Creed (2015)

2018 #242
Ryan Coogler | 133 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Creed

Somehow, it took me a while to realise Creed was a Rocky movie. I remember hearing about the film; hearing its story of an underdog boxer taking on the world champion being compared positively to Rocky; and then beginning to hear kind-of-like-rumours that maybe, in fact, it actually featured the character of Rocky, and was, therefore, technically, a Rocky movie. Goodness knows what gave me that impression, because not only is Creed a Rocky movie through and through, with a major role for Sylvester Stallone’s character, but he’s on the bloody poster — and, in international markets, there’s a bloody big tagline emphasising how it’s a Rocky movie. Eesh. And all of that matters because, while there are a lot of things to like about Creed, I think my favourite was that it’s a proper Rocky movie.

The film introduces us to Adonis Johnson (Michael B. Jordan), the illegitimate son of Apollo Creed, born after Creed was killed in the ring (see Rocky IV for more on that). Adonis grew up in juvie, getting into fights, until Creed’s wife (Phylicia Rashad) adopted him and raised him as her own. So Adonis was raised in the luxury life Creed’s legacy left them, and is now successful in a cushty office job, but inside burns the fire of a fighter. Quitting his job to make a proper go of it, no one in LA will train him, thinking he’s a rich kid just wanting to trade on his daddy’s legacy. Determined to make a name for himself, Adonis heads to Philadelphia with the intention of being trained by his father’s best friend, legendary boxer Rocky Balboa (Stallone).

Creed and Balboa

Creed partly sets out to be its own thing, focusing on Adonis rather than Rocky (when you boil it down, the film actually has a similar plot to the much-despised Rocky V), but it doesn’t forget to be a proper instalment in the Rocky saga too, picking up on things from previous films (the restaurant; Rocky visiting Adrian’s grave) and moving them forward (where Paulie is; where Rocky’s son is). It’s unobtrusive for newcomers (it plays as character beats rather than overt references), but it’s satisfying for fans to feel that connection, that respect for the material. Creed sets out to tell a grounded and somewhat gritty story, like the original Rocky, but, as Matt Zoller Seitz put it on Twitter, the film pulls its “existence from what’s probably the dumbest and most cartoony of the Rocky movies. There are overt references to all 6 Rockys in the first Creed. No cherry picking. It’s all canon.”

That influence extends to the whole shape of the film, which follows the Rocky formula: the underdog getting a shot at the big league; a hero who’s fighting to prove himself more than to win; the training montages; the simultaneous love life and/or personal storylines… It’s clearly a new story about a new generation, emphasised by the details of how co-writer/director Ryan Coogler constructs and crafts the film, but it also sits very comfortably as the seventh Rocky movie.

As with any film that fits a genre template, it’s in the nuances that we find differences. For starters, Adonis’ route to the ring is a bit different to the norm. “Rags to riches” is a storyline we’ve seen a hundred times, but here’s a guy who has a lavish lifestyle, who could just trade off his father’s name if he wanted, but who has to find a way to prove himself in spite of that. It’s not just a personal demon: we’re shown that this is a world where only that “rags to riches” path is seen as authentic. It comes up several times throughout the film, but not least before the final fight, when Creed’s opponent taunts him with the fact he comes from such a background, that he’s more like Rocky than Adonis is. Of course, the net result to storytelling is the same: Adonis has to prove his worth to his doubters, and to himself.

Adonis and Bianca

In a featurette on the Blu-ray, Coogler says that “at the core of these movies, they’re really relationship dramas with an action sequence at the end.” I couldn’t’ve put it better myself, and Creed continues that tradition by seeing Adonis hook up with Bianca (Tessa Thompson), a musician with problems of her own. According to Thompson, “Ryan really wanted to show a girlfriend character in the context of a sports movie that was complicated, that had her own life and own dreams.” I think that’s noticeably the case: her role in the film is obviously primarily defined in relation to Adonis, because this is his story, but she’s a rounded character with more agency than just “the love interest”. Depending how you view things, I think there’s an argument to be made that the Rocky films have often tried to give this depth to “the love interest”, i.e. Adrian. When we first meet her in Rocky she’s shy and quiet, which can come across as ‘secondary’, lacking depth or independence, but really it’s just a personality type. Adrian certainly changes and grows as the films go on, becoming more confident and forthright. Even compared to that, Bianca is more independent, more ‘modern woman’, driving the back-and-forth of the relationship as much as Adonis.

Rocky himself also gets a significant personal subplot, which allows Stallone to give a powerful performance — and, as it turned out, an award-winning one, which is impressive (and probably unprecedented) for the seventh outing of a character. The film draws on Rocky’s past to show us a guy who’s kind of content with letting life go — the love of his life is dead, his best friend is dead, his son has moved away, so why keep going? — but is given reason to fight again by a new family. I did think it was lacking a bit of Rocky’s charming naïveté, the occasional misspeaks or what have you (except for one bit about ‘the cloud’), but it’s been replaced with a genuine lived wisdom that does still feel like Rocky.

