Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Rocky Balboa

I was a fan of the Rocky films when I was younger. They always used to air on Channel 11 here in New York, and to this day, I don't think I've ever seen the full versions of Rocky II or V, only the TV edit. The promo for Rocky V, with him dramatically proclaiming he would go "One more round!" was much quoted in my circle. But, I hadn't seen any of the films in a while and was neutral on this new Rocky movie. After seeing it, I think Stallone completely pulled it off, making exactly the film he wanted to make and bringing some dignity back to the series after the ridiculousness of the last few films.

The first Rocky worked because it was a classic underdog story, later films tried to raise the stake to keep Rocky an underdog, but when a guy has his own robot and a mansion, it's a lot harder to relate to him as an everyman. I feel like the motivation behind this film is similar to what Brian Singer was trying to do with Superman Returns, forget about the bad sequels and get back to the core of what the character was about. That works better here because nostalgia is placed at the center of the storyline. In Superman, the characters didn't feel like people who had been through a painful five year separation, they looked even younger than the people in the original. And, the original just wasn't a good enough movie to earn this massive budget homage.

Rocky Balboa works better because it gives the viewer all the emotional beats they would want from a Rocky film. The movies had been refined into a formula, but this one manages to make all those old beats fresh by giving Rocky a major uphill climb. For one, Adrian's death still haunts him, her image is all over the film and the first half is basically about him slowly withering away, lost in the past. He's still comfortable, the restaurant seems to be doing well, but he's back on the street. I feel like Rocky V was trying to recapture that grit with the streetfight stuff, but it didn't really work. Here, the slow pace of the first half does a great job of letting us know where this character is now.

Certainly Stallone will never be hailed as a chameleonic actor, but no one could play this role like him. The barely sub-text of the film is the equation of Rocky's comeback with Stallone's own comeback in making the film. Every speech where Rocky talks about how he may be old, but he's still got a fire could apply equally to Stallone and his desire to get this film made. The real life parallels give the film more emotional meaning, and as the film does succeed, you're rooting on Stallone the filmmaker much like you're rooting for Rocky the character.

It's a risky move to have the first half be pretty much devoid of action, but it works. We're made to care about the characters again, and that makes the fight emotionally involving. The fight becomes more than about just winning in the ring, it's about proving himself worthy of the chance to fight again.

I enjoyed the first half, but the film really took off with the training montage. It's become a much parodied cliche since the first film was released, but it still works. Hearing that theme song, with new soaring trumpet improvs, and watching Rocky train was a really well executed sequence.

The major thing that bothered me about the fight was the ridiculous amount of product placement. They make a joke about it earlier with Paulie, but still, I'm hoping someone got paid by Golden Palace. Also, having the TV footage didn't work so well, it's much better to stay in the reality of the fight, using the announcers to narrate, but not using actual TV titles.

Other than that, the fight was well done. I like that Dixon has a hand injury, making it at least somewhat plausible that Rocky would be able to fight him. They set up the fact that he didn't have the 'heart' to fight a truly great boxer, but if he's had thirty-three knockouts, you'd think he'd be able to handle an old guy. But, it felt credible, and that's what mattered. Throughout the fight, there's a bunch of interesting stylistic devices used. Some felt a bit gimmicky, but it worked on the whole, immersing you in Rocky's subjective view of what was happening. It may not be the most original filmmaking, but I was thoroughly caught up in what was happening and thrilled when Rocky did get back up in the final round.

Throughout, the score was great. It's a very classical style score, commenting directly on scenes, with variations of the main theme. In scoring movies, a theme is your best friend. In this movie, you put the theme song on anything and it's instantly a great scene. I'm not sure why recent movies like Spider-Man refuse to build a credible theme song for the hero. Maybe it's cheap, but in a movie like this, the goal is to involve you emotionally and it's best to use whatever tools are available to you. Perhaps the best musical moment was the return of the end of fight music, setting up the great finale, a final farewell to the character.

Yes, there's some cheesy moments in here. If you didn't like the first Rocky, I doubt you'll enjoy this movie, but if you have affection for the character, this will give you exactly what you'd want from a Rocky movie. By directly engaging with the fact that it's ridiculous to make another Rocky movie, Stallone succeeds in making a film that proves that there is still another great film in the character, and in the man himself.


Alexander said...

I agree with what you said about movie theme songs being relied upon less and less these days. I think it is because directors are hiring the same composers that were hired 20 years ago, composers who have been around for ages tend to dry up. Spider-man was scored by Danny Elfman, who composed the excellent themes for Batman, Dick Tracy, The Simpsons, among others. Now it seems that Elfman has moved on from that approach. He remains one of the best film composers alive, but for different reasons. If a director wants his film to have an exciting theme song, he might have more luck hiring someone younger who is still in that phase. The only composers I can think of off the top of my head who continuously relied upon different theme songs for decades of films are John Williams and John Barry.

I think part of the reason why Rocky Balboa worked so well is that Stallone is completely aware of how he is perceived by the public and plays off of it brilliantly. For example, Rocky chugging a glass of raw eggs while the Rocky theme blasts is a scene you might see in a Rocky parody. But instead of denying this and other comical Rocky staples, Stallone chose to celebrate them. Moreover: many of the cliches used in Rocky Balboa would ruin any other movie, but Stallone used them with such confidence that the audience took pleasure in being genuinely moved by them. In Rocky Balboa, cliches are an asset, not a liability.

Patrick said...

That last sentence the best summation of why the movie works. And, you're probably right about the old composers, there's only so many memorable themes you can come up with. I suppose Lord of the Rings had some memorable music cues, but I can't remember anything recent that's as instantly recognizable as a Star Wars or Bond theme.