Why Rocky Rules pt. 1
Thirty-four years after the original “Rocky” hit theaters and made an impact, it’s become somewhat trendy, not to mention pretty easy, to dismiss the franchise it spawned as a footnote in the history of film or fodder for parody.
Folks do their mumble-mouthed Sylvester Stallone impressions and scream “Adrian!” at the top of their lungs. They remember “Eye of the Tiger” more than they remember any scene or monologue. At best, people file the Rocky series under “Classic sports movies” alongside “Bull Durham” or “Hoosiers”; not bad company, to be sure, but Rocky is a cut above all that.In other words, despite no shortage of replays on basic cable, people have forgotten that Rocky may well be the most impressive movie franchise in the history of American cinema.
Think I’m exaggerating? I may well be, but let’s go with this for a bit.
The original “Rocky,” released in 1976, is on the surface the classic sports flick underdog tale, with an everyman boxer-that would be Rocky Balboa-getting a once in a lifetime shot at the heavyweight champion of the world, Apollo Creed. But that is very much just the framework of the film, not what’s it really about. The core of the story is Rocky, a good guy with a good heart and the kind of smarts that get you through life if not necessarily college taking stock of the life he’s got and seeing if he can’t do better. We love Rocky for many reasons, but a big one is his humility; he doesn’t really feel like he necessarily deserves this chance, but if he’s getting it, he will prove to himself and those who believe in him that he’s not a waste of time. Rocky never harbors any grand designs on actually beating Apollo, he just wants to last 15 rounds and show the world he’s not a bum.
And of course even more than that, “Rocky” is a love story. It’s Rocky’s courtship of Talia Shire’s shy Adrian, his kindly yet relentless mission to bring her out of her shell and show her the world. It’s a tale of two people who lead decent yet banal day-to-days discovering that they were the missing pieces of each other’s lives and having the courage to embrace a better future regardless of the risk. The goal of Stallone’s screenplay-yes, he wrote the movie as well as starring in it-is to make the outcome of Rocky and Adrian’s romance matter as much to you as the results of the title fight by the end of 120 minutes, and I believe if you have seen the movie, you’ll agree it succeeds in that goal.
So yes, “Rocky” is a fine movie beyond the montages and boxing scenes-though both are incredible-that make it just a pillar of athletic cinema. In fact, it was so good, that that august body the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences deemed it the very best film of 1976.
Yep, if you weren’t aware or it had slipped your mind, “Rocky” won the Oscar for Best Picture. Its director, John G. Avildsen, also took home a statue for Best Director, it notched Best Film Editing, and it just missed in seven other categories, including three of the four major acting categories-Burgess Meredith and Burt Young both got Best Supporting Actor nods in addition to Stallone and Shires’ nominations-plus Stallone being up for Best Original Screenplay and “Gonna Fly Now” making the running for Best Song.
Indeed “Rocky” was not just a movie for jocks or sports fans, it was a highly-decorated piece of work recognized across the board for excellence in writing, directing, acting, music and pretty much every technical aspect of filmmaking.
Three years later, “Rocky II” continued both stories from the original: when offered a rematch with Apollo, Rocky must weigh issues like his physical health and financial standing against another shot at glory; meanwhile, his romance with Adrian progresses into marriage and her pregnancy while the two storylines also overlap as she opposes his continuing to fight out of regard for his safety.
“Rocky II” did big box office, becoming one of the first sequels in history to remain on par with its forerunner. Critically, while it earned no Academy Award consideration, it was still regarded as one of the top movies of 1979 and did achieve top honors at both the American Movie Awards and People’s Choice Awards.
Generally seen as a decent though not quite on par sequel to a classic like “Rocky,” “Rocky II” did tie up the story nicely if Stallone and company had wanted to end things there-and there’s where most franchises would have chosen to end, after a classic film and then adequate follow-up.
However, an Oscar-winning effort and then pretty good sequel certainly wouldn’t support my contention of “Best Franchise Ever,” would it? The Godfather trilogy would easily trounce the first two Rocky efforts on a critical level, with the first two both being Best Picture winners, while Star Wars, despite never winning that golden statue, ranks way above on the blockbuster and box office levels-and those are just considering Rocky’s peers from the late 70′s.
But “Rocky II” was not the final entry in the series, though it did signal the end of the story’s first chapter and a significant paradigm shift moving forward. “Rocky III” was a departure rarely seen in episodic filmmaking and one that even more seldom succeeds, but it was the start of what for me established Rocky as a milestone franchise that has never been equaled.
To be continued…
Photo by AchimH
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