2015 has seen the return of several venerable, long-running film franchises to the big-screen, including Terminator: Genisys, Jurassic World, and James Bond. Of course, all of this will culminate with the long-awaited Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens. However, there is one more release along these lines which arrives just before Thanksgiving and marks the return of Sylvester Stallone to his signature breakthrough role as boxing champion Rocky Balboa: Fruitvale Station director Ryan Coogler’s Creed (read our review).
The seventh installment in the Rocky franchise, Creed follows Adonis Johnson (Michael B. Jordan), the son of Rocky Balboa’s late opponent-turned-friend Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers), who tracks down the aging brawler (now running a restaurant in Philadelphia called Adrian’s) and convinces him to train Johnson to follow in his father’s footsteps (and out of Apollo’s shadow).
While the Rocky series is famous for centering on boxing, what really sets the first film apart was how the specific triumph-of-the-underdog narrative was framed and executed. Earnestly directed by John G. Avildsen and written by Stallone – who was nominated for Best Screenplay at the 1976 Oscars – Rocky‘s rags to riches story wasn’t new but was repackaged as a particular formula, which has gone on to become am engaging, successful template for many other similar stories: an underdog gets a shot at achieving their dream, faces obstacles, doubts themselves, finds the self-confidence to go for it, and seizes glory in the end.
Here are the 10 Best Movies Inspired By Rocky.
Fatal Attraction director Adrian Lyne’s 1983 Flashdance is one of the most iconic popular films of the early 80’s, with a hit soundtrack featuring songs you can still hear at karaoke night. Flashdance was an unexpected hit and the first collaboration between the decade’s blockbuster mega-producer team of Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer, who used their Flashdance template to even greater success with Top Gun.
Running with the working class hero concept of Rocky and flipping genders, Flashdance stars Jennifer Beals as Alex Owens, a welder at a Pittsburgh steel mill who dreams of being a professional dancer but settles for being an erotic dancer at a cabaret. The movie throws the expected obstacles her way – a love triangle, an injury – but the real obstacle is Alex’s self-esteem. She starts dating a scummy strip club owner and reluctantly works in his club before regaining her self-respect and performing a showstopping dance routine to gain entry into the snooty Pittsburgh Conservatory, using everything she’s learned as a dancer (including that newfangled thing called “breakdancing”).
The Karate Kid
The Rocky franchise was going strong in the ’80s, which is one reason why so many films in that mold were released during that decade. 1984’s The Karate Kid is a standout among them, and the fact that it was directed by Rocky‘s John G. Avildsen is no small surprise. The film made stars of Ralph Macchio (22 years old at the time of filming) and Noriyuki “Pat” Morita, who was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his legendary role as Daniel-san’s mentor Mr. Miyagi.
Daniel (Macchio) moves from New Jersey to Reseda, CA, crushes on Ali (Elisabeth Shue) and is bullied, harassed and beaten up by Johnny (William Zabka) and the thugs at Cobra Kai. Mr. Miyagi negotiates with the Cobra Kai sensei (Martin Kove) to have his boys back off long enough for Daniel to train properly and compete in the All-Valley Karate Tournament. Once again, we have a likable Everyman hero who gains the self-esteem he needs to accomplish his goals (even if his obstacles during the tournament are as physical as mental), but The Karate Kid is shot through with affecting tragedy, such as how Miyagi lost his wife and daughter while they were at an American internment camp while he was fighting (for the U.S.) in World War II.
As Flashdance proved, the underdog story can work within the trappings of a romantic drama, with 1987’s Dirty Dancing driving that point home. The movie launched the late Patrick Swayze into the realm of romantic lead stardom a few years after Red Dawn presented him as a potential tough-guy action hero. Still, the real hero of Dirty Dancing is Frances “Baby” Houseman (Jennifer Grey), and no one puts her in a corner.
As a shy teenager vacationing with her parents in the Catskills in 1963, before leaving for college and eventually going into the Peace Corps, Baby is quite a bit removed from a working class fighter from Philly. As she falls for Swayze’s bad boy dance instructor, Baby gradually comes out of her shell. The movie’s famous final scene sees Baby overcoming her self-consciousness and defying her overbearing father, her sexy virtuoso dance with Swayze taking over the uptight resort’s talent show with a very Rocky-like gusto.
The “true story” of how Daniel “Rudy” Ruettiger (Sean Astin) overcame a dizzying array of obstacles to achieve his dream of finally playing football for Notre Dame, 1993’s Rudy is one of the more straightforward, earnest and non-cynical underdog stories ever filmed. Written and directed by the same creative team behind the similarly-themed Hoosiers, Rudy is an unabashedly sentimental, overcoming-all-odds story.
The movie plays a little fast and loose with the facts of the real Rudy Ruettiger’s story, but the basic facts of the story read like a Midwestern version of Rocky. Rudy dreams of playing for the Fighting Irish, but lacks the money, grades, size and essential talent for the game. The movie piles on the obstacles: he discovers he has dyslexia; he loses a fiancée to one of his brothers; he is continually mocked for pursuing his dream. Through persistence and courage, Rudy ends up on the field against Georgia Tech, and while the famous “Rudy! Rudy!” chant of the crowd never happened in real life, Rudy’s underdog story remains one of the most effective ever made.
Good Will Hunting
Director Gus Van Sant (Drugstore Cowboy, My Own Private Idaho) was not known for uplifting, triumph-over-adversity movies before taking on 1997’s Good Will Hunting, written by stars Matt Damon and Ben Affleck. The childhood friends shared a Best Original Screenplay Oscar for their story of troubled Will Hunting (Damon), a math genius who is discovered working as a janitor for M.I.T. and mentored by Professor Lambeau (Stellan Skarsgård). Lambeau recognizes will’s gift for mathematics is undercut by emotional distress, and recruits his old friend/rival Sean Maguire (the late, great Robin Williams in an Oscar-winning role) to counsel him.
