In this first of our two-part discussion of the Rocky films, we look at the film that began the series almost 50 years ago. There’s a lot about 1976’s Rocky that… isn’t that good. John G. Avildsen’s direction is drab, the story basic, the themes rudimentary – but with that comes a roughness and a sincerity to the whole affair that might be just what makes it work after all. Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky is a physical brute, softened by his unusual – and unusually pretty – features, his inability to avoid trying to befriend any animal that crosses his path, his demeanour that’s at once confident and shy, and his intellectual simplicity. José argues that the boxing is a diversion, a Trojan horse within which to sneak Rocky and Adrian’s love story. And we think about the character of Apollo Creed, his use as a substitute for Muhammad Ali, and why he couldn’t have been white.
Rocky was a phenomenon upon its release, an immediate cultural touchstone that contains images and scenes so iconic that, five decades on, we continue to attach the same emotions to them and draw the same pleasure from recalling them. Well, we say “we”, but, as is typical, Mike has never seen it before. So while José revisits, Mike joins the party for the first time, and we discuss the quality, significance and impact of this iconic film.
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An extraordinary, near-Shakespearian meditation on misdirected rage, guilt and grief, deeply marred by clumsy lunging into a loud theme of racism and a strong sense that the film neither knows nor especially cares about the culture it’s portraying. Frances McDormand excels as the bullish, bellicose, foul-mouthed mother, but the film suffers as it shifts its focus to Sam Rockwell’s stereotypical racist hick. The central premise is brilliant; its treatment is ultimately uneven, and although there are elements we absolutely adore, we can’t get its lurches between tones out of our heads.
Do Americans have a case against the use of foreigners in their cinema? Language is one of the glories of this film yet we find there are considerable misjudgments with language in relation to gender and race. We can’t find enough superlatives for Frances McDormand yet we question why all the other women in the film seem to look 19, even when they’re meant to be married to Woody Harrelson. The film is very conscientious about its representation of race, yet comes across as rather racist. A tonally deaf film with some great moments.
Rewarding to watch, though, and it would benefit from a second viewing.
Recorded on 18th January 2018.
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