March 2007 -- Rocky Balboa. Starring Sylvester Stallone, Burt Young, Antonio Tarver, Geraldine Hughes, Milo Ventimiglia, Tony Burton, A.J. Benza, James Francis Kelly III, and Talia Shire. Based on characters created by Sylvester Stallone. Music by Bill Conti. Director of Photography, J. Clark Mathis. Edited by Sean Albertson. Written and directed by Sylvester Stallone. (MGM/Columbia Pictures, 2006, Color, 102 minutes. MPAA Rating: PG.)
A confession: For years, as a guilty pleasure, I haunted my local multiplex to revel repeatedly in the serial cinematic exploits of Sylvester Stallone’s most famous celluloid hero. Yes, I hereby confess that I actually enjoyed all those Rocky movies with Roman numerals in their titles. I even sort-of liked Rocky V (1990), the one that all the film critics mock.
But that’s because I’m not a “film critic,” you see; I’m a movie enthusiast. Although I’m nominally Roman Catholic, my true religion is that uniquely American art form known as motion pictures. Every Friday night that devotion draws me to the services conducted at the local mission—the Mission Drive-In Theater in San Antonio, that is—where I take communion, comprised of hot-buttered popcorn and a Coca-Cola slushy. In the lobby, posing proudly amid my pantheon of movie gods—right there with blown-up images of heroes portrayed by John Wayne, Charlton Heston, Robert Mitchum, Burt Lancaster, and Gregory Peck—stands Sylvester Stallone’s enduring creation: the quintessential American underdog, Rocky Balboa.
For more than thirty years, Stallone has never been given his proper due as a screenwriter. Recently, for the first time in over a decade, I watched a DVD of his original, low-budget sleeper, Rocky (1976). I was struck all over again by the masterpiece of understated, eloquent drama that Stallone and director John G. Avildsen had put up on the screen. The tale of the small-time pugilist and loan shark’s enforcer with the soft spot in his heart, who gets his miracle shot at the heavyweight boxing championship on America’s Bicentennial, Rocky became the unlikely winner of the 1976 Academy Award for Best Picture—and an instant classic.
Rocky Balboa lives up to its tagline: ‘It ain’t over ‘til it’s over.’
To a great extent, Rocky worked so well because of its indelibly memorable supporting cast. There was Talia Shire as Adrian, the painfully shy pet shop cashier and the object of Rocky’s affections. There was legendary character actor Burgess Meredith in the role of his lifetime as Mickey, Rocky’s elderly, cantankerous trainer, whose fatherly devotion inspired the lowly club fighter to believe in himself. There was Burt Young as drunken leech Paulie, Adrian’s bullying brother. Here were people taken from Stallone’s own tough childhood in South Philly, made even more real through brutally honest dialogue and poignant situations. But no matter how lowly or bad, they and all the other characters in the film—even the loan shark (played by Joe Spinell)—got caught up in Rocky’s quest and ultimately redeemed themselves. Their lines and gestures were so simply, beautifully, economically imparted that, at times, they seemed to rise to poetry.
In one scene, Rocky visits the boxing gymnasium to ask Mickey why he’s been running him down for so many years. Mickey snorts back at his protégé, “Ya don’t wanna know!” When Rocky presses him, the old man unleashes all the fury he can still muster:
“Okay, I’m gonna tell ya! You had the talent to become a good fighter, but instead of that, you become a leg-breaker to some cheap, second-rate loan shark!”
“It’s a living,” Rocky mumbles.
“It’s a waste of life!” Mickey roars back.
Along with other memorable scenes, that one—with the pain and anguish on Burgess Meredith’s face revealing his heartbreak over the younger boxer’s unfulfilled promise—could easily have been scripted by such dramatic luminaries as Budd Shulberg, Paddy Chayefsky, or Rod Serling.
The film has left its enduring stamp on the culture. The steep flight of steps that rises up to the Philadelphia Museum of Art has become one of the most-visited attractions in the city. There, tourists re-create Rocky’s ascent during his famous training scene, pumping their own fists in imitation upon reaching the summit. These rituals are a testament to an iconic character that millions worldwide regard as the embodiment of their highest aspirations and deepest dreams. Rocky Balboa reminds them that within them lives the power to make their own dreams real—if they only put as much heart into pursuing their goals as he did when he stepped into the ring against Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers), giving everything he had and more.
Sadly, the Rocky series is generally held in low critical esteem, largely because of subsequent inferior installments. Although Rocky II (1979) was an excellent sequel (after losing a split decision in the first movie, Rocky finally won the title from Creed in the second), the following two films (1982 and 1985) pitted Rocky against flamboyant, cartoonishly indomitable opponents (played by the scowling Mr. T and the stone-silent Dolph Lundgren, respectively). Fun stuff, but nothing to rival the first two. The fifth film (1990) was a complete letdown, a tired, anticlimactic outing about Rocky Balboa in retirement, down on his luck and dealing with the challenges of fatherhood.
