Like Inception’s dream within a dream within a dream, Rocky is an underdog within an underdog within an underdog. Rocky lives in a small rundown apartment, wins or loses fights for small change, and is mostly alone. When he warns a teenage girl about the consequences of hanging out with the “coconuts on the corner,” he does so with a seasoned tongue, like he’s been one of those coconuts. “They don’t remember you,” he tells her, “they remember the rest.” He’s a southpaw without a trainer who’s been kicked out of his gym of ten years. In a time when calling someone a bum was an insult that carried significant weight, much of the film is people telling Rocky, directly to his face, that he’s a bum.
Rocky moonlights as muscle for Gazzo “You-Don’t-Think-I-Hear-Things,” the loan shark. Despite the fact that Rocky’s a fighter, somehow he’s too much of a sweetheart for this line of work. He negotiates with the marks, allowing one of them to keep his coat, and straight up ignores Gazzo’s orders to break thumbs. When he puts on doofy thick-framed glasses to take notes on Gazzo’s collections, it’s as if a bear has put on giant fuzzy slippers to pursue his prey.
We see Rocky in his daily routine; he wears the same outfit every day—light grey crewneck sweater, black leather large-collared coat, black porkpie hat. As he walks through streets and alleyways, he throws up a small rubber black ball before catching it out of the air, again and again. The schmaltz of the seventies is just barely visible in the choir of street punks (“Take it back, do do do do”) huddled around a blazing barrel. He might visit Paulie, his friend the bitter drunk (Burt Young). Paulie will probably bother him again about getting on with Gazzo—you get the impression that Paulie would bother Rocky about getting on anywhere—and he might visit Paulie’s sister, Adrian (Talia Shire) at the pet shop where she works.
This hulking, brooding, big delicious meathead is crushing hard on an awkward, mousy, fully-cardiganed pet shop dame (“She ain’t retarded, she’s shy”). It seems that at any moment, she might collapse in on herself, like a chrysalis you’ve seen on a tree as a child. When we meet him, Rocky appears to be deep into a routine that consists of:
1. Go to pet shop.
2. Make terrible jokes.
3. Talk nervously (too much) about birds or turtles.
4. Say something wonderful like, “Don’t these birds look like candy, look like flying candy?”
5. Warn Adrian of the neighborhood creepos.
These visits are mostly one-sided, with the exception of the occasional one-word response from Adrian, but this changes on Thanksgiving, when Paulie tells Rocky to “come have some bird” and take his sister out. Paulie says she likes to ice skate. The rink is closed but Rocky pays $1 a minute to coax a man on a zamboni into letting them skate for ten minutes. I did the math of what we see as Rocky’s revenue, and when reasonably projected over one month, he paid roughly 10% of his monthly income for this gesture.
After skating, Rocky tells Adrian that when he was young his parents told him he wasn’t born with much of a brain, so he should use his body. Adrian says her parents told her the opposite, that she didn’t have much of a body so she’d better develop her brain. The next scene is executed like a long con, Rocky slowly pulling Adrian out of her shell and into his arms. How he asks her to come upstairs several times, how each time she responds with a new reason why she shouldn’t. How he finally stops asking and leaves the door open behind him. How she wanders in like a lost cat.
When they get upstairs, Rocky offers the lady all she could ever want, “Yo I got soda, donuts, cupcakes, chocolate.” Adrian’s usual state seems to be that of avoidance- avoiding direct communication or confrontation, but Rocky keeps putting it right in her face. The pinnacle is reached when Rocky stands very close to her, grabs the makeshift pull-up bar and, with arms bulging, begins to interrogate her. “What, you don’t like my place, you don’t like the turtles, you don’t like me, what?” The effect is a tension somewhere between danger and desire, and when Adrian finally gives in you can see the shell completely shatter.
As Rocky’s luck in love takes a turn, so does his luck in the ring. Fighting may be the only thing Rocky has in common with confident Creed. Apollo knows who he is, and who he is is the heavyweight champ. When the contender falls through, Creed makes a brilliant recovery—why not give a shot at the belt to an unknown? In this scene, Creed reveals himself to be a keen businessman—boxing happens to be his business but one could see him successful in stocks, used cars, or the recording industry. He sells the idea of having an unknown contender to his team on the publicity and patriotism alone. New Years Eve in 1976, on the nation’s bicentennial birthday, Apollo Creed will fight the Italian Stallion. He doesn’t know how it could be any more American.
