Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Rocky films

A couple years ago, I came to realize I had never seen a Sylvester Stallone film beyond Demolition Man. I think I was too young and too female when Rambo and Rocky Balboa were in their prime to take any real notice. I certainly knew who both of them were, and I distinctly remember my great aunt being very much in love with Sly, but that was about where it ended. As you've probably figured out by now, the moment I notice a glaring omission in my knowledge is the moment I set out to fix it.

I started with First Blood, aka the first Rambo film. Underwhelmed is probably the most apt description for how I felt. I was really looking forward to a sort of twist on the Predator/Alien/Slasher idea where the guy doing the hunting and killing is actually the hero. But for the most part I found it very slow moving and not particularly interesting. The end scene, where Rambo breaks down and cries, was completely laughable to me. How am I supposed to feel for a character when I can't understand what he's saying?

Determined to try again, I rented The Expendables. My hopes were much lower this time around given the extremely mixed reviews it got. Count me on the side of those who didn't care for it. Too many characters were underused, the story was weak, the dialogue laughable, and Sly and Mickey Rourke look like freak-shows with their plastic surgery and botox. The scene with Bruce Willis and Arnold was exceptionally bad. On the other hand, Jason Stathom is pretty good in it, and it was nice to see Charisma Carpenter in a feature film. Unfortunately that's about all I can give it.

The way I saw it, Stallone had one last chance before I gave up on him completely. It was time to watch Rocky for the first time ever. I don't like sports. I dislike boxing even more than a lot of them, as it's basically just two guys giving each other brain damage, as far as I'm concerned. So I was kind of expecting to hate it. Imagine my surprise when I slowly fell in love with Rocky Balboa.

Particularly in the first film, there's something sort of hopelessly adorable about him. He's the lovable loser - not too bright, orphaned, not much luck with his fighting career, and a bit goofy when it comes to trying to impress the shy girl he likes, Adrian. That last bit in particular really got me. Perhaps it's because I know exactly what it's like to be as shy as Adrian was, but the idea of a guy coming in to my work every day to tell me another silly joke makes me swoon. Not to mention how he goes out of his way to try to give her the perfect date, even though everything keeps going wrong. By the time he said, "I wanna kiss ya. Ya don't have to kiss me back if you don't feel like it," that was it. I love this guy! Rocky shouting Adrian's name has been absorbed into pop culture to the point where we all already know about it even if we haven't seen a single film. It was such a nice surprise to see there was actually a really touching love story behind it that continues throughout the entire series.

Usually I would wait and review these things one or two movies at a time, but I was so enamored with it that I actually watched all six films over the course of about a month and a half. They're all fairly structured in the same way that I figured it would be easiest to talk about all of them at once. Rocky starts out at the bottom and works his way up to the top, while also interacting with Adrian, her brother Paulie, and eventually their son Robert. You might think it's impossible for Rocky to be at the bottom at the start of each and every film, but in actuality, it works really well because he always hits bottom in a number of different ways, i.e. going into debt, being seen as a has been, or losing someone he loves. He has to find a way to believe in himself and get to the ring for the big fight. He's not always guaranteed victory either, as you might expect. Of course, even when Rocky loses, he's still a winner for going the distance.

The first film is a little slow moving at times, but otherwise highly enjoyable. I found myself a little confused by Apollo Creed, mostly because sometimes he seemed like an okay guy, and other times a flat out villain. This flirting the line between good and bad continues for the first three films, as he demands a rematch from Rocky in the second film and then becomes his coach in the third. I think the source of the problem may just be that Carl Weathers plays him as such a likeable guy that even when he's being a jerk, you still want to like him.

I think what I enjoyed most about the third film was seeing Mr. T before he became a caricature of himself. He's still the Mr. T we all know and love but not nearly as over the top. This is also where "Eye of the Tiger" came from. I guess Stallone felt like he needed something a little more than the Rocky theme. I really like that theme, by the way. I just can't believe it actually has words. I've heard that theme used in so many different things before, and it really does sort of inspire you and get you all excited. But "Getting strong now"? "Gonna fly now"? Just a bit silly. Of course, watching those kids run behind him in the second film while it was playing made it all the more hilarious. So it was nice to hear "Eye of the Tiger" instead when the third film came around.

I also found it hilarious that when Rocky fights Hulk Hogan (referred to as Thunderlips here and playing a great parody of professional wrestlers) in Rocky III, they claim Hogan is over 7 feet tall because they don't want to admit how short Sylvester Stallone is.

Rocky IV is where I felt the series really changed, and oh man, what a change. Rocky IV is everything that was silly and foolish about the 80s. My conscience will not let me call this a good film, but I absolutely loved it. Rocky has a talking robot for crying out loud! And then he gets one for Paulie, and Paulie makes it a female who is in love with him! It has essentially three music videos in it, including a performance by James Brown of "Living in America" and an attempt by the band Survivor to repeat their "Eye of the Tiger" success with such fabulous lyrics as "Is it East versus West?" Between that and Dolph Lundgren's role, the cold war era stuff is really laid on thick. However, I have to say the way the crowd in Russia turns in the middle of the fight and cheers for Rocky was a really great moment.

