Tuesday, January 2, 2007

FILM Rocky Balboa


In a semi-autobiographical parable, Rocky Balboa is serving to revive Sylvester Stallone’s career. If the first Rocky film charted Stallone’s struggle to make it as an actor (he wouldn’t sell the script unless he could star in the movie), Rocky Balboa takes the point of view of a successful has-been who decides he’s not done yet. Directed as well as written by Stallone, it is chock full of nostalgia. Talia Shire’s Adrian has died from “women’s cancer” and, when he’s not visiting her grave, Rocky is content being a local celebrity who tells tales of his former glory in his restaurant. On the anniversary of her death, he travels to all the locations from the first film that have since been torn down and he remembers how things used to be. It may as well be Stallone looking back on all his successful action movies (including five previous Rocky films), and now unable to find an appropriate vehicle unless he makes it for himself.

So a computer program says that Rocky in his prime would beat the current champ Mason Dixon, a Mike Tyson-like fighter who knocks people out quickly and alienates audiences. Rocky decides to get back in the game, despite the protests of a son who’s trying to succeed in business without the embarrassment of his father’s doomed comeback. As soon as you can say “training montage,” we’re back in Rockyland, complete with that awesome soundtrack.

Could a 50something boxer last 10 rounds in the ring with a boxer in his prime? Doesn’t matter, because the music and editing take your mind off of any questions of veracity. This is, after all, an emotional journey and nothing close to a documentary.

The only place where Stallone stumbles is with the character “Little Marie,” a 30something (or older?) bartender who he used to walk home when she was eight. If this doesn’t immediately trigger strange Oedipal reactions against this coupling, the fact that he meets her on the anniversary of Adrian’s death is another warning sign. Either they’re sleeping together or they’re not, but when he brings her to Las Vegas for the exhibition match you gotta think something is going on. Their relationship is left deliberately vague and she barely talks, which means not only is Stallone using her as a stand-in for a love interest, so is Rocky himself.

If her character takes you out of the movie in a bad way, Burt Young’s Paulie takes you out of the movie in a great way. It’s hard to tell if it’s because Young is old and verging on senile or if that’s how he chose to play his part, but he is hilarious throughout. I hope the next sequel is all about Paulie. The way he barks his lines as though he just woke up, the way he spouts what sound like non-sequiturs, his whole shambling frame, everything about him is awesome to watch.

The success of Rocky Balboa, both critically and with audiences, has given Stallone a Rocky-like comeback. It’ll be interesting to see if he can do the same thing with the rumored sequel to his other iconic character from the Reagan-’80s, Rambo, especially since the political winds have shifted Democratically.


Andrew said...

Damn, man, you are on a tear. Nice work, as always. I'm finding myself liking Rocky more and more in hindsight, although it could have used more Paulie. Do you think Burt Young knew the camera was even on?

Andy Spletzer said...

It's a strange movie. It works even when your head says it shouldn't. The only part that doesn't work for me is the Little Marie character. No, I take that back. She's sort of fascinating, but is part of a very different movie. We expect our movie heroines to be strong and have faith in their own identity, but Little Marie is so passive. She has obviously survived a series of abusive relationships, yet can't help but be drawn back into them. The way she does everything Rocky says without complaining despite the fact that she has her own life is unsettling. Meanwhile, Rocky himself thinks he's doing what's best for her. And maybe he is. He certainly thinks so. Then there's Paulie, who chews up the scenery like a less famous, just as batshit crazy Brando.