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Monday, December 26, 2011

Monday Matinee - Rocky

I don't know what it is about December 26th, but I've always felt a little bit of a letdown the day after Christmas.

Certainly yesterday was a time of celebration, love, and festive behaviour. But then what? The eggnog has been drunk, the presents unwrapped, the relatives gone back to their homes. It's all kind of depressing the day after Christmas, for everything goes back to normal.

On top of all that, there's the whole idea of Boxing Day, and the accompanying sales that come along with Boxing Day.

See, in the United States, the big shopping day is Black Friday. In Canada, our version just happens to be Boxing Day. And believe me, if I can afford to do it, I would stay far away from retail establishments as humanly possible.

Unfortunately, I work retail. And, unfortunately, I'll be working today. But that's okay. I don't mind. I have a huge walk-in cooler I can duck and cover in if the customers get too unruly.

At any rate, while people are likely going to be spending Boxing Day standing in long lines returning that crock-pot that they got from their Great Aunt Gertrude so they can get that Blu-Ray player that they really wanted for Christmas, I'll instead talk about the first non-holiday themed entry for the month of December in quite some time.

In this case, the phrase Boxing Day will be used in a literal sense.

I had always looked for an excuse to feature a sports themed movie in this blog entry. I myself am a terrible athlete, and pretty much fail miserably in any sport that is not volleyball or bowling, but for the most part, I find movies based on sports to be quite good. I may not get all the terms, or may not be able to tell the difference between a home run and a grand slam, but if the movies are well-written, they can still be enjoyable.

And the 1976 classic film Rocky is one of those films that still holds up 35 years later.

(Heh...imagine that. A film about boxing on Boxing Day. Go figure.)

Rocky was released in theaters in December 1976 (though New York City had an advanced screening about two weeks prior). What was interesting about the film was that the screenplay was written by a relative unknown in the business.  Not only that, but the person who wrote the screenplay also did double duty, starring as the main character of the movie!

Who knew Sylvester Stallone was a talented multi-tasker?

Prior to Rocky, Sylvester Stallone was struggling. He had gotten evicted from his apartment in New York City, and ended up being homeless for a few days. In an interview that he did with Total Film, he admitted to sleeping at the New York City Port Authority when he saw a casting notice for a soft core pornography production entitled 'The Party At Kitty and Stud's'. Stallone only took on the role in the film out of desperation, and that appearance would become his first credited appearance in a film.

But when Stallone showed off the screenplay that he devised for Rocky (a screenplay that he was inspired to write following the 1975 match between Chuck Wepner and Muhammad Ali), Stallone himself was far from being the first choice to play the title character of Rocky Balboa.

The movie studio that was producing the film, United Artists, loved the script that Stallone presented to them, but pictured the starring role as being played by a well-established star. Among the names tossed around for consideration? James Caan, Robert Redford, Burt Reynolds, and Ryan O'Neal, just to name a few. But Stallone was determined to star in the film, appealing to the producers to give him a chance to show off his acting chops.

Stallone had managed to convince the two executive producers Robert Chartoff and Irwin Winkler, that he was the one who should star as Rocky, but even though Chartoff and Winkler were receptive to the idea, their uneasiness about letting a relative unknown headline a motion picture was still present. Casting for the other roles in the movie proved problematic, as both the roles of Adrian and Apollo Creed were cast late in the film's production. Eventually, Talia Shire and Carl Weathers were cast on the same day for the two roles, though according to The Rocky Scrapbook, other actresses in consideration for the role of Adrian were Carrie Snodgrass and Susan Sarandon.

Rocky was also one of the first films (but not THE first) to use the Steadicam technology, which was used to take smoother shots while actors performed an action that would normally make the camera jiggle.

It has been said that the movie only cost a total of one million dollars to film, which by 1976 standards was quite low (especially when you consider that when Star Wars was released one year later, the budget was ten times that amount).  But consider this. When Rocky was released, the film managed to earn a profit of over $225 million, making it the 6th highest box office return of all films ever made!

