Friday, January 19, 2007

Rocky Balboa

Movies about sport tend to find it difficult to avoid the realm of the cliche. Football in particular, has been vilified on the big screen, almost without exception. Some of you may remember a recent attempt by Hollywood to capture the Beautiful Game with what was meant to be the first episode of a trilogy: 'Goal: The Dream Begins'. If you need a lesson in sporting cliche, look no further. Goal did not score at the box office, and soon became a trilogy of one. However, there is at least one exception to footie's shameful coverage on the big screen, and that's 'Escape to Victory'. A classic matinee for a dreary afternoon', as The Simpsons might call it, 'Escape to Victory' was directed by John Huston, and featured a host of famous footie stars of the seventies, Pele, Bobby Moore and Ossie Ardiles among others. Bizarrely, but quite brilliantly, starring opposite these giants of the game were two icons of modern cinema: Michael Caine and, the American upstart goalkeeper, Sylvester Stallone.

Stallone's association with the beautiful game was renewed recently, albeit in a slightly less cinematic setting, when he visited Goodison Park to watch Everton draw one all with Reading last week. However, as he paraded the centre circle before the game, holding his Everton scarf aloft and smiling at the crowds, it was interesting to note the warm reaction he received. These are football fans after all, noted for their less than enlightened views, and well documented desire for cheap laughs.. and yet, Stallone was given respect. Whether this was due to the fans' memories of Escape to Victory, or the association with a certain Rocky character is unclear, but the affection was there, no doubt about it.

Sly has had a chequered career, spanning four decades now. Beginning with a few, ahem, bit parts, Sly worked as a jobbing actor in Hollywood for the early part of the seventies, playing Extra #252 in this, 'Man dancing in bar' in that. However, around 1975, he managed to sell a script he had been working on to MGM, on the condition that he be allowed play the lead role, and that script went on to be made into one of the great movies of the 70's. Lest we forget, the first 'Rocky' was nominated for ten academy awards, and Sly became only the third ever actor to be nominated for best screenplay, and best actor in the same year, following in the shoes of Orson Welles and Charlie Chaplin! Stallone didn't win either oscar, losing out to one of my all time favourites on both counts (Paddy Chayevsky wrote, and Peter Finch starred in Network), but Rocky won best picture, beating off the stiffest of competition from: 'Network', 'All the President's Men', 'Bound for Glory', and, wait for it... 'Taxi Driver'.

The rest of the seventies didn't smile quite so brightly on Stallone, and he struggled to find a niche in Hollywood, choosing to make a Rocky sequel, which certainly met with less critical acclaim, even if the audience more or less demanded the second episode. Oh, and the third, this time with Mr. T providing the opposition.. Then came the 80's, and the really quite entertaining 'First Blood'. The John Rambo character has permeated the global consciousness so completely by this stage that it seems strange to think his origins were so small in scale. However, in First Blood, Stallone demonstrated a capacity to play the role the 80's would be remembered for: action hero.

Stallone arguably defined two of the greatest cinematic icons of the 80's with two movies in 1985. First came 'Rambo: First Blood Part II', a bloody actioner with a high body count of faceless terrorists, which became a world-wide phenomenon. Then 'Rocky IV', where Sly single-handedly ended the cold war by knocking Dolph Lundgren down. What a guy.

So, the 80's were good to Stallone. However, maintaining a successful run has always been tough for Sly, and, the 90's were something of a bumpy ride. There were highs, including 'Cliffhanger', 'Cop Land', and, um, 'Antz'. But there were also the lows, such as the pretty dreadful 'Daylight', the insultingly bad 'Judge Dredd' and of course the nadir: 'Rocky V'. Stallone may have gotten complacent with the fifth episode of the franchise, or he may simply have wanted rid of the balboa character. Either way, a brain-damaged Rocky, losing fights in the street to local punks was not what audiences wanted, and Rocky V was universally vilified, by audiences and critics alike.

So amid all the amazing highs of his career, Stallone has also had some pretty deep lows to get through. His recent flops include some really desperately poor movies ('Driven', 'Oscar', and unbelievably 'Stop, or my Mom will Shoot') and the 00's have until now, provided only one real role of note for Stallone, in, um.. 'Spy Kids 3'...

So if anything, Stallone has demonstrated an unswerving ability to keep going, to dust himself up after another failure, and attempt once again to reinvent his career. I've said it before, but Hollywood, as well as the cinema audience, loves a good reinvention. And a comeback, well, that's the stuff of romance.

Rocky Balboa is an affectionate addition to the series, possibly Stallone's attempt to exorcise the ghost of his unfortunate previous Rocky outing. What is made clear in the first half of the movie is that Balboa is older now, but wiser. He is coherent, he owns a restaurant, but he has perhaps developed into the unenviable role of 'former champ', telling stories of his former glories to his clients as they dine, and so familiar are his customers with his boxing stories, they say the punchlines with him. (no pun intended).

Balboa junior is grown up now, and making his way in the world. Paulie, played by Burt Young, is older now, and in obvious fear of retirement. And as for Adrian, well, she's no longer on the scene, having passed away some years before.

In 'Rocky Balboa', the current heavyweight champ, Mason Dixon, is unpopular, and the sport of boxing is in decline. A popular sports channel runs a computer simulation of Rocky in his prime, fighting Dixon and winning, putting the idea in Rocky's head that maybe one more fight wouldn't be a bad idea...

I got the feeling that Stallone was putting a lot of himself on screen, finding parallels between Rocky's struggle and his own. Indeed, the larger than life character has been responsible for Stallone's greatest successes. Now, however, Stallone is 60, and facing the prospect of decline. In the first half of the movie, Rocky is pretty much an aging former champ, and a slightly tragic character.

However, you know what's coming in Rocky Balboa. In 'Team America', Trey Parker and Matt Stone presciently pointed out that in movies, when you need to move things along, you need a montage, and no movies can do montages like the Rockies. From the moment Rocky begins training, the audience is on familiar ground. However, I would argue that this is what we want to see.. Rocky deserved a more fitting end than the previous episode, and with Rocky Balboa, Stallone has delivered exactly that.

The fact is, whether you like it or not, Rocky is a true cinematic icon. This movie is a real attempt to move the character on, and when the aging Rocky decides to go fight again, Stallone's script almost manages to make it even seem semi-plausible... (Apart from the licence application hearing, but who's counting that!?)

Rocky's straight-forward message is that no matter how often you get hit, you pick yourself up and you keep going. I can't help thinking that this is representative of what Stallone also believes, given the chequered career, and mixed reaction he has had over its course.

So, if you have already decided to go and see Rocky, then I can tell you, you probably know what to expect, so you won't be disappointed. If you're thinking twice about it, then perhaps this recommendation won't sway your decision, but you will get an affectionate Rocky sequel for your money, and you'll leave the cinema with a smile on your face. Although it's loaded with cliche, Hollywood-style cheese-laden dialogue, and as predictable a movie as you'll ever see, I found it tough to stay mad at these familiar characters for long, and just enjoyed this pure escapist popcorn flick for the hour and a half's light entertainment it provided. It ain't 'Escape to Victory' folks, but it's sure better than Rocky 5!

The verdict: Yo, adrian! It's Rocky. Don't expect too much!
The rating: 6/10

1 comment:

Anita said...

Ooh, this post needs 'Eye of the Tiger' to start playing when you click on it!

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