Giving Thanks for the Underdog

Rocky (1976)
*** Burke Favorite ***
Dir: John G. Avildsen
Stars: Sylvester Stallone, Talia Shire, Burt Young, Carl Weathers and Burgess Meredith

This American film classic is the perfect punctuation to your Thanksgiving holiday, and we here at are going to tell you why.

In this, the little season of Giving Thanks that precludes the Holiday Season – debate to be included in another post – Rocky encompasses many of the themes of this country.  Our argument is this Sylvester Stallone written story captures strong feelings for the Underdog, the act of Giving Thanks and surrounding oneself with Family – and when you’re without Family, your Friends.  Matter of fact, in this latest viewing, we felt particularly effected by the great question the movie asks, which is when challenged with your “moment,” how will your react?

Let’s start with the basics – the movie’s opening scene is in a dilapidated church featuring two “ham ‘n egg” boxers knocking the crap out of each other a few days before Thanksgiving Day.  One of the boxers is Rocky, and after a vicious head-butt from his opponent, Rocky goes mental on the guy and defeats him – looking very much like the real life, 1950s Champ Marciano in the process with big blows and uncompromising forward movement.  But… after winning the fight, Rocky asks a spectator for a cigarette on his way back to the locker room, and the man says, “You can have this one!” handing him the one he’s in the middle of.  Now, think of the detail that tells us about Rocky, his circumstance, community and the realities of his life – all in one little opening scene.

The other element that really hit home with this recent viewing of Rocky is how independent the film really is.  Small budget, quick production, cast with character actors but no stars at the time, Rocky wasn’t given a big chance, much like its star.  Both on screen and in real life, Stallone wasn’t exactly seen as a leading man, just like Rocky wasn’t seen as a contender to be taken seriously.  You can find better sources with broader details about the real life production fight Stallone engaged in to keep the starring role for himself – and thank goodness he did.  That said, there are many scenes with Rocky alone or interacting with “the neighborhood,” which build this Good Samaritan status within Act One.  And, the movie is in no rush to establish the character – this 70s movie takes its time when compared to the modern dramas.  By the time the plot thickens, we honestly care about what happens to this guy, which is a noteworthy element for today’s writers.

One of the scenes that really shook the screen upon this latest viewing was Rocky and the trainer, Mickey (Burgess Meredith) in Mickey’s gym, in front of all the guys.  And Rocky wants an answer why Mickey is always so crappy towards him – a conversation which ends in yelling and stops the whole gym with Mickey concluding, “It’s a waste of life.”  So, despite the fact the question might have come later than modern audiences are used, the big ask is effectively out there – will this “bum from the streets” remain in his self imposed gutter, or will his luck change?

Well, Rocky gets that proverbial, American, once in a lifetime chance from none other than the reigning heavyweight champion, Apollo Creed.  This moment, like the opening scene and the telling, authentic moment in the gym with Mickey, tells us a lot about Rocky – and makes him so relatable to our own lives.  See, Creed’s legitimate opponent has broken a hand in training, so the Champ has no fight to promote in six weeks on New Year’s Day at the Spectrum.  Well, business-minded Creed decides to give a local guy a shot at the championship, “because I’m sentimental,” and mostly because he’s into the promotion for a fight that features a contender named, “The Italian Stallion.”  Credit where it’s due – that’s great story development by Stallone.  But let’s get back to Rocky’s reaction to this shot, this unclaimed lottery ticket.

When Mickey tells Rocky that Creed’s camp stopped by and left him a message to stop by, Rocky is convinced that Creed’s camp wants him for a sparring partner, to help Creed train for the upcoming fight.  When the promoter explains to Rocky that this isn’t about a sparring partner, it’s an opportunity to fight the champ, Rocky says simply, “No.”  Thinking back even to Biblical stories, how many great heroes initially answered their call with, “No, thank you!  I just don’t wanna do that!!”  Well here, Rocky is similarly overwhelmed with the idea of fighting a guy who’s obviously likened to Muhammad Ali.  But, with the promoter’s conviction and the six figure pay day, Rocky obviously decides to take on Creed.

Within the layers of all of this is Talia Shire as the pet shop employee, Adrian.  Now, Adrian is the sister of Rocky’s kinda pal Paulie.  Frankly, Paulie was another stand-out in this recent watch of Rocky.  Paulie is a complete alcoholic who is essentially feeding Rocky his sister with the hopes that Rocky will return the favor by putting him in the good graces of Gazzo.  Gazzo pays Rocky’s bills with some shady dealings, and Paulie is dying to leave his job at the meat packing plant to collect bills for Gazzo.  Why does any of this matter?  Because Adrian is one of the reasons that Rocky believes in himself enough to even attempt training to fight Creed.  The budding romance between Rocky and Adrian is frankly as compelling as the training sequences.  In fact, touching on our theme of surrounding ourselves with friends and family, Rocky gets plenty of help from Adrian, Paulie and even Mickey, once they reconcile differences.  And, one of the film’s more compelling, legendary scenes occurs in Paulie’s meat locker – it’s one where you start to get some faith that this guy might actually have a shot.  Underdogs, unite!

And that feeling right there – “he might… have a shot!” – isn’t THAT what Thanksgiving is all about?  I mean, it’s been a year.  Every year is a year, but THIS year was really hard, right?  Insert any year!  Don’t you want that “we have a shot” feeling as you sit around the table with family and friends?  Why not cap that off with a viewing of Rocky?  Rewatch it, show it to the kids for the first time, but watch it.  Particularly if you’re planning to run out to theaters and catch Creed II sometime soon, maybe the films that started it all is a good place to start.

Only bad think about the film is Paulie’s blatant disrespect for turkey…

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