Rocky, right? You know what I’m talking about.
I’ll watch Rocky movies until the day I die. They’re practically a part of my DNA at this point. Stallone could make a Rocky movie about Alzheimer’s and I’d watch it. Me and my brother adored those movies. A couple of downtrodden kids finding inspiration from their heroes. I even thought Rocky VI was pretty good. I’m pretty sure David and I could entertain ourselves indefinitely watching Rocky films.
But I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t consider anything past the first film pure cash-grabbing fluff. Thanks to the sequels, Rocky’s a joke. He’s from a neolithic time where men solved their problems by punching them.
Here’s a quick factgasm for you: did you know Rocky was shot in 28 days on a small budget? Did you know it was an independent film? Did you know it won Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Film Editing? That’s a recipe for modern cult cinema critical stardom, but due to the myriad sequels’ myriad failures, it’s been consigned to the bin of “movies meatheads enjoy unironically”. Because it’s got, you know, training montages. And fights with oiled up beefcakes. Stuff guys like. Rocky IV has no less than 4 montages, including one where they collect clips of things that happened only ten minutes ago. That’s the hallmark of the Rocky series… but it’s not Rocky.
Rocky is a moody character study. It’s not about boxing in the slightest. It’s about the bullshit you have to put up with every fucking day and believing that in spite of whatever petty nonsense the world throws at you, you’re worth something. Saying Rocky is about boxing is like saying The Life Aquatic is about the ocean. The woman I respect the most in this world considers Rocky II to be the pinnacle of the series because “you get to know the characters more”. This is something on which I will not bend. Rocky II essentially ruined the character, because he wins in the end, and Rocky’s not meant to win. Rocky’s meant to be shit.
Just look at him in that final climactic scene. He’s not really fighting at all, he’s just standing there, taking all the punishment the world has ever delivered to him. Who cares if the champion is punching the shit out of you? It’s easier than having to put up with everyday life. Apollo Creed, by Rocky’s own admission, is the best boxer in the world. He’s smart, he’s funny (god damn he’s hilarious) and he’s the best athlete in his field. But Rocky never sees him as a giant to slay. Rocky doesn’t have to win, he just has to prove to himself and everyone else that he’s not just some bum. He may not compare to the world’s greatest, he may not be able to fight back – but at least he doesn’t have to fall down.
There’s a beautiful moment in that scene. Rocky is practically useless and hits the mat. Mickey, the old cynic, tells him “Down! Down! Stay down!” He doesn’t want Rocky to get hurt. Adrian sees the man she loves flailing about, barely able to lift his gloves. She doesn’t see someone taking a stand against the cruelty of life – she sees someone taking a beating, and she can’t watch.
They’re both right. It’s a very romantic way to look at having the shit pummelled out of you by someone who’s better than you in every way. But, god damn it, can’t we all relate to picking yourself up? To not giving in?
Rocky hits me in a very primal, human way. If you’ve ever felt like an outsider, like all you had to hold on to was your sense of self, try giving the first film in a much-maligned series another shot. You might be surprised by how touching it is.