Training hard

Coogler, in just his second feature, demonstrated he really knows what he’s doing. Perhaps the most striking part of the direction is that he chooses to use a lot of oners, with none more effective than covering the entirety of Adonis’ first pro fight in a single take. We stay in the ring with the boxers throughout, up close alongside them, following the fight almost from their perspective, with the noise of the crowd and the shouts of the trainers moving around the room if you’re watching with surround sound. It depicts an entire two-round match this way, and it’s a genuine single take (they shot it 13 times, with the 11th being the one used). It’s a very different and effective way of presenting a fight, but it’s more than just cinematic theatrics: to quote Scott Collette from Twitter, it’s “one of the smartest sequences in modern filmmaking. Coogler puts us into the ring and, in withholding an edit, he conditions us to trust in and rely entirely upon Creed’s skills and training to get us out, and he rewards that trust. In doing so, Coogler buys himself the freedom to edit the shit out of the final match. No matter where he cuts […] we never leave the ring. We’re always with Adonis because he’s the only one who’s shown us that he can get us through it.” That’s bolstered by another oner just before the climactic bout, in which Coogler makes us a member of Adonis’ squad: it begins in the quiet locker room, with Rocky’s prematch pep talk and a little warm-up, before the camera follows along as they walk down the tunnel, putting us in the middle of the team, all the way into the arena, the sound of thumping music and a baying crowd gradually growing, and it doesn’t end until Adonis is actually in the ring, ready to fight. Again, it’s all about aligning us with Adonis and his crew, emphasising how much we’re connected to him and his fate.

The way Coogler and composer Ludwig Göransson use the famous Rocky theme is neat too: they hold it back, hold it back, hold it back, so that when it finally hits, just that burst of score makes for a triumphant moment. But then it’s not allowed to take over: Adonis may have been helped by the Rocky legacy, but this is his story now. Neither Adonis the fighter nor Creed the film exist purely by leeching off nostalgia.

Gonna fly now

And yet, as I said at the start, my favourite thing about the film is that it is a Rocky movie. But, importantly, it’s the way it doesn’t just indulge in references, but actually seeks to develop on the Rocky story — on everything that went on in the previous films — that makes Creed one of the very best in the series. To quote Matt Zoller Seitz again, “Creed is the ultimate Rocky movie, because all the other Rocky movies are somehow contained within it.” I feel wrong enjoying Creed the most out of the Rocky movies — like I’m just going for the most recent one, as if new = best — but the major reason I loved it so much is the way it has reverence for and builds on the past. As a standalone movie, it’s more-or-less equal to the best of the original Rocky films; but as specifically the seventh film in the Rocky series, it stands atop that 40-year history to add extra weight to everything. By itself, Creed is a very good 4-star movie, but its respect for the legacy tipped me over the top.

5 out of 5

Creed placed 19th on my list of The 26 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2018.

Creed II is in UK cinemas from tomorrow.

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Rocky Balboa (2006)

2018 #217
Sylvester Stallone | 102 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG

Rocky Balboa

Writer-director-star Sylvester Stallone returns to his boxing saga to give it the ending he fluffed 16 years earlier. Even as someone who didn’t dislike Rocky V, I don’t think it’s a great send-off for the character. Stallone felt the same, which is why he conceived this as a proper capstone for the series.

Naturally, time has passed in the world of Rocky (Stallone) too. His beloved wife Adrian has died, and he spends half his time mourning her, to the distaste of his brother-in-law, Paulie (Burt Young). He spends the rest of his days running a little restaurant, regaling customers with tales of former boxing triumphs, and trying to connect with the grown-up son who barely wants to see him (now played by Heroes’ Milo Ventimiglia, because Stallone was worried that if he cast his real son (as he had in Rocky V) viewers would be distracted wondering if their real-life relationship was like that). But when a computer-generated fight between Rocky and current champ Mason ‘The Line’ Dixon (Antonio Tarver) hands the victory to Rocky, he wonders if he might have more fight left in him yet; and Dixon, eager to prove his worth to a press who doubts his ability, agrees to fight the fight for real.

Technically Rocky Balboa is a sports movie — because, y’know, it’s Rocky — but most of it is really a drama, with the sporting side only really coming in the second half. It barely matters that Rocky used to be a sportsman, it’s a portrait of any guy who used to be successful at something and now mopes around missing the good old days. It’s only when there’s a training montage and then then climactic fight that the film really enters the Sport genre. In that respect, it’s really taken Rocky back to its roots, because the same description of its structure and emphasis could be applied to the first and second films. Stallone tried to get there with the fifth, too, but ended up making it a bit melodramatic and clichéd. Here, he’s hit the nail on the head, with a story that packs as much punch outside the ring as inside it.

Not-so-little Marie

One subplot that gets a lot of screen time and works particularly nicely is when Rocky bumps into ‘Little’ Marie, the girl who Rocky walked home and advised against hanging out with boys back in the first movie. Marie was originally to appear in Rocky V, given a miserable storyline as a homeless prostitute, but it got cut. Thank goodness for that — that film’s bleak enough as it is, and it allowed Stallone to do something better with the character here. Now, Marie doesn’t exactly have a super life, but she’s got a house (albeit a crummy one), a job (albeit a crummy one), and a kid (who’s alright). Her appearance could’ve just been ultra-referential fan service — it’s bringing back a tiny character from the first, most popular film, after all — but it actually works really well as a subplot. A lot of that is thanks to Geraldine Hughes’ subtly developed, genuine performance. Her and Rocky have an interesting relationship: kind of fatherly, kind of romantic, but also explicitly not that. Rocky has always looked to help the “damsel in distress”, and he’s at it again — it’s his chivalrous nature. It’s also tied to him floundering around post-Adrian, looking for some kind of meaning to life, stuck in his grief — which is also what really leads to his return to the ring, thereby making the film thematically of a piece.

