Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) is a small time boxer in Philadelphia, who is now thirty with few prospects on the horizon of ever hitting the big time in the sport he has dedicated his life to. In fact, he's more likely to make a living as the strong arm to local loan shark Tony Gazzo (Joe Spinell), who pays him to rough up non-paying clients, but he still keeps his dream alive, as he fights tonight in a club and manages to win. Not that this offers him much respect, but there's only one person who he wants that from, and she is the introverted Adrian (Talia Shire) who works in the neighbourhood pet store. Yet miracles can happen, as Rocky is about to find out...
The story of the film Rocky is similar to the story of the character, and indeed the star has become inseperable from the role, being the part he is most identified with, even more than Rambo. Stallone was that star, penning the first draft of his script in a now-legendary three days, selling it to a Hollywood producer on the grounds that he should headline, and that producer taking a chance on him with results that have passed into movie history. Five sequels later, and the original film is still the best of the lot, though it still leaves snootier movie buffs shaking their heads that something so corny could endure in the public imagination, never mind be the massive hit that it was worldwide.
That success including snatching the best film Oscar from the likes of All The President's Men, Network and Taxi Driver. But Stallone had tapped into something more strongly than those other movies, which was the love of the underdog and the desire to see the little guy triumph against the odds, a tradition in Hollywood works since the silent days, and cannily updated to the supposedly more cynical seventies with this. But the jaded moviegoers of 1976 were not as past romanticism as they maybe thought they were, with Rocky pushing all their entertainment buttons and even leaving some viewers in tears of joy at the finale. Is it still worth that adulation? Or have we grown even more cynical in the 21st Century?
Perhaps not, as not only do we still like to see those stories of beating the odds, but Rocky plays pretty well, even if you don't think you'll fall for this kind of fairytale. If there's a problem, it's that Stallone gave his character so much schtick to convey that he looks hokey, overplaying the nice but dim personality to daft degrees so that there are times you're surprised he can tie his shoelaces never mind compete in a boxing match shown across the country. That match is against World Heavyweight Champion Apollo Creed (a charismatic Carl Weathers), who wishes to celebrate the United States Bicentennial by giving a shot at glory to a small time fighter, all in fun, as he is sure to win, but it makes him look charitable.
The idea that the truly successful need to be taken down a peg or two seems to have informed the way the drama plays out, and we are not intended to begrudge Rocky's attempt to do that to Creed in any way, as he's set up as such a nice guy that only a sour and bitter individual would wish to see otherwise. Or that's the idea, though in the sequels the naysayers may have had a point in their insistence that the whole theme of these movies was simply phoney baloney. But let's not allow that to trouble us with the original, as while you may be holding back with your admiration of the lead character at first, whether down to how Stallone's career went from then on or not, damn if this film doesn't win you over, or perhaps wear you down with its idealism would be more appropriate. By that match that climaxes the action you might well be cheering along as Rocky tries to go the distance - sometimes a fairytale is exactly what you need to hear. Memorably exultant music by Bill Conti.