Monday, January 9, 2017

Gonna Fly Now: A Look at Rocky and Rocky II

I recently watched all of the Rocky movies - and 2015's Creed - on Amazon Prime. It was only my second time seeing Rocky, and my first time seeing the rest of them. So admittedly, I am late to the party here. These movies are fantastic, and after seeing them I just had to write about them. I was originally going to write about all seven films, but once I got started, I ended up writing a lot more on each movie than I'd planned. So we'll just keep it to Rocky and Rocky II. This post will have spoilers, but I figure that's not a huge deal, because these movies are over 30 years old.

To start out, I'll give a little background on how I was introduced to Rocky. Growing up, I was vaguely aware of the Rocky films, without ever having seen them. I'd seen references in other media - the training montage, drinking raw eggs, punching raw meat, and Eye of the Tiger. But I never felt any need to see the movies. Then, shortly after college, I was listening to the Geek Out Loud podcast, and I heard Steve Glosson talking about Rocky, and how great those films were. He even went so far as to say, "If Star Wars didn't exist, Rocky would be my Star Wars." So one night, when I saw that Rocky was on Netflix, I suggested to Jess that we watch it.

I was not impressed after my first viewing. It's not that it was a bad movie, per se, but nothing really wowed me about it. The character of Rocky Balboa was kind of weird, as was Adrian. There wasn't even a lot of boxing in the movie. And Rocky didn't even win the fight against Apollo Creed. What was the point of this movie?

And that's where I let it sit for several years. Every once in a while, I'd hear Steve raving about the Rocky movies on his podcast, and I'd wonder why our experiences of the movie were so different from each other. Did I go into it with the wrong expectations? Was I expecting a different movie than what I saw? That must be it, I thought. I figured I'd have to watch it again some day, but it wasn't a very pressing need.

Then, two things happened. Steve posted another episode of Geek Out Loud completely dedicated to Rocky, where he discussed the franchise with Lauren Sadowski-Collins. A few weeks later, I saw that Creed was available to stream on Amazon Prime. And so were Rocky through Rocky V. That was all it took. I decided I would watch the whole saga.


I enjoyed Rocky so much more the second time I saw it. The big reason for this is that I knew what kind of movie I was watching this time. I wasn't expecting a movie all about boxing - here was a movie about a genuinely good man named Rocky Balboa, about his relationship with Adrian, about his refusal to give up. The fight with Apollo is what drives the story, but it is not the point of the movie. This time, when the movie follows Rocky around Philadelphia, instead of seeing a weird guy and some awkward social interactions, I saw that Rocky is just a good guy.

He tries to get to know Adrian, who works at the pet shop where Rocky buys food for his turtles. Adrian, also happens to be the sister of Rocky's friend Paulie, is too shy to return Rocky's advances. But eventually she goes on a date with Rocky, and the two fall in love. Paulie is a pretty despicable human being. He verbally abuses Adrian, and is always looking for a way to make money. Rocky puts up with him, and encourages him to be better. He's a better friend than Paulie deserves.

The antagonist of the film, Apollo Creed, is not necessarily a villain. He's the heavyweight champion, and his opponent for his next match canceled. Unable to find anyone to fill the spot, his manager and publicists suggest using a local, unknown fighter. Apollo likes the look, and the name, of Rocky Balboa, the "Italian Stallion." It's not like he's giving Rocky a chance at the title out of the goodness of his heart, but he's also not portrayed as some evil, money-loving, mustache twirler.

After Creed's challenge, Rocky is approached by the trainer at his local gym - Mickey - who offers to be Rocky's trainer and manager. Rocky is offended by this, because Mickey never gave him the time of day before Rocky's name started showing up in the papers. Mickey realizes that Rocky is right, and thinks that the boxer will refuse his offer. But Rocky accepts, and the two begin training. We see, through an iconic montage, Rocky training every day, becoming stronger, gaining speed and endurance.

The key moment - the one whose significance I missed the first time I watched the movie - comes the day before the fight. Rocky realizes that he can't beat Apollo. We see how dedicated Rocky and Adrian are to each other. She asks him, "What are we going to do?" Rocky decides that even though he can't beat Apollo, he won't give up. No one has ever gone all 15 rounds with Apollo before. They are all knocked out, or they give up. But Rocky is going to stick with it. He's going to go all the way.

