By John H. Foote
He was broke, he could not get work, his wife was pregnant, he was desperate, and he was scared. The idea came to him watching the Ali vs. Werner fight, when a virtually unknown boxer went fifteen rounds with the champion, Muhammad Ali. In three days he hammered out a screenplay and with nothing to lose started shopping it around. Everyone wanted the script, but no one wanted him, and he was not about to sell unless he could play the lead. The bidding went to fifty thousand dollars and still he refused. The studios bidding were excited, seeing James Caan or Ryan O’Neal in the film. But the stubborn writer held out until United Artists bought the script and agreed he could play the lead.
Sylvester Stallone would play Rocky.
John G. Avildsen was invited to direct, based on his history with gritty slice of life movies, and his knack for working with low budgets. He was given twenty eight days and one million dollars to make his film, Rocky (1976) with an unproven star who was also the writer and had been given the ok to choreograph the boxing sequences, key to the film.
The cast was populated by a group of one character actors led by Talia Shire, little sister to Francis Ford Coppola, Shire had recently been Oscar nominated for supporting actress in The Godfather Part II (1974). She would portray Adrian.
Burgess Meredith was cast as the tough old trainer Miney, while Burt Young would be Paulie, Adrian’s Brother, best friend to Rocky. In the key role of Apollo Creed, modelled after Muhammad Ali was former football player Carl Weathers.
The film was shot on location in and around the lesser parts of Philadelphia, finished on time and on budget, none of the cast realizing they had lightning in a bottle. Most thought the film, at best, would be a drive in movie.
In the fall of 1976, the American Bicentennial, movie screens were dominated by typically dark work from the seventies, Network (1976), Taxi Driver (1976). All the President’s Men (1976), and Marathon Man (1976). Early screenings of Rocky (1976) had gone through the roof, with tales of the audience cheering the fight sequences as though they were at a prize fight. But it was more, and they knew it. Avildsen and Stallone had created a tender love story, and lovely story about believing in yourself. It was so much more than just a fight film.
Avildsen made many adjustments for budgetary reasons, some having direct impacts on the film which improved what was written. The ice skating sequence called for the rink to be crowded but they did not have the money to pay extras so it was decided the rink would be closed, Rocky would pay for time on the ice, and he would jog along in shoes while Adrian skated, poorly. For the fight sequence, they attempted to fill the Spectrum in Philadelphia but again lack the funds to make it happen. Sharp eyed viewers can see rows of empty seats in some scenes directly behind the fighters, but none of it mattered as Avildsen and Stallone filled the film with great heart.
Released into theatres, audiences went mad for it, lining up around the block to see the picture, while critics hailed the arrival of both Rocky and Stallone. Sharp publicity folks at United Artists worked the parallel between Rocky and Stallone, the film being his million to one shot, landing the film cover stories on Time Magazine and Newsweek. Suddenly, he was everywhere. There was talk of a remake of A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) with Stallone as Stanley and Fafe Dunaway As Blanche. Mercifully, it was passed over, the knowledge the classic fifties film could never be improved upon.
Critics loved Stallone as Rocky, making striking comparisons to Brando (which they would later regret) and the major actors of the time, hailing his striking originality on screen. Truthfully they had never seen anything like him, deep rumbling voice, fleshy muscled body, hang dog brown eyes, a gentle demeanor that was juxtaposed with his ferocity in the ring, the actor was enchanting. The love story between he and Shire was beautifully acted, she the ugly duckling gradually pulled out of her shell to experience not only life, but love.
The boxing scenes were terrific, punishing, powerful, bloody sequences that put audiences in the ring as they never had been before. They would remain unsurpassed only by Martin Scorsese’s masterpiece Raging Bull (1980). The cast was perfect, a tight ensemble beautifully acted by each.
What was unique about the film was that Rocky, given a chance to fight the heavyweight champion of the world on a fluke knows he cannot win. But he does believe he can give Creed his best and go the distance, fifteen rounds, which no one had ever done before. And he does just that, stunning the world with his power and ability to take punches. Toe to toe he trades punches with Creed, knocking the champion down for the first time in Creeds career, earning the respect he craves. So he does not win the fight, but he does get the girl, he does earn respect and he proves he was not just another bum from the neighbourhood. The film manages to be a very sweet love story, as Adrian and Rocky fall in love, each giving the other the courage they need to change their life.
Rocky (1976) made Stallone a superstar overnight, literally overnight. The film was nominated for a whopping ten Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, two nominations for Best Supporting Actor (Meredith and Young) and Original Screenplay. On Oscar night the little Cinderella film toppled better films winning Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Film Editing.
Stallone had arrived. Shire won the New York Film Critics Award for Best Supporting Actress, though clearly she was a lead.
