When Stallone wrote ROCKY and released the film in 1976, he could have little idea how this character would catch on with popular imagination, and effectively launching Stallone's career as a movie star.
Why ROCKY really succeeds is it takes an Everyman, the Italian Stallion Rocky Balboa, and gives him the chance of a lifetime - to fight the current heavyweight champion of the world Apollo Creed, played by Carl Weathers.
Rocky is simply a fighting nobody, living in Philadelphia, trying to scrape his way through life. He has some low level mob involvement as an enforcer, but he's not happy with this role in life and opts for mercy when dealing with the debtors his boss sends him to collect payment. He's obviously looking to get out and fights on the side, but fighting is his real passion.
Apollo Creed is looking to promote a fight, but the angle he is pursuing is he will fight an unknown, in the spirit of America as the land of opportunity. . America was celebrating its bicentennial in 1976, and this fight would be part of those bicentennial celebrations.
Ultimately Apollo's promoters come up with Rocky Balboa, the Italian Stallion, as much for the name as anything else. We all know what happens. Rocky trains, fights Creed, and becomes successful.
If that's all there was to ROCKY, it'd be a pretty fun film, but not really Oscar worthy. Fortunately there is much more to ROCKY than just that rather cliché sports film storyline.
What sets ROCKY apart is the great writing, acting, and production. Actually, they had to go low budge with this film, and this low budget actually paid off wonderfully. Stallone manages to capture the life of Rocky so perfectly the film serves as a vital snapshot of what real life is actually like for the vast majority of lower and middle class Americans. Rocky struggles to get by, has dreams but these are frustrated by his economic situation. He's looking for the big fighting break. Unfortunately for a lot of us that big break never comes.
While the film is certainly focused on boxing, the actual fight with Apollo is only a small portion of the movie experience. We follow Rocky on the streets, we get an idea of his everyday life, his trying to romance Adrian (Talia Shire, Francis Ford Coppola's sister and Nicholas Cage's aunt), his oft trying relationship with his future brother-in-law Paulie. Of course, the movie delves into the relationship between Rocky and his personal trainer, Mickey (played by Burgess Meredith). Mickey even calls him out, saying he has the potential to be a great fighter but he's not living up to that potential. It is these subplots that really make ROCKY the rich film that is really is.
Another major proponent of ROCKY is how inextricably linked it has become to the city of Philadelphia. The entire film was shot in Philly, and there are so many different locations and areas that you can't help but smile when watching the movie if you know Philly. The art museum especially has become very famous for its association with ROCKY, as Rocky runs up and down the steps in training, and when he gets to the top he throws his hands up in the air, with that look of victory in his face. And who can forget him training in the meat lockers, punching those big hunks of meat? Unconventional training, but it works. Great stuff.
Then, of course, we have the famous ROCKY theme, that's been used in all the films and is one of the most famous fanfares in movie history. Whenever I hear that theme I always think of the art museum training sequence.
What really makes ROCKY click is you totally identify with Rocky. He has dreams and aspirations. He wants to escape his circumstances. He wants to win the girl and ride off into the sunset, victorious. Rocky is the perfect embodiment of that great myth called the American Dream. He starts out as a nobody, works hard with what he has been given, and makes a success out of himself.
And Rocky ultimately gets to live that dream. He makes his life a success, he falls in love with Adrian and eventually marry. Rocky manages to escape that fate of being "just another bum in the neighborhood", and becomes a major icon in film history. He would go on to star in five sequels to this film, each with varying degrees of success, but none of them quite matched the lightening bolt success of the original.
While ROCKY is an Oscar-winning film, Stallone would never again regain the critical acclaim he had with this movie. His career, while far from being unsuccessful, has never matched the success he had with this movie. People compared him with Marlon Brando because of this movie. While he has seen been involved in mostly dull action flicks and critically ridiculed projects, he will always have ROCKY.
And I don't care who you are. ROCKY is a tremendous legacy to leave behind.