Rocky Balboa

Rocky Balboa

Though this is the sixth film in the Rocky series, it only has the feel of a sequel in a qualified way. It heavily references the characters’ past–indeed, more than any other movie in the series–but those references and clips are almost exclusively to the original Rocky. This movie could have been nearly identical if Rocky II, III, IV, and V had never existed.

In a sense, Rocky Balboa is more closely tied to Rocky than were any of the preceding sequels. At first blush that seems implausible, given that a lot of the main characters from Rocky are long since dead–certainly Rocky II superficially seems most closely related to Rocky–but I think the case can be made.

In II, III, and IV, and to a lesser extent in V, Rocky is a larger-than-life, world celebrity, sometimes portrayed as having attained a status disturbingly akin to that of a super hero. In Rocky and Rocky Balboa, he’s closer to a real person. He’s obviously better off financially in Rocky Balboa, and people recognize him on the street and everything, but mostly he’s back to being the humble, local Philly boy of Rocky.

Then of course there’s the aforementioned point that Rocky Balboa contains multiple flashback clips from Rocky. The other sequels obviously built on the events of Rocky, but with rare exceptions they didn’t do so explicitly with clips from the original movie.

But also the general feel of this film is closer to that of Rocky than were any of the intervening films in the series. Rocky Balboa has that “back to basics” feel. (And I would say to some extent V was already moving back in this direction.) One gets the sense that Stallone tried to put himself back in the frame of mind of when he was making Rocky. He seems to have been content aiming for a special little film with a positive message, rather than trying for the monster conventional blockbuster.

Before I get too far ahead of myself, perhaps I should interject a couple of items of background.

One is my abbreviated assessment of the earlier films in the series, so you can get a sense of where I stood coming into the sixth.

Rocky was a genuinely very good to excellent movie. It may or may not have been literally the best movie of its year, but I don’t think its being voted the Academy Award as such was some kind of fluke or travesty. People who grew weary of all the sequels (and have a visceral dislike of Stallone based on the many violent, testosterone-laden, jingoistic films he later made), and are dismissive of the whole series, I think forget how highly regarded the original Rocky was by public and critics alike.

Rocky II lacked a lot of the charm of the original. It was probably more skillful filmmaking in terms of choreographing the action scenes and pushing all the right emotional buttons for a mass audience and all that, but for me it was a clear step down. I still enjoyed it more than not, but I suspect that was largely because I had an emotional stake in it and wanted it to be good due to my liking Rocky as much as I had. I was also a huge boxing fan at the time, not to mention I was younger and less sophisticated in general. If I tried to step back now to look at it more objectively, I’d probably regard it as a mediocre or only slightly better movie.

Rocky III I’d assess very similarly to II. I still mostly enjoyed it. Mister T played an entertaining character. (Hulk Hogan did not–that scene was an embarrassment.) Rocky himself remained a fairly compelling and likable character. It held my interest. I got somewhat caught up in the action scenes. But it continued the drift toward greater and greater implausibility of plot, comic book simplicity of good versus evil, etc., and in the end it too was pretty mediocre.

Rocky IV, for me, was the clear nadir of the series. All the things that made II and III less appealing than the original were substantially more true of IV. This wasn’t just starting to have comic book elements to it; it was largely indistinguishable from a film version of a comic book. I won’t say it was terrible–the Rocky character hadn’t completely lost his likability, and there were elements (scenes, bits of dialogue) that worked for me–but for the most part this is the one that put me off the Rocky bandwagon.

So much so that when, after a gap of many more years than between the earlier films in the series, Rocky V came out, I didn’t intend to see it. I eventually half-heartedly went with a friend. And I’d say I was mildly pleasantly surprised.

As alluded to above, I thought in V Stallone moved at least somewhat in the Rocky Balboa direction of scaling back to something simpler and from the heart about the human relationships and such, rather than the comic book nonsense. Some of it was still silly and manipulative–like the Don King stand-in–but I thought if this were the sendoff for Rocky, it could have been a lot worse. To me it was an average or slightly better movie, which surpassed my expectations. And I’d say it was underrated, since as I recall it did not get good reviews. I think the series had long since worn out its welcome and people expected the worst. (Which, incidentally, led me to have moderately high expectations for Rocky Balboa. It seemed so much the kind of film the critics would be predisposed to ridicule, that when I saw it got a somewhat favorable overall reception from critics, I figured it must be pretty darn good to have overcome the “for heaven’s sake, not another one!” factor.)

