Movies & TV / Columns

Dissecting the Classics – Rocky

March 2, 2018 | Posted by Aaron Hubbard
Rocky III

Why do I write? Because I can’t sing or dance. Heyy! Yoo!

Welcome to Dissecting the Classics . In this column, I analyze films that are almost universally loved and considered to be great. Why? Because great movies don’t just happen by accident. They connect with initial audiences and they endure for a reason. This column is designed to keep meaningful conversation about these films alive.


Wide Release Date: December 3, 1976
Directed By: John G. Avildsen
Written By: Sylvester Stallone
Produced By: Robert Chartoff and Irwin Winkler
Cinematography By: James Crabe
Edited By: Richard Halsey and Scott Conrad
Music By: Bill Conti
Production Company: Chartoff-Winkler Productions
Distributed By: United Artists
Sylvester Stallone as Rocky Balboa
Talia Shire as Adrian
Burt Young as Paulie
Carl Weathers as Apollo Creed
Burgess Meredith as Mickey Goldmill

What Do We All Know?

It’s probably safe to say that Rocky is one of those movies that every American is at least aware of existing. Much like Jaws, Star Wars or The Godfather, this is just one of those era-defining movies that was huge when it came out and has been passed down since then. It propelled Sylvester Stallone to superstar status and has remained his signature role for over 40 years. You know the quotes, the music, and the iconic shots even if you’ve never seen the movie. Hell, maybe you’ve caught sequels on TV and still haven’t seen the original movie in its entirety. And while the film has its detractors who are quick to dismiss it as schmaltz, the general consensus is that it’s a beloved classic.

So, naturally, it’s a movie I came to late and regretted waiting so long to check out. I first watched Rocky after getting hooked by a trailer for Ryan Coogler’s Creed. I’d always had this dumb hang-up about the Rocky movies, expecting them to be cliche sports with a meathead jock lead and an obvious ending. Instead I got what a movie that is mostly a slow burn character piece. It’s become a yearly watch for me and, with the exception of a few things, is a film that I absolutely love.

What Went Right?

This section can easily be summed up in two words; Sylvester Stallone. Yes, John G. Avildsen is a good director, Bill Conti does a hell of a job with the music, and the supporting cast is more than capable. But this is Stallone’s baby. Written by Stallone while he was struggling so badly to make it in Hollywood that he had to sell his dog, the rags to riches story is Stallone bearing his soul. Nobody could have brought Rocky to life in a more authentic way; he is an extension of the actor.

Rocky is also one of the best protagonists in movie history. A lot of that comes from Sly’s natural charm and his ability to project understated emotion. But the real secret is the movie’s unusually long first act. Think about it; the inciting incident of Rocky getting a shot at the title doesn’t occur until 55 minutes into the movie. The entire first hour is dedicated to letting us know Rocky as a person. We see how he struggles to make a living, but still takes care of his pets and the people in his community. Rocky is told he’s washed up before he ever gets a chance to have a prime. His down on his luck tale feels true to life, so much so that just the prospect of him finding love with Adrian is cathartic.

But then there’s that fantastic opportunity; a stroke of pure luck that really shouldn’t work. When people call this schmaltzy, it’s because of this unfeasible event that gives Rocky a chance. Yet, much like Frank Capra’s best works, it doesn’t matter if Rocky is sentimental hogwash. It’s well-told sentimental hogwash. Seeing Balboa train for the big fight, dealing with the various strained relationships in his life, and overcoming his self-doubt is compelling and cathartic. And that ending? Thrilling, triumphant and just bittersweet enough to make an unreal situation actually feel real.

Rocky is as laser focused as movies get; I can’t recall any scenes that aren’t either focused on developing Balboa as a character or moving the story of his challenging Creed along. But Rocky isn’t the only good thing here. Talia Shire plays a shrinking violet to perfection, and when she finally fights back against Paulie’s verbal abuse, it’s immensely satisfying. Burgess Meredith as Mickey is a perfect reflection of what Rocky could grow up to be, and Carl Weathers is a mesmerizing presence as Apollo Creed. The movie isn’t exactly known for its great acting but everyone involved is good.

What Went Wrong?

I like or love about 95% of Rocky. But that 5% is worth addressing. One is mostly a minor problem; the lyrics of Rocky’s theme are just not good at all. They only appear once, and during a training sequence so iconic that it almost doesn’t matter. Almost. For me, it’s a shame to listen to Bill Condi slowly build up this theme only to have it hampered by its dumb lyrics.

The second is more substantial. While Rocky and Adrian have plenty of chemistry and their first date is mostly cute, the entire stretch of time between Rocky inviting her into the house and Adrian kissing him is… uncomfortable. And yes, I do get that this is the intent, it’s obvious from Talia Shire’s acting that Adrian is supposed to be uneasy. I just don’t get how this is supposed to be romantic or sexy in any way. This isn’t even like Blade Runner, where the near sexual assault is supposed to remind us that our protagonist isn’t a good guy. Rocky is a good guy, even in situations where he shouldn’t be. It’s a weird scene that could have been done differently.

And In Summary…

Despite a couple of missteps, Rocky is probably the gold standard for this type of Cinderella story. Sylvester Stallone’s script and performance feels authentic and connects on a deep level. Rocky is an underdog in the ring, but also in life. It’s almost impossible not to get behind him. This makes him one of the best movie protagonists in history.

The Rocky franchise ranges in quality, but this is a genuine classic. It’s no real surprise that it won Best Picture, or that it has endured for so long in the pop culture. And with a new series of films spinning off from it, it doesn’t look like it’s going away anytime soon.

Like This Column?
Check out previous editions!
Jurassic Park, Back to the Future, Chinatown, Taxi Driver, The Matrix, Batman (1989), Casablanca, Goldfinger, X2, King Kong (1933), Beauty and the Beast (1991), The Dark Crystal, The Manchurian Candidate (1962), Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Godfather, The Godfather, Part II, The Silence of the Lambs, Alien, Aliens, Casino Royale, Superman: The Movie, Superman II, Batman (1966), The Maltese Falcon, Spider-Man, Spider-Man 2, 12 Angry Men, Aladdin, The Wizard of Oz, Dial M For Murder, Godzilla (1954), The Hurt Locker, The Breakfast Club, Iron Man, The Shining, Dr. Strangelove, A Clockwork Orange, Eyes Wide Shut, Blade Runner, Rosemary’s Baby, Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Princess Bride, Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, Toy Story, Star Wars – Part 1, Star Wars – Part 2, The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, Die Hard, Spirited Away, Airplane!, Dirty Dancing, RoboCop, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Captain America: The First Avenger, In the Heat of the Night, West Side Story, The Adventures of Robin Hood

Follow Me On Letterboxd!
I log reviews for every film I see, when I see them. You can see my main page here. Recent reviews include Coco, Thor: The Dark World and Darkest Hour.