A Sly Feat
Our reviewer expected to hate Stallone’s “Rocky Balboa.” So he was shocked to find it holds up to the 1976 original.
By Billy Frolick
Let me get the boxing metaphors out of the way immediately. “Rocky Balboa” beats the odds and goes the distance.
The idea that someone might Google my name and read the above sentence would have induced vomiting two weeks ago. That’s when I RSVP’d to a Writers Guild of America screening of “Rocky Balboa” which promised a Q&A with the film’s writer/director/star, Sylvester Stallone.
The whole notion of the movie had camp appeal from the moment it was announced last year, provoking jabs (sorry) from Leno and Letterman. You know, that Rocky would enter the ring with a walker, get endorsement deals with Geritol and Depends, ad infinitum.
What’s shocking about “Rocky Balboa” is that it doesn’t suck. What’s surprising is that it’s funny, engaging, and—oh, yeah—nostalgic.
When “Rocky” opened some 30 years ago, nostalgia itself was in vogue for the first time in 20th-century American pop culture. The Marx Brothers’ “Animal Crackers,” tied up in legal red tape for decades, resurfaced to great popularity in the early ‘70s. Marilyn Monroe became canonized. PBS’ “Film Odyssey” series heralded obscure foreign films as classics. Even television started to reflect upon its own brief history with retrospective specials.
The original “Rocky” had its own antecedents. Though Stallone hasn’t always owned up to it, the story was clearly inspired by Chuck Wepner, “The Bayonne Bleeder.” Wepner, a liquor salesman, was tapped in 1975 to fight Muhammad Ali, and stunned the boxing world by not only knocking him down, but lasting the full fifteen rounds. The challenger lost by decision, but, as “Rocky” later preached, that was hardly the point.
Nonetheless, the first “Rocky,” directed by journeyman John Avildsen and made for under a million dollars, had its own, simple, irrestible heart and humor. And it was a publicist’s dream. Writer and struggling actor Stallone famously held out to star (the studio wanted, among others, Robert Redford). And the movie went on to beat “Network,” Chayefsky’s brilliant evisceration of the media zeitgeist, for Best Picture. It also captured the sensitive side of The Sweet Science during its last great era; in fact, Ali would fight for another five years after “Rocky”’s release.
Stallone followed the yellow brick road to vast wealth, women of all shapes and sizes, and movie stardom in hits, bombs and everything in between. He kept the Balboa franchise alive for four sequels, through 1990’s “Rocky V” (with Avildsen back behind the camera), a dud by his own admission.
The 16-year gap between episodes is “Rocky Balboa”’s first advantage. But so, Stallone said following the screening, is his own life trajectory. It took 10 years (and a major change in management at MGM) to convince the studio to greenlight the film. And it took his own career dip for him to become an underdog once again.
The result, shot in a little over a month last winter in chilly Philadelphia, unexpectedly returns the series to its humble roots.
We meet “Rocky” as a grieving widower in the movie’s melancholy first ten minutes, a trip down memory lane which begins at Adrian’s grave before hitting all the obvious buttons—the turtles, Cuff and Link; the demolished ice rink from the couple’s first date; the pet shop where Adrian worked. Even the most loyal “Rocky” fan might feel concerned by this barrage of elbow-nudging references to the earlier movies.
But the original’s sweet, comedic blue collar sensibility—missing in the testosteroned “Guest Challenger” sequels 3, 4, and 5—soon takes over, overlayed with a fresh narrative. By killing Adrian off, Stallone challenges himself to expand Rocky’s world beyond the familiar. Besides the title character, Adrian’s brother Paulie (Burt Young) is the only other significant returning ensemble regular.
Now a restauranteur, Rocky’s interest in boxing is reinvigorated by a computerized TV matchup between former champ Balboa and current title holder Mason “The Line” Dixon (Antonio Tarver). An exhibition fight between the two is arranged.
Along the way we meet Rocky’s son (Milo Ventimiglia), a yuppie numbers-cruncher with a chip on his shoulder; Marie (Geraldine Hughes), a single mom Rocky employs at his restaurant; and her restless, mixed-race son Steps (James Francis Kelly III).
It’s to Stallone the Writer’s credit that these relationships are given weight, but not too much, because act three is all about the Balboa-Dixon match. Following the second trip to Retroville—an obligatory training montage set to Bill Conti’s iconic theme music—the group flies to Las Vegas for the main event.
At 60, it must be said that Stallone is a physical marvel. I feared that his face had taken on the sanded, over-processed patina of Burt Reynolds and Kenny Rogers. But he looks believably weathered (although a touch of grey in Sly’s jet-black hair wouldn’t have killed him), yet has clearly conditioned his body for the demands of the role.
The fight scenes deliver. Round one is presented in a single, uncut take (a first, Stallone told the crowd afterward). Round two is compressed, and from the third round on visual styles are mixed and rapid-fire editing takes over. The slugfest climax recalls Sugar Ray Leonard and Marvin Hagler’s 1987 Caesar’s Palace bout, the sixth round of which remains the most exciting boxing I have ever seen.
When all was said and done, the audience—500 screenwriters who, like me, were profoundly moved by the 1976 original—seemed completely won over. In the ensuing discussion, Stallone cited his main motive for making the movie.
“My young daughter was asked, at school, what her daddy does for a living,” he said. “She answered, ‘Bad golfer’.”
And a little child shall lead him.
Sixty is the new 30, Howie Mandel is the new Regis, and “Rocky Balboa”—hard as it is to believe—is the new “Rocky.”
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Contributing editor Billy Frolick’s last piece was Snapshots and Lies.
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