Last week, Cindy and I moved apartments. Despite budgeting time to fit in my weekly film, the move was absolute chaos and so, for the first time since starting this, I missed my screening by a whole week! So forgive my tardiness but here we are, a week later…
For the few folks who haven’t seen it, Rocky is the story of a amateur boxer from Philly. Something of a neighborhood staple, and bit of a loser (probably a few years past his fighting prime) Rocky struggles to fit in his passion for boxing, the need to scrap together a living, and wooing pet shop employee Adrian Pennino with his bad jokes. It is at this moment when heavyweight boxing champion Apollo Creed needs to find a challenger to ensure his payday. He picks Rocky in a publicity-fueled suggestion of opportunity: give a local Philly-boy a chance at the big league heavyweight title. The story then follows Rocky, the clear underdog, from his training through to the match, showing how the spotlight turns his life upside down.
For being a boxing movie, there’s actually not that much boxing going on. I probably liked the film more for this reason. The sport is mostly the backdrop for a character story, with the film spending an almost exhausting amount of time simply following Rocky around and letting the audience soak him in. My sister Javaneh even joked that most of the movie seemed to still shots of Rocky just walking through town, talking to the locals. But the tactic worked. We learn that he’s a strong errand-boy but is pretty soft on the people he’s meant to intimidate. He frequently admits to being dumb but is pretty articulate, understanding, and respectful. And, after a pretty assaulting first date with Adrian (romantic by 1976 standards???), the unfeeling tough guy becomes more of a lover than a fighter.
The film had a lot of great imagery. It has a clear Jesus-symbol-thing, frequent self-reflective mirror shots, and is even self-referential to the black-verses-white dynamic of the fight. But probably most of all, the film paints itself as a story about America. Set in America’s-birthplace Philadelphia and on the bicentennial (1976), this film was dripping in a tarnished red, white, and blue. It felt like another film that tried to sort through America’s identify in a post-Vietnam era. The Philly in Rocky is generally rundown, grimy, corrupt, and had some pretty broken/damaged people living in it. But there was community there. And the fight itself makes a farce of opportunity, capitalizing on the story of America to push a few bucks. But there was heart there.
What’s interesting about this film is that Apollo Creed isn’t really a villain (he’s actually depicted as a respected, talented, albeit overconfident opportunist). The villain is the struggle to get anything done anymore—to be great. It’s how hard it is to pick yourself up and push yourself. The film offers America a shot at redemption through pure grit and pure heart. There’s Rocky, who knows the fight is stacked against him but finds the endurance to push on, to his manager Mick Goldmill, who after 76 years is finally getting a chance to make a winner, to a local community who finally has something to believe in. And for me, that’s why Rocky continues to endure as a relevant and inspiring film: it’s a much needed story about grit and endurance; something to believe in.