When I was growing up, I knew about Rocky. That’s to say – I knew of Rocky. I’d seen the poster, I knew that Sylvester Stallone was a movie star, I knew that at some point he shouted “Adrian!” Like most that haven’t sat down and watched any of the Rocky series, I felt like I already knew the story – and in a way, I did. It is a fairly straightforward underdog story in a lot of ways, which makes it hard to convince non-believers of its worth. The language that Rocky himself uses is simplistic, but the melodrama of the series’ middle casts a shadow over what is otherwise a nuanced, delicate character study.
Before Creed was released, our own Sean Fallon wrote about three different trilogies that we can choose as alternate viewing orders for the series. Now that the seventh film has been released (and snubbed at the Oscars) I’d propose another. Rocky, Rocky Balboa, and Creed make up the melancholy trilogy, with each film getting under the skin of a character who is easy to dismiss as a fossil of a bygone era without spending some time with him. I had always assumed that Rocky was an icon loved either out of irony or a longing for a return to more traditional values of masculinity and American exceptionalism. Maybe for a lot of people that’s true; maybe they look at Stallone’s glistening muscles in Rocky IV and think “Man, this country used to be great.” But for all the pleasures of the series, that melancholy trilogy is what I cling to the most – a story of overcoming personal suffering to be your best self.
That’s what it means to be an underdog. Rocky isn’t a self-proclaimed victim of an invented oppression, but someone whose environment and soul are entwined. Living in relative poverty, with no family or friends to fall back on except the drunk, unreliable, but somehow lovable scumbag Paulie Pennino – Rocky has been kept in a rut by external things. But he also keeps himself down with self-doubt, a passive attitude to his life, and a supreme lack of ambition. More accurately, an ambition that has slipped deep into the recesses of his mind. Rocky spends most of its runtime focused on his struggle to bring this ambition to the surface, while in Rocky Balboa he discovers that he’s fallen back into that malaise once again, and had given up before he had cleared out “the stuff in the basement” for good.
In Creed, what could have simply been an epilogue to Rocky’s life leads to him fighting once again. When faced with cancer, it is suggested that he start chemotherapy treatment, but he chooses to let it be. He remembers what he went through when Adrian fought and lost the battle to the disease, so chooses not to try. And just as Adrian, Mickey, Apollo, and Little Marie pulled him to his feet through their compassion and belief in him, it is Donnie who convinces him to start treatment. “If I fight, you fight” he tells him, and it’s enough. It’s corny, it’s simple, it’s right, and it’s honest. Rocky may not be the smartest guy, but he is capable of profound sadness, and is prone to an endless and paralysing introspection when he is alone. He enters the ring as one man, but he gets there by the grace of those that love and support him.
His last lines in Rocky Balboa are “Yo Adrian, we did it… we did it”, when she isn’t even alive to physically support him. That was Adrian’s power, to bring him to his feet when he needed it most. It’s what makes the loss so devastating, its weight felt throughout Balboa and Creed.
If I could take everything that was good and put it into a bowl or something… and say, “Hey! Here. I’d like to buy one more day with my wife”… I’d do it. I would die a happy man, right then. Not gonna happen. So, everything I got has moved on and I’m here. But you know what? It’s okay. Because I said to myself, “If I break, if I’m hurt, whatever.” I ain’t gonna fix it. Why bother?
The above monologue hits me pretty hard for a lot of reasons, but I think it’s a mindset we can all relate to – especially in times like these, where we can feel like we are at a breaking point. If all our efforts and dedication to positivity still leads to defeat, what then? The initial shock and dismay often fades to hopelessness, inactivity, and a loss of belief in ourselves and what we stand for. I know that many of us have thought or said “I ain’t gonna fix it, why bother?” in the last month, and that’s why the seemingly basic lessons Rocky teaches are so important. Because it ain’t over till it’s over. There’s no dignity in giving up, and there’s no winning unless we believe in ourselves and support one another.
Rocky Balboa first graced our screens forty years ago today, the same year that Taxi Driver held a dirty mirror to America, a country uncertain of its ability to match its promise to be a moral beacon for the world to follow. Rocky took a different approach. It showed us what where apathy can leave us, and who we can be if we don’t give up. Sometimes we need to be reminded to go the distance – not just hear the words, but believe them. If Rocky can do it, so can we.
Featured Image: United Artists