Cinema: The Contender

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Rocky is a club fighter—THE ITALIAN STALLION, as he styles himself on the bathrobe he wears into the seedy boxing rings he works in his native Philadelphia. His style is crude, and he is aging none too gracefully. To supplement his boxing earnings he serves as muscle for a loan shark.

A certain sensitivity lurks beneath his dull manner, however. He goes all gooey, for instance, over his pet turtles, Cuff and Link. And the lady who works in the pet shop (Talia Shire) exerts a claim on his shy heart, though of course he has trouble articulating his feelings. There is really no place for poor Rocky to go but up—if only because an entire film devoted to so dreary a fellow would be intolerable. Almost immediately it is clear that this is another trip up the trail immortally, definitively explored by Brando in On the Waterfront over two decades ago: the coming to consciousness of a rough, untutored but naturally noble fellow.

In certain ways this is an unbeat able role. Sylvester ("Sly") Stallone (TIME, Nov. 15), who is as smart as Rocky is not, held out to play the part he created. He does it affectingly. Who can fail to yield to him emotionally as he talks to the animals and makes tentative advances to Talia Shire? Who can fail to be moved when, suddenly, he is given a shot at the title and must, all unaided, fend off the usual unsavory types (low journalists, exploitative managers, old friends looking for a piece of the action) who try to leech on to him? He develops a winning shrewdness about them—and himself—that blends engagingly with his natural compassion. By film's end the 30-year-old boy has become a man.

The story is achingly familiar, and though Stallone has a certain power, he is certainly not the subtlest actor to crawl out from under Marlon's overcoat. But the picture goes most wrong in the conceit it employs to lift Rocky out of the clubs and into the big arena for his title challenge. An Ali-like champion (Carl Weathers) blows into town for a championship bout and must find a replacement for the suddenly injured contender. Rocky asks the audience to believe that the champ reaches down past all the ranked boxers and all the up-and-coming kids to give this stale ham-and-egger a chance in an engagement on which millions are riding. It is not merely improbable in a time when even a legitimate challenger like Ken Norton, who is a movie star to boot, does badly on closed-circuit TV, it is preposterous. One really cannot deal with such a howler and at the same time interest oneself fully in Rocky's quest for a moral victory (staying on his feet a full 15 rounds with the champion). It is too bad. Rocky was shot very inexpensively, giving hope to all who be lieve that it is possible to make an appealing and potentially highly popular film without spending millions — or even a million. Director John Avildsen shows here a stronger naturalistic gift than Joe or Save the Tiger demonstrated. When it sticks to its natural milieu the picture has simple and engaging strength. Only when it and the title character try to move up in class too quickly do they lose out.

Richard Schickel