Original US Release date: November 21, 1976
Production budget: $960,000
Worldwide gross: $225,000,000
I’m not going to offer up any pretenses, here; I’m about to gush. Rocky is one of my favorite movies in all of movie history and I’ve often said that Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky Balboa is my all-time favorite character that was created specifically for a motion picture. And I’ll say with complete confidence that Rocky is the greatest sports movie ever made.
Many people don’t remember (or aren’t aware of, in the case of those born after the movie’s release) the reception that Rocky received from general audiences, professional critics, and the industry, alike, when it was released in late 1976. The movie approximately grossed an astounding 234 times its production budget (a film is usually considered a financial success if it grosses about 2.5 times its production costs). It currently sits at 93% on Rotten Tomatoes. And it won three Oscars, including Best Director for John G. Avildsen and the big one, itself, Best Picture, at the 1977 Academy Awards. All of the accolades were and still are well-deserved. But for those who are living in sin, having never watched this brilliant classic, and perhaps only capable of seeing Sylvester Stallone (who also wrote the film, in addition to playing the titular role) through the lens of today’s snarky, patronizing society, they may be wondering why and how this all happened. Well, to find out, you can either 1) watch the film or 2) read on. I suggest you do both.
Today, audiences are used to seeing inspirational sports movies. And there were plenty of sports-based films for decades before Rocky came to be. But Rocky was more of a film about a man who happened to be an athlete, rather than a film about the sport, itself. Yes, Rocky is a boxer. Yes, there is boxing in the movie. But the movie is not about boxing. In fact, that is, in essence, the entire message of the film. But I won’t elaborate any further on that, for the benefit of any who may have not seen the movie.
No, the film is about a man who has never been able to live up to his potential. Rocky is a caring, giving individual who’s great at handing out insightful, helpful advice to others but not as great at following that same advice. He talks to a young girl about becoming the people she surrounds herself with, while he surrounds himself with deadbeats, losers, and even criminals. Anyone who could have been a good influence on him has been left behind or ignored. And then he meets Adrian.
Adrian is his friend Paulie’s sister. Paulie is one of the aforementioned deadbeats but his sister is a different story. She’s incredibly shy and suffers from an extreme social phobia but Rocky sees through it to the person underneath and pursues her wildly. They complement each other well (or, as Rocky puts it, they “fill gaps”) and each helps the other to grow and blossom into the person they should have been, all along. Their relationship is the foundation of the entire film and the movie would not have played the same without it.
And then there’s Carl Weathers as World Heavyweight Champion Apollo Creed. Clearly influenced by the great Muhammad Ali, Creed is a Vince McMahon creation before Vince McMahon was creating anything. When Apollo goes to the ring, he goes with style, dialing himself up to level fifteen and turning himself into a caricature of his true self. He’s got theme music, he’s got costumes, and he’s got complete and total confidence. He’s the champ and he knows it. And he knows everybody else knows it, too.
So when he needs an opponent for his bicentennial championship defense in Philadelphia and chooses no-name Rocky Balboa to be that guy, he sees it as a marketing opportunity for himself. But Rocky starts to wonder if everyone around him who has always told him that he’s better than his current status and achievements might be right. He stares at himself in the mirror and wonder what might have been. And now he has an opportunity to wonder what could still be.
So, backed by Bill Conti’s iconic score – featuring melodies that are still ingrained into the public consciousness 25 days away from its 40th anniversary – Rocky sets out to finally fulfill his potential and be somebody that he can be proud of. And that’s his motivation; he’s not doing this for Adrian or for his friends or for the public. He’s not even doing it because he aspires to be World Heavyweight Champion. He’s doing it exclusively for himself, which means that it’s his mind and his heart that are truly on the line.
The ultimate message of the film, delivered through the climactic championship battle, is what truly resonates. The fight, itself, is captivating and electric. It feels real and the emotions are thick. Everyone’s thoughts, motivations, and desires are written on their faces and communicated through their performances and body language. It just feels important to every person in that arena and, therefore, to the audience as well.
I said earlier that Rocky is my favorite movie character, and I stand by that. He’s further fleshed out in the sequels (of which there are six, including 2014’s Creed) but it comes down to the fact that he’s flawed but means well, both for others and for himself. And, not only that, but he’s capable of delivering when it matters and his priorities are always in the right place. I wish more real people were like Rocky Balboa.
I threw a lot of superlatives towards Rocky at the beginning of this column but I left one out. This film is also the most inspirational film I’ve ever seen. Any other reasonably successful inspirational film – especially centered around a sport of some type – has taken its cues from Rocky. When I feel like I have an insurmountable challenge in front of me, this is my go-to movie. Success is relative and it comes from within. Rocky believed in himself. And, thankfully, so did Sylvester Stallone when he came up with this legendary classic. It’s a movie that absolutely everyone should see at least once.
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