The absence of Adrian is a major factor in the film, and deciding to ‘kill her off’ seems to have been the key to unlocking the screenplay for Stallone: she was alive in the first few drafts, but they lacked emotional impact. Stallone and actress Talia Shire mutually agreed Adrian should be left out, giving Rocky an “emotional chasm” to overcome. It was a smart move, I think. The Rocky/Adrian relationship is so central to the series (his post-fight cry of “Adrian!” in the first film is one of the series’ most iconic moments, even to people who’ve never seen it), and showing the end of that taps into a genuine and tangible sense of grief, both for the characters and the viewers. Indeed, the flashes we see of Adrian and Mickey, Rocky’s beloved coach (also deceased), during the final fight confirm something that’s quite apparent in various other bits of the film: this isn’t just using the Rocky name to do something different and new, like other belated sequels or soft reboots do, but is a true sixth entry in the series. It’s not completely wedded to the continuity of the other movies — you could probably watch this by itself and still get the main points of just about everything — but the full weight and impact of it is felt by being familiar with the entire Rocky saga.

We're gonna need a montage

On the other hand, it’s equally fortunate they didn’t go overboard on the fan service: cameos for Clubber Lang (the opponent in Rocky III) and Ivan Drago (from Rocky IV) were cut at the script stage. They do sound quite fun though, as fan service (you can read about them here), so it’s perhaps a shame they weren’t filmed and included in an extended cut or something. In his audio commentary on the Blu-ray, Stallone does talk about a director’s cut, and little wonder: his first cut ran two-and-a-half hours, but the studio insisted he lop out 45 minutes. It’s strange that the extended version has never materialised: in the commentary Stallone is clearly keen on it, the film was a success, and studios usually love a way to make even more money. I’ve no idea why it never happened.

As for the sports aspect of the film… well, there’s a training montage set to the classic theme that ends with Rocky running up those steps… accompanied by his new pet dog. That’s a 6 out of 5 rating right there from me. But more seriously, Stallone had some interesting ideas about how to handle the climactic fight, and I’m basically going to paraphrase from his commentary a lot now because he’d clearly thought about this a fair bit and his decisions come across on screen. (Which is interesting, actually, because there are some editing decisions earlier on that I’d describe as odd and perhaps even thoughtless, like the way it intercuts Rocky reminiscing about Adrian and meeting Marie with Mason Dixon despairing about his career, to no particular effect.) On the commentary, Stallone talks about how the other Rocky films had cinematically-shot final fights, which made them more fictional, whereas for this film he chose to shoot on hi-def video and cut it together pretty much how HBO do it for real, with on-screen graphics and everything. His intention was to blur the line between reality and a cinematic fight. Well, that’s only ever going to work up to a point (we know it’s a movie, after all), but, as someone who’s never watched a boxing match on HBO (or at all) the veracity of the presentation comes across.

It ain't over 'til it's over

Interestingly, it doesn’t stop there. The fight’s first round is shown entirely in the ring, with no cutaways to other characters, again to evoke real fights; but you can’t do a whole fight that way in a movie (it would get monotonous, Stallone says), so with round two it begins to cut away, “layering in the emotion”. Eventually it becomes a montage, with black & white shots and flashbacks as well as the fight. Here, Stallone’s move completely away from the realism and into depicting Rocky’s subjective experience, as he works out his emotions over Adrian while accomplishing something he never thought he could. So, across the entire fight, the film basically swings from one extreme of objectivity to the other of subjectivity, but executes it seamlessly, making one of the best climaxes of the series.

It’s bolstered further by the plausibility of Rocky’s opponent. He may not be as memorable as Clubber or Drago, but Dixon is more believable as a human being. Or, as Stallone puts it, Clubber and Drago were Villains, while he tried to write Dixon as a character — someone on his own journey, which Rocky comes into. That’s part of why Dixon breaks his hand during the fight: it’s his “trial by fire”, his chance to prove himself after he takes the kind of beating he’s never had before. Of course, it also gives Rocky an in, because the old man never would’ve stood a chance otherwise. How much of a chance does he have? That’d be telling. In fact, they went as far as shooting four different endings, with every possible outcome for the fight, so as not to spoil the ending for the watching crowd. (For some reason, only one of these alternates is included on the DVD and Blu-ray releases.) But really the strict winner of the fight doesn’t matter, which is something Stallone also realised. He originally had Rocky stay in the ring for the final decision, but Stallone realised Rocky doesn’t care about that — by holding his own he’s proved himself to himself, and he’s ready to move on with his family. And, much like in the first movie, the crowd know who the real winner is, whatever the judges say.

There's only one Rocky

Once upon a time the Rocky films were held up as a more-or-less perfect example of the law of diminishing returns for movie sequels. I’m not sure that’s wholly true anyway (I quite enjoyed all of them), but Rocky Balboa certainly bucks any downward trend. With it, Stallone managed to create another crowd-pleaser that doesn’t sell out its roots in the previous films; if anything, it’s enhanced by them, and takes the series back to where it all began in an appropriate manner. As he’d intended, it’s a perfect button on the series. Though, as it turned out, Rocky’s story isn’t quite done yet…

4 out of 5

The latest Rocky movie, Creed II, is out in the US this week and in the UK next Friday.

Rocky V (1990)

2018 #206
John G. Avildsen | 104 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | USA / English | PG / PG-13

Rocky V

With his career apparently on the wane, the promise of a payday tempted writer and star Sylvester Stallone to reignite the Rocky franchise for one final round (as it’s turned out, this was far from the end, but more on that another time). After the cartoonish excess of Rocky IV, Stallone tried to shepherd this film back towards the series’ roots as a gritty drama, going so far as to rehire the Oscar-winning director of the first film, John G. Avildsen. It didn’t work: Rocky V was met with poor reviews and poor box office. Stallone himself has admitted its failure in the decades since: when he was asked to rate each of the Rocky films out of ten, he gave this one zero. In spite of all that, I thought it was… fine.

