'Adriaaaaaaaan!' I'd heard this iconic line many times via imitations and spoofs before I ever saw 'Rocky' - it's a classic moment from a classic film that has stood the test of time. Sylvester Stallone's breakout film is a drama that wears its heart on its sleeve and is impossible to hate. I decided to revisit it before watching its only spiritual sequel, Rocky Balboa.
'Rocky' tells the story of a humble, down on his luck boxer named Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone). Rocky talks a lot but he's not too bright; he's a decent guy who finds his day job as hired muscle for a loan shark difficult to carry out because he doesn't like shaking people down. He hangs out with his friend Paulie (Burt Young), who works at a meat plant, and is romantically interested in Paulie's shy sister Adrian (Talia Shire), who resists Rocky's charms. The film introduces Rocky's world before shaking it up with two events. First, he finally connects with Adrian and the two hit it off. Second, he's offered the chance to fight the Heavyweight Champion Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) when Creed's opponent pulls out. The fight is billed as an opportunity for a small time boxer to make his mark, but Creed actually sees it as a publicity stunt to boost his popularity, because nobody expects Rocky to put up much of a fight. Despite being seen as a joke and knowing that he doesn't stand much of a chance, Rocky resolves to give it everything and begins a disciplined training programme. He receives the support of his friends and the goodwill of his community, and receives the wisdom of a cantankerous coach (Burgess Meredith) who offers to train him.
There's nothing overly ambitious about 'Rocky', it's a simple story that's really well executed. Stallone's screenplay is impressive - there are no wasted moments, it builds up to the climactic showdown while letting us get to know the characters. While not overly deep, the characters come across as real people who've led hard lives full of regret and bitterness. The fantastic understated performances by the cast add to this, and there are only a few showy emotional moments. Understated except for Burgess Meredith, who's explosive and entertaining from start to finish (except for one poignant scene). The real standout is Sylvester Stallone, a good actor who has made a lot of crappy films over the years. He's goofily charming, but there's a lot of subtle weariness and pain as well; Stallone also nails the physical aspects of the role. The interplay between Stallone and Talia Shire is also convincing and unique, and their romance is in many ways the backbone of the story ("together we fill gaps" predated "you complete me" by decades, and is a line that feels sincere coming out of Rocky's mouth).
The film conveys a genuine sense of community that lends it a great deal of character and provides a nice backdrop and context for everything that happens, as Rocky becomes something of a celebrity in his hometown. The final fight scenes are dramatic and well staged (though I admittedly know little about boxing), and the conclusion is immensely satisfying. The icing on the cake is Bill Conti's iconic and rousing music, which adds a great deal to the mood of the film.
Rocky's a classic, and no mistake - an uplifting story about a man who attempts to maintain some dignity despite all of the bad hands life has dealt him. It may not be original or brilliant in any department, and yeah it's a bit schmaltzy, but it all comes together brilliantly and makes for a truly memorable film.