Sunday, November 29, 2015

Watching "Rocky" almost 40 years later: Does it still hold up?

The new movie "Creed" is getting terrific reviews, not just from the critics, but from people I know. And my good friend Ethan Sacks, who interviewed Sylvester Stallone and Michael B. Jordan for the New York Daily News, also had good things to say about the film. So before I go see the movie, I figured I'd better watch the original "Rocky" again. Which I did last night.

Me on the top of the famous steps,
September 2014.
First, a little background of my "Rocky" fandom. Over the years, I have seen all of the sequels (except "Rocky Balboa") and have them all on DVD. I even once had a cat named Rocky.

While I haven't watched the full original movie itself in a number of years, I can't tell you how many times I have listened to "Gonna Fly Now" and "Eye of the Tiger" from "Rocky III"during my fitness journey. Or watched the training montage from the original film. Or visualized scenes from that training montage when running. (Rocky lumbers the way I do!)

And yes, when I was sprawled out in Citi Field's center-field dirt during my Spartan Race last year, wondering how the heck I was going to finish, "Gonna Fly Now" did seem to taunt me. That was the lede of my Spartan Race story that won the Guideposts contest for me -- and got me in the magazine.

Also, when I ran the Philadelphia Rock 'n' Roll 5K in September 2014, I did the obligatory post-race photos on the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum. It's no accident that I wore my shirt from that race when I ran in the Staten Half-Marathon last month. And my theme song during that race was "Victory," the Puff Daddy, Notorious B.I.G. and Busta Rhymes song that samples the ring music from "Rocky."

Me in front of the Rocky statue,
with my medal for the race.
So I was curious to see if the original "Rocky" would hold up, after watching the whole thing for the first time in years. Spoiler alert: it does. Here are my observations:
  • People don't think of Sylvester Stallone as much of an actor, but he is tremendous in this film. Like the look on his face when he gets the offer to fight Apollo Creed. Or when he finally loses his temper and yells at Mickey. Or when he confesses to Adrian that he doesn't think he can beat Creed, but just wants to go the distance. There's a reason he was nominated for Best Actor for this movie.
  • There was also a reason Stallone was nominated for Best Original Screenplay for this movie. The script became the template for so many sports movies over the years. But most of the imitators miss two things: how bleak Rocky's life and surroundings were to start with (remember the lamp with no shade and the upside-down KFC bucket?), and the fact that he didn't win at the end. He just went the distance, and that was enough.
  • The film's low budget ($1 million) and short filming schedule (28 days) helped contribute to its verisimilitude. The ice skating scene was done the way it was, with the empty rink, because they didn't have the money for extras. And the picture of Rocky with the wrong-colored shorts -- and the too-big robe -- were production mistakes that the movie explained by having Rocky point out both things.
  • Stallone has acknowledged that part of the inspiration for his writing was his own struggle as an actor/screenwriter, but he said that nobody would have wanted to watch a movie on that. And he believed in his script so strongly that he wouldn't sell it unless he got to play the lead role. He ended up getting less money up front, but 10 percent of the gross. Not bad for a movie that made over $225M at the box office.
  • Don't forget that this was also an era of depressing movies -- "Taxi Driver," "All the President's Men" and "Network" were all nominated for Best Picture that year, and this movie, although pretty down for much of it, was very uplifting at the end. (Although in the first draft of the script, Mickey was a racist, and Rocky threw the fight in disgust with the system.) 
  • Stallone looked pretty good in the movie, especially when he took his sweater and shirt off. And the undershirt had to be an homage to Marlon Brando.
  • Rocky running in Converse high-tops is not something you would see today. But the training scene, which might be the first of its kind set to music, still really holds up. 
  • So many good lines in the movie: "Yo, Adrian." "She's got gaps, I've got gaps, together we fill gaps." "You lay off that pet shop dame. Women weaken legs." "He doesn't know it's a damn show -- he thinks it's a damn fight." And don't forget Apollo Creed telling Rocky, "Ain't gonna be no rematch," and Rocky agreeing. Talk about famous last words!
  • Mickey reminded me a little of Squawker Jon, complete with the gruffness.
  • The Adrian character is an interesting one -- it's amazing how much taking off the glasses, and getting a cooler hat, did for Talia Shire's looks in the movie. Athough, I have to wonder, does she get contacts, or just walk around blind? This nearsighted person wants to know!
  • And why doesn't she watch the fight until the later rounds? However, that does lead to her rushing to the ring to see Rocky, and him asking her, "Where's your hat?" Another great line.
  • Is Paulie the worst brother ever, or what? Just really a horrible human being.
  • On the other hand, I loved Apollo Creed more than I did when I first saw the movie. Him coming out to the ring as George Washington across the Delaware, throwing coins was classic. As was him stripping down the costume to be wearing a second costume -- Uncle Sam. Carl Weathers was excellent in that role -- hilarious, but tough, too. A more jovial Ali.
  • People forget what a big deal the bicentennial was. So the timing of Creed picking Rocky fit perfectly. Although July 4, not January 1 as in the movie, was the main celebration day of the bicentennial. 
  • How about Joe Frazier in that lime green leisure suit? Good times!
  • I don't know how much Bill Conti got for his music in the movie, but he did a tremendous job with the score. Every sports movie since them owes something to his work here.

Anyhow, now I'm really pumped up to see "Creed." Just thinking about Rocky, I'm inspired to think that what should be my next fitness challenge. Another half-marathon? Another Spartan Race? Or something else? I'm ready to rumble -- as soon as my bursitis and tendinitis in my right leg and hip heal! What would Rocky do?


Bob Groder said...

ive seen rocky over 100 times probably more and the same for #'s 2,3, and 4. not so much so for 5 or rocky balboa the movie so i know every line. in fact all 5 rocky's were on this weekend so i saw bits and pieces when i was home. they are on every month somewhere. i never get sick of the 1st one. i saw it as an 18 year old kid.

i cant wait to see the new creed movie. sylvester by the way was very good in lots of other movies which he doesnt get credit for such as judge dredd, (the lords of flatbush which was in his pre rocky days), tango and cash, cliffhanger, demolition man, grudge match and even escape plan. he has had many different roles besides rocky and rambo.

Ive been a fan of mr. stallone for many years. not everything he did did i enjoy but a good portion of his roles i have enjoyed.

Uncle Mike said...

I ran up the Art Museum steps when I was in high school. I also managed to get inside Franklin Field and run a lap on the Penn Relays track. That was nearly 30 years ago, and I don't think I'll be doing those things again, unless my nieces talk me into doing it with them.

The low-budgetness of the original movie is what makes it work. Rocky's struggles to stay true to who he was - training in Apollo's Watts gym and the Siberian log cabin - helped us remember that the guy with the Main Line mansion wasn't who he wanted to be, and kept III and IV from being ridiculous.

The one problem I have with the original, aside from Paulie being a jerk until IV, is Frazier showing up and playing himself. Is Sly telling us Frazier exists in this universe, but Ali doesn't? Apollo is not Ali: The Greatest loved a damn show, but he never lost sight of the fact that it was a damn fight.

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