Film is an art form. Sometimes we forget that because our lives are saturated by movies that have forgotten that film should enrich us and evoke wonder in order to transform. That doesn't mean they have to be boring. It just means they have to be thoughtful and aspiring for something more than just to entertain you for two hours. We would like to spend this section spotlighting films that we think make us think, reflect and see things all the better.
GOING THE DISTANCE
A Review of Rocky
Written by Taylor Jarvis
Few films have touched my life the way Rocky has. It’s not a particularly deep film; it’s not revealing any staggering truths about society or exploring the darkness of existential dread or shedding light on some great epiphany of human existence. Rocky isn’t pioneering any revolutionary new themes in storytelling, defining a generation of screen acting, or setting any standards for lighting or production design. But, what Rocky is doing is presenting an honest, brutal look into the life of a man who would have lived and died without anyone remembering his name had he not committed to striving for something better. Something better within himself. Rocky is showing us in one of the most captivating and satisfying two hours in the history of cinema what a human being can accomplish if they learn to take responsibility for their own life. It’s my favorite movie of all time and I will never tire of watching Rocky Balboa fight for his dignity and prove to himself that his life has value, that he’s not just another bum from the neighborhood. It’s as simple as an underdog story gets and that’s what makes it so inspiring.
The film opens on Rocky (Sylvester Stallone) taking a beating in a rundown boxing ring, presumably on the wrong side of Philadelphia. The crowd is small and cruel, more interested in the money they’ve wagered than in the talent of the two fighters. Rocky isn’t doing well and his opponent, Spider Rico, pulls an illegal move and headbutts him. This ignites something in Rocky, a fire that ultimately becomes the most admirable trait in the young boxer. Despite being on his last legs, Rocky delves deep into himself and fans these flames to find the strength to come back at Rico with an intensity no one in the room could have expected. He quickly wins the fight and retreats to the locker room. On his way through the crowd a woman hisses at him, calling him a bum despite his impressive athleticism. You can tell this hurts Rocky, and even though he was victorious, he walks away defeated.
This opening scene introduces us to the main struggle in Rocky’s life. He feels that no matter how hard he tries, he’ll always be nobody. He knows he has talent, he knows he could be somebody, but he’s alone, with nothing to fight for but what little dignity he’s managed to hang on to over the years. It’s not that he wants to be famous, he just wants to prove to himself once and for all that his life is worth living. So when that woman calls him a bum, she’s dredging up Rocky’s most damaging inner thoughts. He doesn’t want to believe it’s true, but what does he have to show to prove it isn’t?
After the fight Rocky walks home through the dark streets of Philadelphia. This is the first of many city scenes that perfectly encapsulates the feeling of being in an urban environment. The streets are wet and dark, the facades of buildings hide in shadow, and there seems to be this feeling of stagnancy. The city is rough and grey but among its fading bricks and waterlogged wood is found a type of romanticism I believe is unique to this film. There is a sadness in watching Rocky stroll through the alleys behind smoky factories and between chain link fences, but it’s the sadness you might feel and not understand when you return home after being away for a long time. It’s almost as if you are nostalgic for a city and a time you never lived in and a tough way of life you’ve never lived. When Bill Conti’s score kicks in with its high, stationary strings and low, bellowing bass, you can feel that nostalgia. You feel exactly the way the filmmakers intended you to feel.
It’s not long into the movie when we are introduced to Adrian (Talia Shire). She works at the local pet shop where Rocky frequently stops in to tell a joke and pick up some turtle food, all an excuse of course to see Adrian. It’s hard to see at first what Rocky sees in this timid, soft spoken girl, but I think Adrian brings out all the best things in Rocky and he knows it. When he’s around her he’s gentle and kind, and he forgets for a while his battered fists and broken ego.
Eventually Rocky formally asks Adrian on a date. It’s in these ensuing moments where we really get to see the softer side of Rocky Balboa. He’s witty and supportive and can see the beauty in Adrian even if no one, even she, can see it. I think Rocky falls so hard for Adrian because he sees a bit of himself in her. She’s tired, and a little broken, and has forgotten what it feels like to have a zeal for life. But, if Rocky can get her to see her own worth, what she means to him, then maybe there’s hope for himself.
