Six Different Ways of Looking at a Balboa
"Rocky! Boy, that's a picture I wish I had made," Frank Capra declared in an interview in early 1977, just as the movie that launched Sylvester Stallone's career into the stratosphere was nominated for ten Academy Awards. "I think it's the best picture of the last ten years. It's got my vote for the Oscars all the way down the line." (For the record, the film ended up winning three, including Best Picture).
That the saga of the "Italian Stallion" was ever linked to the legendary Capra, or with such grandiose talk, might surprise anyone who came of age cinematically after Rocky IV was released (given the way the title character became more and more of a superhero over the course of the first four films, it might also surprise younger viewers to know that the "Stallion" nickname was ironic in the first film, signifying the gap between the fighter's PR hype and his sadder reality). Roger Ebert rightly noted in his review of the fourth Rocky, "It's tempting to forget how good the original "Rocky" was, back in 1976...with "Rocky IV," almost all of the human emotions have been drained out of the series, and what's left is technology."
when visiting Philly years later, that Rocky's only rival as city icon was Ben Franklin, who never had the guts to face him in the ring). I didn't eat raw eggs for breakfast, get screamed at by my tiny Irish stereotype of a trainer, or even have pet turtles to whom I talked (just a series of dogs, and a couple of guinea pigs).
But I did tape the films off of television, and watched them repeatedly. I did have the soundtrack to the first film on a well-worn cassette (until it was devoured by the heads of my Walkman). I'm mentioning this outdated technology here because I want to emphasize what an analog hero Rocky was to me as a kid (at least at his best). That the films were, in so many ways, impossible fantasies, didn't matter to tween me-- what sold them was how human they felt.
Like other movie totems of my childhood (primarily the Spielberg and Lucas films), the Rocky series was a fantasy avatar that worked as a gateway into slowly understanding film history: If Star Wars and Indiana Jones introduced me to science fiction, movie serials, and Humphrey Bogart (among many other things), the Rocky films segued me into sports movies, films about the city (any city-- "the city" as its own character), 70s "New" Hollywood, film noir, and, yes, Frank Capra. They also thrilled the part of me that day-dreamed about matching the character's strength and speed, and longed for his inspirational arc (the part of me that also read comics, in other words).
As Creed hits theaters this week, and connects Oscar talk to the Rocky series for the first time in nearly forty years, it's worth noting that we're about the same distance from the original film as that movie was from Capra classics like Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington in 1976. Will the acclaim of the Michael B. Jordan vehicle work the same trick on new viewers that the original Rocky movies did on me, and cause them to seek out its inspirations?
What follows is my take on the first six films in the Rocky series, running the voodoo down from tomato can to champ.
6. Rocky IV (1985)
Robert Stigwood weep. All of these things are problems, yes, but none of them are the problem.
The problem, of course, is Paulie's Robot Friend.
You remember Paulie, right? Brother of Adrian (Talia Shire), Rocky's girlfriend-then-wife? As played by Burt Young in the first Rocky, Paulie is vicious, rude, abusive--and yet always human. The cruelties and kindnesses of his personality, all the hopes and resentments and dreams and failures, cannot be separated from one another. Young-- the Strasberg-trained Method actor, painter and writer whose bruised heart also graced The Pope of Greenwich Village, Chinatown, The Sopranos, and many other classics--was central to establishing both the first film's mise-en-scene (his face signifies so much about Rocky's neighborhood) and its deliberately uneasy blend of brutality and hope.
Giving him a robot companion, then--making him the boozy, middle-aged, South Philly equivalent of Bill Mumy on Lost in Space--suggests better than anything how tired and even hostile the imaginations of Rocky's creators had become. Rocky IV is the New Coke of the series-- another ugly memory of 1985 whose smug, corporatized, drink-it-and-like it shift on a successful formula opened with a bang but was eventually rejected as an unneeded and unwelcome aberration. I mean, I knew this when I was twelve (and yes, I was a fairly precocious twelve, but nevertheless...).