The plot picks up immediately after the end of Rocky IV, with the eponymous pugilist learning that the beating he took from Drago has left him with serious brain damage — one more fight could kill him. At the same time, a bad financial decision by Rocky’s brother-in-law Paulie (Burt Young) leaves the Balboa family in ruins, forced to move back to their old neighbourhood. Despite lucrative fight offers, Adrian (Talia Shire) insists Rocky remained retired, which leads to him encountering Tommy Gunn (Tommy Morrison), a wannabe boxer keen to be trained by the great Rocky. As Rocky begins to live vicariously through the increasingly successful Tommy, his son, Rocky Jr (played by Stallone’s own kid, Sage Stallone) is feeling neglected, especially as he’s struggling with bullies at his rough new school.

Rocky Jr

So, you can see how the film is trying to be more grounded — gone are the flag-waving ultra-patriotic theatrics of the last film, replaced with a grim story of financial ruin, inner city hardship, and what life is like after your dreams are over. It’s all a bit much. Indeed, it’s probably too much, because Stallone’s attempt to course-correct the franchise overshoots, sailing past gritty realism and into melodrama territory. There’s a lot of shouting and emotional theatrics, and the subplots are all a bit pat. I mean, Rocky neglecting his son because he’s training a fighter who he treats like a son is a solid enough plot, but it’s kinda obvious and we’ve seen its ilk before, and the way it plays doesn’t offer an original perspective on the material. So while it does work as a story, it’s part of what I mean about it being a melodrama — it’s not realism, it’s a heightened Movie story.

The rest of the film is similarly afflicted — there are plenty of cheesy parts, but it wouldn’t be a Rocky movie if there weren’t — though some behind-the-scenes choices don’t help. For example, Tommy Morrison was a real-life boxer, which probably seemed like a clever casting decision, but, given his limited acting ability, was possibly a mistake. That said, while he’s hardly a spectacular actor, I didn’t think he’s as bad as some people say. One thing that definitely doesn’t work is the soundtrack. The film is often scored with rap songs, which don’t fit the character at all. I don’t know whose decision it was, but presumably not Avildsen’s: in 2002 he snuck a workprint version of the film out online, dubbing it the “director’s cut”, and apparently it includes a lot more of Bill Conti’s original score. There were various other changes as well (you can read a review here). I don’t know how easy that version is to find nowadays, or what kind of quality it’s available in — in the 16 years since, it’s not been granted an official release.

Balboa family values

The originally planned ending for the film had Rocky dying after the final fight, but Stallone and/or the studio thought that didn’t really fit the tone and themes of the series. Quite right, too. It also left the door open for the series to eventually continue and redeem itself: there’s the revival movie, Rocky Balboa; the spin-off with Rocky as a trainer, Creed; and the spin-off where Rocky got turned into a squirrel or a moose or something, The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle. I can’t wait to see how that came about. (I jest — I know he’s the squirrel.*)

Altogether, I don’t quite see why Rocky V gets so reviled. It’s certainly not the best movie in the series — indeed, it’s probably the lowest point, lacking the realism of the early films, the entertaining ridiculousness of its immediate predecessors, and the feel-good zero-to-hero arc seen in all of those — but it’s a passable-enough drama in its own right.

3 out of 5

* I did not know this — I had to Google it. Never let it be said I don’t commit to a joke. ^

Rocky III (1982)

2018 #138
Sylvester Stallone | 100 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

Rocky III

It’s the
eye of the tiger, it’s the thrill of the fight
Risin’ up to the challenge of our rival
And the last known survivor stalks his prey in the night
And he’s watchin’ us all with the eeeeyyyyeeee…

of the tiger.

Sorry, got swept up in the moment there!

Yes, this is the Rocky movie where that song, so associated with the franchise, finally makes its appearance. It’s also where the sequels are believed to start going down hill (assuming you rate Rocky II, anyway), though Stallone himself was once asked to score the films and gave this 9 out of 10. I don’t know if I’d go that far, but I liked it.

Picking up on Rocky II’s cue, this film also begins where the last one left off — in this case, that’s with Rocky just about beating Apollo Creed in their rematch. We’re then led through the next few years of Rocky’s life via an excellent five-minute montage, which shows his continued success and massive fame, and, simultaneously, the rise of Clubber Lang (played by Mr. T) through the boxing ranks, with one goal: beating Balboa. All of that’s conveyed with just images soundtracked to Eye of the Tiger. It’s a great bit of filmmaking — conveying story economically and clearly through pure imagery — a level of artistry and accomplishment you don’t expect to encounter in the third movie in a boxing franchise.

Rocky and Apollo training

So, after all that success, Rocky is set to retire, until Lang goads him into one more bout. What Rocky doesn’t know is that his trainer, Mickey (Burgess Meredith), has been protecting him, only arranging soft fights he thinks Rocky can win; but Lang is a real force, one Mickey doesn’t think Rocky is up to fighting. Determined to prove his worth in the ring, Rocky goes ahead anyway, but, with distractions from his personal life weighing down, he loses badly. A rematch seems off the cards, until an offer of help comes from an unlikely source: Rocky’s erstwhile nemesis, Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers).

Rocky III is much more action orientated than the first two films. Those were almost social dramas that happen to be about someone who boxes, while this is a sports movie through and through. Stallone once confessed he’d run out of ideas after the first two films, which is why this and Rocky IV focus so much on the fights and training. It’s odd he should say that, because there’s definitely something here about how fame has changed Rocky’s life. It’s more something that’s alluded to rather than being examined by the story — used as background and ‘dressing’ rather than being central to the narrative — but it suggests that, if Stallone had really wanted to add a different dimension to the film, there was a storyline staring him in the face.