And that's what he does. He takes blow after blow, but he keeps standing. He falls down, but he gets back up. He even manages to deal his own share of blows back to Apollo. After a harrowing 15 rounds, Apollo and Rocky both look dead on their feet, but they're still standing. Apollo wins the match, but Rocky scored a personal victory, and became a hero to the crowd watching. But all he cares about after the match is sharing his victory with Adrian.


When I finished Rocky, I immediately started Rocky II. The sequel starts right where the original left off. Actually, it starts a bit before that. We see the end of Rocky's fight with Apollo again, but instead of cutting to credits at the end, it keeps going. Rocky and Apollo are both rushed to the hospital, as they have both sustained serious injuries in the fight.

At the end of the first Rocky movie, it seemed like Apollo and Rocky ended on good terms, with mutual respect for each other. But by the time they get to the hospital in this film, it seems Apollo's attitude has changed. Perhaps this is because his victory was by split decision, as opposed to a unanimous decision or a knockout. Or because by the end of the fight, the crowd was supporting Rocky and not Apollo. Apollo Creed is the world heavyweight champion, and Rocky was just some bum off the street. Apollo's pride has been insulted. As he is wheeled past Rocky, he shouts at him that Rocky got lucky, and demands a rematch.

Rocky, not interested in a rematch, tries to move on with his life. He proposes to and marries Adrian, and buys them a new house. He's come into some money from his fight winnings and a subsequent advertising contract. He showers Adrian with expensive gifts. As a viewer, I kept wincing every time he spent money. But he was doing it as an act of love, so it's kind of sweet.

However, the good times don't last. He's not very good at reading, so his line delivery for commercials is terrible. This enrages the director, who insults Rocky and sends him off the set. Since appearing in commercials is no longer an option, Rocky tries to find another source of income. He's unable to get a desk job, so he suggests to Adrian that he go back to fighting. Adrian, remembering the toll his last fight took on him, is very resistant to this.

A couple of things happen which drive Rocky to agree to a rematch with Apollo. The first is that Apollo, determined to get a chance to defeat Rocky once and for all, launches a smear campaign against him. If he - through his own statements and articles and cartoons in the newspaper - can insult and humiliate Rocky, then Rocky will have no choice but to fight Apollo again. This is a much darker side of Apollo than we saw in the first film. The second thing is that - in order to earn some money - Adrian takes her old job at the pet shop, while Rocky is unable to keep a steady job. Rocky can't bear being unable to provide for his wife, especially when they find out that Adrian is pregnant.

So, against Adrian's protests, Rocky accepts Apollo's challenge, and begins training again. However, it becomes pretty obvious that Rocky's heart isn't in it. Mickey picks up on this, and says that Adrian is holding Rocky back. I don't think it comes across as Adrian being a negative force. After all, the doctors told Rocky that there was a risk he could go blind if he fought again. So Adrian is justified. Rather, I think it is a positive depiction of Rocky. He is driven by good instincts - wanting to provide for his family, but being hesitant as he trains because he wants unity in his marriage.

Everything comes to a standstill when the baby is born. There are complications during childbirth, which almost brought me to tears, given my family's rocky history with pregnancy and childbirth. The baby is fine, but Adrian slips into a coma. Rocky stays by her side, and even refuses to go see his son. At first, this seemed ridiculous to me. Why wouldn't he want to see his son? Is the movie going to treat the baby as secondary, or unimportant? But at Rocky's response, I actually did get tears in my eyes. "I'll wait until Adrian wakes up. We're supposed to see him together."

For the entire time Adrian is unconscious, Rocky stays at the hospital. He reads to her, and prays in the chapel. What he doesn't do is train for his fight. Mickey stresses to him that the fight is coming up soon, and he needs to be prepared. But when he sees that Rocky is resolute, he tells him, "I'll do whatever you need." Mickey sits with Rocky in the chapel, and in the hospital room with Adrian. Up to this point, Mickey had been 100% in Rocky's corner in terms of boxing. Now, he was fully invested in Rocky's family, too.

