By Nick Pinkerton
Dir. Sylvester Stallone, U.S., United Artists
Sylvester Stallone, whose path to celebrity was streamlined into the fairy tale of Seventies Hollywood, still remembers a thing or two about self-promotion. Rocky V was a relative box-office bust, his last significant hit was 1993â€™s Cliffhangerâ€”so after the failed late-career makeover of 1997â€™s Copland, Stallone largely laid low, worked sparingly, kept fit, and patiently waited for the wheel of nostalgia to make another full rotation.
If the crowd I watched Rocky Balboa with the other night is any indication, heâ€™s made the right moveâ€”audiences have had enough time to miss Sly, and heâ€™s eager as ever to serve up one of his pablum-and-protein shakes. The Italian Stallionâ€™s latest (last?) bout drops the roman numerical assignation of previous sequels, as though attempting to efface our memory that all of this is happening for the sixth timeâ€¦ As if asking us to forget, moreover, that in previous outings the never-say-die slugger from South Philly has engaged in some unpardonable ridiculousness, including stepping into the ring with two future WWF stars in a single film (Hulk Hogan as â€śThunderlipsâ€ť!); trained in Siberia by hand-pulling ox-carts, his preparations obsessively cross-cut with Dolph Lundgrenâ€™s Ivan Drago having mutagen goo injected into him, all scored by John Caffertyâ€™s â€śHearts on Fireâ€ť; andâ€”never forgetâ€”bought Burt Young a robot butler for comic relief.
â€śTake it back to the old school,â€ť promises the opening of Rocky Balboa, over dirty-lensed shots of a Philadelphia skyline that hadnâ€™t yet been erected when the first movie was made. No more exotic opponents and pump-up-the-jam synthsâ€”now a widower, Rocky lives a gray, ascetic semi-retirement divided between contemplating Adrianâ€™s tombstone, hamming for fan pictures in his little bistro, and getting sloughed off as a lumbering embarrassment by his aspirant yuppie son (Gilmore Girls vet Milo Ventimiglia). Conflict comes whenâ€”we have a new challenger!â€”current heavyweight belt-holder Mason â€śThe Lineâ€ť Dixon (Antonio Tarver) agrees to an exhibition fight with the old champ, a novelty match arranged to bring a spark of life into the moribund world of professional boxingâ€”can Rockyâ€™s crossover to UFC be far off?
The reason for Balboaâ€™s endurance in the pop canon lies is in the genius of Stalloneâ€™s sustained characterization, so second-skin that it seems to have taken on a life outside of the actor: the lummoxâ€™s childlike guilelessness makes it impossible for people to blame olâ€™ Rock for the shitty movies heâ€™s happened to wind up inâ€”prominent Republican Stallone may have taught some administrations a thing or two about avoiding culpability with an act of naivetĂ©. Even the questionable racial anachronism of the Rocky series seems generally forgiven by nonwhite moviegoers; Stalloneâ€™s underdog mythos flatters everyone equally, I guess (Jay-Z: â€śCops wanna knock me, DA's wanna box me in/ But somehow I beat those charges like Rockyâ€ť).
The Rocky series has never acceded much to the reality of the sport at its center: the last American-born white to hold the heavyweight title was another Rocky, Marciano, who retired twenty years before audiences met Balboa. Iâ€™m not quite so willing to ignore how the race question bolsters these moviesâ€™ popularityâ€”losing a grip on the ring has been an object of neurosis for white America since the countryside was scoured to find an opponent to dethrone Jack Johnson, and so Rocky corrects what actual pugilism couldnâ€™t (remember Gerry Cooney?). Anyhow, as of 2006, Ivan Drago is more the face of professional boxing than a Balboa or even Apollo Creed, with the sons of former Soviet satellites presently holding three of four heavyweight titles (all this goes to prove that whoâ€™s boxing has everything to do with class mobilityâ€”given the choice, most people would rather make a living selling insurance than getting their brains whipped into pugistia dementia). And Iâ€™d be remiss not to mention the patent ridiculousness of Rockyâ€™s actual in-the-ring burlesque, where K.O. blows are exchanged with Hearns vs. Hagler intensity for a full 15 rounds.
