The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Rocky Balboa (2006)

Everything old is new again…

This is turning into a really interesting movie season. First, James Bond came back to life in “Casino Royale,” and now, Sylvester Stallone dug down into some hitherto unsuspected inner vault, and discovered that an old and dear friend had been lurking there, waiting, for 25 years or so. An old boxer. Guy named Balboa.

Not sure who Stallone was playing in Rocky III, IV, and V. The movie “Rocky II” was decent, but too obviously an actor discovering that being a star is easier. As the films went on, he looked less and less like a lovable pug, and more like a movie star playing one, with bodybuilder physique and all.

Rocky III is a terrific movie, with great training montages, and a brutal adversary you love to hate. Stallone was sharp enough to understand the potential race-baiting aspect of casting Mr T (and having him proposition Rocky’s wife!) and so brought Apollo Creed back to train him…and not out of some urge to be a Spiritual Guide, but because he thought he could make a bundle. And wanted Rocky as a friend. But Rocky III wasn’t really a FILM in the way the original movie was.

The original Rocky wasn’t about a boxer. It was about a lonely man who needed life to give him a chance, which it did in the form of love, the shy, sweet Adrian, who became the center of his life. With Adrian at his side, life finally unfolded its sweetness to him. A man of limited intellect and vast heart, his struggle to stand tall and prove he wasn’t just “another bum from the block” resonated with audiences and critics alike.

We lost that Rocky as Stallone became a star. And then Stallone lost himself, consigned to direct-to-video oblivion after a string of terrible, terrible movie choices. I remember his last line in the movie “Driven,” a film in which they were so afraid of his sinking reputation that they barely put his face in the coming attractions. As the crowd applauds his protégée, Stallone says “enjoy it while it lasts, kid.” Man, I felt that.
For fifteen years, he’s felt that he let the audience down with the last two Rocky movies. And he’s desperately tried to find someone who would give him the chance to make good. And then, finally, it happened. The result, “Rocky Balboa,” picks up Rocky in his declining years (they never say, but I’m guessing that Rocky is about 53, based on comments made in the film. Stallone just turned 60, but if you think actors play their own age, you haven’t been paying attention.) His wife Adrian has died of “the woman cancer” and he just can’t move on, visiting her grave every day, running his restaurant—(beautifully titled “Adrian’s”) where he endlessly tells boxing tales to his customers. His brother in law Paulie is the same lovable nutball, and urges Rocky to live in the present. Rocky’s son avoids his father, slightly ashamed of, and intimidated by him.

Rocky is rotting inside, unable to find a reason to be, to live, to love anything but death.Then, one slow piece at a time, he comes back to life. Meeting a girl from the old neighborhood (the one who memorably said “screw you, Creepo!”) who is now a single mother on the edge of homelessness, and taking her and her son under his wing begins to melt the ice around his heart. A computer-animated boxing match between him and the current champion makes him curious to see if he can still box, still do this one thing he did well in his life, the one thing that defined him most fully. And when the Champ, desperate for a change in his public personae, offers Rocky an exhibition match (promising to go easy on him), Rocky sees a chance at salvation.

Not for an instant do they avoid the fact that Rocky is past his prime. Stallone doesn’t try to look like a body-builder. He looks like an older, competitive athlete, his bulky, awkward, chiseled body more a work of nature than art. Stallone has always been underrated as an actor, but he did it to himself, going for the glory roles rather than the kinds of performances that might have stretched him. Then again, with his speech impediment, he was never gonna do Shakespeare anyway, was he?

This movie isn’t perfect. There are awkward lulls, pacing problems, imperfect shots, moments of thin performance…but by the time the Rocky Theme plays, and he begins training for what Paulie—and the audience—desperately hopes are the last rounds of his life, my heart was completely with him. Rarely have I seen an actor/filmmaker put himself so nakedly on the screen, admitting to the world that he fell far, far short of his potential and in many ways abused the audience’s trust. Rarely have I seen someone who fell so low rise so high in a single step.

This is not a great movie, or a great film. But it is a perfect bookend to the original, it is entertaining as hell, and Stallone, in Rocky, created a great character who finally has the ending he always deserved.

This, in my opinion, is Art, the true expression of one man or woman at one moment in their lives, filtered through considerable craft. I am overjoyed to have seen it.Welcome back, Rock. And please, God, good night.

An “A.”

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