Rocky - The Saga of a Meatball
posted by Paul on 2/14/01
I think I was about six year's old when I first saw a " Rocky " movie. The effect was profound. Until that time, I'd surrounded myself with the dubbed works of Bruce Lee and weekly installments of the " A-Team ". Neither was enough to sate my hyperactivity and my need to imitate every scene of poorly choreographed action onscreen. So when I saw " Rocky IV ", I was deeply moved. Here was a movie featuring a talking robot, a slow-witted Italian who wouldn't give up AND a " bad guy " who could kill you with one punch. I can't begin to explain why I wore out this VHS, but I will say Rocky IV is probably intended for those without critically faculties. You know, six year olds, the mentally challenged, Britney Spears' fans?
It's only when you watch Rocky IV again that you realize how truly absurd it is. The corny patriotism, the invincible monster, Slyvester Stallone directing. If this was the US's veiled Cold War propaganda, the message was simple: " we ain't subtle ". But it wasn't always like that. The original " Rocky " was an award-winning, critically acclaimed masterpiece. I use that term sparingly, but I think it can be applied here quite easily, since " Rocky " hit all its targets with subtlety and poise. A rags-to-riches story that acted as a metaphor for the elusive American Dream.
The struggle to get " Rocky " to the screen was almost as legendary as Rocky Balboa's struggle to the top. Slyvester Stallone, at that time a lowly actor, wrote the script in three days with the intention of appearing in the title role. When the script was sold, the movie studio didn't exactly have Stallone in mind for an onscreen role - he wasn't a name. They looked at the more popular actors of the time - James Caan, Burt Reynolds, Jon Voight, for example. All balked. They then turned their attention to Ryan O' Neal, but he rejected the role, too. Just as well since none of them had the rugged appeal to capture the written part.
Stallone lobbied for the role of Rocky Balboa, proved he was suitable to play an inarticulate Italian low-life, and the rest as they say...is the stuff of folklore. " Rocky " made Stallone a huge star, completely reversing his fortunes and giving him the option to pick and choose his future projects. And that's all an actor can ask for - besides copious amounts of drugs, groupies, fancy trailers and a cut of the gross.
" Rocky " only cost $1 million to make, was produced in a record 28 days, and was so successful that it spawned four sequels. Audiences were so enamored with this big lug - his quest for success and acceptance - that the producers had no choice but to continue the franchise. Box-Office generally dictates what gets made, and " Rocky " was jabbing in profits. However, with each passing sequel, critics noted the franchise was losing its charm, but it more than compensated - with ridiculous characters, terrible dialogue and soap opera scenarios.
After I saw the fourth " Rocky ", I immediately requested that I see the other three ( ah, the joys of being spoiled ). I then sat through the first three " Rocky " movies, enjoying each immensely, finding a new hero who didn't say " I love it when a plan comes together " or " By the power of Greyskull!!! ". I think it was after the first two movies that it became really ridiculous. Rocky being punked out by Mr T and grappling with " Thunderlips " ( Hulk Hogan ) was a far cry from slumming it in the first two movies - and the social commentary that supplied. But when you're six, you tend to prefer " A Team " plots.
I really enjoyed " Rocky V ". I saw it on its first day of release, and I thought it made a good effort to capture the original tone of the series. Not that it succeeded. We only had to sit through Mr T's atrocious acting, Jame's Brown singing ( read: wailing ) about " Livin' in America " and Uncle Paulie following into a snow hole and screaming like an schoolgirl.
In other words, any attempts to redeem this material as credible was futile. It had sunk too low...
A summary of the Rocky Saga
- He's a lowly boxer, he has trouble stringing a sentence together, and he has a crush on a mute pet shop attendant with nerdy glasses. He is Rocky Balboa. Put-upon, ridiculed and lacking direction, he insists on helping neighbourhood " whores " see the light and talk endlessly to a social retard who isn't interested in him.
