Before Rocky Balboa succumbed to sequelitis and morphed into a comic book hero battling Soviet supermen and ending the Cold War with just a pair of patriotically patterned shorts and a sturdy uppercut, the character was a believable human being – an unranked boxer who coulda been a contender but never had the guts to try. ‘You had the talent to become a good fighter,’ snarls Burgess Meredith’s archetypal cornerman, Mickey. ‘But instead of that you become a leg-breaker to some cheap, second-rate loan shark … It’s a waste of life!’
Having lost his locker for being more of a bum than all the other bums at the local gym, and with a mounting distaste for breaking bones to order, Rocky has little in his life except his stuttering attempts to chat up Thalia Shire’s sweetly shy pet shop assistant. Then, through a series of flukes and a marketing masterstroke, he is given a token chance at the Heavyweight Championship of World, held by the preening, Ali-esque Apollo Creed. What follows is enough to make anyone bounce about their bedroom screaming, ‘Yo, Adrian!’ before nipping to the kitchen to drink half a dozen raw eggs.
If you started watching the Rocky films somewhere among the sequels, you might assume the original saw Sylvester Stallone’s iconic character switch from obscurity to world domination in no more than the length of a masochistic training montage and one inspiring sprint up some museum steps. But Rocky isn’t that kind of movie. In it, Balboa doesn’t transform from street thug to the greatest boxer in the world: he moves from a man content to be a disgrace to himself to one unwilling, at least for one glorious night, to be any less than he can.
It’s a powerful tale, and nowhere near as saccharine as it sounds. It’s based on the real life achievements of Chuck Wepner – the un-fancied pug who, in 1975, so nearly went 15 rounds with Muhammad Ali – and reality in Rocky wasn’t just confined to the inspiration for the script. Enough grit pervades every scene, and every important performance, to (almost) balance out any implausibility. Throughout, while it’s the broad strokes of the plot that make you want to watch Rocky, it’s the perfectly rendered details of the production that make you want to revisit it.
Seminal moments – and tunes – abound. Rocky’s thigh-pumping climb to frozen-framed glory before the Philadelphia Museum of Art; the bloody-fisted beating he gives a side of frozen beef in the meat locker; and his climatic in-ring embrace with Adrian are all, I’m sure, somebody’s favourite movie scene. Bill Conti’s score is justifiably as famous, and beloved, as the film itself and its finest few minutes – the suitably soaring 'Gonna Fly Now' – has, I’d bet, spurred more men into sudden explosions of vigorous activity than anything in Emmanuel. (I’ve always said that, were Ivan Pavlov still around, he would long since have abandoned conjuring dog spit with the sound of a bell, and would instead get his kicks using snippets of the Rocky theme to make men of a certain age suddenly start shadowboxing.)
Of all Rocky’s highpoints, however, it is the ending that ensures its status as a classic. The last seconds of Rocky, which I won’t spoil here, are as flawless as those of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid or – though I’ll be struck down by thunderbolt for saying so – Casablanca. Astonishing when you consider that Stallone, who in scripting them showed such expert judgement, later decided it was a good idea to marry Brigitte Nielsen and make Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot.
I absolutely love all the Rocky movies (with the exception of Rocky V, which is an abomination against Nature and the undisputed low point of Western culture) – but even I wouldn’t attempt to argue that the follow-ups belong in a collection containing the likes of Brief Encounter and Come and See. But Rocky does. Its quality stands out from the rest of the series as conspicuously as ten-year-old Michael’s did from the rest of the Jackson Five. It’s a classic of populist American moviemaking and one of the greatest film fairytales.