‘Rocky’-Inspired Films: 10 Underdog Stories From Outside the Ring
When the first Rocky movie appeared in theaters on November 21, 1976 it was a revelation. Written by then-struggling actor Sylvester Stallone, and only produced on condition that he be allowed to play the lead, it earned $225 million on a budget of $1 million, and became an overnight pop culture sensation.
But it was also something of a cultural anomaly. Jaws had been released the previous year, heralding the era of the summer blockbuster, and Star Wars would be released the following spring, but the grim pessimism of the '70s decade was still running strong. Dour meditations on the national situation like Apocalypse Now and The Deer Hunter and wrenching family dramas like Kramer vs. Kramer and Ordinary People dominated the awards shows, while snarky comedies like Animal House and Cheech and Chong's Up In Smoke helped set the cultural tone.
It wasn't until the Reagan era that the full influence of Rocky's legacy began to be felt. As the gloom of the 1970s receded, Americans found themselves suddenly desperate for inspirational, feel-good stories. The idea that the underdog could rise up and fight his or her way to victory not only appealed to the public, it became almost the rallying cry of a decade. Audiences had an insatiable hunger for those kinds of inspirational tales, and with the template of Rocky, Hollywood found a way to crank them out, one after another.
So with that in mind, Ultimate Classic Rock presents a collection of ten films to help us remember the decade of filmic optimism that Rocky helped inspire.
'Flashdance' (1983): 'Rocky' on the Dance Floor
Perhaps the most direct re-working of the Rocky tale occurred in 1983 with Flashdance. A surprise smash hit, it launched the famed producing collaboration of Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer, earned over $200 million at the box office, signaled the start of the career of director Adrian Lyne (who would go on to direct things like 9 ½ Weeks, Fatal Attraction, Jacob's Ladder, and Indecent Proposal) and helped create a definitive '80s fashion moment.
The screenplay, by Tom Hedley and schlock-master Joe Eszterhas, also paid homage to Rocky by following it almost beat for beat. Instead of a blue-collar boxer in Philadelphia, the film features a blue-collar dancer named Alexandra "Alex" Owens (Jennifer Beals) in Pittsburgh, and instead of a big fight at the end, it features a big dance audition. But just like Rocky, Alex is stuck in a hardscrabble existence at the opening of the film – working in a steel mill – which she escapes by chasing a dream and finding love. The dream is to be accepted into the Pittsburgh Conservatory of Dance and Repertory; the love is with Nick Hurley (Michael Nouri), the owner of the steel mill. There are ups and downs in their relationship, there's a training montage, there's an inspirational song, and in the end Alex triumphs over adversity and gets the guy. It's the perfect Rocky knock-off for the '80s.
'Footloose' (1984): 'Rocky' Goes to High School
The sensational success of Flashdance was still in the air when another, similarly-themed Rocky homage appeared in theaters in the spring of 1984: the Kevin Bacon vehicle Footloose. Bacon's star had been on the rise since his supporting role appearances in things like Animal House and Friday the 13th, but Footloose represented his first major breakout role. And what better way to do that than a story about an underdog inspiring others by his refusal to even admit the possibility of defeat?
The movie tells the story of Ren McCormack (Bacon) a city kid who moves to a small town that has banned dancing and rock and roll because of the influence of the local reverend named Shaw Moore (John Lithgow). Ren falls in love with Moore's daughter Ariel (Lori Singer) and decides that he's not only going to win her hand, but going to overthrow the town's ban on dancing. There's a sports montage (Ren is a gymnast), a training montage in which Ren teaches his friend Willard (Chris Penn) to dance, not one but two inspirational songs, and a triumphant ending which sent audiences out of the theater feeling energized about life.
'The Natural' (1984): 'Rocky' Hits a Home Run
The opening of the summer movie season of 1984 continued the barrage of uplifting struggle-to-success stories with The Natural. This one pushed the template overtly in the direction of epic Americana, casting screen legend Robert Redford in the main role and winning nominations for four Academy Awards: Actress in a Supporting Role (for Glenn Close as love interest Iris Gaines), Cinematography, Art Direction, and Music (for the score by Randy Newman).