Such a publicity stunt today would probably warrant a reality show documenting the auditioning process for the contender, then Hollywood Week!, where Rocky would receive a makeover (highlights, spray tan, hooded denim jacket, leather wrist cuffs), and then the finals, where Rocky might be disqualified. But it’s 1976, and the truth is Rocky gets picked at a glance out of a book, because Apollo Creed likes his moniker, and because of how American he finds a black man versus an Italian man to be.
It doesn’t take long after the announcement for Mickey to walk into Rocky’s apartment. There’s a rolled-up busted mattress, a poor man’s punching bag. LP’s are secured from a hanger meant for dress slacks (something Rocky probably doesn’t have). A flowered and out-of-place pendent lamp floats over the table, pink and orange with red fringe, a remnant from the sixties. Mickey is played perfectly by Burgess Meredith. The first thing out of his mouth is a lie.
“Nice place ya got here.”
The next thing he says is absolutely true.
“What happened to you is freak luck.”
Mickey picks up a bare-bulbed lamp from an overturned Kentucky Fried Chicken bucket. He brings it up to his marred face, shines it over every scar. He tells Rocky he’s had his nose busted seventeen times. Mickey talks about his prime, how he didn’t have anyone to help him. He tells Rocky he’s got heart, as if that makes the difference. Rocky’s reply is, “I got heart but I ain’t got no locker do I, Mick?”
Rocky starts throwing darts in the wall, a physical alternative to release anger. They fly past Mickey’s head. The last time they spoke, Mickey called Rocky a “tomata” in front of the whole gym. He told him that he was a disappointment because he could have been a contender but became a leg-breaker instead. Rocky goes to the bathroom and they continue shouting at each other through the door. Mickey walks out of the apartment and slowly down the stairs. Rocky’s face when he comes out of the bathroom is a rare display of emotion; you can see anger and betrayal and even apprehension. “What about my prime?” he shouts at Mickey, who can still hear him through the building’s thin walls. Rocky runs after him and shakes his hand. We cannot hear what is being said.
This is a film without restraint. The main characters thrash and claw like wild things. Most of those closest to Rocky (Paulie the drunk, Gazzo the shark, Mickey the manager) communicate like Rocky does: with fists. The verbiage is telling even in casual conversation, like when Rocky says he used to be deadly at stick ball or when Paulie says of his sister, “Sometimes she gets me so crazy I could split her head with a razor.” Jesus.
Instead of conversing, they bust side tables with bats. Instead of discussing, they throw roasted turkeys out of windows and into the night. Rocky’s instinct when his gym locker won’t open is to yank the giant copper fire extinguisher off the wall and slam it down on the lock (who wouldn’t?). There is no “my feelings were hurt by your actions”, there is only going to town on this carved-up cow carcass instead of your face. It’s violence as a means of expression, forever shouting the last word, even long after the other person has left. It’s a broken way to be, but god if it isn’t truly felt.
With Mickey managing him, Rocky puts all that violent heart into his training. He gets up before dawn, cracks several eggs into a clear tumbler and heaves it down in breathless gulps. In Chuck Taylors and grey sweats that have seen better days, he runs the streets of Philly, stretching slightly before starting out. He does one-armed push-ups and spars with his ankles tied together by string for balance. His winning moment isn’t in the ring with Creed but in that iconic shot when he raises his arms over his head, after running to the top of the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. And he has won Adrian, the sweet and shy girl who tempers his tumultuousness.
Paulie asks Rocky, “What the attraction?” He doesn’t understand what Rocky sees in Adrian, thinks he could do better. Rocky says she “fills gaps.” At first you think he means that this person helps to fill the time, as if she’s simply a stand-in for crossword puzzles or gardening. Then you realize it’s nothing so mundane but something meaningful, profound even. “She’s got gaps, I’ve got gaps, together we fill gaps.”
We never see Rocky’s family and the only family we see of Adrian’s kicks her out into the street. As different as they are, they both seem to have an immense pressure accruing within them, like tea kettles on the verge of whistling. Where Rocky externalizes the pressure, forever punching at the air, Adrian seems to swallow her pressure, internalizing it. Perhaps being together helps to relieve the pressure. These misfits now have each other, two survivors who don’t have to fight alone anymore.
The night before the fight, Rocky tells Adrien, “It really don’t matter if I lose this fight. It really don’t matter if this guy opens my head. All I wanna do is go the distance.”
Rocky is a film about earning what you already have, of becoming worthy of luck. It doesn’t matter if he wins. After he’s gone the distance, all he cares about is what happened to Adrien’s hat.