky’s a saint, remember? There’s no way he could break this old guy’s heart, so he runs down the street after Mickey and hires him as his manager.
And so the training begins. Rocky is up at 4, and he drinks 5 raw eggs for breakfast. He goes for a run, “Italian Stallion” written in marker on the back of his sweats, but he’s out of shape. When he gets to the steps at the Philly Museum of Art he can barely get all the way to the top. He stops, winded, holding his side. Most non-triumphant. Not at all montage-worthy.
He heads to Paulie’s office, aka a meat locker filled with animal carcasses. As Paulie starts asking Rocky if he’s fucked his sister – truly, an inappropriate line of questioning – Rocky gets angrier and angrier and starts punching the meat. Beating the meat, if you will. And so is born an idea that would one day actually spawn a toy.
Mickey is training Rocky to be better on his feet. Women weaken legs, apparently, although the old boxer doesn’t further elucidate upon this odd assertion. Is it because they’re siphoning the calcium from men’s bones? It’s a well known fact that women have issues with calcium. Anyway, the best way to strengthen Rocky’s legs is to tie his ankles together while he hits the speed bag. After the gym Rocky goes to the pet store and buys Butkus, who becomes his new running companion.
Beating the meat is now a regular part of Rocky’s training and Paulie calls in the media to film the boxer as he cudgels cows. While Rocky is on TV training like a caveman, Apollo is too busy in his suits and business meetings to take it seriously. The champ has no idea what he’s in for – three more sequels and a death at the hands of a Super Russian. Who could have seen that coming?
Christmas comes, and Paulie brings the holiday cheer in the form of a baseball bat wielded at Rocky. Paulie’s feeling left out – he wants a job as an enforcer or with Rocky’s ring team. He calls Adrian a loser, and he tells her that she’s worthless now because Rocky ‘busted’ her – she’s no longer a virgin. Everybody is upset about Paulie being so drunk and waving a bat around, but no one ever discusses his truly disturbing fixation on the hymen of his THIRTY YEAR OLD sister. Shockingly, Paulie’s actions don’t help him any and not only does he not get a job, Adrian moves out of the house they share, shacking up with Rocky in his filth pit. Along with two turtles, a fish and a huge animal, as well as Butkus the dog.
Things start moving into high gear. Mickey makes an unlikely prediction about Rocky’s anatomy: ‘You’re going to eat lightning and crap thunder!’ (this is wrong on many levels, not the least of which being that thunder is a sound while crap is a solid (or occasionally, when you’ve been drinking too much or eating poorly, a semi-liquid); Mickey should have said that Rocky would in fact fart thunder) while Paulie (hey, I just realized – all the white guys in this movie have names that end as dimunitives: Paulie, Mickey, Rocky) asks if he can make some money on Rocky’s name. With all of that out of the way we get to the meat and the potatoes of Rocky’s training process: A MONTAGE!
Rocky trains like some kind of post-apocalyptic warrior. He picks up bricks from demolished buildings, he pounds on hanging meat, he runs doubletime through the Italian neighborhood, likely because he doesn’t want his watch stolen. Finally, he comes to those steps again and he takes them, so triumphantly that time itself slows down and then completely stops.
It’s the night before the fight. There are giant paintings of Rocky and Apollo hanging above the ring in the center of the Philadelphia Spectrum. The room is huge, thousands of seats, all empty. The painting of Rocky is wrong – the colors on his shorts are reversed. Nobody’s taking him seriously, and in fact Rocky doesn’t think he can even win. He just wants to go the distance, to make it all the way to the 15th round, something no one has ever done with Creed.
And then it’s the fight. Rocky’s got a new robe, but it’s way too big and it’s covered in ads. He comes out to the ring, but his entrance is totally overshadowed by Creed, who comes out in what appears to be a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade float. He’s dressed as George Washington and he’s paddling a boat across the Delaware. When he gets to the ring he changes costumes and is Uncle Sam. Rocky is bemused. Joe Frazier shows up as a special guest and then the fight is on.
The two boxers dance around the ring and then Rocky lands the first punch. He knocks Apollo Creed down, something that has never happened before. They really go at it. Hard, fast. Rocky’s nose gets broken – shocker! The nobody from the streets of Philly is giving the champ a run for his money. “He doesn’t know it’s a show,” Creed’s trainer says. “He thinks it’s a damn fight!”
