February Fisticuffs: Rocky (1976)

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It’s February and everything sucks right now, so it’s time to unwind with February Fisticuffs – a punchy look at some of the best, worst and most average boxing, kung fu and martial arts movies.

When it comes to sports movies, Rocky can be found right at the top of the steps. The 1976 motion picture is often discussed in fragments, with famous scenes and lines accounting for most of the conversation. But John G. Avildsen’s movie is more than the sum of its parts.

The clichés are plentiful in Rocky, but Sylvester Stallone’s screenplay has such a coarse honesty about it that it hardly matters. This is pure working-class gravy, the type of movie that feels like it’s from where it says it’s from.

Stallone stars as boxer and enforcer Rocky Balboa, a decent but kind of dumb dude from Philadelphia. He’s digs the shy Adrian (Talia Shire), has pet turtles and wants to scrape together something resembling a living, which is why he works for the gangster Gazzo (Joe Spinell). Adrian’s brother Paulie (Burt Young) is worried about his sister’s mental health.

After Rocky loses his locker at his gym run by the acerbic Mickey (Burgess Meredith), he’s dejected. Opportunity knocks when the heavyweight champion Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) wants to fight the “Italian Stallion” on account of other options falling through. Rocky starts preparing for the fight of his life.

Rocky hits all the notes, starting with the institution of its working-class hero. Stallone’s character is a good man. He doesn’t like all the rough things Gazzo asks him to do and refuses to break a poor bastard’s thumb. He talks to a mouthy 12-year-old girl. She doesn’t want to end up like a whore, he says, because guys don’t respect girls who talk like that. She doesn’t give a rat’s ass.

Balboa isn’t the sharpest tool in the shed and he knows it. He explains himself to Adrian during their stubborn first date. He says his father told him to use his body to make money because nothing’s really going on upstairs. Adrian tells him that she was told to do the opposite.

Love flowers in uncertain ways, but nothing is forced or dishonest. Rocky and Adrian nurture things through jokes, glimpses, muttered half-stories. There is love when the punches have been throw and the bones are broken. It’s fitting that their declarations come in the midst of chaos, that they provide an vestige of tenderness after pugilistic punishment.

Stallone has always claimed that Rocky is about love and passion. The fight, as clever and frenetic as it is through the lens of James Crabe’s camera, is almost secondary. The outcome is genuine and the result of raw tenacity and raw eggs. The moment is earned with good, meticulous tenacity.

On paper, it’s a bit naïve. But there’s perhaps nothing more essential than what Rocky puts on screen, with sweat and blood and gloves driven by drubbing, ceaseless hearts. Other pictures concern themselves with warriors as they try to kill one another. Other pictures concern themselves with broken bones, wounds of war.

But Rocky concerns itself with getting there in the first place. It’s not about winning, which may be anathema for a sports movie but food for the soul. It’s about exhilaration, captured best when Bill Conti’s score blares away and the Italian Stallion runs up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. It’s about heart. And yes, it’s about love.

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