Redford plays Roy Hobbs, a young baseball pitching sensation who learns the game from his dad and carves his own baseball bat out of a lightning-struck tree. But when he's shot in the stomach by a deranged fan before his tryout for the Chicago Cubs, Hobbs' career is nearly ended. Sixteen years later, he's very much a Rocky-like figure: aging, lovelorn and struggling to find one more chance in the game he loves. He gets a shot with a last-place team, and his underdog story becomes theirs as well. He leads the team to a one-game playoff, refuses to give in to his old stomach injury, and falls in love again with the girl he left behind all those years ago when he went for the Cubs tryout. The film ends with Roy hitting a home-run ball into the stadium lights to send his team to the world series, and the inspirational vibes are immaculate.
'The Karate Kid' (1984): 'Rocky' Meets Karate
The final Rocky-inspired film of 1984 came from the same man who directed the original Stallone film, John G. Avildsen. The Karate Kid has since gone on to inspire numerous sequels and a successful Netflix show, but the original represented an almost desperate attempt by Avildsen to recapture the magic of his first great success. After Rocky, he had tried his hand at romantic melodramas (Slow Dancing in the Big City), mysteries (The Formula), and comedies (Neighbors) but nothing seemed to stick, so he returned to the source.
Ralph Macchio, in his breakout role, stars as Daniel LaRusso, a poor kid from New Jersey who moves to the suburbs of Los Angeles. Like Rocky Balboa, he finds as a mentor an aging taskmaster who teaches him how to fight; here that role is filled by Pat Morita, playing the famed Mr. Miyagi, a Japanese immigrant and master at karate. This training allows Daniel to stand up to a gang of local bullies who are a part of a rival karate dojo, and to find love with his high school flame Ali Mills (Elisabeth Shue). It also leads to a culminating fight at the All-Valley Karate Championship against the best fighter from the gang of bullies, Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka), which is structured much like the final fight from Rocky: a battle that the hero wins by using his training and willpower to overcome any weakness that his own body might want to succumb to. Jam-packed with memorable scenes and filled with the kind of training montages that the 1976 film made famous, The Karate Kid pulled the legacy of Rocky into the heart of the 1980s.
'Rocky IV' (1985): 'Rocky' on Steroids
In 1985, not to be outdone by its own imitators, the Rocky franchise came roaring back with a film that reapplied its own formula to the Reagan decade. Following the success of the original film, Rocky II (1979) and Rocky III (1982) had done well, but many reviewers felt the franchise was becoming repetitive and on the brink of jumping the shark. Stallone – now both writing and directing, in addition to starring – responded by going big and doubling down on imitating his own initial film in Rocky IV.
Rocky can no longer be a financial underdog, because he is a wealthy and famous sports star, so Stallone turns him into a spiritual underdog: made soft by his coddled new lifestyle, he is forced to take on a Soviet boxer named Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren) who has monumental powers. Drago kills Rocky's friend Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) in the ring and shows no contrition, his training regimen is hyper-modern and based on steroid use, and he's the embodiment of the menace of the U.S.S.R., at the time the greatest threat to America in the world. To take him on, Rocky returns to his spiritual roots. He journeys to the Soviet Union before the fight and lives in rugged isolation, training in harsh winter conditions before taking on Drago in a fight that symbolizes the Cold War clash between the two nations. Between the fights and the training, over 30% of Rocky IV consists of montage sequences, and when Rocky wins in the end, he delivers a message intended to bring peace to the entire world. It's all a replay of the first movie, but way, way bigger.
'Top Gun' (1986): 'Rocky' Feels the Need for Speed
The idea of taking the Rocky storyline and applying it to international affairs was a seductive one, and no film did this with more glorious bombast than Top Gun in 1986. Where Rocky IV turned boxers into avatars of global conflict, Top Gun stuck its heroes into fighter planes and added a glossy layer of pre-Michael Bay filmmaking extravagance.
Directed by Tony Scott, and produced by Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer, the film stars Tom Cruise in his first big action role. He plays navy pilot Pete Mitchell, code-named "Maverick," who gets a chance to train at an elite school for pilots. He's an underdog because his father, also a pilot, had a stained reputation resulting from a misunderstood air battle in which he was killed; there's a gorgeous lady he wants to win (Kelly McGillis); there's some training montages and also a sports montage featuring oiled-up bodies on a beach volleyball court; and it all leads to a climactic battle in which Maverick gets the chance to slay his inner demons while defeating his external foe. Top Gun became the 8th highest grossing movie of the 1980s and proof of concept that the template dreamed up by Sylvester Stallone nearly a decade before still had some juice.
'Hoosiers' (1986): 'Rocky' Drives to the Basket
A second 1986 movie would be added to the Rocky-influenced cannon with Hoosiers, a film that would use Rocky's inspirational-based gravitas to revise the more offbeat sensibility of earlier team-sports films like The Bad News Bears, Slapshot, and Breaking Away. In the process, it would inspire its own legion of imitators, from Rudy to Remember the Titans to Miracle, all of them residing comfortably in the Rocky family tree.