When Ebert said the film had become sheer mechanization, he wasn't kidding: Aside from his delight at James Brown's hamming it up before the Apollo Creed/Ivan Drago fight, I'm not sure Sylvester Stallone smiles once in this film. And that's a crime, because Rocky has a great smile-- it's his chief vehicle for entering so many lives and places where he might not belong. Instead, there are many close-ups of glowers, and frowns, and "I've gotta save this country" self-serious expressions, as Rocky drives/broods/grunts/lifts logs/establishes eternal détente. These are often inter-cut with flashbacks to the earlier, better films, a cruel reminder to viewers trapped watching Rocky IV of everything the new film is missing. None of the Rocky films--and few films of the decade, period--better embody the most craven and empty elements of the 1980s' go-go ethos better than Rocky IV; given how that approach completely inverts everything that matters about the series, it's not hard to understand how the movie signaled a turn toward mediocrity that Stallone wouldn't exit for years.
5. Rocky V (1990)
Oh, what a missed opportunity this film is.
Five years after Rocky IV forever resolved the military and diplomatic differences between the United States and the USSR (a resolution so successful that the Soviet Union itself would cease to exist by 1991-- "Rocky! Rocky!," indeed!), Sylvester Stallone came back with this well-intended, deeply flawed entry in the series. Stallone starred in and wrote this entry, but--crucially--did not direct it, as he had the last three entries in the Rocky saga. Instead, that task fell to John G. Avildsen, the craftsman who'd previously made his mark with such films as Joe (1970), Save The Tiger (1973), the first two Karate Kid films (1984 and 1986)-- and, most notably, the first Rocky, for which he'd won a best director Oscar 13 years earlier.
It was a signal that Stallone, after three increasingly cartoonish sequels, wanted to take the character back to his narrative and tonal roots. This idea was further enhanced by the film's poster, which showed the character punching his fist in the air while wearing the leather jacket and hat he sported back in '76. Tired of Rocky battling Mr. T and He-Man? Then this is the Rocky movie for you!
But look at that poster again. It's not just working-class Rocky reaffirming his humanistic bonafides: behind him is another image of the boxer, slightly-bloodied-but-unbeaten, in front of an American flag. It's an image that recalls the excesses of Rocky IV, and the split personality of the poster art symbolizes so much about the good and bad of Rocky V itself.
Despite its bad reputation and its 28% approval rating on that Cahiers du Cinema of the internet, Rotten Tomatoes, Rocky V is not without its good points. Many of them, in fact: In its admirable desire to get the character back to a more believable space after the "grunting robot ox" humorlessness of Rocky Drago, it actually hits its mark more than you might imagine. The film picks up almost immediately after the last one (a trick Avildsen had also used on the second Karate Kid movie), with Rocky in the shower back in the Soviet Union, but starting to experience dizzy spells and blackouts. When he returns home, a trip to the doctor confirms the worst-- years of boxing, not just as a champion but a club fighter for years before that, have caused serious neurological damage, and Balboa must retire from the ring. Financially, this blow couldn't come at a worse time-- unscrupulous accountants have made away with all of his prizefight earnings. After a decade of wealth and privilege, he and his family must return to the run-down neighborhood where the series began. Adrian even returns to work in the pet shop where we first saw her way back when. It's an interesting and poignant idea: What does it mean to have to start over, when you can't even use the skill set that got you out in the first place?
And that last part begins to suggest where Rocky V falls apart. Yes, the scene of Rocky in a fugue state at home, watching new guy Tommy (real-life boxer Tommy Morrison) get his shot while Rocky shadow-boxes to himself, is quite touching and eerie (and Stallone-- who as a writer often underrates himself as an actor--plays it beautifully); but what is Tommy doing in the movie at all?
