He Coulda Been A Contender
By Noel Vera

Rocky Balboa
Dir: Sylvester Stallone (2006)

I was never a big fan of the "Rocky" movies. Built on the dreams of actor-writer Sylvester Stallone, wearing its big heart unabashedly on its sleeve, the first "Rocky" charmed audiences with the image of this big, gentle, slow-witted bruiser with the courtly manners and modest outlook in life who--as the boxing-movie cliché goes--"getsa shot adda tiddle."

Stallone captured the way ordinary folk talked and acted in Philadelphia, and he had in particular a feel for how big palookas think--how they're constantly aware that the world looks at them as freakish and grotesque and not a little stupid, how Rocky basically doesn't mind, so long as he has this small space for himself--an apartment, a turtle, not much else. Stallone's able to convince us that this might actually be a reasonable way of living after all, no small achievement.

Then it turns into a huge fairy-tale, and suddenly we're in rah-rah mode: Rocky pummels a beef carcass (must be how Philly cheesesteaks got so tender), runs up the Art Museum's stairs, does a little victory jig to the tune of Bill Conti's "Gonna Fly Now" number (with tremulous violin strings suggesting the thrill of the moment), and we believe this nobody can beat the heavyweight champion of the world.

To be fair, Stallone didn't pluck the idea for his screenplay out of thin air; he'd been inspired by the career of Chuck Wepner, a relative unknown who in 1975 had been given a chance to fight Muhammad Ali for the title. Wepner surprised everyone by lasting far longer than the expected three or four rounds, even knocking Ali down on the ninth (the only fighter to have knocked Ali down while he was the heavyweight champion); he lost to Ali on the fifteenth by a TKO.

You can see the basis for the story here, though Stallone couldn't resist polishing and even whitewashing the facts a little--Wepner had been a longtime professional and had fought noted boxers such as George Foreman and Sonny Liston before being given his title shot, and he was no innocent (in 1986 he was arrested for cocaine possession).

The second half is what most people remember, but it's the first half--that street world of pale, pasty faces wrapped tight against the Philly chill--that I liked best. If the basic rule of creative writing classes is to "write what you know," Stallone wrote about what he knew, and clearly loved; you could almost imagine him walking the neighborhoods, scribbling down funny lines from his friends and acquaintances for his hoped-for movie.

Then came the sequels and frankly I lost interest; they were set up as underdog fights against increasingly unbelievable comic-book villains (in "Rocky IV" the hero faced the Soviet Union itself, incarnated (petrified?) in the granite form of Dolph Lundgren), but the hero had long since lost his underdog status. If I followed the series at all, it was for the way the stories paralleled Stallone's own life, from relative unknown to Oscar nominee to celebrity fathead, jerk, and moviemaking joke in just a few years (his two Oscar nominations have since been buried under the far larger pile of Razzie nominations--twenty-nine in all, winning an impressive ten).

Doesn't take a genius to realize that Rocky was a stand-in for Stallone, and that the boxer's rise and fall in fortune was Stallone's way of working out his own rise and fall in status, only on his own terms, terms that existed solely in Stallone's head--everyone else has since grown tired of said terms, of the movies, of Stallone himself.

Cut to sixteen years after "Rocky V"--more or less agreed upon by people as being the worst in the series--and five years since Stallone had been given a lead role (his last was "Driven" (2001), a car-racing picture that made back only half of what it had cost). When news leaked out of a sixth "Rocky," reactions were more raised eyebrows and age jokes ("Who's he gonna fight--Wilford Brimley?") than any kind of serious expectations.

But things are different now; Stallone is no longer the celebrity he once was (if he's still a jerk or fathead, I wouldn't know--even tabloids don't bother covering him anymore), and in this latest installment he's finally found a suitably realistic foe--his own decaying body. Suddenly Stallone's slow delivery and weary, wary eyes have acquired a gravitas he lacked when young; he's gone back to his roots, in a way he failed to do in "Rocky V"--rediscovered the way Philly folk talk and walk, rediscovered the thought processes of someone aware of being seen as freakish, grotesque, not a little stupid.

It's the spell of the first film's first half evoked all over again, with the added pathos of nostalgia, of obsolescence--this Rocky is a dinner-party bore, reduced to repeating tedious boxing stories to a table of respectful listeners, helplessly aware that his son is slipping away from him, unable to resist taking his first date in years (Marie, played by Geraldine Hughes) to the same places he took his dead wife.

There's pathos and there's pathos, and then there's pathos. For the most part, I'm an emotional diabetic--syrupy bathos has an emetic effect on me. But beyond a certain point sentiment stops being cloying and starts being entertaining again--it's the sheer shamelessness that's the source of fascination. Will Stallone have Rocky caring for yet another pet turtle (the same one for all I know--turtles have a long lifespan)? Sure. Will he show yet another shot of Rocky visiting his wife's grave? Of course. Will he earn yet another "shot at the title?" Whaddaya think dis is--neorealism?


It's when the movie goes for that last cliché, complete with yet another training montage and set of beef ribs to be pummeled (More tenderized cheesesteaks! More cheesy music!) that it once again loses me. Stallone has the common touch; he knows--or knew, once upon a time--how to win over ordinary folk, how to move them, leave them cheering instead of jeering, and against all odds, he's recovered enough of that skill to make this movie, this "last shot at the title."

One wishes that along with that touch he'd developed enough of an artistic sensibility that he'd for once want to crack open his hero's psyche, take a look at what it means to be a champ who has lived past his sell-by date, in a section of the city that's been largely passed by; one wishes, in effect, that he'd picked this fairy tale apart, made new magic out of an aging carcass (instead of pummeling it anew), shown Rocky dealing (or failing to deal) with his wayward offspring instead of trying to beat sense into yet another black punk who don't know any better (Antonio Tarver, who onscreen seems to experience far more complex emotions than his underwritten role requires).

No such luck. And now the modest success of this latest sequel has apparently encouraged Stallone: there's news of a "John Rambo"--the umpteenth installment of Stallone's fascistic fantasy figure from the Vietnam War--coming in 2008. Yet another shot at the title, or his foot? Another comeback, or comeuppance? Stay tuned, if you happen to still be interested.

Note: First published in Businessworld, 03/30/07.
Comments? Email me at noelbotevera@hotmail.com

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April 13, 2007