It feels appropriate that this was the first Rocky released in the ’80s: our down-and-out coulda-been-a-contender hero is now rich, dressing smart, living in a big house with a nice lifestyle. The whole thing feels like it’s left behind gritty realism for slick aspirational success. But it’s not a completely empty experience, generating emotional attachment from Rocky’s relationships — not only with his wife and young son, but also Mickey and, to a somewhat lesser extent, Apollo Creed. Plus the action and montages are slick and exciting, making this perhaps the most adrenally satisfying of the series to date.

Taking a Clubbering

It’s also quite smart to reposition Rocky as an underdog, make him need his hunger again — there’s not much satisfaction in watching the story of how the best in the world beats someone who isn’t the best! Our hero needs to be challenged, and the film definitely gives him that. That’s the same as the preceding movies, but what’s different here is that it’s a purely sporting challenge, rather than a life one. There are developments in Rocky’s personal life that have a big effect on him, sure, but they’re intrinsically tied to the sporting aspect.

If the first two films are a mirror image of each other, this is something different. It lacks the grit or depth of those two, but still entertains, albeit in a somewhat more superficial way. Giving it a title-mirroring three stars feels a bit harsh, because I did rather enjoy it, but its straightforward focus on the action in the ring means it’s not on the same level as the first two. That said, I’d wager it’s the most effortlessly rewatchable Rocky so far.

3 out of 5

Rocky II (1979)

2018 #131
Sylvester Stallone | 119 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

Rocky II

This first sequel could fairly have been titled Rocky Part II: picking up where the first film left off (literally — the first six minutes are just a replay of Rocky’s final fight), it goes on to detail what happens next for both Rocky (Sylvester Stallone) and his world-champion opponent, Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers). For the former, his childlike naïveté and heart of gold sees him carelessly burn through his newfound wealth as he tries to give the love of his life (Talia Shire) everything he thinks she wants. For the latter, it means an ongoing niggle that he didn’t really win the fight, so he tries to goad Rocky into a rematch.

Like the first movie, a lot of Rocky II is more of a character-based drama than a sport-driven movie, this time about someone who had a taste of the big time struggling to re-adapt to normal life. It’s not that Rocky’s ego has outgrown his means — he doesn’t seem to mind going back to working menial jobs when the money runs out — but his overestimation of his success means that he does indeed find himself in that position. It’s not bad as a dramatic work — it’s got the same writer as the first movie, after all, here also stepping up to direct (and did you know he wrote a novelisation too?) — but we know where it’s all headed, and so the second half is better than the first.

Run, Rocky, run!

Again, Stallone doesn’t lose sight of keeping events moderately grounded: Rocky struggles to focus on his training regime, and it begins to look like Creed may be right that his success in their first bout was all fluke. Of course, this is as much an underdog fairytale as the first movie was, and so events transpire to finally give Rocky his motivation, culminating in a triumphant revisit to the first film’s famous running-up-the-steps bit. The finale is, naturally, the big boxing rematch, where Stallone really shows off his directing chops: it’s a tense, drag-out duel that easily exceeds the first film’s for visceral impact.

On the whole, I wouldn’t say Rocky II is better than its predecessor — indeed, maybe it’s not quite as good — but I enjoyed it about the same; maybe even slightly more by the end. The Rocky sequels have a collectively poor rep, but I think this is a worthy follow-up.

4 out of 5

The UK network TV premiere of the latest Rocky sequel, Creed, is on ITV tonight at 9:30pm.

Rocky (1976)

2018 #57
John G. Avildsen | 120 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

Rocky

His name is Sylvester Stallone. He’s the star of a new film called Rocky. He has been described as handsome, tough, talented, sexy, sensitive, dynamic, and brilliant. He’s been compared to Brando, Newman, Pacino, and De Niro. He’s been called “a top contender for an Academy Award”.

His name is Sylvester Stallone, but you will always remember him as… Rocky.

So goes the narration to Rocky’s original trailers and TV spots. We don’t get trailers like that anymore, do we? Now we just get Bryce Dallas Howard pretending to roar like a T-Rex while encouraging us to join Odeon Première Club. (I’ve been forced to sit through that far too often, and I’ve only been to the cinema four times this year.) But I digress. The narration also indicates the road Stallone could’ve gone done — imagine if he’d made a career writing and starring in movies like this, following through on all those comparisons the trailer made, rather than going down the action meathead route. A weird thought now, isn’t it?

If you’ve never seen Rocky, you might assume it’s broadly similar to the films Stallone would mostly go on to star in, but it isn’t, really. It’s the story of a smalltime coulda-been boxer left slumming it, when, through sheer luck, he gets a shot at the big leagues. Yes, it’s an underdog sports film — the movie that “inspired a nation” (as a friend once said to me, “inspired them to do what, I don’t know. Get up and turn it off, probably”) — but it’s staged with a level of realism that such fantasies don’t normally reach for. And it’s certainly nothing like the indestructible super-action-hero of sundry later Stallone vehicles.