Rocky is at the bottom of the social ladder, acting as a loan shark on the side and competing in dingy boxing halls at night. Not rich, not smart and not ambitious. His prospects don't look good, but eventually he manages to score a date with Yo-Adrian, a girl to whom he is mysteriously attracted. Actually, I realized later on that her name was actually " Adrian " and not " Yo-Adrian, ya know ". For a long time, I thought she just had a very unique name. The only problem is: she never speaks. Rocky does most of the talking, and when you consider that the majority of his lines consist of incoherent monologues about turtles and never having his nose broken, you begin to realize that this isn't " Casablanca " revisited.
However, Rocky manages to court Adrian, win her affections and stay close with her bitter brother - Paulie.
And he's happy with that. Bouncing his ball on sidewalks, bouncing peoples' heads off walls and bouncing Adrian off the bed. He's contented. But then Apollo Creed, the charismatic black boxing champion, needs an opponent for his next fight. The fight is scheduled for January 1st, but Creed's opponent has dropped out, and they're faced with a dilemma. Postpone or find another opponent? Creed has the great idea that since America was founded by an Italian, they should pick an Italian fighter, and since no-one else will fight him, they scrape the bottom of the barrel. " The Italian Stallion ". Rocky is initially reluctant, but eventually accepts, realizing the opportunity presented to him. Money, fame and pussy ( only kidding! ).
Rocky assigns Mickey to be his trainer. Mickey is like a little pitbull - except less hairy and with a voice. He has a weathered face and he used to be a boxer - except he only looks big enough to box eggs. No doubt he's a great guy to have around when you need a boost to your self-esteem. There's no telling how good Rocky must have felt hearing " ya're a bum!" everytime he looked at Mickey. Mickey tells him, " Ya got heart, but ya fight like a goddamn ape ", which certainly conjures up hilarious mental images. But he is a good trainer, getting Rocky to run up steps and pound raw meat ( get your head out of the gutter ). He also forces Rocky to chase a chicken around a yard, which will surely come in useful when he's getting his head smashed to pieces. Funny, when I chase after a chicken, it's called insanity. When Rocky does it, it's called training.
Balboa begins to believe he has a chance.
The people of the Italian neighbourhood rally around Rocky, and Mickey manages to build his shaky self-confidence. It's very much a triumph of the human spirit, as Balboa goes face-to-face with Apollo, and takes him the distance ( fifteen gruelling rounds ). He's bloodied, he's battered, but his sheer will power takes him through to the end. While he loses the fight, he wins acclaim, the heart of the spectators, respect from Apollo and he's proved an important point to himself. Adrian is there to offer moral support, and at the end of the fight, he yells out for her. She joins him in the ring, side by side, the pair proclaim their mutual love and the movie closes with a close-up of a bruised but proud Rocky.
Rocky marries Adrian. He's still living off the temporary but significant fame stemming from his last fight. He's offered a few jobs acting in commercials, but he's embarrassed by not being able to read the cue cards. " I smeel mainly " ( read " I smell manly " ) he says to the utter amusement of the director of a cologne commercial. Adrian teaches him to read, but it takes him about two hours to read one sentence. When that sentence is " i am man ", you know you have problems. Rocky forgets to use protection, and impregnates Adrian... as well as giving her a VD, I presume.
Adrian doesn't want " Stallion " to fight again, since she knows more blows to the head will make him even more stupid. But the family are struggling, and with a new baby on the way, Rocky knows he has to provide. He works briefly in the meat factory, but it doesn't pay well, and the boss is a shyster. So he's left with little alternative.
He accepts the offer of a re-match with Creed, and although he has confidence issues, he knows the lucrative pay-off is worth the inevitable beating.
Once more, Mickey is his trainer, and attempts to instill some confidence in the meatball.
Things are looking up until Adrian has complications during pregnancy and falls into a coma. Any woman who has to squeeze a Stallone offspring through her legs is bound to face complications.