What is often forgotten is that Rocky (1976) would alter the fabric of American cinema with its rags to riches tale, its feel good sensibility. Much of the decade’s best films had been dark, often angry statements at the situation in America, whereas Rocky (1976) found much to celebrate. Stallone, like his character, had indeed gone the distance. With Vietnam over, the stench of Watergate still strong, audiences needed to feel good about something and Rocky (1976) provided just that. With such a debut, the path of Stallone seemed set.
But instead of great success after Rocky (1976) he found himself beat up by the critics for Paradise Alley (1978) and F. I. S. T. (1978) so when the chance to make a sequel to Rocky (1976) was offered, he jumped at it, provided he be permitted direct. With the same cast, he made essentially the same story, with a twist, this time Rocky wins the fight, becoming the heavyweight champion of the world. It was a very ordinary film, lazy, because we had seen it all before. Yet it was a hit!
Next was Rocky III (1982) in which the pampered champ, now obscenely wealthy, living in the lap of luxury meets a challenger Clubber Lang (Mr. T) who Mickey says “is a wrecking machine. He will kill you to death.” Begging Mickey for one more fight, he agrees to fight Clubber, an arrogant beast of a fighter. When Mickey collapses before the fight, the old man urges Rock to go fight, which he does but terribly distracted he is horrifically beaten. In the dressing room after losing the fight, Mickey dies in Rocky’s arms, leaving the beaten champ like a wounded animal.
Devastated at having lost Mickey and the fight, Rocky wanders aimlessly until Apollo Creed approaches him wanting to train him to fight Clubber again. Rocky agrees but his heart is not in it. Only when Adrian, who always tells the truth intervenes letting him know it is alright to be afraid does he begin to train in earnest, whipping himself into extraordinary condition.
He hammers Clubber, knocking the vicious fighter out convincingly, regaining his crown having found the eye of the tiger. Audiences cheered loudly as Rocky defeated the angry, vicious Clubber, portrayed with intense ferocity by an unknown named Mr. T.
Well reviewed, Rocky III (1982) was among, remains among, the finest of the sequels. It ends in an old gym, with Apollo and Rocky about to spar for fun, the favour Creed talks about throughout the film. Boys at play.
Rocky IV (1986) was an utter disaster. What was Stallone thinking? An irresponsible film that dared to suggest Rocky could end the Cold War, bring peace between the Soviets and Americans. Apollo Creed is killed by a towering Russian fighter loaded up on steroids, bringing Rocky into it, challenged by the Russian, Drago. Terrified of what she saw Drago do to Apollo, Adrian does not want him to fight, nor will she support him while he trains in the frozen wastelands of Siberia. With the KGB always close by, Rocky trains, primitively while Drago uses the best equipment on the planet to turn himself into a fighting machine. And fight they do. In Russia, Rocky takes a terrible beating at the hands of the massive Russian, but gives as good as he gets, finally defeating the so called unbeatable Drago right in Russia as the Russian people chant his name.
Really? In Reagan America? At the height of the Cold War?
Propagandist? Flag waving tripe? Worst movie of the year? It turned a decent franchise into a political fairy tale with rocks in its head. Sure thousands of Communists including their President would stand and salute Rocky, um, right, OK. Cut like a music video, it was the first film to really leave the formula that worked behind.
And in doing so was roundly crucified by critics.
Upon returning home from Russia with potential brain damage, that is forgotten quickly, in Rocky V (1990), Adrian and Rocky discover their fortune has been lost by bad business dealings through their agent. But luckily they kept the house from the first film, so back to the old neighbourhood they go. Mickey left the gym to Rocky so he can run that, and Adrian goes back to work in the pet store. Their son goes to a tough inner city school and immediately gets his ass kicked. Rocky becomes manager for an up and comer, who of course, betrays him, leading to a good old fashioned street brawl. So though Rocky will not get back in the ring to fight because of this brain damage that comes and goes, but a brutal bare knuckle brawl in the street is OK? Such a stupid movie.
I figured, as did everyone else that this was it for Rocky on film, and for sixteen years it was. Then Stallone got bust, wrote another, which he also directed and gave us the surprising, lovely Rocky Balboa (2006). Beautifully melancholy as Adrian has died, leaving our warrior along to visit the cemetery, missing her, remembering her. He owns a restaurant, named Adrian’s, and still looks after Paulie. Rocky and Adrian’s son is grown, is ashamed of his father and his celebrity, and has not found his way. Gone is the brain damage suggested at the beginning of Rocky V (1990).
When a sports channel runs an event asking if the current champion could defeat a fighter from the past, the computer matches the arrogant younger champ Dixon, with Rocky, and the computer punches out that Rocky would win. A lethal fighter, Mason Dixon lacks the heart of Rocky, the ability to go on when you are at the end, because he has never been at the end. Angered that the computer makes him a laughing stock, an idea is hatched.
An exhibition matched is proposed, Rock accepts and begins training his pushing sixty body. Still in formidable condition, does he have what it takes to beat the younger man or will he humiliate himself? Paulie and Robert, Rocky’s son joins him in the corner to help his father, hoping for the best.
