Written by: Sylvester Stallone
Directed by: John G. Avildsen
Genre: Golden Fleece
Sub Genre: Sports Fleece
With Creed coming out last week – to great reviews at that – we felt this would be a good time to revisit the original (and of course, still the best) Rocky.
The question always is: If held up to Blake’s 15 key beats, can Rocky, which came out almost 40 years ago, hold its own? And having watched it again, I do believe it does. In fact, it knocks out the beat sheet in its own unique way.
What we probably remember most in Rocky are the raw eggs, all the beating the frozen meat took (definitely no live animals harmed in the filming of this movie), and, of course, the most iconic of them all, Rocky with his raised arms jumping around the top of the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
But what truly makes Rocky stand the test of time as a great story, is that, for all these boxing moments, the film’s true triumph is in its emotional story. Underdog stories resonate with us the most, whether it’s in real-life sporting events or “rags to riches” biographies, simply because we know what its like to struggle, to sacrifice, and even if we don’t always come out on top, “giving it our all” is something we go through daily in our lives.
So as I was writing the beats of Rocky, I wanted to focus more on those emotional moments – and how the film’s theme is played out over and over again – instead of simply writing a “traditional” beat sheet.
The Opening Image focuses on the face of Jesus in His Glory. Not the pained Jesus, but the resurrected Jesus. And as we’re introduced to Rocky (Sylvester Stallone) fighting inside the ring in some small-time two-bit boxing gym, we see this place is aptly called The Resurrection Boxing Club. As Blake said, all great stories of transformation are Jesus stories. It doesn’t get more direct than this.
Rocky has the power but not the skill as his punches are coming from all over the place. He’d rather grab his opponent than fight him as the handful of attendees jeer him.
In between rounds, Rocky’s corner man tells him, “You’re fighting like a bum.” It’s his Theme Stated moment at the 2-minute mark. It’s quickly followed by a bystander asking Rocky if he can bet that the fight goes beyond three rounds. This is Rocky’s story. All his life, no one has respected him, believed in him, much less loved him. He’s a loser. A nobody who has no one. Even the people in his corner are against him. He’s a bum. And this theme is repeated throughout, not just in Rocky himself, but in the people who surround him. Are we losers because we’re told we are?
As Rocky goes home to his cold and crummy apartment (Set-Up), he stares at a picture of his younger self, 8 years old and full of hope. It’s a stark contrast to the face he sees in the mirror. Beaten and hopeless.
Interestingly, at minute 11, we’re introduced to Adrian (Talia Shire). While this is not the Catalyst in the traditional sense that affects the hero’s external/physical journey, it gives the audience a glimpse of what Rocky’s life can be – a life with love. So whether you want to call it a Catalyst or not, Adrian’s introduction at this point changes the course of the story from what we had seen in the first 10 minutes. We’re reminded of what the Opening Image was telling us – this isn’t just a story about a boxer. It’s a story of resurrection. A story of a man who can rise above a lifetime of beating and find love.
While Rocky struggles to impress or even just get a word out of the super nerdy and shy Adrian, what makes this scene even more poignant is that it was set up perfectly by the previous scene, which ended with Rocky sitting on his bed in his sad cramped apartment. It’s literally his own little corner in this world, sad as it may look, that represents what he has or, better yet, what he doesn’t have in his life. It’s his stasis = death moment.
As the story moves on, we learn that Rocky works for Gazzo (Joe Spinell), a smalltime loan shark. In one scene where Rocky is “collecting” money from a dockworker who owes Gazzo some money, Rocky doesn’t follow through on his threat of breaking this guy’s thumbs. It’s a Save the Cat! moment that makes Rocky more endearing to the audience. He’s a big galoot with a heart of gold. But in that moment, Rocky also Debates his own situation as he menacingly advises the dockworker that he should have planned better. Though meant as a warning to the worker, it rings true with Rocky himself and how his life has turned out.
We also meet Mickey (Burgess Meredith), the trainer who has no love for Rocky. He belittles Rocky’s victory and opponents. Even in his moments of victory, Rocky is still a loser. He will always be a bum in the eyes of others – especially because, as we find out later, Mickey believed Rocky had potential but wasted his life being a “leg-breaker” for Gazzo.
The Break into Two moment takes place at minute 20 where Rocky returns to Adrian and asks her out – even if she doesn’t accept his invitation. Their love story represents the B Story. The beauty of Adrian, as much as she tries to hide it in the story, is that she is just as flawed as Rocky. The love they declare for one another in the end is also them learning to love themselves first and foremost. By accepting they are not losers, they finally allow themselves to love.
The Fun & Games are filled with many moments where the theme is constantly played out. We meet Paulie (Burt Young), Adrian’s brother, who tells Rocky that he can do better than his own sister. He calls his sister a loser, but we can clearly see that Paulie should be calling himself the loser.
The villainous Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) is introduced in all his brazenness, bravado, and brawn. When his opponent backs out of the fight, Apollo picks Rocky as a substitute. However, he doesn’t pick him because he respects him as a fighter. He chooses him because he needs a novelty, a sideshow that will still draw in an audience.