I think that’s why, when Rocky finally convinces Adrian to come up to his one-room apartment, he’s so adamant, and frankly forceful, with her. I am in no way defending his actions in this scene, but I don’t think his dominant behavior is coming solely from a place of selfishness. I think he is trying to get Adrian to see herself as desirable. I don’t think he went about it in the right way, and this scene is definitely uncomfortable, but it shows us that Rocky isn’t perfect, and that is good storytelling. In fact, until this point, so much sympathy has been created for Rocky, so much romanticization for his lowly state, that it’s hard to understand why he still thinks of himself as less than. This scene gives him a flaw, and from here on out we’re introduced to the fact that Rocky isn’t a great fighter, and he hasn’t really tried that hard to move up in the world. This scene is the turning point (not necessarily for Rocky but for the narrative) in the film where Rocky is forced to stop looking at and blaming the world for his situation, and start looking inward and taking responsibility for his own life.
While Rocky’s romantic life is speeding full steam ahead, the professional boxing world is abuzz with the news that Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers), the heavy-weight champ, has no one left to fight. He was supposed to be in the biggest fight of his career later that year but his opponent was injured and had to back out. So Creed, who is not just a masterful fighter but also a brilliant marketer, comes up with the idea to fight a local boxer in a 15-round fight on July 4th of that year, America’s bicentennial. Weathers plays this part to perfection. He commands every scene he’s in, absolutely selling the intelligence and physical prowess of Apollo Creed. He’s almost an exact opposite of Rocky; Creed, one of the wealthiest and most famous black men in the country, and Rocky, a poor, uneducated Italian American unknown beyond his block. It’s this comparison and Rocky’s self-given nickname, The Italian Stallion, that leads Creed to offer Rocky the opportunity of a lifetime.
Thus begins the part of the movie that everyone remembers: Rocky preparing for the fight with Apollo Creed. The second half of this movie is simply iconic, but it’s not really the training montage and fight itself that makes it all so compelling. Watching Rocky train is absolutely thrilling, but watching him grow as a man is absolutely satisfying. After he accepts the offer to fight Creed he’s forced to start taking responsibility for himself. Yes, he physically conditions his body, but he also grows in his relationships with his friends. Rocky finally stands up to his best friend Paulie (Burt Young), Adrian’s brother, for treating Adrian so poorly. Adrian breaks out of her shell and her relationship with Rocky matures to one of mutual love and respect. And, in the most heartbreaking scene of the film, Rocky confronts his old trainer, Mickey (Burgess Meredith).
Before being offered the fight with Creed, Mickey had kicked Rocky out of his gym, saying that he wasn’t worthy of his locker anymore because he could have been a great fighter but never put in the work. Rocky tried to defend himself, citing his job as a money collector for a loan shark saying, “It’s a living.” Mickey retorts with the most cutting line in the film: “It’s a waste of life.” Mickey, who Rocky respects, calls Rocky out. In this line he forces Rocky to see that while it may have been the world that beat him down, it was his own hands keeping him there.
A few days later, after Rocky has accepted the offer to fight Creed, Mickey shows up at his apartment for the first time. He hobbles up the stairs, truly showing his age. He tries to convince Rocky that he needs him if he’s going to win the fight. Meredith’s portrayal of Mickey in this scene fills Rocky’s studio with tension. The way he plays the old boxer makes you feel sorry for Mickey, listening to his stories of a bygone life. But, you feel Rocky’s frustration too, that the man who was supposed to be his friend is only showing up when opportunity has knocked. When Rocky finally unloads his pain on Mickey, we see for the first time just how broken he truly feels. And, when you combine that with watching Mickey walk back down the stairs, out into the cold night, still hearing Rocky yelling three floors above, you get a truly heartbreaking moment. Mickey’s small figure almost disappears into shadow just as Rocky comes bounding up behind him to apologize and accept his offer to help him train. It’s here that I think Rocky isn’t just apologizing to Mickey, but to himself as well for how hard he’s been on himself.