And then it’s a fight montage. Punching, stumbling, girls dressed like Lady Liberty holding round cards over their heads. The whole thing!
Round 13! Round 14! Suddenly Rocky is down. He’s fucking destroyed, his face looking like a hemorrhoid. Mickey tells him to stay down but Rocky cannot do it. Adrian, who has been backstage the whole time, unable to watch the fight, comes out and stands at the back of the crowd. Rocky works Apollo’s ribs, breaking them. The champ is FUCKED.
Rocky goes back to his corner, demands that he gets his swollen eye cut because he can’t see a damn thing. “You stop this fight I’ll kill ya,” he tells Mickey, and then goes back out.
The two fighters are exhausted, dazed, sweaty and bloody. They go at each other in the final moments and then the bell rings. They’re both standing. The two boxers go into a clinch and Creed tells Rocky “There ain’t gonna be a rematch” (he will change his mind, movie-time, in about six minutes), and then the announcer calls the fight… for Creed! Creed raises his arms in victory while reporters rush Rocky in the ring. He doesn’t want to talk about it, he doesn’t care about it. He went the distance, and now there’s just one thing that matters to him. Famously he cries out ‘Adrian!’ and she rushes through the crowd. Nobody can get into the ring, including Paulie, who suddenly attempts to be less of a dick as he creates a diversion with a cop so Adrian can climb into the ring. She and Rocky hug and he tells her he loves her. Nothing else matters, and the camera closes in on Rocky’s face as all the pain disappears and he’s lost in a moment of personal triumph and love.
Aw geez, it’s giving me a lump in my throat just thinking about it.
Color Commentary: What a fucking movie. Rocky is, without a doubt, the single best thing that Sylvester Stallone has ever done. Watching this now, with the rest of the series and Stallone’s entire career in focus, you have to wonder what went wrong. This film is a beautiful character study, a loving portrayal of losers on the margins of society who redeem themselves by simply giving it their best. Winning isn’t even something Rocky is considering, it’s all about proving that he can do it, that he can stand up there with the best, and in the end the love of this woman, a fellow misfit and societal castoff, is more important to him than any belt. Rocky’s moment of triumph isn’t when that final bell rings, it’s when Adrian joins him in the ring.
Rocky is what we’d call an indie film today – small, quiet, character-driven. There are just the two fights, and most of the film is about Rocky’s relationship as opposed to his boxing career, a focus that would shift drastically over the next few films. In fact, Stallone would need decades before he figured out what it was that made Rocky work so well, and he would need to once again be the underdog in his career (Stallone refused to sell his original script to anyone if he couldn’t play the lead) to recapture the spirit of this film in Rocky Balboa. In fact, you can safely skip right from this movie to Rocky Balboa if you’re actually interested in a warm, sweet and well told story about a man who discovers the ability to defy the odds.
Stallone’s script creates a wonderful world of broken people, unapologetic in their crassness. Each character feels like a real person, taken right off the streets of Philly, and no one has to prove what a good person they are. Well, except Saint Rocky, but the film manages to make Rocky’s over the top decency feel real. It’s because he’s an endearingly dumb guy, a guy with no illusions about who he is, and a guy with an affable sense of humor. Watching the other films in the series it’s sad to see this Rocky fade away, to see the Rocky who tells corny jokes and makes self-deprecating remarks with a mixture of humility and honesty disappear.
Special notice has to be taken of Bill Conti’s brassy, disco-inflected score. It’s one of the all-time greats, and even though the tracks like Gonna Fly Now and especially Fanfare for Rocky are overplayed, they manage to get to you, especially in the context of the film. It’s amazing, eternal work.
Avildsen’s camera captures the grimy streets of mid-70s Philly with objectivity as well as love. He makes the city feel like a home, and having Rocky stand atop those steps at the end of the training montage, his city spread out before him, rockets right past cheesy into sheer uplift. That’s the magic of Rocky; it’s a film that could have stumbled directly into crassness and sentimentality but it manages to be realist while being sweet. It gives you that good feeling while it also tells the truth.
And the ending. The ending of Rocky is probably one of the best endings of any film in history. It always makes me cry, and it’s completely earned. The emotion is real, the triumph is personal and deserved, and the message is true and resonant. It’s a beautiful moment, and future Rocky films would show that Sylvester Stallone never quite understood it.