Sixteen years after that fizzle, were you expecting yet another Rocky? I certainly wasn’t. But happily, Stallone has returned to first principles. Avoiding the predictable Roman numeral “VI” and simply using the lead character’s name as its title, Rocky Balboa focuses once again on the essence of its protagonist, regarding him as a man first, and a boxer second.
The movie takes its place with several other film series that recently have gone back to basics and started to take their heroes seriously: Batman Begins (2005), last year’s Superman Returns,and the new film of Ian Fleming’s first James Bond novel, Casino Royale. Unlike those blockbusters, though, this picture doesn’t try to recapture its early magic by casting a younger man in the hero’s role: instead, it audaciously asks the viewer to take seriously the prospect of a man pushing sixty, yet becoming a contender for the heavyweight championship of the world.
It opens with Rocky visiting the grave of his dead wife Adrian (Talia Shire once again, in flashbacks). She died of “woman cancer,” as the Rock describes it. Every year on their anniversary, he takes a sentimental journey through the old neighborhood, visiting landmarks from their first meeting and dates, dragging the insufferable Paulie in tow. As he reminisces, you see that her absence has broken his heart. Yet Adrian remains omnipresent throughout the movie, as the spirit that moves him on.
Visiting an old watering hole, he runs across a girl from the neighborhood, Marie (Geraldine Hughes), a single mom trying to raise a teenaged son and make ends meet by tending bar. A comely lass with the map of Ireland twinkling in her eyes, she and Rocky clumsily, tentatively, spark a relationship. Rocky meanwhile becomes a mentor to her son (James Francis Kelly III), keeping him on the straight-and-narrow.
Otherwise, the former champ leads a predictable, comfortable life running an Italian restaurant, greeting and regaling patrons with old stories of past bouts and glories. His whiny twentysomething son, Robert (Milo Ventimiglia), complains about living in Rocky’s shadow while he tries to make it in the business world. Rocky gives him the kind of speech fathers stopped giving their boys a couple generations ago, but should resume giving:
"The world ain’t all sunshine and rainbows! It is a very mean and nasty place and it will beat you to your knees and keep you there permanently if you let it. You, me, or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life. But it ain’t how hard you hit; it’s about how hard you can get hit, and keep moving forward. How much you can take, and keep moving forward. That’s how winning is done. Now, if you know what you’re worth, then go out and get what you’re worth. But you gotta be willing to take the hits, and not pointing fingers saying you ain’t where you wanna be because of him, or her, or anybody. Cowards do that and that ain’t you. You’re better than that!”
He schools his son to have some pride in himself. “I stopped thinking about what other people thought a long time ago. . . . The only respect that matters in this world is self-respect.”
Sixteen years after the debacle of Rocky V, we’ve got a Rocky movie that believes in itself once again.
One night on ESPN, a panel of sportscasters debate who was the greater boxer—current heavyweight champion Mason “The Line” Dixon (played by real-life light-heavyweight champ Antonio Tarver, stepping up in class), or the former two-time champion, Rocky. In an on-air computerized video simulation, Rocky KOs Dixon. This wounds the champ’s pride: he’s gotten to the top by defeating a bunch of has-beens and fall guys, never facing a real challenger for his championship belt.
“All of boxing is hoping for a warrior who can thrill us with his passion,” a ringside announcer carps as Dixon defeats another chump. Desperate for respect, his handlers pitch the idea of a pay-per-view exhibition fight in Las Vegas between their man and the legend who hasn’t been in the fight game for twenty-one years.
After a few awkward moments mid-movie, there’s The Rest . . . and, well, you can pretty much guess the rest. Our Rocky begins training hard, old-school style. Once again he pounds his fists against bloody slabs of meat in the cooler; he lifts barbells; he does one-arm pushups; he plows through the Philly’s snowbound streets and sprints to his rightful place atop those famous Steps. “Gonna fly now!”
The film culminates with the inevitable fight between Rocky and Dixon. Since Rocky is too old and stiff to bob and weave, his corner man, Duke (Tony Burton), counsels: “So, every time you hit him, you got to make a dent. . . . So what we’ll be calling on is good old-fashioned blunt force trauma. Horsepower. Heavy duty, cast-iron, pile-driving punches that will have to hurt so much it’ll rattle his ancestors. Every time you hit him with a shot, it’s got to feel like he tried kissing the express train.”
Cinematographer J. Clark Mathis’s camera frames the fight scenes tight, and they come fast and furious, like watching Goya’s Segundo de Mayo spring to life. Rocky may be old and weathered, but he’s still solid as the hull of a battleship. Composer Bill Conti’s martial score, built around his famous trumpet fanfare from the original, got my pulse pounding once more, and before I knew it, it was 1976 all over again, and I was rooting for the Italian Stallion. There was Rocky Balboa standing toe-to-toe with the heavyweight champion of the world and giving him a run for his money.
Sixteen years after the debacle of Rocky V, we’ve got a Rocky movie that believes in itself once again. Though it may not match the first in originality and drama, in heart and soul Rocky Balboa lives up to its tagline: “It ain’t over ’til it’s over.”
Sadly, the Rocky franchise is over, at last, but the old warrior is going out on his own terms.
Thank you, Sly Stallone, for not throwing in the towel.