One reason why I liked the movie a lot was because from the get-go, it was a real underdog story. And as someone who has been in that position in a number of instances, I can tell you that I am definitely a fan of rooting for the underdog.

I guess in one way, it was sort of an underdog story for Sylvester Stallone in real life. So many people doubted that he could pull off a leading role in the film, and were reluctant to take a chance on him, but Stallone insisted that he was perfectly capable of taking the role and running with it. And, don't need me to tell you that five sequels later, and a bunch of Rambo films later that Sylvester Stallone has made his mark on the movie world ever since as a result of his persistence. So, kudos to Sylvester Stallone on that one!

Anyway, as you know, Stallone managed to convince producers to let him star as Rocky Balboa, a man who worked as a debt collector for a local loan shark in Philadelphia named Anthony Gazzo (Joe Spinell). He manages to make out a living in the Kensington area of Philly, but there's something inside of him that makes him realize that he doesn't want to continue this job forever. He needed a change, and he needed it badly.

Fortunately, a way out seems to present itself in the form of the World Heavyweight Championship, although Rocky doesn't realize it at first. The bout, which is scheduled for the first day of 1976 (to coincide with the American bicentennial later that year), was to take place in Philadelphia, and had undefeated heavyweight superstar Apollo Creed as one of the fighters taking part in the event. Unfortunately, fate threatens to cancel the match indefinitely when the scheduled opponent for Creed is forced to bow out due to an injury.

This event is unfortunate, but Creed is not one to simply walk away from a match due to an automatic forfeit from his opponent. Instead, he offers up another solution. He issues a challenge to the city of Philadelphia to take on an unknown. A local underdog that will take on Creed for the shot of winning the title.

And the person who is selected to battle Creed? Rocky Balboa, a.k.a. The Italian Stallion.

Of course, Rocky has absolutely no experience boxing professionally. He needed some major training to even so much as have a fighting chance against a professional fighter...particularly one with an unblemished record as Apollo Creed.

Enter one Mickey Goldmill, played by former Batman villain, Burgess Meredith.

(On a related note...having the Penguin teaching you boxing moves would be quite the surreal experience, would it not?)

Mickey taught Rocky everything he knew, having been a bantamweight fighter himself in the prime of his life. Although the two clash on a few occasions during the training sessions, Mickey eventually comes to the conclusion that Rocky's potential was much greater than his effort, and he tries to get Rocky to train harder and stronger to make sure that he can reach his maximum power.

Which in turn leads to the iconic scene of Rocky running up that set of stairs to this song.

Ah, yes...the whole running up the stairs of the Philadelphia Museum of Art in the grey workout clothes, jumping triumphantly at his success in making it to the top. Still a classic moment thirty-five years later.

Other people are also on Rocky's side, and helped him gain the strength and confidence needed for him to have a fighting chance against Creed. Take Rocky's friend, Paulie (Burt Young). He let Rocky practice his skills on a slab of beef at the meat-packing plant where he worked. Sounds kind of barbaric, but it seemed to do the trick.

And then there was Adrian Pennino (Shire), sister of Paulie, and eventual love interest of Rocky Balboa. The two start dating during his training sessions, and have a rather romantic date on an ice skating rink (which was purposely filmed without extras in order to keep the budget costs down). Rocky admits to Adrian that the odds of him beating Apollo Creed are astronomically high. All he wants to do is last the entire duration of the fifteen round match without suffering a knockout, and that was good enough for him. No other fighter had managed to accomplish this, and Rocky really wanted to be the first. Then, and only then, would he finally be seen as someone who accomplished something and not just another bum from the neighbourhood.

So, when 1975 becomes 1976, and the match goes ahead as planned, it's Rocky versus Apollo in what was touted the match-up of the year, and while Apollo was determined to defend his undefeated title, Rocky just wanted to last the whole fight.

But, damned if I'm gonna tell you how it all went down. You'll just have to see for yourself.

But, really, Rocky was a great film. One of the few films I can think of in which we have fun rooting for the underdog...especially when the actor at the time was one himself.

But considering the legacy of the Rocky franchise, I think Rocky Balboa did all right for himself.

And, for that matter, so did Sylvester Stallone.

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