When I first got whiff of Rocky Balboa I saw all the signs of Sylvester Stallone dealing with a massive image issue, feelings of inadueaquucaay, fear of failure, that he has something to prove to the world, that he can write, act AND direct himself just as well as he did in, well, the first Rocky. And that was 30 years ago.
What the hell? Was he joking? Was he going through Gloria Swanson-esque delusions of a comeback, grasping for the chance to relive some far-gone glory? Does he have a German director man-servant? Is he riding on the trend of franchise returns and restarts like Batman and James Bond? Or is there actually something to this, a second chance of sorts? I haven’t seen the other Rocky movies but I hear they’re pretty silly. Didn’t Rocky fight a robot once? Will there be robot fights in this one?
When I went to see Casino Royale in theaters last November three peculiar things happened. One, I saw an awesome James Bond movie. Two, the audience cheered their heads off for the stupid cocktease of a teaser the Transformers movie had. The one with the Mars rover. Looking back now I suppose it got the job done. It was a fucking tease all right.
THREE – and this is the one that has to do with Rocky Balboa – the audience went fucking out-of-their-minds crazy for the Rocky Balboa trailer. The air was ELECTRIC and everyone was fucking pumped. It was like a hero came home. I even got excited! The movie looked good, and Sly was even sly with that “Actually, it’s more the 70s” line, a wink to everyone with concerns of another cheesy robot-fighting sequel.
After Casino Royale ended, and I was high on Awesome Movie fumes I got a good look at my audience as they shuffled for the door (though most stayed behind gushing and listening to Monty Norman’s immortal guitar theme). Everyone in the theater was a man. Burly, meat-chewing lumberbacks. James Bond fans. Rocky fans. Transformers fans. Movie fans. Big lumbering man-children. I felt like I was… home. I would learn later from a friend of the female-type variety there were, maybe, three girls in the whole theater based on how empty the girl’s bathroom was. And that’s just unheard of.
But it wasn’t until a night or so ago I finally saw Rocky VI – er, Rocky BALBOA. I didn’t watch it as I grilled a steak or fixed a lawnmower, though that might have put more hair on my chest (not that it needs more), but I did watch it with my father, and that’s possibly just as manly. Not going out in the woods to hunt deer afterwards may have spoiled it a little, but I was surprised that I ended up enjoying the movie. Weird, because Rocky Balboa (I hate typing that goofy last name) is the feel-good, cheap drama type of movie I should hate, and deep down I do, because I know people don’t talk to each other in sprawling loud-mouthed monologues like Rocky does to everyone in this movie. Everyone! Literally, EVERYOOONEE!!!!! If someone’s down and out on their luck Rocky will come over, talk a lot in that weird mush-mouthed Sly delivery that’s so fun to emulate, and give the person a job at his restaurant, named after his deceased wife Adrian.
That’s what Rocky does for at least the first hour of the movie. And it’s not a long movie, it’s barely over 90 minutes. He meets and gives jobs to everyone, including the little girl Rocky gives a stern talkin’ to in the first movie – now grown up – his son, and Adrian’s sister Paulie, who is finally fired from the meat packin’ place. Rocky is the nicest, most benevolent, cheerful guy there is and he does all this while still massively grieving over Adrian’s death, visiting her grave with flowers, even a chair to sit down and just stare at the headstone. I guess it does justice to the memory of the character but it’s a little much.
All of it’s a little much, which Paulie thankfully points out: “This is depressing as HELL! FUCK.” Sly knew people would call foul so every little concern or anxiety you’ve got about 60-year-old Sly revisiting Rocky, the movie points it out and addresses it. Foremost on my mind was whether Rocky and the girl-from-Rocky-now-grown-up would enter into a sicko, disturbing romance. Don’t worry, they say something about it and the anxiety is defused. They even poke fun at the CGI “simulation” fight that catalyzes Rocky’s return to the ring. Paulie calls it a “Looney Tune cartoon fight.” Armed with a sense of self-awareness I never thought Sly was capable of, the script, stranegly, is nearly bulletproof.