Nevertheless, Rocky is crestfallen by the plight of his sweetheart and he's completely thrown off his gameplan. He does not want to think about the fight, much less participate in it, and he keeps a constant vigil at his wife's bedside.
When Rocky is downtrodden, he'll bounce his rubber handball off the sidewalk. I thought it was a subtle way of implying that Rocky's frequent bouncing of the ball reflects the frequent bouncing of his fortunes. But I think there's a simpler explanation: Rocky is a moron.
Adrian's condition starts to improve, and she gives him the go-ahead to fight ( nice of her ). And so he begins an intense training regime, asking the neighbourhood priest ( who has a penchant for sticking his head out of the window. Better not dwell on that ) to pray for him.
Once again, the fight is intense and very brutal. Rocky is cagy, crafty and unspectacular, but he comes out the victor. Against all odds, he's the new heavyweight champion of the world. He's earned the respect of Apollo and the most precious boxing title in the world.
Rocky is now a hero to the people of Philadelphia, but Paulie is still bitter and jealous of his brother-in-law's success.You see, Rocky is rich and famous, while Paulie is a cantankerous drunk, who used to store meat in a freezer. Interesting to note Rocky's fantastic new dress. Gone are the leather jacket and black jeans, and in comes Ralph Lauren-esque threads topped off with an effective facelift.
Rocky's defended his title numerous times and he's a cultural icon ( think Tiger Woods ), appearing on telethons and acting in commercials. It emerges that all his defenses were against flimsy opponents, as Mickey was trying to protect him from defeat. Meanwhile, Clubber Lang, a new boxer on the circuit, is making quite a name for himself. Knocking out opponents with ease, he sets his sights on Balboa's title, and challenges Rocky openly.
Balboa accepts despite all objections from his advisers. The fight is scheduled, but just before it takes place, Lang confronts Mickey. Something about an angry eighties icon on steroids scares Mickey, so he keels over and dies of a Heart Attack. Rocky is devastated, and too upset to pour his heart into the fight. Clubber wins easily, and Rocky is without a title or a trainer.
Or self belief.
Old nemesis Apollo Creed steps up to the plate and offers to train Rocky for a rematch with Lang. Rocky accepts rather begudgingly, but his confidence issues have hit him hard, and all his belief died with Mickey's Irish ticker.
But several moments of deep soul searching, long sprints across the beach and the screeches of " Eye of The Tiger " and Rocky is ready to go. He's back, he's sharp and after the obligatory beating, he manages to topple Lang and regain his title, spirit and integrity.
Apollo is a new friend, and Rocky has benefitted by looking deep within himself.
Rocky is now super-rich, lives in a beautiful mansion and regularly invites Creed over for dinner and cupcakes. Paulie is still a bum, but a bum who has been pampered by the Balboa family. They even buy him a fully interactive robot for his birthday, so when you consider that Paulie isn't exactly a chick magnet, it's no surprise that the robot is moving strangely by the end of the movie.
Apollo is retired, but when he sees a promising new competitor badmouthing his beloved America, he's keen to go for one last dance and show " that big chump what being afraid is all about ". Rocky knows it's a bad idea since the huge Russian stands 6'6 and one of his punches is the equivalent of four sumo wrestlers landing on your face...simultaneously. Apparently, " whatever he hits, he destroys ", so he'd be handy to have around N Sync concerts.
Even a non-brain surgeon like Rocky knows that 1850 LB to the face has got to hurt. But Apollo doesn't listen, underestimates his superior opponent and gets slaughtered in the ring.
Drago kills Creed in two rounds, and Rocky, in a beautiful Hugo Boss shirt, refuses to throw in the towel.
With Apollo dead, Rocky grows disillusioned. He vows to avenge his fallen comrade, so he agrees to a fight in Russia, goes away for an extensive training program, and tries to rekindle his self-belief. While Rocky is chopping wood and doing press-ups, Drago is being injected with steroids.
