By the time Rocky gets to the big fight, you forget there’s actually going to be a big fight. While the film does open with a boxing match, until somewhere decidedly in the late second act, Rocky isn’t a sports movie. It’s a character study of a boxer, sure, but he’s not in a sports movie. He doesn’t have another fight lined up anyway.
The film starts just before Thanksgiving and ends on New Year’s Day. Holidays aren’t important to Rocky (screenwriter, leading man, and fight choreographer Sylvester Stallone), who’s seemingly been alone for a decade. He’s thirty now, breaking legs for a two-bit loan shark (an oddly touching Joe Spinell), getting occasional fights, winning over half of them, and putting up with his gym owner (Burgess Meredith, mostly saving MAD Magazine time on the caricature) treating him like crap because he’s too old to be a contender.
After the first scene, Rocky’s done with boxing for the first act. There’s talk about it—folks being surprised Stallone won the fight—but the rest of the time is establishing the ground situation. Stallone’s got a crush on pet shop girl Talia Shire, who’s not necessarily not interested in the attention, and he’s best buddies with her drunken “lovable” asshole brother (Burt Young). Young wants a job as a leg-breaker, but Stallone doesn’t think he’s reliable enough. Into the second act, there’s a big implication Young’s trying to pawn Shire off on Stallone in exchange for a job hookup.
Young’s an asshole. They realize in the third act they can make him funny about it and give him some goofy reaction shots during the big fight, but it’s too late. It’s fine. He’s supposed to be an asshole, but he and Stallone’s arc is one of the film’s most rushed.
Just as Stallone and Shire kick off their tender but macho romance, he gets the chance of the lifetime. The world heavyweight champion of the world Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) is looking for an unknown contender for a New Year’s Day fight. Weathers is celebrating the United States Bicentennial, wants to do something showy. Giving the underdog a shot. Now, we’ll find out later Weathers has not just never lost a fight, he’s never even been knocked down. Rocky has plenty of opportunities to exposition dump about Weathers’s record (the film does use TV news footage as a device, but Shire knows squat about boxing, and Stallone could tell her). Stallone’s a fan of Weathers, but it seems uninformed. In one of Rocky’s sincerest flexes, Stallone pushes back at his regular bartender Don Sherman’s regular racism about Black man Weathers. It’s also one of the most realistic—Stallone doesn’t say why he’s upset Sherman’s a racist and just bounces.
There’s a decent argument for Stallone not knowing how to verbalize it. He’s something of an uninformed philosopher king, lots of observations—he even writes jokes to tell Shire—and Rocky’s most shining moments are when Stallone ventures out into the world. He leaves the gym, the fight club, the bar, his “economically distressed” neighborhood, and participates in the world. Rocky will have several problems by the end, up to and including the last moments, but once it rings the bell in Stallone’s self-esteem character development arc, the movie’s basically won. It’s done the Stallone arc, it’s done the Stallone and Shire arc, it’s given Shire just the scantest amount of character moments on her own (it’s truly staggering how much the film puts on her; she’s charged with bringing it legitimacy). Like the rest of the film, the big fight’s got its problems (Stallone’s got a strategy, a foreshadowed strategy, but they make it coincidental), and its moments (despite uneven sound editing, Stallone and Weathers do have a real scene together amid the blows).
Technically, the film’s a sparsely mixed bag. Whenever director Avildsen actually has a good shot (he’s awful shooting in cramped spaces, which is about half of the movie), cinematographer James Crabe or one of his camera operators messes it up. There are some decent shots throughout the film, but they’re either outside, involve static camera placement, or in giant indoor spaces. Otherwise, it’s buyer beware. Richard Halsey and Scott Conrad’s editing is similarly hot and cold. It’s good for the sports movie, it’s atrocious on the dramatics. Young in particular will change head position and facial expression between his shots. Is it Young, is it Avildsen? Probably. But it’s also artless cutting.
Then the sports stuff is good.
Bill Conti’s score is one of the main stars, along with Stallone, Shire, and, to a lesser extent, Weathers. Weathers gives an unforgettable performance, but… he’s not, you know, particularly good. Stallone and Shire are good. Especially Shire. The supporting cast ranges. Meredith’s cartoonish and semi-pointless (it’s like no one told Stallone after he figured out the plot, he could improve it) until the movie remembers to tell us Meredith could’ve been a surrogate family to Stallone but didn’t because he’s an asshole too. One of the film’s other endearing subplots is Stallone’s good nature—his “friends” all want something from him, which he acknowledges and, once in the position to help, does so.
Except Shire, of course, which just makes them all the cuter. Though Stallone’s pushy advances age poorly (maybe if Avildsen directed them better), but Shire’s into it, so it’s fine… see what you made me say, movie? Do you see?
The film’s greatest unsung performance is Tony Burton. He’s Weathers’s trainer, who realizes Stallone might be good enough to get lucky, and Weathers better take the big fight more seriously. Weathers, spoiler, does not. Hence drama.
Thayer David plays Weathers’s Mr. Big manager. He and Meredith unfortunately don’t get a chance to do a caricature-off.
A shame we’ll never get to see it—the movie reminds everyone at least four times there won’t be a rematch.