Rocky and the Communal Triumph of Losing
Overview: Inconsequential club fighter Rocky Balboa is given a once in a lifetime shot to take on Apollo Creed for the world heavyweight championship. United Artists; 1976; Rated PG; 119 Minutes.
The Italian Stallion (Shamrock Meats, Inc.): As contemporary purveyors of film quality, it’s so easy to take Sylvester Stallone for granted, to mistake the masculine bravado he’s exhibited in action role after action role as some kind of substitute for talent. His physique, speech patterns, and quality of star power have become so often parodied over the years, making him another seemingly expendable advertisement for an age of endless Commandos, Cobras, Kickboxers, and Rambos. We tend to overlook the fact that Rocky Balboa, in every installment of his series, is very much tied to the real-life career of Stallone – an almost overnight rise to glory, a struggle to maintain appeal and relevance, and a battle to be more than forgotten commodity in the punch-drunk years of seniority. A large part of Rocky’s greatness stems from its personal ties to its lead actor and screenwriter. Without that 30-year-old struggling actor and screenwriter making $36 a week as an usher, that authentic feeling of scrappiness, regret, and fear would be sorely missing. It’s the intimately personal portrait of Rocky and Stallone that makes the film such an achievement. And yet, this personal experience, this story of failure and triumph, has also made the film a seemingly open invitation in which we can provide our own meaning, which has both increased Rocky’s value and cheapened its stakes.
“Is he talking to me?”: Culturally, we’ve openly celebrated Rocky for years as the triumphant sports movie, the distillation of the American Dream, all of those big-picture abstracts that work well for licensed products to fill the dorm rooms and living spaces of many people whose strongest association with the film is its training montage. The communal accessibility of the film has solidified it as a product made for everyone, just one step above a tennis shoe commercial boasting that we can do it. But in its inherent nature, Rocky isn’t a film for or about everyone, it’s a film for us: the bums, would-be contenders looking for a shot at their title and a better life, the anxiety-laden who have the courage to keep moving forward. Though a couple of the sequels surely played their part, so many have come to associate Rocky with winning in a quantifiable sense, be that physique, fame, fortune, or trophies. Ironically, it’s a film that doesn’t put much stake into achievement defined by those measurements. The film’s story may hinge on a boxing match and celebrate athleticism, but it’s very much the inverse of the sports movies that preceded and followed it, the films that place the sport itself on a pedestal, instead of the characters. Despite 40 years of callbacks and commercialization attempting to convince us otherwise, Rocky is not explicitly a film for athletes confident in their prospects, ribbon-pinned winners, or even those sitting atop their American Dream. It’s a film for us beautiful losers in all walks of life.
Another Bum from the Neighborhood: John G. Alvidsen’s decision to spend more time directing on the streets of Philadelphia than in the gym and ring made all the difference in the world when it comes to our ability to define Rocky as more than just a sports movie. Many viewers unfamiliar with Rocky come away surprised upon the first viewing at how little the film focuses on actual boxing. In fact, we’re nearly an hour into the film before Rocky even agrees to fight Apollo Creed, and we’ve got only twenty minutes left by the time we get to that rousing training montage. The only times we actually see Rocky fight an opponent are in the opening five minutes and the closing fifteen. So what are we left with? We’re left in Rocky’s world of back alleys, chain link fences, shipping docks, and street crooners. Alvidsen buries Rocky, and the viewers, in these chunks of concrete, steel, meat, and fumes, ultimately creating a world that’s both claustrophobic and familiar. This comfortable discomfort becomes the space that has so clearly trapped Rocky. Alvidsen goes through lengths to show us that these Philadelphia slums are not some awful place. There’s a strong sense of community and brotherly love, but it’s also a place that for better and worse is trapped in the past and its holding Rocky and the rest of its inhabitants right there.
Repetition Makes the Man: Right after Rocky’s opening fight with Spider Rico, we’re made aware of the fact that Rocky’s every move has become routine, just like that rubber ball he bounces—a symbol of his potential energy and inability to break away from its familiar pattern of repetition, an infinite game of short-hand catch and release. We get the sense that Rocky’s passed the same faces on the street corners time after time, offered the same advice to deaf ears, told countless jokes to Adrian with little success, and met-up with a drunken Paulie at the same bar almost every night. His life is going nowhere, and each time he stares into that mirror in his apartment he knows that he’s becoming part of the past like all of those pictures of him, his family, and his idols that line that frame. He is living, as Mickey tells him, “A waste of life.”