Ignorance is no excuse; Stalloneâ€™s an avid sports fan, and he didnâ€™t draw the Balboa archetype out of nowhereâ€”he just borrowed a narrative hook that professional sportswriters have relied on for decades. Rocky is the apotheosis of a thousand â€śgrittyâ€ť â€śfan favoritesâ€ťâ€”almost invariably white athletes of average Joe dimensions who, the line goes, make the plays by trying ten times harder than the other guy: a Lenny Dykstra, a Ryan Freel, a David Eckstein (how many times during his MVP World Series did we hear that this â€śsparkplugâ€ť was 5â€™7â€ť?). For anyone with a chip on their shoulder over growing up white and coddled in a service economy, haunted by the specter of G.I. Generation hardhat he-men, these guys are invaluable vessels for projection. Michael Sokolove, in his exceptional book Hustle, deconstructs the process by which sports scribes sheared away inconvenient facts to fit Pete Rose into the archetype of a plucky lilâ€™ player who overcame natural deficiencies with sheer gutsinessâ€”despite the fact that he was a near-six-footer, three-sport High School star, and preternaturally gifted hitter.
Of course Charlie Hustle, baseballâ€™s loudest advocate and biggest bullshitter, is just one proof that athletes can be as fucked up and complex as anyone (Chuck â€śThe Bayonne Bleederâ€ť Wepner, whose 15 rounds against Ali inspired Stalloneâ€™s first Rocky script, went to the can for cocaine possessionâ€”somehow this hasnâ€™t worked itself into any of the Rocky sequels). If you need another reminder, dig Mike Tyson popping up in the crowd of the Balboa-Dixon match, jawing at the champ so he can deposit his walk-on paycheck and shuffle back to the sports memorabilia purgatory that broke ex-athletes are cast into. Tysonâ€™s a picturesque character to gobble up Rockyâ€™s soulful simpleton shtick, a Terry Malloy from the Brownsville ghetto, capable of issuing such quotes as: â€śOne morning I woke up and found my favorite pigeon, Julius, had died. I was devastated and was gonna use his crate as my stickball bat to honor him. I left the crate on my stoop and went in to get something and I returned to see the sanitation man put the crate into the crusher. I rushed him and caught him flush on the temple with a titanic right hand he was out cold, convulsing on the floor like an infantile retard.â€ť The Rocky mythos seems feeble in comparison.
This year the sports underdog template has already been applied in the Mark Wahlberg vehicle Invincible, a very effective I-think-I-can flick that dramatizes blue-collar schlemiel Vince Papaleâ€™s improbable rise, through the Philadelphia Eaglesâ€™ publicity-stunt open tryouts, to hometown hero. And though I think Invincibleâ€™s the better film (its cinematographer-turned-director, Ericson Core, shows visual panache that Stalloneâ€™s filmmaking lacksâ€”Sly shoots his climactic fight as a Gatorade Rain commercial), it pulls the punches of bald mawkishness that Rocky has always relied on. Stalloneâ€™s combos still work, as well now as ever, right down to those inevitable, adrenaline-jacking training montages that have long ago been enshrined in the camp vernacular (and sent up in Wet Hot American Summerâ€™s rummage sale of generational tropes).
The cynical opportunism and outright phoniness behind Stalloneâ€™s flagship character need not be overstated: while resolute Rocky stays faithful as a mutt to frowsy wife, colorful Runyon-esque buddies, and country, Slyâ€™s sticking it to Teutonic trophy Brigitte Nielsen in his trailer (he gave himself his own best role, a Hellâ€™s Kitchen hustler, in his directorial debut Paradise Alley). When Reagan-era â€śEvil Empireâ€ť jingoism injected the American action film with heretofore unknown amounts of malicious stupidity, Balboa wrapped himself in the flag, as he and his main bro John Rambo played obedient White House lapdogs.
But Rockyâ€™s nature is to be everything to everyone, a handy template into which we can plug our individual obstacles. The filmâ€™s closing credits, which feature a flock of â€śaverageâ€ť folk (and the Philly Phanatic!) hustling up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art in imitation of Rockyâ€™s iconic sprint, suggests the franchise as a participatory exercise. Working as a restaurateur, Rockyâ€™s missed out on a more obvious second career phase: motivational speaker. Accordingly, Stalloneâ€™s written himself a few robust â€śYou can do itâ€ť lessons to mumble off to his kid (â€śBut it ain't how hard you hit; it's about how hard you can get hit, and keep moving forwardâ€ť); itâ€™s genuinely stirring life-is-a-locker-room stuff that sends you out of the theater with a pat on the ass. I myself felt a little violated.