It's not just that Morrison is not a good actor, or that Don King knock-off "George Washington Duke," the evil fight manager who moves in and steals Tommy away from Rocky's training, feels so out of place (and by now, so dated) amidst the movie's earnest attempts to get back to the realistic textures of the original (he's expertly cartooned in by Richard Gant, though-- it's not the actor's fault the part is a mess). It's that--echoes of Burgess Meredith aside (and I mean that literally-- one of the most awkward elements of the movie is "Ghost Mickey" periodically showing up as a manifestation of Rocky's brain damage, offering sage advice. I'm certain late-period Capra would have loved it)--there's no reason for Rocky V to bring in a young fighter to re-boot our memories of egg drinks and grungy gyms. It takes time away from the actors we've grown to love (who are doing better work here than in Rocky IV), and it detracts from the potential for Stallone to explore the mostly-untapped realm (at least in 1990) of the fading and forgotten athlete.
4. Rocky II (1979)
cattle, from the first film to the third, from one segment of the serial to the next. It wants to fill in the blanks. This it does, and it does it with some degree of wit and grace. What Rocky II really has going for it is its fierce desire to extend the humanistic exploration of the first film's characters into new realms-- marriage, parenthood, the costs of fame and the pressures of unresolved dreams. Those are great themes, and Rocky II was blessed by its timing: it fell just between the re-birth of studio-driven blockbuster culture that Star Wars and Rocky had initiated in 1976/1977, but before that culture would fully take hold in the 1980s (and arguably take the Rocky series with it). Thus, it could allow itself to be quirky (to have Rocky stop off at his priest's for a blessing before a fight, or to have a lengthy segment where Rocky learns just how hard it is to film a commercial). It could allow itself small visual touches that might have seemed odd in the MTV montages that the 80s Rockys increasingly became (Rocky exhaustedly chasing a chicken-- an historical bit taken from Joe Louis' training routines--remains a cardinal image of the film for me). It could take its time to remind us of who Rocky, Adrian, and Paulie were, and it could linger as long as it liked on the map-of-the-world face of Burgess Meredith, who is even better here--more textured, funnier, but without losing his grit--than he is in the first film.
So what's the problem? It might sound contradictory-- hey, maybe it is!--but the film almost lingers too long on all of these notes. There's so much going on in Part 2 that it feels less like a movie than a compressed TV miniseries (Roots had stormed television in early 1977 while Rocky was holding moviegoers in thrall, and watching Rocky II, it's not hard to imagine Stallone looking at its brilliant density and wanting to craft a similar epic for his ensemble; the opening credits even look and feel a bit more like a '70s TV show than a movie). There's no pace to Rocky II-- if its goal was to capture the anti-climactic, "what now?" ennui of its characters, then Mission Accomplished, but it makes for a more enervating viewing experience than with the two films on either side of it. It might be hard to believe in this day and age (and especially because Sylvester Stallone played such a large role in changing things) but sequels were still considered something of a rarity for "serious" filmmakers in Hollywood, particularly in the late 70s. There were the Bond films, and other serialized stories in previous decades of filmmaking; but Rocky had won Best Picture, and the only real model at the time for that kind of follow-up was The Godfather, Part II. That film needed its size, though, to get at the richness and depth of its meaning, and Coppola knew exactly how to structure it. Stallone-- making only his second film as a director--does a good job, but can't always keep all of his balls in the air.
But there's one thing that Rocky II has that none of the other films do-- Carl Weathers' Apollo Creed in full rage. That alone elevates it above Rockys IV and V.
I love Carl Weathers. I've written at length about how his talent, charisma, and wit completely upset the moral calculus of the Rocky-verse, particularly its sometimes-odd racial politics. Take a minute to imagine the Rocky films from Creed's perspective: rather than the often lovely, sometimes strained "little guy" narratives they often centered on, they could've been both rollicking comedies about the joys of fame, and thoughtful dramas about race and media, and the difficulties for a black athlete in the 1970s to constantly exist in the spotlight (in these imagined version of the films, the Rocky-as-underdog narrative becomes something forced and vaguely sinister in its coding). And the beauty of Weathers-- a fantastic actor who never again got a role as potentially complex as this one-- is that he could play in those imaginary films and the more cartoonish ones he was actually in, and make his character grounded and real in both: you can't take your eyes off of him.
