(This is the first in a series of reviews of the entire Rocky / Rambo sequence)
I can still remember the first time I saw Rocky. I must have been 10 or 11 years old — I probably saw it on HBO, which we got for free because a friend showed us how to rewire the cable box. It must have been HBO, because I got to see all the swear words (“crap”) and all the blood from the stunning final fight sequence.
Watching Rocky again is a little like watching Shakespeare. It’s full of cliches (Shakespeare: “what the dickens!” Rocky “Yo! Adrian, it’s me, Rocky!”), and the plot is so familiar and predictable it seems hardly worth watching. Yet there also appears to be some deeper symbolism. Was it really intentional? Was a genius really behind all this?
Rocky is a film that turns American history on its ear. The educated elite is represented by an African American, Apollo Creed, who’s constantly demonstrating his eloquence and sophistication, who is so comfortable in his position of dominance that we hardly stop to think that his ancestors were probably slaves, that his parents couldn’t sit on the same bus seat with white people. But Creed is completely aware of the irony of his situation. He chooses to fight Rocky because of his nickname, “the Italian Stallion.” An Italian discovered America, right?, he reminds us, and now he, a black man, is going to fight him.
This white man, this two-bit mob heavy, is no match for the distinguished Apollo Creed. Rocky knows he can’t possibly win, so he lowers his sights — he wants only to finish the fight. Creed thinks he can beat him in three rounds.
Rocky, of course, does go the distance, but he loses the fight. At the end of the match, Creed tells Rocky there’ll be no rematch. He’s going to keep Rocky down the same way the white man kept his slaves in check for all those centuries before — by never giving him the chance to succeed.
Even though Rocky loses, we aren’t left with the feeling that Rocky is a tragedy. Rocky has achieved his goal — and gotten the girl to boot. The romance between Rocky and Adrian is yet another aspect of the film that seems like a cliche — and probably did even in 1976. We don’t care, though, because Talia Shire portrays her character with such depth that even when Rocky asks her to remove her glasses and become “beautiful” in the same way that 100 screen sirens had done before, we see a transformation that’s somehow more believable than all those that had preceded her.
Rocky himself is so bumbling and likable that it’s no wonder Stallone is seen more as the personification of the screen image than as the brilliant actor who created the character.
I’m afraid this film will probably be the high point of our little festival — indeed, the very making of the sequel destroys some of the meaning of the original film; nonetheless, it will be a blast to see how the others stack up.