It’s fitting I saw the movie with my father because it’s all about patriarchy and dealing with today’s youth. I could easily see my dad identifying with Rocky, scared of losing touch with the times, trying to make the best of everything. But everyone loves Rocky, he’s practically (he is) a Philly tourist attraction and he gives everyone a second, third, fourth chance. He’s a benevolent patriarch, a good king to all his people. To Rocky, the steroid bucket is always half full. But something’s rotten in the state of Pennsylvania besides crippling nostalgia, and its the ever-widening generation gap.
Relating to the youth is hard, especially with all that rap music and strange way of talking. Rocky goes to a bar and this bitch in dire need of a slap comes up asking in a trashy ghetto, uh, dialect, if Rocky will buy her a drink. She totally rails on him when he doesn’t oblige, spouting high school shit like “JOO DON NO ME” and Rocky marvels at how things just ain’t what they used to be. Rocky is also surprised to learn Grown-Up Girl, being all grown up, now has a son. Rocky asks who he is, so she points over to him and it’s one of two kids down the block, a messy-haired white kid and a tall black kid. Guess which one it is! And of course, the father skipped out a long time ago.
Being the Arthurian father figure he is, and because his own son’s kind of distanced away from him in some yuppie business firm, Rocky takes young Steps – short for Stephen (Rocky quips “Makes sense.”) – under his wing and, uh-huh, gives him a job at Adrian’s. When Steps walks in, Paulie, surly and disgruntled as usual, asks Rocky “Who’s the criminal?!” Jeez, Paulie.
Sure, Philly’s not known for its brotherly love anymore but man. This is a PG-rated family film! Yet there’s a definite air of distrust towards this… urbanization of youth culture. This is reconciled by the end of course and Steps turns out to be an all right kid. Rocky’s new opponent, Mason “The Line” Dixon (yikes), also proves to be benign in the end. White opportunist business suit types are definitely sharks though, depicted as obnoxious dickheads who’d slit their momma’s throat for a nickel. Sounds fair.
So, wow, all this talk of Rocky and I said NOTHING about what everyone knows Rocky for: training montages! Sure enough, you get one, but ONLY one and it’s really rather short! I was kind of disappointed by this aspect considering all the crazy nature nonsense I hear Rocky IV has. Rocky and his whole team of feel-good supports – including his son, Paulie, Apollo’s old trainer, and this old ugly dog no one except Rocky would adopt (Thinly Veiled Metaphor Alert! WOOP WOOP) – help him punch meat and run up those famous stairs, and well, that’s about it. Cue the classic Rocky Theme Music and you got your montage. Of course, by this time, I’ve been waiting for the montage and that music for ages so I guess I was satisfied. By that time, I was pumped for the fight.
Which, I gotta admit, I got into. I got lost in it. Sly made it look very authentic with real world announcers, referrees (is that what you call ’em?) and the boxing cinematography was well done, with the camera pulled back so you could actually see the punches thrown. All very professional and realistic-looking. The whole film looks pretty good. It’s cliche to say, I guess it’s the noir fan of me, but the city really pops out of the screen. Backgrounds are rarely out of focus so you can really see into the alleys and underpasses of Philadelphia. Everything is crisp and detailed.
The soundtrack helps guide things along, even if it’s usually the Rocky theme in various orchestrated and piano reprises, but it’s a good, pleasant piece of music and really adds to the romance angle reminiscent of the first Rocky. Sinatra also shows up at a key moment and there’s some rap too whenever those youth folk show up. Gulldern ’em.
So there’s Rocky Balboa. Given the snobbish mentality of our site this positive review of a Sylvester friggin’ Stallone flick may cause some confusion, and I probably won’t make any friends with this review, but fuck it, I enjoyed a decent movie with my dad about dads and sons – hell (DAMN), about men. Men who roll with the punches, weep over past romances then feel better about it after punching another man.
Now I gotta go help some friends move a couch. After I finish that toolshed I’ve been working on.