Even in light tender moments, the theme is reinforced. After being pressured by Paulie to go out on a date, Adrian and Rocky go ice-skating where they offer glimpses of why they’re meant for each other. Rocky tells Adrian his dad told him he has no brain so he should use his body, and Adrian tells Rocky her mother told her the opposite. She has no body, so she should use her brain. And as they end their date in Rocky’s apartment, they find themselves in each other’s arms. Two imperfects who may yet find love in each other.
The theme is truly reinforced when Rocky takes home the 12-year-old Marie as she hangs out with a gang late at night. It reminds us why Rocky is worth saving. He tells Marie she has to respect herself if she wants others to respect her.
So while we’re watching a boxing movie, we’re constantly reminded that we’re not – which is why Rocky will always be known as one of the best sports movies ever made. Because, ironically, it’s not about the sport, it’s about the person behind the athlete. We’re drawn into the story not because we want to watch a boxing match. We’re drawn in because we invest ourselves emotionally in these flawed people’s lives.
The Midpoint is on point at minute 55. Rocky learns that Apollo has picked him to be his next “lucky” opponent. But it’s a false victory because Rocky turns it down. Rocky has yet to learn the theme. He still doesn’t believe in himself. He believes he’s just a bum. He doesn’t believe that he’s a worthy opponent. He’d rather be Apollo’s sparring partner. The promoter changes Rocky’s mind when he sweet talks him into believing that Apollo is doing something good for him.
The Bad Guys Close In puts Rocky in a position he’s not familiar with, physically and emotionally. Suddenly he’s recognized by others because he’s fighting the world champ. He has to train better (by drinking six raw eggs?). More than that, people suddenly want to be with him.
There are great emotional moments in this section, as there should be, because we see the theme played out in all these characters and it forces Rocky, our hero, to look at himself and “learn the lesson” he needs. While they’ve all been judgmental of Rocky earlier, Rocky finally sees them the same way he sees himself – losers and bums themselves – not just because life dealt them a bad hand, but because they put themselves in the predicament they’re in.
Paulie offers to help Rocky train but Rocky reminds him he’s never needed a trainer, not really by choice. Later, whether it was due to jealousy or fear of being left alone, Paulie takes out his life’s frustrations on Rocky and Adrian. But Adrian fights back telling Paulie she is not a loser, showing growth and strength that she didn’t have before.
Mickey shows up in Rocky’s apartment talking about his own lost potential. It’s sad seeing him wanting a second chance in life by taking advantage of Rocky’s change in fortune after how much he mistreated Rocky earlier. But as Rocky rails against Mickey for showing up 10 years too late, he also does what the others have never done for him. Give them a chance. Accept them for who they are, flawed and beaten down – just like him.
Of course, we can’t forget it’s a boxing movie after all and Rocky must train like never before, culminating in the iconic shot of conquering the mountain that is the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
The All Is Lost at minute 95 comes when Rocky visits the stadium of the fight. It’s a far cry from the gym where we last saw him fight in the opening. He looks around, not in awe, but more in fear. He still believes he doesn’t belong here. He notices his poster has the wrong colored shorts he’ll be wearing and points it out to the promoter. The promoter brushes him off, telling him it doesn’t really matter what he’s wearing because – without saying it – he’s just there to lose. Despite all the training Rocky’s put in, no one really believes in him. In short, he’s still a bum and will always be a loser.
Rocky returns home to Adrian and tells her he can never beat Apollo despite all his training. It seems like he’s going to give up. Instead, he tells Adrian he’s going to do the one thing no one else has done to Apollo: not defeat him, but going the distance. If he can stay standing until the end, he’s gonna know he’s not just another bum. It’s the theme being restated. It’s a Dark Night of the Soul moment where Rocky, for the first time, doesn’t see himself as a loser, but actually gives himself a chance at being recognized for one good thing for once in his life.
The Break into Three finds both boxers in their respective lockers, surrounded by their trainers. But Rocky has someone else in his corner this time. Adrian.
The Finale is the slugfest. Rocky does what he wants. He won’t let Apollo take him down no matter what kind of punishment Apollo dishes out. Along the way, he knocks Apollo down, the first time that’s ever happened. And as the rounds go by and the fight grows longer, the crowd slowly starts rooting for Rocky, giving him the respect and recognition he’s never had before. Even Apollo learns that disrespecting Rocky and taking him for granted was a mistake.
As they make it to the 14th round, Apollo knocks Rocky down for what seems like the umpteenth time. It seems like this is it for Rocky, but he digs deep down and, despite Mickey telling him to stay down, Rocky gets up again to Apollo’s dismay and disbelief.
The last round is no different from the others as each fighter tries to take the other down. Both hurting badly, the final bell finally rings. Rocky has stayed on his feet. He’s no longer a bum.
And just as we started in a ring, we end in a ring as well for the Final Image. This time though, Rocky doesn’t go off ignored on his own. He has Adrian cheering him by his side as they profess their love for one another as the ring announcer declares Apollo the winner by split decision. The announcement is almost drowned out by all the commotion in the ring and rightly so.
Because this isn’t the story of who wins in the ring, but the story who wins outside of it. The one who rises and is reborn after all the adversities he has endured. And in the end, Rocky is no chump no more. He’s a champ in Adrian’s eyes, and, more importantly, in his own heart.