Hoosiers tells the story of Norman Dale (Gene Hackman), a basketball coach who is no longer allowed to work at the college level because he punched one of his own players. Down and out, Dale agrees to become the coach (as well as the history teacher) at a tiny rural school in Indiana. Obstacles abound. There are only seven players on the team, and the best one of them doesn't want to play. The school is dwarfed by its larger rivals, and Dale's assistant coach (Dennis Hopper) is an alcoholic. But through his own hard-won sports wisdom and an intense training regimen, Dale takes the team to an epic final game for the Indiana state championship. They win, the coach gets the woman he's been courting (Barbara Hershey), and the audience walks out of the theater feeling great.
'Dirty Dancing' (1987): Nobody Puts 'Rocky' in the Corner
By 1987, things were starting to come full circle but also starting to change. Dirty Dancing returned to some of the same material covered in Flashdance, but at the same time it introduced to the story of an underdog-making-good a new kind of poetic romantic sensibility that would gain prominence in the 1990s with movies like Ghost and Sleepless in Seattle.
Frances "Baby" Houseman (Jennifer Grey) is on vacation with her parents at a resort in the Catskills when she falls in love with Johnny Castle (Patrick Swayze), a blue-collar dance instructor at the resort. They're both looked down on by the cool set, Baby because of her insecurities, and Johnny because of his class. The social politics of the resort puts pressure on both of their dreams of success, and like Rocky Balboa to get what they want – a future with each other – the pair has to convince the world, and themselves, that they're winners. There's a big talent show at the end, and like some many of the films in the Rocky lineage, the film fuses a big song with a dramatic final sequence to create a memorable moment of victory.
'Over the Top' (1987): 'Rocky' Goes Arm-Wrestling
When things change in Hollywood, they tend to change fast. After appearing in two big-budget 1985 sequels to his own films -- Rocky IV and Rambo: First Blood Part II -- Sylvester Stallone's career took a sudden downturn, and he couldn't seem to make a hit.
This is nowhere more apparent than in 1987's Over the Top, maybe the saddest of the Rocky knock-offs on this list. Co-written by Stallone, the movie tells the story of Lincoln Hawk (Stallone), a truck driver who also competes in arm-wrestling contests. Following the tried and true formula, Hawk is separated from his wife and on the outs with his son Michael (David Mendenhall). The only way to get his life back on track is for Hawk to win the World Arm Wrestling Championship in Las Vegas. All of the familiar tropes are there – Hawk's training montage involves a pulley system he builds in the cab of his truck, and there's a big match at the end that he wins triumphantly after overcoming all the odds – but the film is cliched to the point of being silly and was a box-office bomb, earning just $16 million against an estimated budget of $25 million. Overall, it feels like something of an early death knell for the exuberance of the '80s: the Reagan days were fading fast, and self-aware Gen-X cynicism – in the form of indie films, grunge music, and disillusioned politics – was on the horizon.
'Bloodsport' (1988) and 'Kickboxer'(1989): 'Rocky' Goes to Hong Kong
This two-for-one combo featuring Jean-Claude Van Damme showed the way forward for the purest form of the Rocky storytelling approach. By combining an American cinema sense of narrative with a Hong Kong cinema sense of theatrics, these films helped revitalize both lower-budget martial arts stories and the underdog narrative, sending them forward into the '90s and beyond.
Both films were financial successes, particularly abroad. Released in 1988, Bloodsport, Van Damme's first starring role, tells the story of Frank Dux, a U.S. Army Captain and martial artist who gets invited to compete in an illegal martial arts tournament in Hong Kong. To win the tournament and avenge a fallen comrade, he has to engage in a famous training montage and then defeat the notorious Chong Li (the legendary Bolo Yeung).
Kickboxer, made the following year, features Van Damme as Kurt Sloane, the younger brother of a kickboxer who is paralyzed from the waist down in a fight with Thai champion Tong 'The Tiger' Po (Michel Qissi). To avenge his brother, Sloane has to engage in an even more gonzo training montage before competing in the final fight with Tong Po.
Both films follow the tracks laid down by Rocky in which an underdog wills himself to victory after overcoming long odds and honing his body to the ultimate edge, and both show that even before its resurrection with the new Creed films, the famous Stallone formula could never truly be knocked out for good.