Russia bad. God bless America.
The Russian crowd are extremely hostile to Balboa, and Rocky gets pulverized in every round. But he manages to endure the pain and even cuts Drago. It's a BAD cut! He even saw " three of them out there ". Paulie told him to " hit the one in the middle " and Rocky heeds that advice and manages to, against all odds ( seeing a pattern here? ) AND credibility, defeat the Russian. The crowd are now on Rocky's side, and his powerful American spirit has managed to transcend Cold War animosity. He's just that damn good.
He gives a speech about changing his ways, and the Audience cheer heartily ( they had the benefit of a Russian translator, but we didn't have the benefit of an English translator! ), and Rocky is serenaded as a hero.
Drago beat Rocky so severely that he has been diagnosed with brain damage. He develops a problem with his memory and he suffers a lot of headaches ( probably from watching " Rocky IV " ). But he returns home, is declared a hero and is asked of his future intentions. Retirement is his answer, but it goes down like a fart in a spacesuit. The Duke, a Don King-like promoter offers him a new challenger - his promising protege. Rocky refuses, since he's retired.
It doesn't sit well.
While Rocky was being a hero in Russia, his accountant managed to sqaunder all his wealth. Not only that, but his son aged 5 years, grew half a foot and presumably had a face-lift, too. It's the strangest reaction to puberty I've ever seen, and you'd think even Rocky would notice the difference.
The family are declared bankrupt, and go back to the slums. Rocky is back to his roots, he misses the ring and he has visions of Mickey's death ( for a brain damaged guy, his memories come across like beautiful montages ).
Rocky meets a talented young fighter called Tommy Gunn, who is in awe of the " Italian Stallion ". He takes him under his wing, much to the chagrin of his son, who feels shunned. He trains Gunn in the art of being a fighter, not realizing he's also pushing his family away.
Rocky's son is being bullied, but Rocky doesn't notice this. He's stupid.
Then he teaches his son self-defense, which he uses to overcome the bullies and make new friends. Just like that.
Rocky's son rebels, but they become friends again,after Balboa manages to respark their relationship and take him off the road to destruction.
Meanwhile, Gunn is wooed by The Duke, and signs up for his team ( obviously taken with The Duke's glamorous set-up.) This betrayal devastates Rocky, but Gunn is relentless and rolls over opponents very easily.
He goes after Rocky, determined to face and beat his mentor, but Rocky is cold to the challenge. So Gunn goes to Rocky's neighbourhood, confronts him in a bar, punches out Paulie and makes a big scene. Rocky comes to Paulie's defense, beats Gunn in a streetfight and even knocks out The Duke. All in front of the TV cameras.
The other characters
Relationship to Rocky: Brother-in-law. Flunkie.
Relationship to Rocky: Wife. Agony aunt.
Relationship to Rocky: Mongrel.
Relationship to Rocky: Rival, friend, dead friend.
Relationship to Rocky: Hated rival.
Relationship to Rocky: Cold War nemesis.
Relationship to Rocky: Trainer.
In the end, " Rocky " must be considered the ultimate feel-good underdog story, inspiring countless other movies to this day. Its underlying message is simple - follow your heart and you can reach your goals. That's the American Dream in action, and " Rocky " is the very embodiment of that. Hard work pays off. It really does.
" Rocky " represents the best work of any of its lead actors. Talia Shire appeared in " The Godfather ", but she is associated with the part of Adrian. Burt Young went on to play a string of character roles, but he is still best remembered for portraying the leechy Paulie. And Stallone would go on to become one of the biggest action stars in the world. But movies such as " Rambo " and " Copland " only shield what has, in the end, been a career appearing in substandard vehicles like " Cobra " and " Stop! Or my Mom Will Shoot ".
" Rocky " would sit proudly on anyone's resume. It's a special movie and it's affected a lot of people. Uplifting, inspiring and unforgettable, it will be remembered, replayed and reviewed for many years to come.