For the past couple of days, I’ve been letting nearly everyone I encounter know that I watched Rocky for the very first time in life just the other day. Reactions have ranged from shock to disgust, made all the worse when I suggested that the movie is “not great.” Apparently, not liking Rocky is sacrilege and I am a bona fide cinematic infidel. So what is it that makes everyone else hold this movie in such reverence that the very suggestion that it isn’t wonderful results in outright contempt?
Reason 1) Legacy
The most common reaction I got when I said I didn’t care for Rocky was “you mean the first one!?” I am aware, by reputation, that Rocky is the supposed to be this high watermark that led to a series of increasingly unwatchable sequels. I’ll likely tackle these later movies in future reviews but it seems to me that one factor that leads people to hold the original movie in such high regard is the fact that they have seen just how bad things could possibly get. Of course, Rocky V, in comparison, is going to make Rocky look better. We see the same thing with Star Wars, where the alleged glory of Empire Strikes Back is further embiggened by the garbage dump that is Attack of the Clones.
It makes sense. When a relationship goes bad, you can’t help but remember the good old days through rose-coloured glasses. Even still, just because there’s a Mission to Moscow doesn’t mean that Police Academy deserves an Oscar.
Reason 2) “It’s a great underdog story!”
Is it really, though? When I think of the perfect underdog story, I imagine someone who has so much heart and determination that they are able to, through work ethic and a whole lot of gumption, overcome their natural deficiencies and achieve their dreams. That’s not what Rocky is about. Granted, Rocky has not had an easy time. He grew up in a slummy neighbourhood and found that his only talents lied in physical violence. When he’s not training as a boxer, he’s out breaking thumbs for a loan shark. Even though his life revolves around boxing, Rocky fails to break into the big time. In a real underdog story, his failure would be because of some kind of handicap that he overcomes. Instead, Rocky’s failure is due to his combination of pride and lack of self-worth. His pride prevents him from reaching out for management help from a man whose gym he’s been training in for 6 years. Meanwhile, his low self-esteem allows him to accept his lack of success instead of overcoming it. Rocky assumes that he won’t ever hit it big in boxing because he’s a bum but it’s his internalization of this “bum” identity that’s keeping him from succeeding.
When Rocky’s big opportunity finally arrives, it’s not because someone hears about his workhorse training methods or because of him being a real diamond in the rough. Rocky gets chosen out of obscurity to fight the champion because the champ likes the sound of his nickname. That’s it. A single, years-past, fortuitous moment of creativity is what gives Rocky his shot and it’s only then, once he’s handed the only opportunity he ever wanted that he starts training like a real underdog. Most frustratingly, he still holds himself back from the highest levels of accomplishment by lowering his expectations and compromising his definition of success. The night before the big fight, when Rocky tells Adrian “The only thing I wanna do is go the distance — That’s all,” he lowers the brass ring for himself and redefines his standards of accomplishment. Then, when he accomplishes his compromised goal, we’re meant to celebrate a victory made possible by lowered expectations.
It wouldn’t be so bad if Rocky had either a) gone in with his “just make it to the end” mentality from the beginning instead of panicking on the eve of his biggest opportunity or b) just gone for broke and realized, after losing the decision, that it was all still worthwhile. I agree that Rocky shouldn’t have won the fight but the ending we actually get turns Rocky from an “underdog story” into a story about a guy who shouldn’t have won and then… didn’t.
Reason 3) “It’s a Classic!”/”It’s so influential!”
Aging is a tricky thing when it comes to any media. It’s hard enough to make a great movie. It’s even harder to make a great movie that stands the test of time. Some movies stand up (ie. 1957’s 12 Angry Men) while others age terribly. One of the most unfortunate aspects of film is when a movie is so influential that its replication in future films dilutes the importance of the original product. Look at the incredibly famous training montage sequence, where Rocky runs up the steps to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The concept of the montage sequence had been around for decades before Rocky but that scene is so famous that I honestly thought that the technique was developed for this movie. Now, being aware of the importance of that scene, actually watching it is a bizarre experience. The sequence works in that we are impressed with Rocky’s (and Stallone’s) physical accomplishments but it’s also painfully dated with its combination of OK-hand gestures and dreadful lyrics. Seriously, watch it again and I dare you to take it 100% seriously. Just look at these lyrics.
Trying hard now / it’s so hard now / trying hard now.
Getting strong now / won’t be long now / getting strong now
Gonna fly now / flying high now /gonna fly, fly, fly…
A bit part of the problem is that this is a movie, made in 1976 for an audience in 1976. It’s not its fault that it ages poorly or that its methods have been hijacked to the point of making the original’s relevance strictly historical but that unfairness does not have the ability to transport modern audiences back in time 40 years in order to appreciate it in the same context it was originally put together. I suspect that a ton of this reverence is given to Rocky because people either saw it for the first time decades ago when it was more affective or they swear by its sacredness simply because someone older than them told them that they should.
It’s amazing that there are pieces of popular culture that are so universally loved that any opinions to the contrary could potentially turn someone into a critical pariah. It’s even more amazing that, somehow, in 2014, not-that-great Rocky (#217 on the Imdb Top 250) is one of them.
Be sure to check out reviews of the rest of the franchise: