Friday, November 13, 2009

On DVD: "Rocky: The Undisputed Collection"

Whenever we talk about great American films, we feel compelled to talk about them as a turning point, how they made an indelible mark on moviegoing culture and influenced everything that came after them. It’s easy to pinpoint Jaws and Star Wars as the moments when the blockbuster mentality took over the golden age of 1970s filmmaking, for example, and how that film’s release (either one, doesn’t matter) was the moment when studio executives realized the insane amounts of money that could be made by snowing television with ads and eschewing platform releases for wide ones (though other, smaller films had done it before), or that they marked the turn of the tide in 70s filmmaking from art to commerce (a workable theory, as long as you’re willing to negate the millions that the indisputably artful Godfather pictures raked in). The fact of the matter is, due to their long lead times and gun-shy financiers (always have been, always will be), movies are seldom if ever genuinely “cutting edge”—movies react to the mood of our culture, the mood of our country, and most importantly, they react to whatever else is currently making money and capturing the popular imagination.

This is why the Rocky films (now assembled in the Blu-ray set Rocky: The Undisputed Collection) are so valuable—not as great cinema (though some of them are), but as a cultural artifact. The Rocky pictures didn’t influence the American zeitgeist. They reacted to it, and reflected it. Few (if any) motion picture series so thoroughly encapsulate where conventional Hollywood picture-making was when each film was released; we can watch the first Rocky film, and it is a perfect representation of the kind of quiet, personal cinema that was all the rage in 1976, just as Rocky IV is exactly the kind of glossy, soundtrack-driven, empty-headed bullshit that we all wanted to stick in our eye-holes in 1985. Each Rocky film pretty much tells you everything you need to know about where we were as a moviegoing populace at the time it came out—for better or for worse.

Of course, there are other reasons why the original Rocky was so beloved (and rewarded, both in the year’s highest box office revenues and the year’s Best Picture Oscar). First and foremost, it had a compelling backstory: star Sylvester Stallone was a Hollywood also-ran, toiling away in bit parts with a career headed to nowhere, when he wrote the gentle, affecting screenplay as a vehicle for himself (and refused big payday offers to sell it unless he was attached to star). Taking his inspiration from a 1975 bout in which Muhammad Ali gave a title shot to obscure fighter Chuck Wepner, Stallone penned the story of Rocky Balboa, a Philadelphia club fighter and muscle man for a local loan shark who lives in a run-down apartment and pines for the love of shy, homely pet store clerk Adrian (Talia Shire). When heavyweight champ Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) is desperate for a fill-in opponent, he decides to fight an unknown, as a display of the limitless opportunities of America on its Centennial birthday; he picks Rocky because he likes the symbolism of his nickname, “The Italian Stallion.”

Shot for just over a million dollars in under a month, Rocky reflects the style and tone of the character-driven dramas so often seen in the mid-1970s—movies like Fat City, The King of Marvin Gardens, and Mean Streets, from which Rocky director John G. Avildsen lifts much of the picture’s decaying urban aesthetic. Considerable time is spent setting up Rocky’s world, letting him wander the neighborhood, chatting with friends and neighbors, hanging out with Adrian’s brother Paulie (Burt Young), chewing the fat with his mob boss, tentatively courting Adrian. The film is admirably patient, low-key and lived-in; its emphasis on dialogue and cock-eyed humor (Rocky tells his pet turtles, “If you guys could sing and dance, and wouldn’t be doing this, you know?”) is easy to forget, considering how the series’ later entries would lean so heavily on fight scenes and training montages. Indeed, around the midway point, we embark on a lengthy sequence showing Rocky and Adrian’s first date, and it is charming, sweet, and a little heartbreaking (“I always knew you was pretty,” Rocky tells Adrian, to which she immediately responds, “Don’t tease me”). A series of dialogue scenes this long and understated would be unthinkable by the time we get to Rocky III.