The Ten round fight is a massive sell out, meaning a huge pay day for Rocky but as he did with the first fight with Apollo, he trains in earnest, to takes it all very seriously. Dixon, not wanting to be made look foolish but the one he calls “old man” warns Rocky before the fight not to hurt him, or he will do damage to the older fighter.
The fight is a thing of beauty with Rocky displaying right away he can still take a punch, he can still punch as though his hands were iron. Dixon flicks jab after jab at Rocky but the older man takes everything dished out and hammers away at the younger fighter without mercy, breaking him up inside. Stunned by the sheer force of Rocky’s punches, Dixon gets on the job training in courage from Rocky, seeing what it truly takes to be a great champion.
The fight goes the full ten rounds, with Dixon maintaining his title, but having learned humility and respect for the old man, taking a bone breaking pounding at the hands of the old warrior.
The film had a lovely sense of nostalgia to it, bittersweet in coming full circle in many ways. Stallone was excellent, again as Rocky, the best performance he had given in the franchise sine Rocky III (1982). His final fade out at Adrian’s grave left us thinking we had seen the last of Balboa.
A young writer Ryan Coogler had grown up watching the films with his father and had an idea. He wrote his film, entitled Creed (2015) and began the pitch. Rocky Balboa was a supporting character in the story, while Apollo Creeds son, born to a woman not his wife was the focus of the story.
Incredibly Coogler was given the job of directing the film, his greatest hurdle convincing Stallone to do a Rocky film he did not write. To his great surprise, he liked the story and agreed right away, teaming with acclaimed actor Michael B. Jordan for another chapter in the life of the warrior.
Taken in and raised by Apollo’s wife, young Adonis Johnson, Apollo’s illegitimate son grows into a boxer, though refuses to use the Creed name. Wanting to learn, wanting his shot he seeks out Rocky to help him train. Initially the old warrior refuses, life having beaten him down. Paulie has died, his son has moved, he has his memories and little else. But Adonis wears him down, and Rocky agrees to train him.
During training Adonis gets a shot when the opponent of the current champ drops out, and sharp eyes marketing people see a chance for a great ticket, the heavyweight champion versus the son of Apollo Creed. The condition of him getting the fight is that he take his fathers name, at last. During this it becomes very clear Rocky is ill, and when it is revealed to him that he has cancer, he gives thought to dropping out of training Adonis. But the younger man has become attached to Rocky and asks him to fight with him, that they will help each other through what they are going through.
The chemotherapy pounds away at Rocky, bringing the horrors that come with fighting cancer but they stand toe to toe fighting it, and they manage to get through it. Still ill, Rocky can train Adonis for the fight, and in doing so finds his reason to live.
Adonis does not win the fight, but like Rocky years earlier gains respect, going the distance, earning the admiration of the ferocious Irish fighter and the crowd. His life will never be the same, and he now wears the Creed name proudly.
The film was well received with critics especially impressed with Stallone’s lovely performance as the worn out old warrior, Rocky. The reviews were the finest Stallone had received since Rocky (1976), forty years ago. Though he had had great box office success, directed many films, he is and always will be identified as Rocky Balboa. In making this film, he put the role on like a well worn glove, slipping into character to fight a very different opponent this time, one he could not see, but having watched Adrian die of ovarian cancer, knew all too well.
For the first time since Rocky (1976), Stallone was the talk of awards season, winning the National Board Of Review award as Best Supporting Actor, The Broadcast Film Critics Award for the same, and earned a standing ovation in winning the Golden Globe for Supporting Actor. All roads pointed to the Academy Awards, and when nominated it seemed he would coast to the award.
Not so, on Oscar night, Mark Rylance prevailed for his wonderful work in Bridge of Spies (2015) for Steven Spielberg. The disappointment registered cleared on Stallone’s face, but he took the loss like a champ, praising Rylance for his work.
In 2017 it was announced Creed (2015) would get a sequel, written this time by Stallone, though he will not direct the picture. Due for release in the fall of 2018, the trailer looks promising, though I struggle with idea. Creed will fight the son of the Russian fighter who killer his father. Um, sounds like a Creed meets the Killer Russian Son movie, too close to the fourth and worst of the franchise.
But who knows? Who thought after Rocky V (1990) we woulds see a genuinely good melancholy film such as Rocky Balboa (2006), and Creed (2015) was a great, thrilling surprise.
Stallone has forged an impressive career in Hollywood since clawing his way into the business with sheer force of will. Yes, he made a lot of weak to terrible movies, but in fairness he made his share of good ones too. After three movies it became very clear his limitations as an actor were large, he was no Brando. But he was a fine physical actor in the style of Victor Mature. He owns Rocky Balboa, he was perfection in the part because he understood it, that hunger for respectability, that thirst for something more. He was also very good in the Rambo series, though each became silver as they continued.
They say every great fighter, despite the age, has one more great fight left in him. Does Stallone have one more great performance in him or have we seen it?
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.