The first act is a day in the life of the rudderless Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone), as he aimlessly wanders the streets of Philadelphia, carrying this air of buoyancy while everything around him, from his $40 winnings to his shabby apartment, are solemn reminders of his insignificance, and the people he associates with can only express that. His gym coach Mickey Goldmill (Burgess Meredith) serves him some vitriol and gives his locker to a more deserving fighter, he’s hassled by the driver of his loan-shark gangster boss Tony Gazzo (Joe Spinell), and is even derided as nothing but a bum and a creep by strangers and neighbourhood children. Rocky’s life is that of a dog beaten so often he believes he deserves it. The only sunshine in his perpetual cloudy day is his visit to the pet store to crack bad jokes at the clerk whom he has a child-like crush on; the quiet and incredibly shy Adrian Pennino (Talia Shire), who wants nothing to do with the dumb mumbling fighter. Since the world heavyweight championship, the one thing he feels would give his life legitimacy, is something he will never possess, courting Adrian and cracking through her outer shell gives Rocky a purpose in life, and through this budding romance we see that success isn’t something completely out of Rocky’s hands.
Mickey is a source of truth for Rocky, telling him he has heart but nothing else. His description is accurate in both a good and bad way; Rocky has a heart of gold, he will let men in debt go free without breaking their thumbs and will grab a drunk out of the gutter, but that can’t compensate for a lifetime of missed opportunities. A moment of literal reflection on a photo of an eight-year-old Rocky indicates the time he’s wasted and just how much he resents himself for it. As a boxer Rocky will defend himself to the bitter end, but when he tries to justify his hollow life as a means to get by and Mickey tells him harshly that it’s a waste he walks away without a whimper. Mickey’s right and Rocky knows it.
There’s only a fleeting mention of Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) and his world heavyweight championship in the first act. Nobody leading the life of Rocky has any reason to believe such an opportunity would come their way, so when it does it’s a bolt out of the blue. With his self-loathing at an all-time high he initially refuses, feeling he’s not worthy of title-fight, but with a little encouragement he reluctantly accepts, seemingly resigned to defeat, but after a visit from Mickey he shows he’s never willing to quit.
Mickey’s slow ascent of Rocky’s staircase is a reminder of how old and tired he is; a has-been hoping to relive his glory days through the potential success of a never-was. He tries to reminisce before a disinterested Rocky has him leave, and finally the truth comes out. He’s a bum, worthy of nothing, who never had his prime and let every chance slip through his hands and every lousy stinking day is a reminder. Mickey is his punching bag, the one guy who could’ve helped but he wasn’t there when he needed him. Fortunately Rocky knows that without him he’s got no chance, and he reconciles not just with Mickey but himself.
The going is tough as he begins his five-week regime, but it’s in his relationship with Adrian that he discovers his strengths, and the famous training montage is him coming to this realisation. Before he was alone but in Adrian he finds someone he can confide in, which he does when he admits the insincere banter from Creed during the pre-fight press conference hurt him. Adrian also develops fortitude she never knew existed and asserts herself over her resentful and jealous live-in brother Paulie (Burt Young) a drunk who takes out his own shortcomings on Adrian. When she moves in with Rocky she leaves the shy pet store clerk behind. Alone they’re full of gaps, one has a body but no brain, the other a brain but no body, but together they fill these gaps and give each other what the want so dearly: respect from others and themselves.
Having now resolved these issues with himself Rocky is able to be honest: he can’t beat Apollo Creed. He’s a nobody, and if he loses he’ll stay a nobody, so he hasn’t a thing to lose. But if he can do what no other has done before and go the distance he’ll prove to himself he’s a true fighter and worthy of respect. The next fifteen rounds are a demonstration of the resilience Rocky possess, thanks to a lifetime of beatings, as he takes all the punishment Creed can dish out and stand strong. When the bell rings and he’s still standing he ignores the reporters as all he ever wanted he only needed from one person, and she’s somewhere in the crowd. He calls to Adrian and they embrace. The Making Of Everybody brought their A-game, as the four principle cast members (Stallone, Shire, Young and Meredith) all earned Oscar nominations, and the film won best picture. Fittingly Stallone won for his screenplay, which was well-deserved, but just as deserving was John G. Alvidsen, who won for his work as director, as well as the editing team of Richard Halsey and Scott Conrad. Looking at the influential montage’s they put together, especially the steadicam shot of Rocky running through the shipyard and up the stairs, it’s easy to see why they received their awards. But it’s the other scenes, like the slow tracking shot of Mickey walking up the stairs and the character studies, that are brilliant. The other aspect that makes it so great is the music, scored by Bill Conti. One of the most instantly recognisable soundtrack’s in all of cinema, without it Rocky doesn’t have that uniqueness. A quote I read stated, “take away the score and you’ve got a fight. You put the score in and you’ve got Rocky”.
In Conclusion Rocky struggles with the recognition it deserves. Initially disregarded as schmaltz at the time of it’s release, it’s since been dragged through the mud with the sequels that followed (except for Rocky II, which didn’t stray into parody). Alone it’s a cinema classic so disregard it at your own discretion, because there’s a lesson to be learned about that in Rocky. It’s an example of how even a man-mountain can be made to feel two-feet-tall, only this one refused to give in as he knew he had something to offer, all he needed was a chance to prove it. The life lesson imparted by Rocky, the film and the character, is simply this; when life gives you lemons you put up your dukes and fight.