Rocky II provides closure for a large portion of the original film's audience, who (spoiler alert!) finally get to see their hero win the belt. But more intriguingly, it also makes Apollo Creed the film's most complex and tragic character-- he's a man wracked by guilt over not taking the fight seriously the first time, whose insecurity over what might happen next dovetails with his knowledge that the sports press won't hesitate to push a "Great White Hope" narrative more fiercely this time around. Creed was explicitly based on Muhammad Ali (when Ali watched the film in 1979, he gleefully knew this), and it's to Stallone's credit as a writer that he crafts an opponent whose depths and pains are arguably more resonant than the title character's. When Creed tells his wife he has to fight Rocky again because, in the first fight, "I won, but I didn't BEAT him," it carries with it an unspoken American history of race, sports, hype, and the sometimes toxic relationship between all three. The series would never again go this deep or textured on sports and race (at least not until Creed, which I still have not seen), but I am grateful that, amidst the big, baggy spaces of Rocky II, there is made plenty of room for it.
3. Rocky Balboa (2006)
By 2006, 30 years after the first film, the Rocky movies had a formula, from which the series only rarely varied.
1. The ringing Bill Conti horns. You know the ones. They play over a scrolling title, each a slight variation on the last, to gie you a sense of where the character is at the beginning of each new chapter. It can feel a bit pompous, but it thrusts you into the tone of the Rocky-verse as surely as the text at the start of a Star Wars movie.
2. The first scene. Usually a carry-over from what we'd seen in the previous film. Since, for a long time, the films came out every three years or so, it acted as a nice refresher, before the next scene took us to...
3. The Second Scene/Montage of Change. Either one scene or a montage of moments to suggest new textures in Rocky's life. The most famous (and arguably the best) version of this is in Rocky III, as "Eye of the Tiger" compresses three years of fights and fame into 3 1/2 minutes. Variations include the hospital scene in Rocky II, and the unfortunate and aforementioned Paulie Robot in Rocky IV.
4. The Fall From Grace. Rocky's a good guy, but he gets into jams. These jams often center on romance and family (Will Adrian still love me? Will Mickey still love me? Mickey's DEAD. Apollo's DEAD) or financial need. The crisis of conscience always manifests itself in physical pain, and can also only be resolved by physical pain. Which brings us to...
5. The Reason So Many of Us Go To These Films, aka, the Most Famous Montages in Post-War Hollywood. "Gonna Fly Now." You know the rest. One of the chief stylistic signs of Rocky IV's artistic failure is its musical betrayal of this ritual.
6. The Victory. Please note that this victory doesn't have to be literal. It's a spiritual victory, at least in the best of the Rocky films.
7. The Kicker. These post-fight scenes began with Rocky III, where it was charming, and continued in Rockys IV and V, where they were more of a mixed bag.
I'm mentioning this, not just as a kind of mid-text colonic, but because one could argue that Rocky Balboa is not a "Rocky movie" at all, at least not if one follows this formula religiously. Maybe that's why I liked it so much.
Released sixteen years after the supposed commercial "failure" of Rocky V (which was actually quite profitable overseas), Rocky Balboa, like its titular hero, doesn't worry so much about following the schedule anymore. Finally fulfilling the missed opportunity of Rocky V, Balboa finds Rocky relatively at ease with aging, and it looks really good on Sylvester Stallone, whose charm, humor and grace come through for the first time since 1993's Demolition Man.
At the same time, the film allows for a certain amount of sadness. There is no montage of victorious moments at the beginning. Rocky gets up, feeds his turtles (who we see for the first time in ages), does a couple of pull-ups (an almost self-parodic, and very winning, acknowledgement of Stallone's advanced shape), then heads for the cemetery. Adrian is gone.
