Great Expectations

Wringing as many tears as it does cheers

Published: Jan 20 2017, 01:01:am

Friday, March 18, 1977.
ROCKY. Written by Sylvester Stallone. Music by Bill Conti. Directed by John G. Avildsen. Running time: 120 minutes. Rated Mature entertainment with no B.C. Classifier’s warning.
LAST YEAR [1976], PARAMOUNT PICTURES, with a $24-million movie on its booking sheet, tried to convince us that audiences were clamouring for a King Kong remake. The clamour, if it ever existed, was a short-lived one. Locally, Kong is long gone.
    This month, United Artists Corporation has the floor. The company tells us that Rocky is a great movie. It holds up 10 Academy Award nominations to prove its point. In the process, it could just ruin the picture for a lot of filmgoers.
    Rocky is a good movie. No question about that. Warm and winning, it plays at being tough, but ends up wringing as many tears as it does cheers.
     The thing is, Rocky is a good “little” movie. It is the kind of film that works best when audience members discover it, become quietly enthusiastic and recommend it to friends.
     “Let me tell you about Rocky. It’s a movie that I think you’ll enjoy . . .”
    Heavy honours create expectations. Heavy promotion creates demands.
     “Ten Oscar nominations, eh? This had better be great . . .”    
     In a sense, the story of Rocky, the movie, is similar to that of Rocky, the movie character. Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) is a big, dumb boxer, a slugger who never really had what it takes to become a contender. In between his infrequent bouts, he makes ends meet by playing enforcer for a minor-league Mafioso.
    A good-hearted lug, Rocky figures what he really wants out of life is the love of a good woman. His friend Paulie Pennino (Burt Young) has a sister named Adrian (Talia Shire), a mousy girl who clerks in the neighbourhood pet store.
     Rocky decides she is a good woman and, in a stumble-bum sort of way, he courts her.
    The movie starts out looking like a 1970s version of Marty. Good buddy Paulie even works in a meat-packing plant. Then, like a fairy godmother, fate steps in.
    Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers), the flashy black heavyweight champion, is due to fight a bicentennial bout in Philadelphia, Rocky’s hometown. The promotional machinery is already in motion when Creed learns that his white opponent can’t make the match.
    No matter, says Creed, the show must go on. The champ declares that he will pick an opponent at random, and give him an unearned shot at the title.
    The match will celebrate the values that made America great, he declares. It will be a bicentennial affirmation of the American dream, a fight that will prove that America is still the land of opportunity,
    Before he can wax too poetic, Creed’s finger lights on the name of a boxer who calls himself “The Italian Stallion.” Of course, it’s Rocky Balboa.
    For Rocky, it’s the Big Chance. For Creed, it’s a big stunt. For John Avildsen, it’s another look into the soul of a little person with a big dream.
    The director who guided Jack Lemmon to his Oscar (for 1973’s Save the Tiger), Avildsen proves that he can put across schlock so well that the results actually get a shot at the 1976 Best Picture title.
    Like his last feature, the delightful W. W. and the Dixie Dancekings, Rocky has a lot of heart. It is also the least complex, both emotionally and morally, of Avildsen’s features to date. Here he concentrates on the growth of a single character, a simple man facing the fight of his life — a fight that he hasn’t a hope of winning.
    The Italian Stallion has been set up as the focus of a media event. It is popular opinion, fuelled by press attention, that makes him look like a contender.
     We know that.
    And deep within himself — so does Rocky.
    He wins our support and our respect, though. He does it in a small, secret moment in the cold chill of morning. Examining his chances, he sets himself a realistic goal — not to win, but “to go the distance.”
    Rocky swears a mighty oath to himself. He will finish the fight on his feet.
    That will be his victory.
    With Rocky, actor Stallone makes his debut as a feature film screenwriter. Like Avildsen, the 30-year-old performer prefers common-man heroes.
    Unlike Avildsen, he is quite willing to toss his hero into the middle of a fantastic plot, the kind of upbeat confection that Hollywood’s dream factories were turning out in the 1930s.
    Stallone recycles a good many clichés. His Rocky is kind to animals.
     His Adrian turns out to be quite a beauty once she takes off her glasses. Old Mickey Goldmill (Burgess Meredith), Rocky's trainer, sees himself getting the title shot that he once deserved through Rocky.
    It’s happy hokum, and its weaknesses (including an outrageously overstated  performance from Meredith) could be overlooked in a small “discovery” picture. Rocky, unfortunately, has already been discovered by its distributor.
     Like the fighter in the film, it is being promoted as a “great” movie.
     It’s not. But it is pretty good. Expect a small joy and a positive celebration of small pleasures, and you'll be well satisfied by Rocky.
*    *    *
SECOND ROUND. A generation ago, TV writer Paddy Chayefsky won an Academy Award for adapting his 1953 television drama Marty to the big screen. A little picture, Marty was 1955’s Best Picture, and it collected additional Oscars for its star (Ernest Borgnine) and director (Delbert Mann).
    This year, Chayefsky is nominated again, this time for a big picture called Network.  Among his competitors is Sylvester Stallone, a screenwriter whose own little picture — Rocky — is in direct competition with Network in seven Oscar categories.

The above is a restored version of a Province review by Michael Walsh originally published in 1977. For additional information on this archived material, please visit my FAQ.

Afterword: In Vancouver, Rocky is sometimes remembered as the film that premiered in the No. 1 auditorium of the Capital Six multiplex when the new theatre opened on March 11, 1977. On March 28, it won Academy Awards for best picture, director (John G. Avildsen) and film editing. It was nominated for seven other Oscars, including best actor and screenplay (Sylvester Stallone), actress (Talia Shire), and supporting actor (Burgess Meredith and Burt Young). Network, Rocky's competition in all of those categories, won the best actor (Peter Finch), actress (Faye Dunaway), supporting actress (Beatrice Straight) and screenplay (Paddy Chayefsky) prizes.
     The picture was Stallone’s breakthrough to stardom, and the beginning of a film franchise that has to date spawned six sequels — Rocky II (1979); Rocky III (1982); Rocky IV (1985); Rocky V (1990); Rocky Balboa (2006); and Creed (2015). All of the pictures starred Stallone and, with the exception of Creed, were written by him as well. The New York-born actor/writer added director to his résumé in 1978 with the feature Paradise Alley, then went on to direct the second, third and fifth Rocky instalments.
    In 1982, Stallone went on location in Hope, British Columbia to film the story of a Vietnam war bush vet who comes into conflict with a small-town sheriff. Called First Blood, it was based on a novel by a Canadian (David Morrell) and directed by a Canadian (Ted Kotcheff). It introduced the world to John Rambo, and spawned a second Stallone-powered franchise. Three more films followed, including Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985), Rambo III (1988) and Rambo (2008). In 2009, at the age of 63, Stallone wrote, directed and starred in The Expendables, an ensemble feature he seems to have designed to provide work for his old colleagues, actors who came to fame in the 1970s. His third franchise success, the good-natured wrinkle-fest now includes The Expendables 2 (2012) and The Expendables 3 (2012), with The Expendables 4 promised for 2018.  
See also: Under the direction of Norman Jewison, Sylvester Stallone played a 1930s union organizer in the 1978 feature F.I.S.T.  Its story is based on the life of Teamsters president Jimmy Hoffa.