Good Will Hunting‘s stakes are more emotional and less tangible than many other entries on this list, but the Rocky formula is still in evidence, deftly and subtly applied. Rather than having a clear dream, Will is aimless. He’s a tough Boston street kid, but doesn’t have the courage to forge his own path. It is Sean Maguire who helps him find the strength to face his pain and traumatic past to live his own life and open up to letting new love Skylar (Minnie Driver) into his life.
It sounded like a bloated vanity project and crass cash-grab on the page: rapper Eminem (also known as Marshall Mathers III) would star as a wannabe-rapper named Jimmy “B-Rabbit” Smith, Jr. in a movie loosely based on his own experiences. However, 8 Mile benefited from solid, sharp direction by Curtis Hanson (L.A. Confidential, Wonder Boys) and a script that wisely – and proudly – hits all the Rocky cues.
B-Rabbit’s dream of winning the local rap battle is stalled in the opening scene when he chokes onstage before uttering a word. The movie is the story of how he regains his confidence despite everything working against him. He is ridiculed for being a white man chasing a hip-hop dream in a majority black city, he hails from the wrong side of Detroit’s 8 Mile Road, the dividing line between the classes, and he and his friends are harassed by the reigning hip-hop crew the Leaders of the Free World. He rebuilds his self-esteem after meeting Alex (Brittany Murphy) and faces the Leaders one by one in the film’s final sequence, a rap battle filmed and performed with so much energy it might as well have taken place inside a boxing ring.
School of Rock
While the original Rocky had its funny moments, it is definitely a drama. Director Richard Linklater’s 2003 School of Rock trades existential crises for a musical comedy take on the Rocky underdog formula, providing a showcase for Jack Black and the life-affirming power of rock & roll. After he’s kicked out of the rock band he founded and under pressure to pay his rent, Black’s Dewey Finn poses as his substitute teacher roommate Ned Schneebly (the film’s screenwriter, Mike White) to work at a snooty prep school.
Dewey discovers his class is a talented bunch of pre-teen musicians and he trains them in the history and ways of rock to play one big show for an upcoming battle of the bands. While Black’s antics and the gifted youngsters take the spotlight, this is still a tale of how Dewey goes from calling himself a “fat, washed-up loser…” to learning how to work with the kids as a team, and even let them take the lead. While the underdogs technically lose the showdown at the end, they win over the crowd – including a horde of irate parents – and emerge as a real band.
Based another true underdog story, 2004’s Miracle chronicles the heavily outmatched 1980 United States men’s hockey team who, led by coach Herb Brooks (Kurt Russell) beat the odds to beat the Soviet Union and went on to win the gold medal in the Winter Olympics. While sports movies are well suited to the Rocky formula on the surface, the increasingly-bad sequels challenged that assumption. The inspiring real-life story of the famous “Miracle on Ice,” on the other hand, seemed tailor made for a film treatment in the Rocky mold.
Coach Brooks forges a team out of a group of undisciplined college students, who face an almost military-precise and well-trained Soviet team – who had won the gold in the previous four Olympic matches and were heavy favorites. Here, the underdogs have to move past their confidence issues and win an important symbolic victory against the Soviet Union during the height of the Cold War (shades of Rocky IV), helped along by their fiery coach (shades of Rocky’s mentor, Burgess Meredith’s Mickey).
A musical comedy like School of Rock fits the Rocky mold in an entertaining way, but a dramatic music biopic has a bit of a tougher time. Director Taylor Hackford’s Ray covers 30 years in the life of the legendary Ray Charles (Oscar winner Jamie Foxx) – hitting some narrative bumps along the way – but focuses the character’s main arc on the man’s lifelong struggle with addiction and substance abuse.
Blind since age seven, the mercurial and fiercely independent Charles nonetheless used his prodigious musical gifts and achieved great success, but as depicted in Ray, the real struggle was within himself. Raised by his fierce mother Aretha (Sharon Warren) and blinded shortly after witnessing his brother drown, Charles gained fame and success but his heroin addiction nearly derailed it all. When his mother appears in a drug-induced hallucination to berate him for letting addiction make him a “cripple,” Ray finally fights his addictive streak. An underdog from the beginning, the twin narratives of Ray Charles’ fight to make it to the top and fight to break his dependence on drugs exemplify rise-above-it themes of Rocky.
The Pursuit of Happyness
Will Smith played a legendary boxer in Ali, but it is 2006’s The Pursuit of Happyness which successfully applies the Rocky template to another true-life story. As failed salesman Chris Gardner, Smith is a working class underdog in San Francisco who loses his wife and home, and is forced to struggle to raise his son Christopher (Smith’s real-life son Jaden) while essentially homeless.
The Pursuit of Happyness is in its own way as earnest and sentimental as Rudy, but with a much harder edge (if based on a similarly streamlined “true” story), as Gardner sometimes fails to even scrape by as an intern stockbroker caring for his young son with no place to go, his bank account garnished by the IRS, with twenty-two dollars to his name. Through it all, Gardner never loses his sense of optimism or purpose, and in the film’s penultimate scene – his fight scene, really – Gardner scores a full-time job after walking into the interview straight from spending a night in jail.
In the end, Chris – like Rocky Balboa, like Rudy, like B-Rabbit, like Alex Owens – must find his inner strength to overcome the ridiculous odds life has stacked against him. Creed updates this formula and gives it a bracingly relevant modern edge, but the overall outline applies to many different types of stories, and we’re bound to have many more to come.
These are ten films that best embody the against-all-odds spirit of Rocky. Did we miss any of your favorites? Sound off in the comments!
Creed is currently in theaters.
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