Much of the film relies on repetition. From repeated lines, music cues, song selection, training exercises, and character tics, Rocky is at times cyclical minute-to-minute, and installment-to-installment, as the franchise continues. By the time we get to Bill Conti’s iconic “Gonna Fly Now,” itself a repeated rendition of the music attached to Rocky’s first somber, panting climb up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, our pulse quickens along with Rocky’s with the first sensation of breaking free into the unfamiliar. Yet the film doesn’t follow this scene up with a further exploration of Rocky’s confidence, instead it takes a much bolder approach by once again focusing on Rocky’s fear and self-doubt on the night before his fight against Creed.
American Fairy Tale: There is, of course, a fairy-tale aspect to Rocky Balboa’s story; it is, as the ringside announcer says, “a Cinderella story.” As much as we like to credit the film as a celebration of the American Dream, we should never forget that Rocky was chosen by Apollo Creed not for being the most talented, but because he had a good looking name in a book. Political discussions on the American Dream so often focus on the idea that if you work hard you can achieve anything. It’s this idea, so we’re told, that the United States was founded upon, but what Rocky gets right is a point that’s so often overlooked: the foundation of so many American Dreams is built on sheer luck and once-in-a-lifetime shots that are handed out, and hard work may simply follow that. That notion is compelling, and yet also terrifying in a way that Rocky finds honesty within. Rocky proves himself to be a worthy opponent for Creed, a true boxing talent, and all around good guy, but the film makes the space to at least allow us to question whether Rocky is actually any of these things by making room for Rocky to continually doubt himself.
This story could have been told in such a way that Rocky had maintained a dedicated regiment as a boxer for his entire adolescent and adult life, that he made an honest living, and earned his fight with Apollo through a clear display of prowess in an audition. But what that would have created is not only a false character, but an uninteresting one that doesn’t accurately represent those that the movie is speaking to. Instead we’re given a man who knows he’s been given an opportunity he didn’t have to prove himself for, an opportunity that doesn’t stem from tests physical or moral in nature. The fact that Rocky knows he’s not a better fighter than Apollo Creed and is honest enough with himself to display not only courage, but fear, is what has given the character such a lasting appeal. The two scenes that best define the character aren’t even in the boxing ring, but Rocky’s outburst in the moments following Mickey’s departure from his apartment, and his solemn walk through the empty arena on the night before the fight, massive banners of Creed and himself hanging in front of and behind him. While one scene is explosive and the other mournfully quiet, they explore the fear of opportunity in a way that no other film has succeeded in since. The idea of being so close to what you want and possibly failing is the sublime truth that lies at the heart of the Human Dream.
Filling Gaps: Rocky Balboa isn’t our only entry point into true nature of the Human Dream or the film’s redefinition of success. Adrian, Paulie, and Mickey are each busted in their own way, and each fill the gaps necessary for the film to have full effect on our heartstrings. Supporting characters they may be, but they are no less important than our titular one. Circling back around to the film’s use of repetition, Adrian, Paulie, and Mickey are each fragments of Rocky-his insecurity, his self-loathing, and his regret respectively. And each are in search of some achievement and sense of worth for themselves, a loser’s club that goes the distance with Rocky, not because of him. The film’s triumphant moment isn’t simply Rocky going the fifteen rounds with Apollo Creed, it’s Adrian finding her confidence, it’s Paulie finding value in his life however selfish his interests may be, it’s Mickey doing for someone else what he could never do for himself, and it’s Rocky’s love for Adrian drowning out the small fact that he doesn’t win the match. These are the rounds that really define going the distance.
A Monument: It’s so easy to like Rocky, to love him, because he is so exquisitely human — remarkably strong, yet beautifully fragile in a way that his feelings become ours. Every emotional punch, be it from a seized locker, a neighborhood girl, a bartender, a friend, or Apollo Creed’s fist is viscerally felt. By the time we get to the end and Rocky is still standing, he’s immortalized not as an athlete but as a human being: afraid, compassionate, and desperate to be somebody. For so long we’ve categorized Rocky as a sports movie that we’ve forgotten how bold a film it is for any genre. That fact that we can have a film that inspires such hope where our lead character can lose the film’s central event and still be a winner in his own eyes goes above and beyond what most narratives consider to be their duty. Boxers, Philadelphians, Americans, or not, Rocky is for all of us doe-eyed dreamers taking a shot at life and hoping that with love, luck, and well-measured fear that we’ll remain standing long enough to be remembered for something great.