It’s also easy to forget how great Stallone is in the film; so convincing was he as the slurry-voiced bruiser that people tended to think he was just playing himself (an assumption that apparently irked Stallone to such a degree that he took to wearing unnecessary eyeglasses and giving overly verbose interviews in the 1980s). But at the time of the film’s release, he was legitimately compared to DeNiro and Brando, and for good reason: it’s a terrific performance. He conveys palpable, powerful fear and hesitation in the scene where the Creed bout is proposed, and his speech, late in the film, about wanting to “go that distance” is wonderful.

The original Rocky is also unique among its successors for the time it takes to get to a training sequence (90 minutes in, culminating with Bill Conti’s rousing music and the triumphant ascension of the steps in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, an oft-seen moment that still gives goosebumps) and the brevity of its fight scene (less than ten minutes of screen time). We know how it ends, but the tremendous power of the film’s final moments is undiminished by the passage of time.

Three years after the success of Rocky, Stallone and the cast returned for Rocky II, again penned by Stallone, who this time took over the director’s chair as well. 1979 was, in Roger Ebert’s words, “a year of sequels and prequels and remakes,” a year where people wanted more of the same, and Rocky II delivered that—beginning, in fact, by using the final six minutes of Rocky as the first six minutes of its follow-up (this habit, of lighting the new film with the cigarette butt of the last one, would continue through Rocky V).

The second installment finds Rocky marrying his beloved Adrian and trying to cope with his sudden success. He is promised lucrative endorsement deals and myriad opportunities for more fights, but there’s a problem: doctors tell Rocky that the eye troubles from the Creed bout are serious, and if he fights again, he could go blind. The commercial bids dry up (come to find out, Rocky’s not so good on camera), and Rocky has to find work to support Adrian (and their pending baby). Trouble is, he can’t do much other than fight, and Creed is pressuring him for a rematch (to save face after the close, split decision of what should have been an easy win). Will he return to the ring? Hmmm, I wonder.

As a director, Stallone keeps a tighter pace than Avildsen, though he wisely preserves the original picture’s look and feel. He also doesn’t shy away from the darker overtones—the downbeat portrait of the fighter’s quick fall is surprisingly vivid. As a general rule, though, his screenplay is more pumped-up; the dialogue here is less about conversation and more about big speeches (though the quietly powerful hospital scene, in which Rocky asks Creed, “Did you give me your best?”, is a noteworthy exception). To be sure, some of those big speeches—like Rocky’s late night chat with his trainer Mickey (Burgess Meredith), in which he confesses “I just gotta be around it”—are potent. But there’s also some corn in the dialogue (like Mickey’s “What are we waitin’ for?” after Adrian gives her blessing to their training), and the various crises with Adrian and her pregnancy feel like soap opera.

The fight sequence is much longer this time around, but it’s a great sequence of high drama, in which Stallone starts to experiment energetically with sound and slow-motion, amping up our investment on the way to an ingenious and deservedly famous ending. Rocky II doesn’t match the emotional investment or tonal perfection of its predecessor, but it has its moments; there is still some heart and soul to it, though those qualities were gasping their last breaths in mainstream filmmaking by the time of its release.

Rocky III hit screens in 1982, a mere three years later, but the temperature of Hollywood film was changing rapidly. MTV was unveiled the year before, and up-and-coming directors were cutting their teeth on these three-minute music films and other commercials, bringing that glossy flash into the multiplex; audiences wanted their movies to be faster, slicker, to cut to the chase. Twenty minutes into Rocky III, we’ve already had more boxing action than in the entirety of the first film, and its preliminary exposition (the solidification of Rocky’s heavyweight crown and the rise of his soon-to-be challenger, Clubber Lang) is done in music-montage form, like a little MTV video of Rocky’s life since the last movie.

In its opening scenes, the film feels narratively aimless; it sets up the rise of Lang (Mr. T, in a performance that grows campier with each passing year) but then goes off on several tangents, like the exhibition bout with wrestler Thunderlips (Hulk Hogan) and the unveiling of a Rocky statue, kind of forgetting about Lang until he shows up at the statue ceremony for an awkwardly staged, poorly written confrontation.

