Ashe never got to see a ton of modern classics from his youth, so we’re making him watch them all as a nostalgia-less adult. Check out the inaugural article for more info.
To be fair, I have seen a Rocky movie, just not the original. I, like many human adults, have seen Rocky IV, because I’m pretty sure it was part of the school curriculum back during the Cold War. In it, Rocky’s already a beloved hero, he and Apollo are friends, Adrian is his devoted wife, and Paulie is… Paulie. Rocky trains hard and beats Russia and wins their filthy communist love. It’s not exactly high cinema, but it was a staple of 80’s film.
So going back and watching the original is like watching a weird, gritty prequel. One of the things that struck me most about the movie was that, put simply, all of the characters you’re familiar with from other films in the series are losers in this film. Let’s run through the list.
- Paulie, Rocky’s bestie, who is boisterous and fairly joyful in the other films, is loud, abusive, idiotic, and kind of scary in that domestic violence kind of way. Like, dude is genuinely creepy and kind of unstable. If this wasn’t a sports movie, I’d think it was going to end like Taxi Driver.
- Adrian works at a pet store and seems to be extremely depressed, introverted, and anti-social. Considering who her brother is, I guess that’s not terribly surprising, But she’s quite different from the Adrian in the sequels.
- Apollo Creed is a blowhard who’s more interested in business and showmanship than fighting. Of all the characters, this is the smallest change, but he doesn’t really feel like a character you’d end up liking in later movies.
- Mickey’s a freaking jerk who ignores Rocky until he gets a shot at Apollo Creed and makes it obvious that he wouldn’t have anything to do with Rocky otherwise. Rocky even calls him out on it, but still takes him on as his manager anyway, for some reason we don’t get to hear.
- Rocky himself is a dimwitted loan shark’s enforcer who lives in a shit apartment, is pushing 30 and never made it anywhere as a boxer, and isn’t really even that great at it. The only reason he makes it a full 15 rounds with Apollo is because he’s ridiculously hard-headed. He only gets to fight Apollo due to, as Mickey puts it, “freak chance” anyway.
To further expound on that last part, no, Rocky does not win in Rocky. After noticing that his trunks are the wrong color in some art made for the fight, Rocky deduces that they don’t expect him to win or people to remember him. So his whole goal is simply to go a whole 15 rounds with Apollo Creed, which no one else has ever done. And he does! It’s purely a movie about perseverance and willpower and the human spirit and stuff.
In fact, for being a famous sports film, it’s got almost nothing to do with sports (there’s some short training montages and about ten minutes of actual boxing in a 2+ hour movie), which is not something that you get from the popular interpretation of the film. It’s more just a movie about deciding not to be a loser when you’re given the chance to be something more.
In fact, the entire film can be summed up in the conversation that Rocky has with the tween girl about being a “whore” toward the beginning of the film. He’s afraid of her getting a certain reputation and being stuck with it. Yeah, he’s extremely crude and misogynistic, but the point is still the same. Rocky’s a loser, a “ham and eggs fighter” and he’s accepted it. He’s okay with doing that and occasionally breaking thumbs for the local loan shark.
And if he’d never gotten the chance to fight Apollo, that’s probably all he’d ever do, and the film kinda lets us know it. But when he’s given an opportunity (after all, America is the land of opportunity), he knows he can’t win, but doesn’t want to just continue to be a loser. So he doesn’t lay down and just put on a show or take a fall.
Unlike Daniel LaRusso in The Karate Kid or tons of other movies that follow the difficult struggle/montage/underdog win formula, Rocky’s not about the whole “if you put effort into it you’ll always win!” thing. (What, the Cobra Kai kids didn’t train, too?) Sometimes you’ll still fall on your face, but hey, you did better than anyone else (including you) ever expected.
I feel like that’s a healthier message overall.