The Theory of Chaos

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

MOVIE REVIEW - Rocky Balboa

Full review behind the jump

Rocky Balboa

: Sylvester Stallone
: Sylvester Stallone, based on characters created by Sylvester Stallone
: Kevin King, Charles Winkler, William Chartoff, David Winkler
: Sylvester Stallone, Burt Young, Antonio Tarver, Geraldine Hughes, Milo Ventimiglia, Tony Burton, A.J. Benza, James Francis Kelly III, Pedro Lovell

I’ve long said what makes
Jaws great is that the dramatic question at its heart goes “Can a cop who left the big city behind for a chance to make a difference overcome his worst fear when the people he’s protecting need him the most?” And what makes Jaws 2 lame is that its dramatic question goes “Can he kill a bigger shark than last time?

The original
Rocky took away from us the question of whether or not this nobody from a nothing neighborhood could beat the heavyweight champion of the world. He knew he couldn’t and said as much. It asked whether he could carry all this stuff – his poverty, the loss of his prime years, his shy, angry and hopeless friends, his loathsome job breaking thumbs for a gangster, the unease with himself he couldn’t put words to – if he could carry all that weight into the ring, take the beating, and stand up anyway.

The sequels only bothered to ask “
can he beat this new actor who is scarier than the last?” They became about boxing, rather than using boxing as a means to embody a feeling, and a message about how to take life’s blows. That first one was sentimental, often obvious, even a bit clumsy, but it seemed to come from someplace personal and real.

Like the grizzled trainer Mickey said: “
Ya got heart, but you fight like a god-damn ape.” That Sylvester Stallone, who has written every episode of this series and directed four of them, is not a subtle dramatist, is not something you condemn him for in that first movie, because he said something that mattered to him. In Rocky Balboa, the sixth and final movie about Philadelphia’s favorite fictional underdog, it finally feels like he’s re-captured something we felt from that first one. That with the advance of age, the loss of his position atop the box office totem pole, the humbling of so many inferior movies, he finally has something urgent to convey to us again, and he’s remembered how his screen alter ego helped him do that before.

When we catch up with Rocky his beloved Adrian is dead, and his son (Milo Ventmiglia) has a hard time creating his own adulthood in a town where everyone feels first-name intimacy with his pop. He spends long hours by his wife’s grave, and touring the important places in her life. He owns a restaurant named after her, where every night he puts on a red blazer and goes from table to table, posing for cell phone camera pictures and telling old stories about his wars in the ring.

Something about his lumpy face, the cut of his jacket, made me think of those Hall of Fame ceremonies for pro sports, where you see the toll these men’s glories took on them, and a kind of shuffling unease that comes from never quite knowing what to do with themselves even now that it’s been over for decades. It’s the things Rocky can’t or won’t put words to that are most compelling about him.

You can see the thought quietly build on itself, as he starts to think maybe there’s something left he could take back into the ring – little, local exhibition fights, he’s thinking. It just so happens that at the time, the reigning heavyweight champion, Mason “The Line” Dixon (Antonio Tarver) is struggling to prove his bona fides. He’s undefeated and holds four of those shiny belts, but he’s loathed by boxing fans because, with the dearth of modern competition, he’s never faced a real challenge.

I wanted to get more inside the skin of Dixon, who has his own interesting story about how he was peeled away from the trainer who really mentored him, and now is practically a prisoner of the handlers and hangers-on that always spawn around successes like him. But his story is handled as pure brisk stereotype, his “friends” indistinguishable from background actors in rap videos, his managers the same old slick conmen.

A computer simulation is making its way around ESPN, showing that, were they able to meet in their prime, Rocky Balboa would have knocked out Mason Dixon. He’s smaller and less technically-skilled, but knew how to take a beating, and the power in his fist always gave him the “puncher’s chance” to take out a seemingly superior opponent. Dixon doesn’t understand how this could be so – it eats at him, and suddenly what should happen seems obvious.

Tarver is a real-life boxer, and what authenticity he brings to the ring action is hampered by his lack of screen charisma. But in a way that’s the point – he’s no Apollo Creed, simply an excellent ring athlete who’s never learned that competition is not about beating others, but about testing yourself. Stallone, who clearly put painful hours into muscling up his sixty-year-old body, by now can wear Rocky’s slouch, his “how you doin’?” and his porkpie hat like skin. You can sense the relief that he doesn’t have to be an icon anymore or battle communism, he can just be the guy from Philly again.

The movie’s still a little too clean and nice, Paulie (Burt Young) no longer has enough of the self-pitying monster in him to throw the Thanksgiving turkey into the alley. Only once in awhile does his front as the loveable grump who Doesn’t Really Mean It crack, and we see the rage still inside. And Rocky is a little too full of punchy wisdom and platitudes. He had a charmingly peculiar way of speaking that flattened the more Hollywood he went, the nibbles we get of it here are welcome, because they remember that he said more when he was less sure of what he was saying.

Much of the movie has a retirement tour feel to it – characters from the original popping up in new configurations, letting us see what’s become of them. It’s a recognition by Stallone that he really created a world when he drew on his own memories, the people he’d grown up with, to dash off that rough first script; and we invested in that world. The end credits show men, women, children of all ages re-enacting his signature moment, dashing up the Museum of Art steps, shadowboxing, and throwing hands in the air in triumph. Much has passed between that run and the run he makes in Rocky Balboa; and for all its rough simplicity, it still has the power to charm because it remembers that this movie is about how much has happened since that first run.


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