The other item of background is my personal relation to the original Rocky.

I don’t know that I had thought much about this before, or at least not since the ’70s or so. But after seeing Rocky Balboa, I found myself reflecting quite a bit on Rocky and I guess on my life in general back when I first saw it.

Indeed, the fact that that’s where my mind went, that seeing this film took me back there in a way none of II, III, IV, or V did, is why I opened this essay talking about how Rocky and Rocky Balboa seem to me to have a connection to each other that stretches past and bypasses the others.

When I left home at age 17 and spent the next months and years basically creating my adult self from scratch, I experienced life with a certain intensity that’s different from anything I’ve felt before or since. On balance I probably had more negative stuff going on than positive, so being so much more alive was a mixed blessing, but there are things about that time, about me at that time, that I miss.

Movies, interestingly, seemed to have a greater impact on me during that period. I dated a little and made some social connections, but also spent a lot of time alone. I didn’t own a TV for quite a while (nor a phone now that I think about it), I owned maybe half a dozen books–all of which I had read multiple times–I did not subscribe to any magazines or newspapers, of course there were no computers or Internet, and in general I didn’t have anything like the variety of stimuli most of us take for granted. So I found myself sitting in movie theaters more frequently than at any other time in my life.

But it’s not just the frequency. As I say, I was in an unusual state of alertness psychologically, where what stimuli I did experience got in a little deeper or had a little more of an emotional impact on me than usual.

This was the only time in my life I routinely saw movies multiple times at the theater. I re-watch movies at home occasionally, but not in a theater. Since that time, probably 99% of the movies I’ve seen in theaters I only went to the one time, 1% I went to twice, and I’m pretty sure zero have I seen in theaters more than twice. But back then, there were several movies I saw multiple times, including three I saw five to six times each.

These three were Annie Hall, The Greatest (the film version of Muhammad Ali’s autobiography), and Rocky. (Rocky actually spanned the before and after period of my leaving home; the first time I saw it was before my departure, but then I saw it several times after I had set out on my own.)

So a lot of it was just a matter of their coming along at the right time when I was most receptive (my falling in love with a woman for the first time in my life in this same period was no doubt similarly attributable to a significant degree to my age and receptive emotional state), but movies in general and these three in particular really became an important part of my life. On more than one occasion I was inspired to run the several miles home from the theater after watching the fight scenes of The Greatest or Rocky.

So I practically had these movies memorized from start to finish. They were as familiar and welcome a presence in my mind as old friends.

Thus certainly one of the things I can say about Rocky Balboa is that it was quite successful in pushing my nostalgia button.

Anyway, what else can I comment on about the film? Further on the nostalgia angle, I thought it was a hoot that they brought back some of the most obscure characters from Rocky. Maybe it was by necessity, since multiple of the main characters had already been killed off in sequels, but it tickled me that Marie the Whore of all people would reappear after all these decades. And Spider Rico?! You don’t get much more obscure than that.

I was drawn in from early on in the film. I was glad the emphasis for so much of the film was on the human issues and not the latest “big fight.” I found myself caring about Rocky and his adjustment to life without Adrian.

Even at its best, it never rose to the level of Rocky though. Almost all the characters other than Rocky were one and two-dimensional, as were most of the plot developments, the messages, etc. I could imagine the film being summarized in ten or twelve sentences, and really not much would be left out. (That’s not necessarily a bad thing commercially. There’s the stereotype that people learn that their pitch for a mainstream movie or TV pilot better convey the big picture in a few seconds or it’ll be dismissed as too complex and unwieldy to hold the interest of a mass audience.)

There was just a bit of a “dumbed down” feeling to it at times, like Stallone wanted to make sure that everything he wanted to say would be obvious enough to get through to everyone.

Certainly Rocky itself had a feel-good simplicity, but somehow there was still some nuance to it, a little deeper character development, a little deeper plot development. Mickey, for instance, was a stereotype (the grizzled, ill-tempered, old school fight trainer), yet there was a real emotional power to his relationship with Rocky, especially in the wonderful scene when he comes to Rocky’s apartment to humble himself to try to latch onto Rocky’s title shot. The relationships and conflicts in Rocky Balboa never have that kind of edge to them. (And Punchy can’t carry Butkus’s jock as far as film dogs go.)

