If ever a recent offbeat film project had some high-horsepower sponsorship, it’s “Rocky.” Sylvester Stallone stars in his own screenplay about a minor local boxer who gets a chance to fight a heavyweight championship bout. Some genuinely strong emotional impact emerges from the heavy environment of street grime and gymnasium sweat provided by director John G. Avildsen and producers Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff. The p.r. juggernaut is already at high speed, though the public might well be given a chance to discover the United Artists release for itself.
There are “Marty” overtones in abundance here, and that’s a strong commercial omen for the $1,000,000 gamble herein. The very best way to enjoy “Rocky” is not to examine it too carefully; better simply to relax and roll with the Walter Mitty, Cinderella, or what-have-you notion that the least of us still stands a chance of making it big.
Stallone’s title character is that of a near-loser, a punchy reject scorned by gym owner Burgess Meredith, patronized by local loan shark Joe Spinell (for whom Stallone is too-sympathetic a strong-arm collection agent), rebuffed by plain-Jane Talia Shire whose brother, Burt Young, keeps engineering a romantic match. Even Jodi Letizia, latent teenage tramp, has contempt for him.
Rocky would have remained in this rut, had not heavyweight champ Carl Weathers come up with the Bicentennial gimmick of fighting a sure-ringer, thereby certifying the American Dream for public consumption. Fight promoter Thayer David (remembered so well as the professional and moral arsonist in Avildsen’s “Save the Tiger”) puts the machinery in motion. To everyone’s surprise, Rocky trains arduously. In the climactic (and cinematically powerful) fight sequence, Rocky goes the whole route to an exciting fadeout draw which is reminiscent of the climax of Robert Aldrich’s “The Longest Yard” two years ago.
En route all this, Stallone brings out the best in Shire, exposes the worst in Young and generally gets his life together. The story-telling pace justifies nicely its 119-minute length. Performances, direction and production all contribute importantly. But…
While art by definition must trigger certain emotional responses, occasionally there’s too-obvious a feeling of really being manipulated and stroked. Fact that Rocky gets his big chance from cynical schemers–with a black public hero as the instigator–rests uneasily at moments. Then there are occasional flashes that the film may be patronizing the lower end of the blue-collar mentality, as much if not more than the characters who keep putting Rocky down on the screen. However, Avildsen is noted for creating such ambiguities.
To repeat, best not to dwell on the film. Better to let the smoggy fairy tale run its course and allow general audience patrons their own unique word of mouth propulsion. Pre-release certification of triumph along with a barrage of favorable expert opinion is not unlike playing with fire.
1976: Best Picture, Director, Editing.
Nominations: Best Actor (Sylvester Stallone), Actress (Talia Shire), Supp.Actor (Burgess Meredith, Burt Young), Story & Screenplay, Best Song (‘Gonna Fly Now’), Sound