Rocky V is of course the low point, but you probably already knew that. Tommy Gunn is not an interesting character, and the fact that it's a street fight at the end rather than a ring match really takes away any feeling of importance. I actually thought the stuff with his son was fairly good, or about as good as they could be with Sly using his real life son for the role. While it pales in comparison to the other films, I wouldn't call it horrible.

Rocky Balboa, filmed 16 years after Rocky V, is a really good end to the series. Milo Ventimiglia lacks enough range to pull off some of the scenes he's in as Rocky's son, but I felt Stallone did a good job of re-inhabiting the role after so many years, which I sadly can't say about Harrison Ford playing Indiana Jones after a similarly long gap. Of course as the writer/director, Stallone does have an advantage there. I thought the scenes of Rocky dealing with Adrian's death were really touching and sweet, and the whole movie is really a large tribute to all the previous films and gives them a much more satisfying ending than V did. I'm glad to see Stallone seems to have no intention of continuing the series, because really, I don't think we need to see anymore than what we have here.

If you haven't watched any of this series before, I highly recommend giving it a chance. They have a lot of heart with a good bit of humor and the fight scenes are shot in a way that even a non-sports fan like me was kept interested.

If you have seen the films, which one is your favorite?


  1. +JMJ+

    I love the Rocky movies!!! =D I went through them all (except Rocky Balboa, which hadn't come out yet) in a single week.

    There's also an emotional "Rocky saved me" story there, because I was going through a really awful time in my life when I saw the movies, and it was Rocky's story of rising up time and again, no matter what had brought him down, that helped pull me out of it.

    Rocky and Adrian's love story really moved me in the first film and made me cry in the last one.

    As time went on, I think Stallone turned Rocky into a kind of archetype embodying his strongest beliefs of the moment. That gives us barefaced propaganda like Rocky IV . . . but also the really meaningful reflection that is Rocky Balboa.

    So are you going to be watching more Stallone movies now? =)

    PS -- When I casually compared Steve McQueen to James Dean a while ago, a friend who is an unabashed McQueen fan called me out on it and said that there's actually no comparison between them because McQueen never actually played anti-heroes, but characters who "always had conviction and underlying values and strengths that were unbreakable." (That is a direct quote from his e-mail.) I bring this up because I realise I can watch nearly every Stallone movie and find a character with similar "underlying values." Sly liked playing ordinary, flawed men who could pull off being heroes if the occasion called for it. I'm not saying he always pulled it off with his acting skills (LOL), but he kept trying; and it's the heart he has given all his characters that made me a fan. Okay, he's not as cool as McQueen, but then again, how many other actors are?

  2. Okay, if you liked them I'm going to have to give them a try.

  3. E- I could definitely see how Rocky could have such an effect on someone. He's such a great everyman type hero! I also found the story behind how Stallone made the movie to be inspiring... until in researching for this post I found out it was made up. :P But it is still nice to see a long running series where someone was allowed to keep their own creative control over the process and send the message they wanted to send - and kudos to Stallone for recognizing his missteps and making up for them with Rocky Balboa!

    I don't think I could watch another Rambo film, but I'm certainly willing to give some of his other work a shot. Something tells me you could make some recommendations? :)

    Jen - I definitely think you would like them.

  4. Stallone is certainly one of my hero, and Rocky is his apex. And I agree 100% that IV is everything right about the '80s. When I worked at a theater that did midnight shows of older flicks - generally 80s stuff - we always joked that we needed to get Rocky IV. Then one year, we put it at the bottom of the list of films we wanted as a joke - and it was the first movie we were told we could get. As fate would have it, it was the last Midnight show we ran. :(

    Rocky Balboa is also fantastic. If I'm ordering, it's probably 1, 4, 6, 2, 3, 5...but I love all but 5.

  5. That would have been so much fun to see on the big screen!

    Your order is pretty close to how I would rate them, maybe switching 2 and 3.. but I think I need to buy them and watch them a few more times before I decide completely. :)

  6. I love the movies, sans 5. I'll watch 5 if it is playing but otherwise it's the red headed stephchild of the series.

    My favorite is the first one I watched, Part 4.

  7. +JMJ+

    Wow! I seem to be the only one who doesn't like IV and rates it worse than V. (And my opinion of V is already pretty bad!) If you had asked me to name the Rocky movie that had "everything right about the 80s," I would have said III without hesitating . . . but I admit I'm biased: III came out the year I was born. ;-)

    And now the pressure is on me to think of Stallone recommendations! Hmmmm . . .

    Tango & Cash is another one filled with 80s excess. It's not a classic, but Stallone and Russell have great comedic chemistry and I always laugh when I watch it again.

    For a more recent film, try John Rambo. I think Stallone was going for Mel-Gibson-meets-300 with the amount of violence and horror presented on screen, but it's properly cathartic in the end.

    I'm not really the person to go to for recommendations, though, as it's not Stallone the actor I enjoy watching, but Stallone the star. =P What I find most entertaining is wondering how on earth the filmmakers manage to fit both him and his ego in the same frame. LOL! Honestly, I'm a fan because "Rocky saved me" and Stallone is likable, not because he's an especially good actor or produces reliably solid movies. I'll watch pretty much anything he's in and like it. =) (As long as it's not his p*rn flick! Ewww!)


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