I rented the film but I wondered how a movie like this would work. We know Rocky never lost a fight, so what would be the conflict? How do you make a movie where everyone already knows the ending? Turns out, Director Charles Winkler did a great job spinning around this issue, and the film became my favorite boxing movie to date.
As an adult, Rocky (Jon Favreau) had enough of work in the shoe factory and, reviving his love of boxing, decides to get involved in amateur boxing where he quickly suffers humiliating losses to Golden Gloves Champion Henry Lester and four other contenders. Ignoring the pleading of his best friend Allie Colombo, (Rino Romano) Rocky decides to turn professional. His strategy of training harder than his opponents sounded ridiculous at first, but his conditioning and hard-hitting style allowed him to win his first 12 fights by knockout. By the middle of the movie, he's already gone 25-0 against the best boxers in the world.
Eventually she comes around, but Rocky is hit with tough news at their wedding when Al Weill announces that Rocky will have to fight his hero, The Brown Bomber Joe Louis!
This is the real conflict of the movie. Rocky loved Joe Louis. No, I mean, he really loved the guy. Everytime Louis was in Rocky's presence, he walked in slow motion and appeared to float. He was Rocky's hero since childhood. Louis defended the heavyweight title 25 times and was champ for almost 13 years. But he was forced out of retirement because of tax problems. Even though he was past his prime, he was still regarded by most in the film as "the greatest boxer who ever lived" and few gave Rocky a chance at beating him.
However, beating Joe Louis was the only way Marciano could get a shot at the heavyweight title and have enough money to rescue his father from that "damn shoe factory," as he put it. The money would also put Rocky in a better position to get away from the greedy Al Weill and the other gangsters lurking around.
Why I Like This Movie
Secondly, Favreau and Duane Davis (who played Joe Louis) really did their homework on the fighting styles of the characters they played. Favreau did a great job mimicking Rocky's bobbing and weaving style, while Davis looked great portraying Louis' flat footed, boxer-puncher techniques, right down to crushing jab and swift, hard combinations Louis would throw. In the end, the climactic fight between the two was really well done and an excellent representation of the real battle between Louis and Marciano. To sum it up, Louis controlled the fight early with his jab, but Marciano's constant pressure and body attacks wore him out as the rounds progressed. Marciano floored Louis with a hard left hook in the 8th round and finished him moments later by knocking him through the ropes with a devastating right to the jaw.
Many friends of Rocky will tell you that he was a bit weird when it came to money. He only took cash, and hid money in odd places. The movie explains early on how The Great Depression effected Rocky during his childhood. After growing up poor, he made sure to save every penny he had. He didn't trust banks or checks. Only cash.
The film paid close attention to history, particularly in scenes like the one when Rocky was training for the Louis fight. Along with Allie and trainer Charley Goldman (Aron Tager) Marciano watches Louis' fights with Schmeling, looking for any potential weaknesses in The Brown Bomber. Goldman points out that Louis drops his left hand, leaving him wide open for the overhand right. This shows the trio came up with Marciano's fight plan for Louis - kill the body and the head will die. In other words, hit Louis so much in the ribs and stomach that when he drops his hands to protect the body, smash him with a knockout blow upstairs. The strategy worked. Watching this is like being a fly on the wall in a real training camp.
To me, the film landed all the right blows for a boxing movie. You care about the characters, the fight scenes were excellent, the acting was good, etc. Plus it's nice to see something done on a heavyweight champion whose last name isn't Ali or Tyson. No offense to those two, but other boxing legends are lost in their shadows and Marciano is one of them. In addition, Marciano is one of my favorite heavyweight champions of all time. In his prime he was exactly my size. (5'10, 184 pounds, although my long dreads may be extra weight). In boxing, my favorite boxers are the little guys with a big punch. Rocky had freakish punching power for someone so undersized, something else explored in the film.
Also, in a time of racial tension in this country, Marciano was not a racist man. The film goes out of its way to show this several times, among them being scenes showing Marciano's respect for Louis, and the fact that he attacked a reporter who made a racist remark about Louis. Because of this, I respect Rocky as both a boxer and as a man. Also, if you pay attention, you'll notice that actor Tony Lo Bianco (who plays gangster Frankie Carbo in this movie) played Rocky Marciano in another Marciano biopic during the 1970s. But every movie has cons and sure enough, this one is no exception.
Second, the movie somewhat ignores Louis' age when he fought Marciano. Remember that in the beginning of the story, Rocky is a small boy celebrating a Louis victory. And as an adult, 13 years later, he's fighting the man! But strangely, no one really mentions Louis' age and everyone acts like the fight is prime versus prime. I understand at the time that Louis' legacy was already intact and Rocky was still a prospect, but the movie's writers basically ignored Louis' age. The producers should have given the Louis character a bald spot or gray hair or something to show that he was much older than Rocky.
Lastly, (and most important) the movie stopped too early in Rocky's career. The film ends just after his victory over Joe Louis, therefore we don't get to see his tough fight against Jersey Joe Walcott for the heavyweight title, or the battles with Ezzard Charles and Archie Moore. Those fights were classics and would have been great to see. I understand that the movie would have to be a miniseries to include those highlights, but it would have been worth it, in my opinion. The producers did such a great job with the fight scenes that I know they would have done Marciano's later fights justice.
Other than those three minor quibbles, this film is great! HBO also scored a knockout with their 1995 movie, Tyson, which featured some of the cast from this film. That movie was awesome as well, but the Marciano movie edges it out a little, possibly because Mike Tyson's story has been told countless times.
As far as Rocky Marciano goes, I definitely recommend this movie. Even if you're not a fan of boxing, I think you'll like this one. Great storytelling, and my favorite boxing biopic of them all.
Four and a half stars out of 5