Meat, standing in for a head

Indeed, Rocky manages to both embody what we now think of as ’70s-style filmmaking — gritty and cynical and kinda miserable — with the other side of ’70s filmmaking — the decade that, between the likes of Jaws and Star Wars, gave us the populist blockbuster as we know it. So, on the one hand, Rocky lives in a dingy little bedsit, spending his days enforcing for a loan shark and plodding the derelict streets of a decrepit city; on the other, he still has hopes and ambitions, and these come to pass when he’s selected to fight world champion Apollo Creed — a real underdog sports story. This duality carries through right to the end (spoilers!): our hero loses the fight, your typical “’70s” downbeat finale; but he also goes the distance, an achievement no one else has managed, and he gets the girl. Considering the movie we’ve just watched, it’s a perfect climax: it maintains the film’s two apparently-irreconcilable (but demonstrably reconcilable) tonal halves right to the very end.

Another major part of the film is Rocky’s faltering attempts to woo a shy pet shop worker, Adrian (Talia Shire). Most of their relationship is beautifully portrayed — tentative, cautious, sweet, and quite touching — a complete 180 from how you’d expect a character defined as “a boxer” to behave. Unfortunately, one key moment hasn’t aged so well. There’s a scene at the end of Rocky and Adrian’s first date where he badgers her into going into his apartment, which she clearly doesn’t want to do; then, despite her obvious discomfort, he tries to get her to sit with him; when she won’t, he walks towards her and, hanging off an overhead pipe, looms over her, demanding to know what’s wrong; then, as she heads for the door, he stops her, one hand over the locks and the other against the wall, trapping her in the corner; and then he informs her he’s going to kiss her, but she doesn’t have to kiss him back, and then he does. And she kisses him back, of course.

Adriaaan!

This scene plays very, very differently in a post-#MeToo world than I imagine it has at any other point in the past 42 years. I mean, I’m sure some people realised its awkwardness quite some time ago — women before men, no doubt — but there’s no avoiding it now. And it’s an odd scene, because clearly the filmmakers know Adrian would be uncomfortable — as I say, her whole attitude portrays that; and I presume they know why she’d be uncomfortable too; and yet it still ends with her giving in to Rocky’s persistent advances. Well, I guess the best we can say is it’s of its era, but its content, and how it makes us feel about Rocky as a character, risks becoming a barrier nowadays. His behaviour doesn’t continue in that vein, thankfully… or is that actually worse, making such behaviour normal rather than a warning sign? Are such conversations relevant about a 42-year-old movie?

Conversely, the film’s depiction of race feels kind of progressive. Most of the white guys we meet are bums eking out an existence, legally or otherwise, while the black guy (surrounded by a mostly black entourage, too) is successful, respected, dressed in finery, and in a position to offer the white guy a one-in-a-million shot at success. Maybe this contrast was just a coincidence, but it feels like it’s making some kind of point. Of course, once they get in the ring for the climax, the black guy is the “bad guy” and our hero is a white guy, so…

Black vs white

I don’t think Rocky was consciously built to sustain such readings, mind — these are just things that struck me while watching it in 2018. At heart it’s a straightforward, inspirational tale — “a charming, grimy and beautiful fairytale”, as John Simon described it in New York Magazine — about someone with unrealised potential getting a final shot. Arguably it gains more power from being semi-autobiographical: Stallone penned the screenplay (and later insisted on starring) as a similar last-shot attempt at his chosen career. It ultimately netted him two Oscar nominations, one for writing and one for acting, though he won neither — but then, what could be a more fitting mirror of the film itself?

4 out of 5

Rocky is on ITV tonight at 11:15pm.

It was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2018 project, which you can read more about here.

The Fighter (2010)

2016 #80
David O. Russell | 115 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Oscar-winning true-story drama that relates the early career of boxer Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg), a coulda-been-a-contender type held back by the training of his half-brother, ex-boxer turned drug addict Dicky (Christian Bale), and the management of his controlling mother (Melissa Leo), not to mention the cadre of harpy-ish sisters. Micky gains some confidence after entering a relationship with barmaid Charlene (Amy Adams), who’s prepared to stand up to his family. He breaks away from them and gets better opportunities, but soon realises that to win he’ll need to combine the best of both worlds.

I swear, written like that it sounds much cheesier than it plays.

I don’t normally care for boxing movies (I even gave the sainted Raging Bull just 3 stars), but I rather enjoyed this. Perhaps that’s because it’s about the familial drama as much as it is pugilism, but then the same could be said of Bull, so who knows — maybe I’m just becoming inured to the sport. Heck, I even found myself invested in the outcome during the climactic bout.

Nonetheless, the film’s real meat lies in the dysfunctional family drama that informs events in the ring. Kudos to whoever had the cojones to focus on the story of Micky Ward establishing himself as a world-class boxer, leaving out the three later fights that really made his name (talk of a sequel covering those seems to have died down, I guess because this film wasn’t a blockbuster so presumably didn’t do sequel-justifying box office numbers). Maybe the story behind those fights forms a good narrative too, but there’s plenty enough here to merit the focus and form a neat narrative — it doesn’t need a fourth act covering three more fights.

Although this is technically Ward’s story, it’s as much about his older half-brother, washed-up fighter turned part-time trainer and full-time crack addict Dicky Eklund. It’s another of Christian Bale’s extreme weight gain/loss roles (in this case, loss), but there’s more to it than such physical exertion. Bale inhabits the character, and a brief clip of the real Dicky during the credits suggests he’s done so very accurately. His performance is mesmeric and definitely worthy of that Oscar. For the rest of the cast, Amy Adams holds attention equally in a less showy role, and even Marky Mark isn’t half bad. Melissa Leo also won an Oscar for her performance, which I forgot until I read so after — it was the one she controversially funded her own ad campaign for. I guess that paid off.