2. Rocky III (1982)
And yet...here we are. Is it a matter of the first cut being the deepest? As I said at the start, Rocky III was the first of the films I saw. Seeing it on a big screen in the summer of '82 is still a powerful cinephilic memory for me, one linked to other films of the period (E.T., Star Trek II, The Secret of Nimh, and all the other movies you might expect a nine-year old Starlog reader to love), as well as memories of the Michigan lakeshore where we often spent part of our summers, whose beaches I could imagine being similar to the ones Rocky and Apollo raced on. It was also about being initiated into something "adult"-- this was not a science fiction film (well, not technically), nor a Disney fantasy (again, not technically), but something about (at least to a nine-year old) seemingly "everyday" people and their lives. I was kind of enthralled.
But I don't think it's just nostalgia. I cued up the "Eye of the Tiger" montage on YouTube a moment ago, in order to link it above, and watching it again, I was still enthralled. This is incredibly slick movie-making, yes, but it's well-done, incredibly slick movie-making. And it's funny.
Humor has long been an overlooked part of the Rocky movies' power, perhaps because as the series progressed, there was less and less of it. But it's certainly there in force in the first two movies, and it a more mainstreamed way in this film. If the first Rocky film was about a quirky kind of internal monologue in Rocky's head that we as the audience were occasionally privy to (through gestures, mumbles to himself, off-hand remarks), each of the subsequent two films extended the range of that humorous circle, with the second finding the humor in Rocky's situation and responses to its press coverage, and the third injecting the whole structure with a kind of oddball charm.
1. Rocky (1976)
In the beginning, there was blood. And it was gross.
It's important to emphasize just how graphic a movie the first Rocky is. It's not just the boxing--although the first scene, shown above, gives some sense of how much bloodier and guts-filled the fight scenes in Rocky are (my mother saw this movie when she was pregnant with my sister, after being told how uplifting it was. She has vivid memories of these scenes as not being terribly conducive to the late stages of carrying a child)-- it's the entire universe that screenwriter Stallone and director John G. Avildsen create together. Everything is incredibly textured, and not afraid to be unpleasant-- from the chipped paint of apartment walls, to grimy floors of Adrian's pet shop, to the worn threads (and truly eye-sored patterns) of Rocky's ubiquitous beige diamond sweater, this is a film that feels lived in. Which is different, it's also important to note, than feeling "real."
I think that's essentially correct, but it overlooks how well Rocky uses the city itself as a character (two cities, actually-- it's very low, $1 million budget meant that only parts of the film could actually be shot in Philadelphia locations, with a large chunk being shot in L.A.). The grid-like frames (and Avildsen's really wonderful use of tight close-ups, to make characters feel trapped in their environs, like that bird in the cage above), the inky shadows that characters float in and out of (the filmmakers using low-budget to good tonal effect), the glittering wetness of boozy, uncleaned streets--"Philadelphia" is not just where the characters physically live, but a hyper-real mental and emotional space, too. And they're desperate to get out, in any way they can. It's what makes the long shots and mobile framing exhilarating as Rocky--both character and film--progresses: we're so tightly wrapped with the characters via writing and direction that we want freedom, too.
Given the film's careful attention to slowly building detail, it's the little moments that linger in the memory-- how Rocky smiles at Adrian and wiggles his eyebrows a bit like Groucho Marx to make her laugh; the date at the skating rink (much more than the final fight, this is the film's real climax); the sadness of Rocky's lament to Mickey about feeling abandoned years ago, and wondering why everyone want to "help" him now; the wilting fight posters on the wall of Mickey's gym; the surreal staging of the fight's minor characters, with an eerily body-painted Lady Liberty holding up round cards; the cold gray morning in the middle of the movie, when Rocky can't run up in the steps in victory.
The first Rocky is stark, and at times difficult to watch. It's not afraid to go to dark visual and emotional places, and to be grubbily in your face about it; it owes as much to mid-50s Preminger (and earlier Depression playwrights like Clifford Odets) as it does to the triumphal, TV Olympics aesthetics with which the character would soon be associated. It's a film that treasures its ironies, right down to the outcome of its last fight. And, paradoxically, that's why I feel so close to it, why I can't seem to look away from it (and the series as a whole): Even as it sometimes repulses, its openness and heart--its understanding that "going the distance" means going everywhere, even into contradiction--make it irresistable.