In 2007 the New England Patriots were coming off a bloodying. They got walloped out of a massive lead by the Colts, lost two wide receivers, and at the start of the season they got in trouble because Belichick was cheating. They went on to win every single regular season game that year and were headed for an incredible perfect record, going right at the Super Bowl where they were favorited over the Giants.
Well, Giants are Giants, and sometimes momentum isn't enough. There was no perfect season, but it was a hell of a ride and one hell of a game.
I'll admit it, I thought Rocky had that one. I thought "This guy has really earned it." I thought "Apollo Creed, he's corporate, he's a business, he's a show." Both of those things were true, but ultimately I underestimated Creed and I didn't properly get what Rocky had earned - not a win, but a real shot at the title, a real, believable contest, the whole nine yards, against a guy so powerful no other professional would step into the ring with him.
I'll talk about that in a minute, because I want to dive in to the central conflict of the movie, the main antagonist, and none of that is Creed. The conflict in this story is about self-worth, and it's not just a journey for Rocky, it's a big struggle for Adrian too. If the conflict is represented by anything, it's goddamn Pauly, who's just a human wreck, a leech, a parasite who takes from these people and in exchange reinforces the mire that is their lives under the railroad in the bad end of Philadelphia. He takes the beer without paying, Rocky picks up the tab on that one. He's always after Rocky for a job with Gasso. He wants to be seen on TV by the cameras, he wants to monetize Rocky's appearance, get paid for training him. He curses Adrian for showing affection to anyone else because he feels he's owed all of her care and her time, and when she fights back he goes mad, threatens her with not just force but with the idea that she's lost value by being with Rocky. What an absolutely disgusting thing, and it hurts to know from Rocky's earlier spiel to that street girl that their culture, their time, their people would be aware of that and hold that against someone.
Pauly, in short, is this ugly, bestial monster, the human incarnation of a total lack of self-worth. Ironically, he thinks too much of himself all the time - he's all puff and determined to stay where he is by virtue of lowering everyone else. There's a crafty theme that I noticed wherein Pauly can't be seen - he's in a bathroom, there's no mirror. Camera, he's nowhere to be found and people tell him to keep out of the picture. Pauly has no reflection, no image, because he's like a vampire of hope. The disgusting thing about him is that he's both aware of that and empowered by that - he actively seeks to tell people things are as good as they'll ever be. When he sets up his sister and Rocky, he does so without asking her consent or informing her, by throwing her work and care out the window, and, as is later revealed, with the full expectation that the arrangement would be to his benefit - he'd get the hook-up with Gasso that he craved in trade for his sister, like she was property to barter with and love just a commodity to negotiations. And what is the hook-up with Gasso? Pauly, who has a real job, wants to sink lower, to become an enforcer for a loan shark, to go forth and actively make others miserable and get paid for it. Venal. What a perfect word for the scumbag.
Pauly is the movie's villain, I believe. It tries to hide that behind something greater, but he's the incarnation of all the bad. If this was a game, he'd be orcs and goblins. What is Creed? Creed is a god, a force of nature, completely beyond the context of these three people's lives. Pauly is the real, crude, everyday foulness they have to deal with. It really is a story of three plus one - it's not Creed's story, he's merely a powerful agent of change.
I don't know how I feel about that first love scene. On the one hand it really really really felt coercive to me for a great deal of it, and Adrian seemed to be tremendously uncomfortable. On the other hand, I don't know to what extent she was playing her upbringing and her lack of self-worth - she thinks Rocky is teasing her, taking advantage, using her, and when she looks at the big dumb lug and doesn't see a dirty mirror like Pauly has always provided but rather just this bluff, honest thing, she abandons all the crap people have laid on her. So I feel guilty for ignoring the idea that Adrian could have lusts and attraction and desire when it's revealed that she's pretty damn into it, but on the other hand it still reads as so uncomfortable. Maybe that's the point - that low self-worth alienates people from one another and even in the most intimate times makes a person feel used, assaulted, coerced, anything to say to oneself afterwards "it wasn't real, it was never a choice I could make, I am not deserving of these feelings." Again I would love to see some comments talking about my read on this because I just don't know.
Rocky is the catalyst for Adrian's self-worth, and Creed is sort of the catalyst for his own. I say sort of, because Creed's not really the active component. In fact, Creed's opportunity does the opposite, if anything, laying bare Rocky's lack of self-worth. He doesn't feel like he can do it, he feels like he's being set up to let himself down, he decides he cannot win. If anything catalyzes him, it's Mickey - Mickey coming there and trying to relate, trying to open up, gets Rocky to just unleash all of this self-hate and negativity and it's just so raw and powerful and incredible and amazing when it happens because we've spent long enough in the movie now to know that that's not him. That powerful catharsis, where he lets it all come out to Mickey, that's when he takes control of his self-worth. Adrian takes control of her self-worth from Pauly when she lets him have it, telling him the truth about their relationship. That one last swipe is all he's got, and how does it affect her in the end? She goes from "I've never been alone in a man's apartment" to "Do you want a roommate?" That's some amazing stuff to put on the screen and do it in a style that downplays it all.
The music's almost always there to back up the sports side of this movie (this is not a sports movie, this is a movie with sports). Whether it's wistful or triumphant or excited, the human drama just doesn't get it because that's a thing of the earthly plane and the boxing is represented by this impossible, bolt-of-lightning opportunity for riches and fame handed down by a man with the name of a god. Creed is an act of God in Rocky's life, and while I thought I was seeing this tortoise/hare metaphor in the film (Creed's hair gets commented on, Rocky owns turtles!) the real idea is man vs. god here. One man's a rock of the earth, he's low and solid and base, and the other is Apollo, the god of the sun, dawn, light, music, poetry. A prophet. A healer. How more divine than that can you get? Apollo Creed hits those notes; his whole January 1st fight is meant to be inspirational to the black community, he's a storyteller with a grasp of how to catch people's wonder and put it on the stage, he's a glossy one-man show, and he's got that godly hubris that says "I can wear a suit for months and still take out this cow-remurdering human boxing glove in three rounds."
But he is a god among men, as far as the cast is concerned, and even after that first devastating flooring he comes back up. At the end, he tells Rocky that there won't be a rematch, that God has tested himself against his creation and felt the pain of a game turned serious. Creed's not going to test him again, and Rocky's response sums up this perfectly big, lovable, dumb lunk who channels so much that is good in Fezzik when he says "I wouldn't want one." He would never have asked for this opportunity; asking for things isn't like him, he wants it earned. He doesn't care about the god and his games anymore, he's won his accomplishment. He stood his ground in his own town and the god of the boxing ring has sounded the retreat, victorious but struck down like never before. Rocky and Adrian's real victory is the triumph of getting Pauly, and themselves, out of their own way.
What a splendid, amazing, triumphant movie. Losing has never felt more like winning, I don't think, and there's just so much to like here that I'm looking forward to the rest of what's in the box. Thank you everyone who recommended this. I loved this movie. Next one's a pizza movie for sure.