‘TIS THE SEASON TO WATCH “ROCKY”

Around this time back in 2006, MGM released (or re-released) a box set of all five Rocky movies, to piggy-back/cash in on the release of Rocky Balboa. I promptly picked it up and watched all five – precisely one each night, after which my first priority was hitting the theater. Every year since, I find myself re-watching at least a couple of the movies (Rocky II and V tend to get passed over the most), but when possible I try to watch all six between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

The way I see it, the Rocky series always had a strong connection to the holiday season. Why that is I’m not really sure, but for some reason every movie (except Rocky III) seems to take place at least partially over the holidays. In Rocky, his first date with Adrian is on Thanksgiving, and his fight with Apollo is on New Year’s Day. Rocky II‘s big fight is on Thanksgiving, and in Rocky IV he fights Ivan Drago in Russia on Christmas. As for Rocky V and Rocky Balboa, they both partially occur over the holidays as well. In addition, every movie with the exception of parts II and III were released to theaters in either November or December, and you can usually find them on TV in these months more than any other time of year.

Above all else, Rocky is the ultimate feel-good movie – the classic underdog story that virtually anyone can get behind. And like some of the best holiday movies, there’s an inherent level of corniness to it that’s somehow more acceptable and even a little infectious during this time of year. So crack a few eggs into a glass (or just crack open a beer) and get some Rocky going this year:

Rocky is one of my favorite movies of all time. Yet as the years go on, it seems to get harder to explain just what makes it so great. Its simple, underdog story is one that’s been done to death in the 35 (!) years since (and Rocky wasn’t exactly the first to do it either), yet it arguably does it best. And despite creating two of the most iconic film characters ever (the other being Rambo), Sylvester Stallone was never taken very seriously as an actor, even if his performance here once made Roger Ebert label him a “young Marlon Brando.” And while many recognize that he wrote Rocky, what some don’t know is that the then-unknown Stallone turned down some very lucrative offers to buy his screenplay, opting instead to sell it for next to nothing, if it meant he could play the role himself. It was a gamble that could’ve ended his career before it even began, yet Rocky was a surprise smash and the rest, of course, is history.

Anyone who has seen some of the flashier, more action-oriented sequels before this one (hey, I did) may be surprised at how little actual boxing is in this movie. It’s really just a backdrop for the characters and story, and it’s a testament to how memorable the characters are that you’re still thoroughly engrossed. Later sequels, for example, would resort to melodramatic tactics  like putting a character in a coma, or killing someone off, in order to keep the viewer emotionally involved. Bill Conti’s score is memorable and timeless, and “Gonna Fly Now” can still get the blood pumping after all these years.

But perhaps the most appealing thing about Rocky – especially in retrospect – is just how humble it all is, right down to Rocky/Stallone himself. Here was a nobody playing a nobody; before Stallone became ripped-beyond-belief for the ’80s, and when Rocky was just a “ham n’ egger” living in a cramped Philly apartment and pulling in 40 bucks a fight. While some of its sequels would keep the entertainment value high, they generally lacked the one thing Rocky has in abundance: charm.

Least favorite part: Excellent as it may be, Rocky still has a couple of (very minor) flaws. Personally, I could have done without the scene where Rocky walks a young girl from the neighborhood home, who’s on the verge of becoming a whore rotten apple. It shows Rocky going out of his way to be a nice guy, even though we knew that from the start. To me, it’s an unnecessary scene that tries a little too hard, even though it does eventually have a payoff in Rocky Balboa.

Favorite (non-montage or fight) part: One of the series’ most memorable images is of Rocky chugging the raw eggs. But for me, it’s that whole scene: waking up in his cold apartment at 4:30 a.m., turning on the radio, downing those eggs, and then hitting the still-dark and freezing streets of Philly for a jog. Those montages may be entertaining as hell, but nothing portrays the bleak and unglamorous side of his training like this little scene.

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