But you know, as far as the simplistic stuff, my position has long been that we’re too quick to dismiss things for being too simple and obvious. There are ideas and sentiments that may seem trite, but they’re still important and worth thinking about. Sure, “everybody knows” that it’s important to keep fighting when you feel overwhelmed and hopeless, that you shouldn’t let yourself get too bogged down in what others think of you, that an act of kindness toward a young person is something they may remember and be influenced by for the rest of their lives, and so on, but I appreciated the reminders. There are a lot worse things a movie can do than encourage us to focus on such “obvious” truths.

And I didn’t think it was corny the way Rocky spoke about Adrian, or the fact that he sat at her grave regularly, or took a yearly tour with Paulie of the old neighborhood and the spots that were most meaningful to the history of his and Adrian’s relationship. I thought it was a beautiful, moving depiction of love.

The Marie portion of the plot worked reasonably well for me. The Rocky and Paulie stuff, and the Rocky and his son stuff maybe a little below that. And the Rocky and Marie’s son material, and some of the other little plot twists and relationships were even more perfunctory and undeveloped.

In general, the human stuff, the relationship stuff, drew me in. Seeing who Rocky is today as a human being, how he’s coping with the loss of Adrian, how he’s reaching out to Marie and her son, etc., that was mostly interesting stuff. As the movie shifted more to the “big fight” angle, it started to lose me.

It never lost me completely, but I do think that was mostly a step down. I’m not sure what the alternative was–I mean, doesn’t a Rocky film have to have a climactic fight scene with Rocky displaying a superhuman effort in an underdog role?–but I kind of wish Stallone had gambled that a better film could have been made by not going the obvious route, but instead just developing more deeply the human issues of the retired Rocky.

The main problem a “big fight” had to overcome was plausibility, and that was a losing battle from the start. Not because Stallone made poor choices in how to do it, but because–as far as I can speculate–there were no available choices that would have overcome the plausibility problem. For me it required too much of a suspension of disbelief.

Interestingly, in V, while Stallone did not forego the climactic fight scene entirely, he did scale it down dramatically, which I think successfully got him past the plausibility obstacle.

In that film, the fight is a brief street brawl at the end. And I didn’t find it all that unbelievable that a recently retired heavyweight champion would be able to hold his own against a present champion or top contender in a short street fight. Whereas in Rocky Balboa, we’re talking about someone fifteen years or whatever deeper into retirement fighting an undefeated current heavyweight champion in his prime to a standstill for ten rounds in a real bout. That verges on the supernatural. I just couldn’t buy it.

No way in a million years Rocky would have been licensed. No way he would have passed all physical examinations with flying colors. (He had a fighting style that resulted in his taking fearsome beatings even when he won. Pretty close to 100% of the fighters of that ilk have short careers and suffer at least mild to moderate permanent brain damage and possibly other permanent injuries. And by the way, the first fight against Apollo Creed resulted in Rocky’s losing a good portion of the vision in his left eye. So after another decade of fighting and a decade or two of retirement, that and every other physical ailment has magically disappeared?) No way a heavyweight champion would take such a bout. No way it would generate any public interest, other than outrage and ridicule. No way that fight wouldn’t have been stopped multiple times. (One of the many things that killed boxing is the paternalistic way fights are now stopped at the first sign a fighter is even dazed. This depiction of a prize ring as a place where a person can display the will and courage to come back from a severe beating and from being out on his feet is utterly anachronistic.) And of course no way Rocky would have been competitive for ten rounds. (Just watch Holmes-Ali, where a champion just a year or two into retirement barely threw a punch the entire fight, and if memory serves landed cleanly a grand total of zero.)

I thought they at least took a step in the direction of plausibility when Dixon injured his hand on Rocky’s hip. But it would have taken far, far more of that for me to buy Rocky fighting him evenly. They also made the points that Dixon was only in mediocre shape for the bout, that in the beginning (less than one round) he wasn’t really trying, and that the fight was only ten rounds instead of the championship distance of twelve rounds, but these were little tiny baby steps toward plausibility.

They could have made the hand injury more severe. (Instead he was back to punching with both hands later in the fight.) They could have made it an exhibition, instead of “like an exhibition,” i.e. three rounds, one or two minute rounds, head gear, bigger more padded gloves, etc. They could have had Dixon suffering from some debilitating, undisclosed illness, etc.