It was a little unclear how much time passed, but Adrian eventually wakes up, and a nurse brings their son in to them. They decide to name him after his father. Rocky tells Adrian that he will cancel the fight. More than just giving Rocky permission to fight, though, Adrian gives him a command. "Win." And now it's on. The theme song starts, and Rocky trains harder than he's ever trained before.

Once again, we find ourselves on the day of the fight - Rocky Balboa vs. Apollo Creed. Apollo entered the last fight expecting to just give the audience a good show, and then put Rocky down easily. But this time, he is all in from the start. And Rocky is ready for him. A natural southpaw, Rocky had trained to box right-handed with Mickey, and fights right-handed for the first fourteen rounds. It throws Apollo off, but Rocky still takes quite a beating. But he refuses to go down. In the last round, Rocky switches back to his left hand, and lays into Apollo. Then he lands a powerful punch, which knocks Apollo to the floor. However, since both of them are so exhausted, Rocky falls down at the same time. The referee starts the ten count. Apollo fought a better fight overall, so if both boxers stay down, Apollo will probably win. Both fighters try to get up. As the count approaches ten, Apollo collapses back onto the floor, but Rocky gets back to his feet. The crowd goes wild. Rocky has defeated Apollo, and is now the world heavyweight champion. Adrian had been watching the whole fight from home while Rocky Jr. slept. As the TV reporters interview Rocky, he interrupts them, "I just got one thing to say, to my wife at home. Yo Adrian, I DID IT!"

Overall Themes
One of the overarching themes present in these two movies, and the rest of the Rocky series, is that marriage is about being a team - about fully investing yourself in your spouse. Rocky draws strength from the support of Adrian, and in turn he dedicates his efforts and successes to her. Adrian also gains a kind of strength from Rocky. She does not lose herself in the relationship, but actually becomes a stronger character as her relationship with Rocky progresses. Each of them make sacrifices for the other, and each of them seem to be more concerned about each other than themselves.

Another theme that is touched on in Rocky II is a child's need for both a father (or at least father figure) and mother. This is expressed when Rocky insists that both he and Adrian meet their son together. This theme might seem like a bit of a stretch just from watching the first two films, but it becomes more apparent as the series progresses.

Perhaps the primary theme in the Rocky films, one which I missed in my first viewing of Rocky, is perseverance. It's not always necessary (or even possible) to overcome your opponent. After all, you can't control how strong or skilled they are. All you can do is work hard, try your best, and refuse to give up. Rocky's victory in the first film - as well as the sequel - comes from his perseverance. He stays in the fight, goes all the way.

As I thought about this theme, I realized how much it applied to dealing with grief. To put it in words that I doubt anyone has ever spoken, "My grief is like Apollo Creed." It isn't something I can banish, or overcome. It's way out of my league. I just have to stay in the fight, without giving up. Grief might give me a hell of a beating, but I have to get back up. And I can't do it on my own either. I need God, just like Rocky needed Mickey in his corner. I need my wife, my family, and my friends, just like Rocky needed Adrian. I'll do better in some rounds than in others, but I just have to keep stay on my feet until that final bell. And then the fight will be over.

Geek Pick: The Rocky Movies

I watched the Rocky movies on Amazon Prime, but apparently most of them aren't available to stream for free anymore. The following links will take you to the Amazon page for each of the Rocky movies. From there, you can either purchase the movie on home video, buy or rent the digital version, or stream for free if it ever comes back to Amazon Prime.

Rocky
Rocky II
Rocky III
Rocky IV
Rocky V
Rocky Balboa

You can also save a bit of money by getting the six Rocky movies in one collection for about $24 (at least that's the price at the time I'm writing this):

Rocky: Heavyweight Collection

Then, finally, there's Creed, which is more of a spin-off than a sequel. Rocky is no longer the main character, but the film does continue his story:

Creed

At the time I'm writing this post, Creed is still available to stream for free if you have an Amazon Prime membership. If you don't have a membership, you can get a free 30-day trial if you use the following link:

Amazon Prime 30-Day Free Trial

In addition to getting access to Amazon's free streaming library, your free trial will also give you free two-day shipping on any item that has the "Prime" logo next to it (items sold or shipped by Amazon.com, as opposed to third-party sellers). Thirty days ought to be plenty of time to watch Creed, and probably some other movies or shows, but be sure to cancel before the trial ends if you don't want to pay for a membership.

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