Any debate about the greatest sports movie ever is likely to agree with viewers of American sports network ESPN, who recently voted Rocky the undisputed champion. Then some well-meaning film buff will bring up Raging Bull, provoking a grudging chorus of ‘Ooooh yeeeeeah.’
On the face of it, those in Raging Bull’s corner have a point. It was, after all, directed by the revered Martin Scorsese (whoever heard of John G Avildsen?), and starred consummate actor Robert De Niro (cf. mumbling mouth-breather Sylvester Stallone). Black and white photography gave it instant credibility, as did De Niro’s legendary weight gain. But Raging Bull would never have been made if producers Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff hadn’t already scored a hit with Rocky; neither would Scorsese’s famed Steadicam shots exist if Rocky hadn’t got there first. Besides, which film wound up making more than 100 times its budget? (Clue: Raging Bull grossed a meagre $23 million.) Which film boasted four nods for acting among its ten Oscar nominations, and won statues for Best Director and Best Picture? (Clue: of its eight nominations, Raging Bull won only for Best Actor and Best Editing.) Which film was almost unanimously lauded by critics, and spawned four sequels (some of them good)? And, not to put too fine a point on it, which film would you rather watch with your mates on a Friday night?
Rocky is the story of Rocky ‘The Italian Stallion’ Balboa, a none-too-bright 30-year-old, living in Philadelphia but destined for Palookaville. He boxes, he tells mousy girlfriend Adrian (Talia Shire), because he “can’t sing or dance,” and is already over the hill when picked to fight a bicentennial bout with world heavyweight champ Apollo Creed. After resisting the call to action, in true Joseph Campbell style, Rocky figures that this million-to-one shot is the only shot he’s going to get. Besides, being a loser, he doesn’t mind being beat – all he wants is to go the distance.
Such home-spun heroism reflects Stallone’s own. A penniless bit-part actor when he wrote the Rocky screenplay, he was offered $150,000 to let Ryan O’Neal or James Caan play the title role. Stallone refused to sell unless he was given the lead — even though he was living on Spam at the time. In a David vs Goliath showdown worthy of Balboa vs Creed, Stallone stared down the studios – and won.
30 years on, Rocky still packs a punch. The supporting players – Shire, Burt Young (Paulie, a prototype for Joe Pesci’s Raging Bull role), Burgess Meredith and Carl Weathers – are uniformly excellent. More memorable still is Bill Conti’s music (including “Gonna Fly”, which accompanies the most famous montage in history), so it’s surprising to discover that there is almost no music for the first 78 minutes. It’s a conceit which, along with Avildsen’s almost cinema verité camera work (cf. Scorsese’s stylized artifice), lends Balboa’s rocky road to fame greater realism. Finally, there’s the raw, unrefined talent of Stallone himself, whose Oscar nominations for Best Actor and Best Screenwriter put him in the rarified company of Charlie Chaplin and Orson Welles. Still, Rocky may be not be up there with The Great Dictator or Citizen Kane. But Raging Bull’s no Rocky.