David O. Russell stages things with a kind of documentary-esque realism, down to capturing the fights on period-authentic SD video (according to IMDb, they used actual HBO cameras from the time, No-style, rather than just degrading the footage). In trying to figure out why The Fighter worked better for me than Raging Bull, I was left wondering if this was part of it… until I re-read my Bull review, which specifically noted that the “camerawork […] seems to be aiming for documentary-like realism”. There I called it “boring”; here, I felt that gritty, almost happened-upon rather than performed style seemed to suit the seedy world of boxing and the rundown lives of these people. Clearly I’m clutching at straws — my distaste for Bull does not boil down to “I thought it was shot wrong”.

The Fighter isn’t without its faults, though. There’s a certain element of cliché to the story arc — whether that’s just fact emulating fiction, or the screenwriters imposing familiar shapes on to what really happened, I don’t know. It could also stand to lose a few minutes here and there, especially when it goes round in circles about whether Micky should be trusting his family or not. And talking of movie clichés and comparisons to other films about fighting, watching it in close proximity to Warrior just highlights the other film’s outright manipulation and definite use of cliché, especially in its climax. I’d say this is the better film, with a more interesting, plausible depiction of fractured family dynamics, and a climactic result that didn’t feel telegraphed from act one.

It’s fair to say that I primarily chose to watch The Fighter so I could tick it off lists of “films directed by David O. Russell” and “Best Picture nominees”, and wound up rather liking it. If they ever get the sequel off the ground, I’d certainly be up for it.

4 out of 5

Raging Bull (1980)

2015 #88
Martin Scorsese | 124 mins | DVD | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 18 / R

It would be boring if we all liked the same stuff, wouldn’t it? I’m sure there’s at least one ‘universally’-loved classic that we each dislike. Heck, tends to be every ‘universally’-loved classic has at least one Proper Critic that dislikes it. The flip side of this is that, in my opinion, if you don’t like something that everyone else does, there’s a fair chance it’s you who’s missing something. That’s a rule I apply to others, naturally, but I also try to bear it in mind myself (and, at the risk of sounding terribly arrogant, I think a few more people could do with thinking the same).

Given that introduction, I guess it’ll come as no surprise that I didn’t get on very well with Raging Bull. We’ve established before that I don’t like boxing (see: Million Dollar Baby, which (I’ll say now) I didn’t like more than Raging Bull, but has a higher score because I was softer back then), but I don’t think that precludes me from enjoying a film set in that world. Anyhow, I wouldn’t say Scorsese’s biopic pitches the sport as an aspirational one full of honour and wonder or something. And indeed, the boxing scenes were some of the bits I liked the most — they’re very well done; immensely effective. Unfortunately, they make up barely ten minutes of the running time, and it was the rest I didn’t care for.

Robert De Niro stars as wannabe-a-contender boxer Jake LaMotta, as he grows in stature — both his reputation and physically — and also grows ridiculously paranoid, which is probably the kind of thing that happens when you spend years being repeatedly punched in the head. This arc seems to unfold through interminable scenes of people mumbling semi-unintelligibly at each other, realised with a style of camerawork, editing, and acting that seems to be aiming for documentary-like realism, which has both pros (realism) and cons (s’boring).

The aforementioned fights, on the other hand, are full-on Cinema, and glorious for it. The make-up is also very good. Relatedly, De Niro’s physical transformation, from lithe boxer to washed-up fatso, is remarkable. Decades before the likes of Christian Bale and his Machinist/Batman Begins flip-flop, De Niro gained a then-record-setting 60lbs.

Mixed technical success aside, I was never sure what the film was really meant to be about. Things turn up and go nowhere — like, what happened with that 14-year-old girl in his club? One second he’s been arrested, then it’s a couple of years later and he’s slumming it as a stand-up in New York; then, just as fast, he’s doing some kind of literature recital to a packed house. I mean, what? I would say that this is a film only of interest to people who are already fans of LaMotta and want to see some of his life on screen, but clearly that’s not the case. That’s certainly how it felt to me, though; and it’s what I would believe too, were it not for 35 years of widespread appreciation that demonstrates I’d be wrong.

Based on where we find him at the end, I guess LaMotta would appreciate a Shakespeare quotation. For all the film’s “greatest of all time” acclaimedness, this is the one that came to my mind:

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
Signifying nothing.

You can’t win ’em all, right?

3 out of 5

Raging Bull was meant to be viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 12 for 2013 project, but I missed it. I’ve righted that as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2015 project, which you can read more about here.

Real Steel (2011)

2013 #78
Shawn Levy | 121 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA & India / English | 12 / PG-13

Real SteelOnce upon a time, Real Steel would have been rated PG, been aimed at 7- to 10-year-old boys, and would probably have been quite the success. In the current Hollywood moviemaking climate, however, it’s rated PG-13, consequently aimed at teenage boys and grown men who still have the tastes of teenage boys, and seems to be regularly slated in online comment sections.

That’s a shame because, despite some corny and cheesy bits, it generally works. It begins by setting out some apparently predictable plots, but then several didn’t play out entirely as I expected (I mean, it’s hardly revolutionary, but it wasn’t quite as blatant as I was expecting it to be when it came to certain resolutions). The fights aren’t the most exciting robot action sequences ever put on film (or digital file), but are suitably punchy for their purpose. The final duel is perhaps not as triumphant as the filmmakers think it is, but I’ve seen worse.

Other bits falter more obviously: there’s some horrendously clunky exposition, and it’s so desperate to be set in the near future that its future-history is practically our present already, which undermines it to an extent. OK, it’s not high on realism, but when someone says, “ah, that’s a Generation 2 robot from 2014,” you just think, “well, this isn’t going to really happen, is it?”

