Monday, January 8, 2007

Eye of the Tiger

I, like many boys my age, or more likely older, grew up watching the Rocky movies. There was everything we needed to satiate our violence craving pre-adolescent minds: two men in a ring throwing haymakers, getting knocked down but getting back up despite the odds and good sense, and of course the good guy winning in the end. I loved those movies. My favorite being Rocky IV, or as I like to subtitle it: "How Rocky Won the Cold War." That was by far the most viewed and most loved. Next was Rocky II and then Rocky III, somehow we never really got around to watching the original Rocky in those days and watching the fifth installment once was all the punishment we ever needed or deserved.

There is a new Rocky out, titled Rocky Balboa, and to build up momentum for ticket sales Comcast has released all of the Rocky movies on their On-Demand service for free to digital cable subscribers. Having nothing really to do on my days off I decided to go back and review some good times from my childhood and get pumped for the new movie. Here are some mini-reviews:

Rocky (1976)
I know the reason why I didn't like this movie as a kid: it takes its time getting to the fighting. Much more of the movie is dedicated to Adrian and Rocky than to Rocky and Apollo Creed. And that's the point. The movie was inspired by the Chuck Wepner-Muhammad Ali fight where the unknown Wepner lasted fifteen rounds with Ali before being TKO'ed with just 19 seconds left to go. There is no "against-all-odds" knockout where Rocky goes on to glory in the championship spotlight, because that stretches the fabric of reality too thin. Rocky, as he tells Adrian before the fight, can't win. Apollo Creed is too good, a phenom, a person from another world that no regular Joe has a hope of beating. But Rocky believes he can go the distance. He believes that he isn't the fool or bum everyone knows him as. He has an attainable, though incredible, goal and he goes after it, surprising everyone. It isn't about beating Apollo Creed on the score cards because he's already won where it counts. Rocky's prize is Adrian and somehow we don't really care if he wins the belt or not. Watching them all again this is by far my favorite Rocky film.

Rocky II (1979)
You know all that stuff I was saying about how it's not about the championship belt and that the real victory for Rocky comes outside the ring? Well forget that. Rocky II is all about the championship. But this time he's winning the championship for Adrian, so I guess that makes it OK, right? Not for me. This movie feels like an obvious cash-grab sequel, which is, I suppose, exactly what it is.

All the notes from the first movie are hit in this one: Rocky rising up to the challenge while still dealing with life issues that give the final fight an emotional undercurrent, fleshing out of the main characters outside the context of the ring and how that ultimately plays out inside the ring, and finally montage, montage, montage! But it all feels somehow like a shadow of what came before, almost like we are seeing the first film again only from a slightly different angle. Relatively minor characters in the first Rocky like Mickey and Apollo Creed get larger roles as the fight takes on a larger dimension in the second. We feel the build-up and when Adrian delivers the line "Win" we get the first real shot of emotion, a hint of what came before. The fight ends, sadly, in a ridiculous fashion but, hey, Rocky WON! Yay! Now another Rocky movie will never again be necessary.

Rocky III (1982)
What bad things can you say about a movie that has Mr. T as the antagonist? It has a wrestling match between Rocky and Hulk Hogan for God's sake! Isn't a movie like this pretty much inoculated from negative criticism? Perhaps, then, I should just give it the praise that it deserves: "Eye of the Tiger" - best montage music ever.

Rocky IV (1985)
One of the pivotal films of my childhood. I loved, adored, this film. Every part of it was awesome to me. The training sequences are enough to make the viewer break into a sweat (how a man could do leg lifts like that makes my gut hurt to think about). The villain, Victor Drag, played by Dolph Lundgren was an unstoppable superman waiting to come out of the TV and knock my little teeth out. Everything about this film was amped up for the 80's.

The film does not hold up on reviewing.

The first thing that surprised me about this movie is how short it is: 90 minutes. In my little child mind I had made it out to be a two and a half-hour epic of man-against-superman for the domination and glory of the world. But there's just not that much there; indeed, barely enough to support the 90 minute running time. Apollo Creed's death, what should have been a heart shattering event, is anticlimactic and poorly executed, bordering on a parody of boxing clich├ęs.

The final fight is even worse. Rocky must get knocked down forty-seven times during the fight. The Soviet crowd turning on its champion is hammy and jingoistic in the extreme. The outcome, strangely never in doubt despite all of the build up of the "superman", is not satisfying because it's not really Rocky who's won. No, the man in this film is not the Rocky that conquers the museum steps but realizes that he can't win but will still get himself some self-respect. The main character in this film is Rambo, the invincible destruction machine that conquers his enemies no matter what. He is a comic book hero. And that's just really sad to see such a great character go by the wayside in favor of pyrotechnics.

Rocky V (1990)
We don't talk about Rocky V.

It's strange to see the time frame the Rocky movies were made in. Every three years since 1976 a new Rocky film came out up until the fifth. In that time frame Rocky seemed to lose the everyman quality that was vital to his appeal in the first place. This happened in the third during the opening montage when we see Rocky knocking out one opponent after another and Adrian wearing jewels and fur coats. He became a character larger than the simple bourgeoisies goal of just surviving the hits life gives you. He became a Hero with a capital "H". He became a franchise. If they had stopped with the first Rocky, he would have been immortal. But they went on and somewhere along the way, through all the sequels, he was lost.

It's funny, then, that it took a sequel to bring Rocky back to us.

Rocky Balboa (2006)
I love this movie. I'm not going to defend it aesthetically or pretend that it is Oscar worthy (it isn't). I'm not even going to say that I liked all of the decisions that were made in the film. But this is the sequel Rocky deserved.

Many people have observed that it is closest in tone and structure to the original Rocky than to any of the sequels. And thank God for that. In a way it is very much like Rocky II in that it retreads the basic beats and structure of the original, but this one actually adds something to the mix. The Rocky in this movie is a broken man having lost the one thing he could always be counted on to fight for: Adrian. He has been broken by life and is now only going through the motions, running on the vapors of his former glory.

But there is still something inside him - that something that pushed him to accept the fight with Creed with only a month's notice and to still have the nerve to go the distance, that something that drove him to win Adrian despite little encouragement from her. Maybe he only feels this something because people tell him he can't possibly do it, that there's no way and he should give up. But he does it anyway. That's Rocky and that's why we love him as a character and Stallone brings it back full force in this movie. It's not about the man in the fight, it's about the fight in the man. I loved this movie.

You will notice when watching this movie that there's a lot more use of the actual boxing world (HBO Sports, the Mandalay Bay Casino, Antonio Tarver as the opponent) than in previous Rocky movies. I think that this is because there's a realization in most boxing circles that we need a man like Rocky in boxing. The sport has become too dull for most Americans. There isn't a ready name in heavyweight boxing, the premier class, that fans know and can root for or against. People are beginning to go to mixed martial arts for their blood lust, or maybe even the occasional NBA game. Boxing needs someone who will actually stand toe-to-toe with his opponent and fight, not just clinch and hope to win out on the score cards. In short, boxing needs the old school.

And hey, if Sylvester Stallone can revive Rocky, what's stopping Boxing from reviving itself?

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