What Is Keeping Him Up

My favorite romance movie is undoubtedly Rocky.  People who have not watched it recently, who have memories of the later Rocky films cluttering their memories of the first, do not tend to think of it as such, but Rocky is a love story.  Rocky’s burgeoning relationship with Adrian is at least as vital to the films plot as boxing is.  But the image of Rocky in pop culture is more about the vibrant, outrageous sequels than the somber and contemplative first movie.  All that anyone usually remembers is that Rocky loses at the end and even that I would say is wrong.  At the end of Rocky, the eponymous lead has won all he ever wanted.
The best and most enduring element of this movie is the title character.  I defy anyone to watch Rocky and not empathize with the beleaguered boxer.  Though I call the movie a romance, as the title would suggest this is very much Rocky’s story.  His romance of Adrian may be the central plot, but the story is told from Rocky’s point of view.  The movie quickly establishes Rocky as a down and nearly out man.  His boxing career is going nowhere and the proprietor of his gym wants him out.  To make ends meet he works as leg breaker for a two-bit loan shark.  Rocky is also show to be honest and an all around good guy.  He clearly works for the loan shark only reluctantly.  Rocky tries to help a young girl who is hanging out with a bad crowd, only to have her throw his advice back in his face.  What Rocky seems most interested in doing is chatting up the shy pet store clerk Adrian.
One of Rocky’s several opposites is his friend Pauley, Adrian’s brother.  He is cruel and dismissive of his sister, though he does care about her.  Where Rocky hates having to work for Gazzo, Pauley wants to do it.  Pauley is sad, pathetic, and mean, but he is one of Rocky’s few friends at the start.  Another is Apollo Creed.  Creed is one of the things that make this first movie so interesting.  There is no villain in this movie, like Clubber Lang or Ivan Drago from later movies.  Apollo is whom Rocky fights at the end, but his portrayal very sympathetically.  He may be cynical, but his cynicism is what lands Rocky his big chance.  Apollo is what Rocky wants to be.  He has a successful boxing career; he is intelligent and eloquent.  He has all the qualities that Rocky wants.  Then there is Mickey.  Mickey is Rocky’s future.  He is what could happen to Rocky forty years down the road, after life gives Rocky it is last few knocks.
The big fight with Apollo comes into the movie late, for most of the film Rocky is trying to woo Adrian.  He spends time coming with bad jokes to tell her.  He stops by her pet store twice everyday.  Adrian is reluctant at first, but after a push from Pauley, she starts seeing Rocky.  Adrian is who Rocky loves, but Rocky mostly wants someone to care about him.  She is incredibly shy and repressed at the beginning, but Rocky is eventually able to draw her out of her shell.  Their deepening relationship takes up most of the first half of the movie.
After Rocky agrees to fight Apollo, all the people who wanted nothing to do with him before come to him for help.  Instead of dismissing them outright, Rocky lets those who can help him help him.  Mickey originally was trying to run Rocky out of his gym, but afterwards he sees Rocky as his last chance to matter, Rocky proves his caliber by agreeing to let Mickey train him.  Once the unforgettable training montage starts, Rocky becomes the greatest sports movie ever.  Despite knowing that he is completely outclassed Rocky knows that this is his last and only chance at mattering and he has to give it his all.  The fight highlights the differences between Rocky and Apollo.  Apollo is a showman; he is putting on a performance for the crowd. Rocky is workmanlike, he simply puts his head down and goes to work.  No one takes Rocky seriously until his is able to down the champion.  After that, Apollo shows his other side, the ruthless fighter.  Rocky just continues as he started.
Possibly my favorite sequence in any film is round fourteen.  Both fighters are exhausted, especially Rocky, but they continue to go at it and one of the announcers, who really help make the fight scene, exclaims, “What is keeping him up?”  That question is the essence of Rocky’s, both the film and the characters, appeal.  He may go down, but he will never stay down.  When Apollo does knock him down everyone expects him to stay down.  Apollo dances victoriously, Mickey tells Rocky to stay down, Adrian finally finds the courage to watch the fight, and music the crescendos as Rocky shows his unbreakable spirit as he climbs to his feet.  Apollo, who despite his early lackadaisical approach is show to be a supreme competitor, stares in disbelief.  After that moment, the outcome of the fight is all but irrelevant.
When the fight does end, it is interesting to note that the judge’s decision is drowned out by Rocky’s cries for Adrian.  The only way the outcome is known is by Apollo’s reaction.  The movie does not hinge on the outcome of the fight, but on Adrian’s joining Rocky in the ring.  Like when he is interviewed after accepting the fight he has no answer about how he intends to fight Apollo, but he does remember to say hi to Adrian on TV.  Adrian proves to always be more important to Rocky than fighting.  And the romance is more important than the boxing.

I Must Break You

Rocky 4

This weekend I started what I hope will become a 4th of July tradition.  I watched Rocky 4, which is of course the one where Rocky wins the Cold War by beating a giant Russian.  It is one of the most American movies of all time and the last true Rocky movie.  Not that Rocky Balboa was bad, but it came out so far after that it feels more like strange coda than part of the series.  Rocky 5 never happened.  Nevertheless, Rocky 4 should have probably been the last movie in the series.  There was nowhere to go but down.  Even Rocky cannot top winning the Cold War.

Rocky 4 is smarter than most people give it credit.  Not that it that smart, or subtle at all, but there is more there than blind patriotism and propaganda.  It is about growing old and how to face that.  There is no one who grows old faster or more publicly than professional athletes do.  All sports fans have seen a favorite player hang on past their prime, winced at the struggles of those who used to be great.  For some, like Bret Favre, while their skills have obviously diminished there are still enough flashes and moments of the player, we used to know and love to make us believe that he still has something left.  Too often, it is just gone and is painful for both players and spectators.  Rocky and now friend Apollo Creed are both dealing with this.  Apollo cannot let go, despite the advice of all those close to him.  Rocky, not quite as old as Apollo, still has something left, but he can see the writing on the wall.  Due to his inability to accept the changes that time has, wrought Apollo pays the ultimate price.  There is also Rocky’s guilt because he did not throw in the towel.  Like Rocky told Mickey in the first movie, Apollo told him not to throw the towel and Rocky let it go.  He did what he would have wanted Creed to do foe him in the same situation, but he say why people do throw in the towel.

On top of the aging issue is the comparison of the USA and USSR.  Apollo is part of America.  He is loud, boisterous and arrogant.  He is also capable and honest, but even the honesty hurts the loud and arrogant part.  Drago is stoic and cold.  He is also just as selfish as Creed.  In their fight, he doesn’t care that it is an exhibition or that he is clearly the better fighter he still is relentless.  Because a resounding victory is helps him and his groups agenda, sportsmanship be damned.  The biggest contrast is in Rocky and Drago’s pre-fight training methods.  Drago has a committee that cares nothing for him and with the most advanced technology available.  Rocky has a few close friends and uses simple training methods.  While Rocky 4 is about as fair as a mid-80ies movie can be, they show the American methods to be better than the Russian ones. Like what actually happened, America wins in the end.

However, while there is this veneer of real issues, Rocky 4 is still a 90-minute movie with about 35 minutes of music montages.  It is still a movie that has Rocky win the Cold War by punching out a giant Russian.  It is not as good as the first two Rockys, but it is possibly the most entertaining movie in the series for repeated viewings.  In the end, Drago turns on his uncaring trainers and the crowd turns on him.  Rocky draws strength from his friends and from the crowd.  Because everybody loves Rocky.