Really steelySome things are also distinctly unresolved: just why was Evil Lady prepared to pay $200,000 for a no-hope junkyard robot? I figured there was going to be some Nasty Secret to come out, especially as there’d been hints of the robot having extra abilities… but no. And what was up with the kid being 11 but Jackman always thinking he was 9? Figured that was going somewhere too. There’s talk now of a sequel — I hope such random bits weren’t intended as elaborate seeding for a follow-up, because that’s just irritating. That said, it would be nice if whoever’s in charge spotted those things and built on them in the sequel’s story.

For all that online moaning I mentioned, to my surprise I haven’t seen anyone complaining about that oft-cited bugbear, product placement. It’s glaringly obvious at frequent intervals… but it’s also pretty well integrated into the world — no “mm, Converse All Stars, vintage 2004!” moments here. (Funnily enough, Dr. Pepper — which is fairly prominent, though not so much as other things — was used with permission, but wasn’t paid for by… whoever makes it. So it’s not product placement. So if you do ever see someone moaning about the product placement of Dr Pepper in Real Steel, you can tell them they’re a moron, or something.)

Feel the steelReal Steel is a good family movie, masquerading as a teenage-focused robot action blockbuster thanks to its 12 and PG-13 certificates. The true best audience for it will be those around the same age as the central kid: they won’t find him as annoying as older viewers will, and the whole robot fighting thing will just seem exciting.

3 out of 5

This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2013. Read more here.

Snake Eyes (1998)

2010 #86
Brian De Palma | 94 mins | TV (HD) | 15 / R

Kick-Ass, Knowing, National Treasure 2, Matchstick Men, now Snake Eyes — I feel like I’m seeing a lot of Nicolas Cage of late. (To be precise, it’s five films in as many months.) It’s not a conspiracy, I assure you, just an almighty coincidence.

Unlike in Snake Eyes, in which it’s no coincidence that a top boxer throws a fight seconds before the US Secretary of Defense is assassinated right behind dirty cop Rick Santoro (Cage), all in a lovely 12-minute opening take. And there’s plenty more to it than that, but I wanted the sentence to be halfway legible. Who did it? Why? How’s it all connected? Who’s involved? Such are the questions to be answered in the ensuing near-real-time neo-noir.

Let’s start with the opening take. It’s a fake (there are eight cuts), which is pretty obvious, but it’s still a nifty way of starting the film. As well as being the kind of thing I always like to see, it sets up nearly everything we need to know for the rest of the film. Almost every element of the conspiracy is tucked away in there somewhere, from the blatantly obvious to the tiniest detail we won’t even notice. It’s just one of many long takes director Brian De Palma deploys throughout the film, including one that sails over various hotel rooms for no reason other than it looks pretty cool. Which is fine — there’s nothing wrong with looking cool, especially in a crime thriller film set in an Atlantic City casino.

Another thing I always like is real-time. I don’t know why, but there’s something pleasing about a story that unfurls in exactly the time it takes to tell it, that doesn’t skip over characters getting places or cheat our sense of relative time for a nifty editing-based twist (which I’m not saying can’t work — just look at Silence of the Lambs — but there’s also a skill in avoiding it). Perhaps there’s just a thrill in the logistical challenge of making the concept — which is highly unnatural to film and TV — work. The first season of 24 paid much attention to it, to good effect; later seasons didn’t and, in my opinion, suffered. Johnny Depp-starer Nick of Time also used it, though I can’t remember much about that except it was total rubbish. Snake Eyes doesn’t stick to its real-time as rigidly as 24, but it was good enough to satiate me. By the time it begins to deviate significantly from the concept, the story’s got so involving that it no longer matters.

And another thing I always like is a bit of noir. Snake Eyes fits the bill, with ‘heroic’ characters of questionable morality, voluptuous femme fatales, vicious villains, double dealings, punch-ups in shadowy alleys, and dozens of other generic signifiers that I’ll leave it for you to discover and/or remember. I was rather surprised to discover it wasn’t on Wikipedia’s era-encompassing list of film noir (until I added it): I’m not always that good at identifying what counts as post/neo-noir (one might ask “who is?” considering the genre’s broad/nonexistent definition), but I’d say Snake Eyes is pretty much undoubtable in its noir-ness.

Based on IMDb scores and Rotten Tomatoes ratings and whatnot, it seems Snake Eyes isn’t very well regarded. Honestly, I’m not sure why. Perhaps it’s too stylised for some tastes — not everyone will like the long takes, the flashbacks, the point-of-view shots, the split screen, or Cage’s usual OTT performance — but I enjoy all of these things when used well, and here they are. Cage, for instance, isn’t permanently OTT, finding the character’s more realistic side when called upon; his style doesn’t always work, this is certainly true, but here it’s a match.

If there’s one significant flaw, it’s that the ending is too much based on convenience and coincidence; and someone in the editing room should’ve paid more attention to removing all references to the original, deleted ending in which the casino got flooded. I have no idea why that was removed — maybe someone thought it was a bit ludicrous. But it sounds more satisfying than what was included, which, as noted, relies on a handy spot of coincidence and at least one action that seems out of character. I can forgive it though, because I liked everything else. And the post-climax montage is a suitably downbeat ending to our hero’s story — another noir trait there.

Snake Eyes certainly isn’t perfect — as well as the above, I’m sure some take issue with its occasionally implausible conspiracy plotting — but if one accepts that it’s set in a slightly more noir-ish world than our own, and that half the fun is to be had from De Palma’s visual trickery, I think there’s a lot to like. And like it I did.

4 out of 5

Snake Eyes is on BBC One tonight, Sunday 26th April 2015, at 11:35pm.