From here we are treated to the greatest training montage in film history. Rocky’s journey with Mickey from fighter to true boxer is so inspiring, so motivating, I always feel like going for a run after watching it. I never tire of hearing the accompanying score, Gonna Fly Now. The soaring brass and strings and the funky bass and guitar are instantly effective. The way the music builds from one theme to another perfectly reflects Rocky’s journey and perfectly serves the story. The music compliments seeing Stallone do one-handed pushups and gain more and more stamina, which isn’t just motivational, it’s great storytelling. Rocky is changing. He’s becoming a better version of himself. He’s looked inward and has decided to take charge because he may never get another opportunity to prove to himself that he’s worth something. In running up those steps and jumping for joy in one of the most famous shots in all of cinema, Rocky isn’t just celebrating his physical gains, he’s realizing for the first time that he just may have a shot at staying in the ring, a shot at life.
The night before the fight Rocky visits the ring where he sees a giant banner of himself. He remarks to Jergens (Thayer David), the fight promoter, that his shorts on the banner are the wrong color. Jergens replies that it doesn’t really matter, he’s sure Rocky will put on a great show. Rocky realizes that no one expects him to last more than a couple of rounds. He stands, alone in the ring, and begins to question everything he’s worked toward. What a relatable reflection on life. How often have we found ourselves on the precipice of something great and doubted ourselves despite what we;ve already accomplished?
It’s here that we, as the audience, also begin to doubt Rocky for the first time. The film has built him up and up and we believe he can beat Creed. But why should we believe that? Creed is the best in the world, and Rocky has only been training for a few months. When he returns home, Rocky let’s Adrian into his heart and remarks that no one has ever beaten Creed. Not only have they not beaten him, they haven’t lasted a full 15 rounds. He says to Adrian that if he can just “go the distance,” that will be enough. That will be all he needs to prove to himself that he’s “not just another bum from the neighborhood.”
The next day, Rocky fights Apollo Creed. It’s the ultimate underdog scenario and the whole town is watching. The man nobody knew has become their ultimate hero. Every blue collar worker and down-on-his-luck Philidelphian sees himself in Rocky. And so do we. This film’s unparalleled ability to get us into the mind and heart of its protagonist is what makes this fight stand above so many others in the history of cinema. We feel the pain of every monstrous blow Creed lands on Rocky, and the hope of every jab Rocky throws at Creed. When Rocky falls, we can’t help but grab the arms of our chairs and grit our teeth, and when he becomes the first fighter to knock Creed down in the span of his career it’s hard to keep from leaping from our seat just as the people watching on the little TV in the bar do. It’s here, too, that the motif of Rocky’s inner fire, his seemingly infinite stamina and determination to never give up, comes to a head. Creed, the crowd, the whole city is in total awe at Rocky’s persistence. His ability to keep getting hit and never stop coming back for more. It’s this trait that brought Adrian into his life, and that now could repair his self confidence and self image.
I’m sure that few of you reading this haven’t seen Rocky before, so I’m not going to tell you if he wins the fight or not. But I will ask everyone reading a question: do you want Rocky to win? Or is going the distance with Creed enough? Does Rocky need to beat Creed to live with himself? Or has his journey up to this point, his love for Adrian and loyalty to his friends, matured him enough for the fight not to really matter? Can we settle for our best, or are we doomed to always feel less than? This movie isn’t just about Rocky becoming a better man, taking responsibility for his life, it’s also about learning what you need to do to earn respect for yourself. It’s about making mistakes and learning from them. It’s about being flawed and trying to be better anyway. It’s about being human. This movie may not depict life exactly as it is, but it does what films used to do so well, and are supposed to do, it shows us what life can be. It tells us a story about a man just like us who dared to try and what could happen if we do the same. It gives us someone to look up to and aspire to be like, even amidst his mistakes. Rocky is my favorite movie of all time, not because it makes me feel like I can do anything, but because it makes me feel like I can do the right thing.