With Rocky, cinematographer Jimmy Crabe worked with director John G. Avildsen to rethink the look of the city of Philadelphia. Consisting of a scant few shots of the familiar monuments and parks, Crabe, who was later diagnosed with and succumbed to AIDS in 1989, turned the city into miles of sleet-swept streets, soiled corner stores and nausea-green gymnasiums where wannabe athletes spend their time until they make their way to any of the dozen cheap basement bars scattered throughout the terrain. If the star of Rocky is Sylvester Stallone, his co-star is the atmosphere of cold and piteous hope that cultivates around the titular amateur boxer.
In hindsight, the first chapter of the rigorous franchise has a healthy leg-up on the rest of the films and feels uniquely homegrown in tone. It’s almost basic mythology at this point: Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone at the peak of his durability) works for a two-bit loan shark as freelance muscle while he trains to become a boxer and does amateur bouts for 40 bucks a pop. It’s his nickname, The Italian Stallion, which catches the eye of heavyweight champion Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) when the champ is looking for a gimmick. Creed is more of an entrepreneur than an athlete: When someone calls the gimmick ‘American,’ he quips back, ‘No, it’s smart.’
At the same time, Rocky begins to see Adrian (Talia Shire), the sister of his friend Pauly (Burt Young). Shy to a reclusive degree, Adrian warms to the big-hearted dope even when he is called a ‘creep’ by some locals. (The creep aspect wouldn’t be fully explored until the last installment of the franchise, Rocky Balboa.) His newfound popularity makes the neighborhood think twice about Rocky, namely boxing trainer Mickey (the superb Burgess Meredith) who had written off Rocky as a no-good hood. Avildsen proceduralizes Rocky’s training all the way down to the breakfast of raw eggs in a glass. It all leads up to the fight with Apollo and the most famous shout-out in movie history.
Of all the parodies and memorized scenes that have become part of the cultural mindset and vernacular, the scene that finds its boldest sentiment comes when Rocky invites Adrian to his apartment for the first time. For an instant, the kids on the corner were right, and Rocky seems like some brutish creep who can’t take no for an answer. He says, ‘I always knew you were pretty.’ She says, ‘Don’t tease me.’ Chauvinist? Perhaps but the emotion carries. Shire’s performance has an unforced fluidity that makes Adrian’s slow embracing of Balboa incalculably honest. If it’s anything that holds steady throughout the film, it’s the under-the-tracks sincerity of Rocky’s romance with Adrian.
In contrast, the popularization of the athlete borders on demonic. Avildsen sharply gets in for the blood and heavy heaves that go into training, but the two fights that are shown seem poisoned from the outset by money and popularity. The fight that opens the film starts on a mural of Jesus and ends with a tabulation of locker room fees while the main bout is dreamt up in a plush office with people in business suits who smoke good cigars; one of their main concerns is how the poster will look. Of course, our compassion for Rocky and empathy towards what he believes in transforms the final fight into a riveting 15 rounds.
As the later films emphatically preach, it’s when you start getting the money that you lose sight of the sport. In the same aforementioned plush office, it is discussed to considerable length the reasons why other fighters won’t take on Creed: They need time to lose weight, they don’t think the money is good enough, the lawyers need time to mull it over. The commerce vs. art debate is a dead horse now, but Balboa is such a character that he isn’t aware of it at all and therefore never preaches it; his stupidity allows us to never have to question his sincerity. Stallone, still five years away from First Blood, embedded his character with a lived-in appeal that has carried for six films; a dunce who can fight with a contagious likability. Now that’s American.