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Rocky (1976)

by on 2011/08/22

Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky is unique case for me. It’s a series I never followed in its “proper” order. Every few years, I’d catch an installment on TV, here and there. I saw the fourth with my sister, at the peak of Stallone’s fame. I saw parts of the third when I heard Hulk Hogan and Mr. T were in it. And I know the recent Rocky Balboa well, a feature I loved and re-watched (as I did with Stallone’s last Rambo).

The basic story is familiar to many even if, like me, you missed out. Set in mid-Seventies Philadelphia, Rocky Balboa (Stallone) is a thirty year old boxer earning forty bucks every two weeks. He makes ends meet as a half-hearted thug, collecting debts for a small time loan shark. He comforts himself by visiting Adrian (The Godfather’s Talia Shire), the painfully shy sister of his alcoholic friend Paulie (Burt Young).

In the opinion of the local gym’s coach, Mickey (Burgess Meredith of 1966’s Batman), Rocky’s missing his innate potential, not living but wasting his life.

One day, however, the “Italian Stallion” gets the chance to fight heavyweight champion Apollo Creed, played by Predator’s Carl Weathers. Whether he wins or loses is less a concern than developing faith in himself. What will it take for this “tomato” to go the distance?

It may well be my ignorance won’t allow me to answer that question. I got the distinct impression I was missing out on some tricks, and the film wasn’t concerned with filling me in. While I didn’t need to understand boxing to enjoy the bulk of the plot, at times I felt a little out of my league.

In an early match, and during parts of a later bout, it appeared as if the punches weren’t connecting . . . was it due to poor choreography, editing, angles, or sound? Or were they probing jabs without an intent to land?

How long does boxing last? Three rounds? Fifteen? Based on context, I didn’t know. In 1976, what theatre-goer had access to Wikipedia — or even an encyclopedia — to find out?

Are boxers expected — or supposed — to reach a certain outcome in exhibition fights? Are they trying “for real” or putting on a show, as in (some) wrestling? Again, I didn’t know, and I still don’t.

But really, I didn’t care too much. In truth, I was surprised at the distinct lack of boxing; this movie is mostly a drama, a fictional slice of life. An initial contest sets Rocky up, and a climactic one caps the end.

In between, we get a more deliberate, romantic affair. Things get almost too slow by the time of the denouement. Then everything gets jumpy — the second round jumps to the seventh, then to the fourteenth, in a matter of mere seconds — and suddenly ends. “No montage needed here,” Gru dryly remarked.

I’m probably coming across as critical, but I don’t intend to. Having less familiarity with the first than most of its followers, I had different expectations, and yet I’m hardly disappointed. Having (finally) seen it, I’m happy to say it didn’t disappoint. Though I prefer its final entry, the original holds up well, nearly as strong, and a perfect companion piece.

Which is my way of saying, “If you only pick two, watch Rocky and Rocky Balboa.”

Feel free to insert your own joke about a one-two combination.

* * * *

Rated 14A

120 minutes

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