Sunday 20 September 2020

From the archive: "Rocky"

Every now and again, a struggling actor forces their way onto the Hollywood A-list by virtue of a self-penned screenplay that describes their life as an underdog. In the 90s, preppy Matt Damon and Ben Affleck did it with Good Will Hunting, their hero clinging to Ivy League-level mathematics; with 1976's Rocky, a young slab of working-class beef named Sylvester Stallone, fresh from paying his dues in a softcore flick titled The Italian Stallion, similarly improved his circumstances by playing a boxer fighting under that self-same ringname. His Rocky Balboa is a down-on-his-luck, past-it scrapper taking the occasional club fight between gigs as a hired heavy for a Philadelphia loan shark. Everything - a character's life, an actor's career, wider popular culture - changes when reigning world champion Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) pulls Rocky's name out of the air for a fight to mark the Bicentennial. "It's very American," yelps the enthusiastic promoter. "No," counters Creed, "it's very smart." In one corner, then, we find all-American sentiment, hearts; in the other, calculation, minds. 

Unlike the brainiac Good Will Hunting, the film takes not the side of the eloquent, well-dressed Apollo, an Ali-type whose real creed is that kids should become doctors or lawyers rather than lowly, self-harming sportspeople ("Be a thinker, not a stinker"), a champion who spends more time with his accountant than with his trainer, and tosses dollars to the crowd on his way into the ring. Rather, it sides with the more selectively communicative Stallone, whose Rocky sometimes seems less like a boxer in the pugilist sense and more like a boxer in the canine sense: a dumb mutt, growling to himself in a language barely comprehensible to human ears, prowling Philly's dockyards and back alleys, and constantly returning for more. (His first conversations in the movie are all with animals, and it's no real surprise he should take up with a shy pet store assistant (Talia Shire) who doesn't get humans, either. Adrian and Rocky don't walk off into the sunset: she puts him back in his kennel.)

The film's biggest weapon - the horseshoe tucked away inside its glove - is Stallone's screenplay, sincerely interested in how those lower down the social scale live their lives from day to day; get that right, and you'll guarantee yourself an audience of people who are themselves holding out for a shot at the big time. The realism is in the detail: the unbroken, utterly unglamorous shot of Rocky cracking an entire carton of eggs, one by one, into a glass first thing on a morning so cold even the DJ is complaining, then swallowing the lot, raw, in one gulp, the entire sequence lit only by the light of an open fridge. If you are going to do rags-to-riches, do something evocative with the rags, and the riches will be worth all the more: even after countless sequels, spoofs and spin-offs, the pay-off here remains utterly stupendous. Few modern movies have worked this hard to portray America as the land of opportunity, and to assert that every dog - even one with the face of a Sly Stallone - can have their day.

(March 2006)

Rocky returns to cinemas nationwide, along with its immediate sequels and the later Rocky Balboathis coming Friday.

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