In a sports-and-movie dream as improbable as anything on Kevin Costner’s field, a little-known actor with a funny name (Sylvester?) wrote a script for himself and eventually sold it. Rocky Balboa, a Philadelphia club fighter, is cut in the proletarian movie mold: big, slow, inarticulate, giant-hearted — not a raging bull but a hungry puppy, less Jake LaMotta than a Rodney Dangerfield of the ring, just wanting a little respect. Made for little, Rocky made a lot, winning the 1977 Academy Award for Best Picture while earning Sylvester Stallone an Oscar nomination for the screenplay and spawning five sequels of increasing scope and silliness.
The original film has its charms, not least its embrace of boxing-movie clichés — the grizzled trainer (Burgess Meredith), the shy, sallow girlfriend (Talia Shire), the unbeatable champ Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers, briefly a running back for the Oakland Raiders) — as if they were newly minted revelations. Even the famous jog up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art to Bill Conti’s heroic score has an endearing quality, stranded as it is between grandeur and pomposity. But the film’s true distinguishing mark, which might not even require a spoiler alert, is that when Rocky gets to the big fight, he loses it. The pug’s triumph is that he went the distance with the champ. By recognizing that endurance against all odds is its own heroism, Rocky became more than a contender. It made the movie a winner.