Sylvester Stallone can be forgiven for “Rhinestone,” “Over the Top,” "Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot” – and anything short of a capital offense, for that matter.
He can be forgiven because on Nov. 21, 1976, he gave us "Rocky."
Rocky Balboa marks 40 years as the ultimate cinematic underdog, occasionally bowed by his creator’s lesser efforts over the decades, but still unbeaten. The battered boxer's story resonates now as much as when it arrived as the work of an unknown star and screenwriter who fought all the way to a Best Picture Oscar.
“Rocky” bridged the late 1960s and early 1970s auteur era with the advent of crowd-pleasing special effect-driven popcorn flicks that Steven Spielberg started in 1975 with “Jaws” and George Lucas sent into hyperdrive in 1977 with “Star Wars.”
Sure, "Rocky" got the masses cheering in the theaters like few other films. Yet Stallone rooted his masterwork in the most human of stories: a talented loser getting an unlikely shot at the big time and overcoming a lifetime of physical and emotional scars to give it his all.
Stallone's pitch-perfect script, director John Avildsen’s unerring eye and Bill Conti’s rousing score filled "Rocky" with now-iconic moments: Rocky guzzling eggs by the glass; Rocky's training odyssey, from plodding up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art to leaping in triumph to “Gonna Fly Now;” grizzled trainer Mickey taking a razor blade to Rocky's pounded-shut eye between rounds.
Most memorable of all: Rocky screaming for Adrian, the mousy love of his life, at the end of his epic fight with world champ Apollo Creed, not knowing or caring whether he won or lost.
‘"Rocky" sequels went from great ("Rocky II") to cringe-worthy ("Rocky V"). Stallone seemed, at times, to battle himself, transforming his beloved, relatable character to a human cartoon. This became a Stallone pattern, from the "Rambo" flicks to the purposely over-the-top "Expendables" series.
Stallone’s more embarrassing films threatened to sully “Rocky” and some ambitious, if flawed, movies like 1978’s “F.I.S.T.” and his strong, understated acting turn in 1997’s "Cop Land.”
He made an admirable return in 2006’s "Rocky Balboa" and played a key supporting role in last year's excellent "Creed," turning over the “Rocky” story to the younger, less battle-worn hands of director Ryan Coogler.
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“Rocky” made news in September when Donald Trump arrived at a rally in Pennsylvania to "Gonna Fly Now." But for anyone tempted to frame the election as a "Rocky" story, it's worth remembering that humble Rocky Balboa of South Philadelphia came up from nothing to climb into the biggest ring in the world – and he lost the fight.
Rocky, though, needs no forgiveness. He won the battle of the heart, one that beats just as strong 40 years later.