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.

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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.