I once had someone online tell me that I was a terrible film student for dislking Rocky (John G. Avildsen, 1976), a film I’m not sure how anyone could like if they first saw it as an adult, and that I was going to end up a janitor for the rest of my life as a result. (Of course, being homeless, the government tried to send me on a WEP assignment as a parks janitor, but doctors at their expense concurred that it was not appropriate work for me to be doing.) The class in which I saw Rocky let forth peals of derisive laughter all throughout the film in parts that were not intentionally funny, and among those classmates whose film reviews I’ve seen on line, none gave the film more than two stars on a scale of four or five. I give it two stars on a 10 scale.
In September 2010, I went to the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts and did a cursory reception history for the film, then wrote the following paragraphs to counteract the impression given on Wikipedia that the film received universally positive reviews at the time of its release. In the current version of the article, the passage is significantly shorter, due to grounds of “undue weight,” but portions of it still stand. Unfortunately, everything from the Russell Davies review was removed, and he had the juiciest quotes of all of them.
The film received quite a share of negative reviews, as well. Vincent Canby of the New York Times called it “pure ’30s make believe” and slammed both Stallone’s acting and Avildsen’s directing, calling the latter “…none too decisive…” Frank Rich liked the film, calling it “almost 100 per cent schmaltz,” but favoring it over current movie cynicism, though he also referred to the plot as “gimmicky,” the script “heavy-handed,” and described Avildsen, to whom he attributed all of the film’s weaknesses, as the director of “among the most tawdry movies of recent years” (Joe and Save the Tiger), who “has an instinct for making serious emotions look tawdry” and said that with Rocky, “He’ll go for a cheap touch whenever he can” and “tries to falsify material that was suspect from the beginning.” “Even by the standards of fairy tales, it strains logic.” Rich also noted the film’s “stupid song with couplets like ‘feeling strong now/won’t be long now.'” Janet Maslin pointed out the film’s “underlying banality” that is built around a “stock character.” In The Observer, Russell Davies says Stallone “shambles and mumbles through this astonishingly corny item” playing Rocky with “mountainous goofiness,” “jumps to a conclusion impossibly undeserved,” and provides “laugh-lines for connoisseurs of corn, and excuses for the overwhelming unlikeliness of the plot.” The film, Davies says, is “a self-parodying confession, ‘Yes, I’m a beast,’ a triumph of Barnumism, if nothing else.”
Many positive reviews, including Richard Eder‘s (as well as Canby’s negative review), compared the work to that of Frank Capra. Andrew Sarris found the Capra comparsions disingenuous: “Capra’s movies projected more despair deep down than a movie like Rocky could envisage, and most previous ring movies have been much more cynical about the fight scene,” and, commenting on Rocky’s work as a loan shark, says that the film “teeters on the edge of sentimentalizing gangsters.” Sarris also found Meredith “oddly cast in the kind of part the late James Gleason used to pick his teeth.” Sarris also took issue with Avildsen’s direction, which he described as having been done with “an insidious smirk” with “condescension toward everything and everybody,” specifically finding fault, for example, with Avildsen’s multiple shots of a chintzy lamp in Rocky’s apartment. Sarris also found Stallone’s acting style “a bit mystifiying” and his character “all rough” as opposed to “a diamond in the rough” like Terry Malloy. Davies objected to the Malloy comparison of other critics, finding Stallone more comparable to Boris Karloff in Frankenstein.
Richard Corliss, in Time, found the film “Preposterous. One can really not deal with such a howler and at the same time interest oneself fully with Rocky’s quest for a moral victory” and that the film’s preposterousness is predicated on the fact that “an entire film devoted to so dreary a fellow would be intolerable.” He lamented that a film such as this had been the small-budget independent to break through to mainstream commercial success.
I can’t disagree with Corliss here. In the 1970s, mainstream dramas were made for intelligent adults; now this is the exclusive province of independent cinema, and difficult to get made at all.