Wednesday, November 25, 2015

A Rocky Journey, Part I: From Chump to Stallion

Rocky Balboa is back in theatres today with Creed, perhaps even more unexpectedly than he was nine years ago in the eponymous Rocky Balboa. In that case, it seemed like Stallone had a few things to work out (especially because he followed it up by reviving the Rambo franchise), and that Stallone, like Balboa, was able to leave the character behind. I'm not sure what inspired Creed, but the early reviews are very positive; there's even early talk of Stallone being nominated for an Academy Award again (after losing in 1976 to Peter Finch in Network) for playing his greatest character (don't go there, Rambo fans; Rocky is Stallone's most beloved creation, hands down). The Rocky movie series played a significant role in my teen years, so I decided to spend some time watching the Rocky series (which all happen to be on Netflix) before I went to see Creed in theatres. Here are some of my thoughts on rewatching (or in two cases, watching) all six previously released movies of the Rocky franchise as well as Creed, starting with the first two entries from 1976 and 1979, respectively.

Rocky: I originally watched this when I was a teenager and not since; I'm not sure why I waited this long for a second viewing, especially when I enjoyed it so much that first time. What struck me this time is how little this film is actually about boxing and how much it is about its titular character. Sure, the movie's climax comes in the final round of the match, but it could easily be argued that boxing has little to do with Rocky's internal conflict. It really is an interesting character study of Rocky, though, and the film stands up as arguably the best in the series in that respect. All four main characters - Rocky, Adrian, Paulie, and Mickey - have moments of nuance (and were nominated for Academy Awards that year), and Stallone's performance as the emotionally damaged Balboa is quite compelling. But Rocky is also about the city of Philadelphia, and it belongs in that category of 1970s films that have come to exemplify certain locales in American culture like Taxi Driver, which came out in the same year. Rocky's Philly is like Travis Bickle's New York - on the edge of dangerous, but made normal through its protagonist - and Rocky is as much a love letter to the City of Brotherly Love as it is about either boxing or Rocky himself.

What I find really interesting is not even the movie itself, which admittedly probably should not have been named Best Picture that year over Taxi Driver and Network; it's the retroactive culture surrounding the movie as well as its placement in cinematic history. Some dismiss the movie as cinematic schmaltz, while others continue to find value in how the movie genuinely frames its emotions; I think, however, that many of these opinions are not necessarily shaped by what happens in this film but by what happens in subsequent entries in the series. The movie itself is a little on the long side at two hours - certainly so by modern standards, by which it would drag significantly (as many movies would) - but it is by no means overwrought or manipulative; to me, it seemed rather humble and real, despite what happens in the increasingly kitschy sequels. Rocky is both a product of the movement of auteurs in film in the early 1970s and a beginning of the movement toward blockbusters and franchises; it was situated, after all, in the years between Jaws and Star Wars.

Rocky is one of only five movies in the past four decades to both win Best Picture and be the highest grossing domestic movie of the year (along with 1979's Kramer vs. Kramer, 1988's Rain Man, 1997's Titanic, and 2003's The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King), and it was arguably the last "populist" movie to win the Oscar as a result of its popularity (just as Kramer vs. Kramer was likely the last movie to be the highest-grossing because of its dramatic character development, other than Rain Man). There were a number of films over the ensuing decade that were financially successful as well as nominated for Best Picture (Star Wars, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T.), but it could easily be argued that Rocky marked the end of the era in which commercial and Academy appeal were assumed to be synonymous (which they mostly had been to that point) and the forerunner of the cinematic culture of dissonance between blockbusters and "real films" that we now "enjoy". Some critics argue that Rocky helped cause this split; I think the film was a sign of shifting values in America and a byproduct of the culture that has emerged not only in Hollywood but across many domains of American life. With all that said, I think that Rocky still stands as not only eminently rewatchable, but arguably necessary in order to understand how America has changed over the past four decades.

Final Decision: Rocky contains the best dramatic and character development of the series and is deserving of its place in American cinematic history.

Rocky II: For some reason, I had never seen this movie before now. I guess I know why now - it's really not a great film, probably the second worst in the series (behind Rocky V, of course). The central conflicts (both internal and external) are not as compelling as they could (or should) have been; it's full of gaps of logic and inexplicable character changes; and it's about a half-hour too long with far too many overly draggy dramatic scenes. The first third of the film - after the first ten minutes, which inexplicably and indefensibly merely show the final ten minutes of Rocky - is spent watching Rocky fail at almost every conceivable basic enterprise of life - including reading from a cue card - while shying away from fighting because of the possibility of going blind from a punch, a fact that strangely goes unaddressed after he resolves to meet Apollo Creed for the inevitable rematch. The middle third of the film is spent watching Rocky train listlessly and then mope about Adrian being in a coma, which, despite the genuine drama of the situation, ends up mostly being tedious and uninteresting, save for a short confrontational scene between Mickey and Rocky in the hotel chapel. It seems like Stallone, like Rocky, is just going through the motions for the money with this fight.

Suddenly, Adrian wakes up and inexplicably changes her mind about Rocky fighting (very conveniently for the plot to move forward, I might add), at which point Rocky finally gets into fight mode and makes up 45,000 minutes of training in two training montages, one of which consists almost entirely of him as the Pied Piper of Philadelphia leading a mob of children up the famous steps from the first film. Then, ninety percent of the way into the film, we finally get to the fight, for which Rocky is ridiculously and inexcusably late and in no way in any mental or physical shape to compete or endure. We are treated to the climactic fight, which echoes the rest of the movie - a few inspired moments surrounded by lots of sloppy choices. complete with phantom punches, inconceivable rallies, and some of the worst boxing form ever on Rocky's part, but somehow he manages to withstand two knockdowns in the first two rounds (!) and go the distance. The last round is almost laughably bad, as both boxers are barely standing, with yet another inconceivable finish as Rocky [spoiler alert!] defeats Creed in what would undoubtedly be considered one of the sloppiest boxing matches of all time were it to have really happened. I tried to find a YouTube video of someone doing actual analysis of this fight, but I couldn't find it; internet, you have let me down yet again, so make this happen!

Final decision: Rocky II is a subpar sequel that mostly rehashes themes and images from the first movie without enough character development or memorable moments to make it worth the two hours it takes. There is really no reason to rewatch Rocky II, other than perhaps through select YouTube highlights, like this one:

Coming up - the delightfully kitschy 1980s supersequels Rocky III and Rocky IV: montages to hit theme songs; beloved characters die unexpectedly and arguably without much reason; and two of the most villainous movie villains ever grace the screen. Oh, and Rocky - not glasnost and perestroika - ends the Cold War, so there's that to look forward to.

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