But the dilemma they faced there is if they did things like that to make it more believable that Rocky would be able to hang in with him, to that same degree it becomes less impressive that he does so. If Dixon were visibly weak before the bout even started, if he broke a bone or something that left him defenseless, then there’s nothing particularly heroic about not being knocked out by him. Big deal, you were able to survive against a cripple.

(By the way, Mason “the Line” Dixon is an idiotic nickname. What the hell is a “line”? It’s not that I don’t “get” the reference; it’s just that it doesn’t make any sense. The reference is already implicit in the name Mason Dixon itself; you don’t stick “the line” in there explicitly.

Actually I’m reminded of the Mad magazine spoof of the original Rocky. Apollo and his manager and promoter are sitting around a hotel room looking through boxing record books for a suitable opponent, reading off various ethnically nicknamed fighters and immediately rejecting them, when one of them picks up another list. “Well, how about ‘Cheese Danish’ or ‘Black Coffee’?” “You idiot, that’s the room service menu!”)

So I don’t think the problem was soluble. Once the decision was made that the movie would climax with Rocky coming out of retirement to fight the current champion, the movie was going to be significantly flawed in one way or another.

As the fight developed, I was just hoping Rocky would lose but put up the best fight he could and retain his dignity. I didn’t think that would make for a “good” ending, just the least of the available evils. So in that very qualified sense I was pleased with how it turned out. It could have been even more ridiculous (e.g., he wins), or just unpleasant (e.g., he dies in the ring).

On a stylistic note, I mostly didn’t care for the fact that after the first two rounds or so, they switched to a kind of surreal style for the fight sequences. I don’t know that it’s always bad to be artsy about such stuff, but I didn’t think it worked here. I just found it annoying.

Even though in a sense the fight (and that whole part of the plot leading up to it, including the training scenes that tried to duplicate the feel of the earlier films) was a clear drop in quality in the movie for me, I won’t say I didn’t get drawn into it at all. Intellectually I accepted it 10% and rejected it 90%; emotionally it was more like I accepted it 60% and rejected it 40%. So there were times I could feel myself getting a little charged up watching Rocky digging deep within himself to keep fighting.

So a mixed assessment. The first half of the movie I mostly liked, but with some qualifications. The second half of the movie I mostly found disappointing, though not completely bereft of entertainment value.

Primarily though, what leaves me with a good feeling is the character of Rocky himself. He really is a classic. I’ve seen reviews of this film and of the whole series where he is referred to off-handedly as “dumb” and “dull-witted” and the like, but Rocky was never that. He’s not Chance the Gardener. He’s a little closer to Forrest Gump, but not much. Maybe more like the simple profundity of a Karl Childers (Sling Blade), but with far more self-awareness and wit.

He’s self-deprecating, has a simple and frank speaking style, is genuinely funny, and is given to making insightful observations about life and human nature when you least expect it. He’s far from stupid.

Again, it all goes back to where I was in my life emotionally when a handful of movies seared themselves into my consciousness. There are certain people I never have and never will have direct contact with–celebrities, historical figures, fictional characters–who are a part of me in some sense, who have gotten inside my head or my heart, perhaps like in another culture a person’s ancestors might feel real to him, or a religious person might feel connected to angels or saints. I would characterize only some of them as “heroes,” but they’re familiar figures, positive figures who spent enough time in my consciousness to become almost “buddies” of a sort, people that if I died tomorrow and met up with them I feel like I would comfortably fall into a conversation with them. Mohandas Gandhi, Howard Cosell, Holden Caulfield, Immanuel Kant, the archetype Woody Allen character (Alvy Singer, et al), Muhammad Ali, Socrates, and a handful of others, including Rocky.

Though there are many things I didn’t love about this movie, the one thing I most appreciated was that it was true to the Rocky character. The qualities that made me feel that special connection with the character were at least a little more present in the Rocky of Rocky Balboa than in that of II, III, IV, or V, and about equal to that of the original Rocky. He’s a genuinely decent, wise, admirable person you’d want in your life. Watching the film was kind of like if I were on one of my road trips, and I spent an enjoyable lunch visiting for an hour or two with an important friend or lover from my past that I’d had no contact with in a decade or more.

So if I had to sum up my reaction to Rocky Balboa, it would be that it was nice to spend this time with Rocky and get re-acquainted after all these years.

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