Generally speaking, Stallone’s gift for colorful turns-of-phrase and street language are absent by the third film; there is far less dialogue, in favor of more montages and more boxing action. The first big fight with Lang is rendered nearly cartoonish by the overblown sound effects and the melodramatic timing of Mickey’s demise, while some of the training sequences—particularly his first race on the beach with competitor-turned-manager Creed, which is rendered in slo-mo and intercut with sepia-toned flashbacks—are just plain goofy.

The clever (and clean) storytelling turn that puts Rocky and Apollo together is a good one, but Stallone’s script plays like a filmed outline; it’s starting to feel like paint-by-numbers screenwriting. He’ll write a scene where Rocky and Adrian yell at each other, but not one where they’ll talk to each other—the unique relationship so gingerly cultivated in the first two pictures is now that of a shrewish wife and a frustrated husband. But Stallone’s scenario seems primarily designed as a showcase for his new, hyper-ripped bod (dig the lingering close-ups of his running thighs), and the unfortunate period fashion choices that entails (bare midriffs were never a good look for men, I don’t care who tries to claim otherwise). What’s more, he’s rapidly losing sight of the character; you see him slipping out of it, losing Rocky’s distinctive speech patterns within his own (he only has one moment of genuine, believable acting, and that comes when he’s at Mickey’s deathbed). The final fight is thrilling, even if the force of those punches would clearly kill an actual human being and the co-opting of Ali’s “rope-a-dope” strategy feels like a bit of a cheap shortcut.

Like clockwork, the passing of three years brought a new Rocky picture, Rocky IV—or, as I call it, “the 90-minute music video where Rocky wins the Cold War.” Between parts III and IV, Stallone had starred in First Blood and its sequel, Rambo; the strident jingoism of the fourth Rocky film seems as much a reaction to Rambo’s success as anything that preceded it in the Rocky series. The picture’s level of subtlety is established right at the top, with the imagery of a US flag boxing glove and a Russian flag boxing glove colliding, and then exploding. That’s pretty much everything you need to know about the picture right there—empty symbolism, meaningless action.

After the required replay of the last film’s ending, the film gets off to a shaky start with some awful business with Paulie and a robot (don’t ask) and Carl Weathers reduced to posturing and glowering as he decides to take on Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren), a “perfect specimen” of Russian science and training. Creed faces Drago at a gaudily staged, oddball exhibition match in a Las Vegas showroom (with James Brown as the opening act); Drago beats Creed to death (literally), and Rocky is challenged to face the big Slavic brute by the laughable Russian caricatures that are his handlers (including ice queen Brigitte Nielsen, then Stallone’s wife). Adrian screams at him, “It’s suicide! You can’t win!,” prompting the nadir of the entire series: a music video (“There’s no easy way out…”) of Rocky driving in his Lamborghini, intercut with strobe images of Drago and flashbacks to all of the previous films. The empty sounds of power rock and the fetishism of Rocky’s conspicuous consumption surely represent the series at its most soulless (and its laziest—a good five minutes of the picture’s slender 91 minute running time is whiled away recycling footage from previous films), while the clips from the earlier films are downright jarring—they seem to be airlifted in from another dimension, the unique and memorably flesh-and-blood creations of the first movie unrelated to this world of dull humanoids.

That MTV storytelling permeates the second half of the film; we get two back-to-back training montages, contrasting Drago’s high-tech training with good ol’ analog Rocky, chopping down trees and hauling crap through the snow with his bare hands. Fancy Russkie science ain’t got nothin’ on good ol’ fashioned American ingenuity! (Compounding the pain are the most mind-numbingly literal accompanying lyrics in movie history: “Two worlds collide…” goes one song. “Seems our freedom’s up against the ropes!”) And when the dramatic beats come (like Rocky and Adrian’s fight and reconciliation), they’re simplified to a point of mawkishness. Oh yeah, and then at the end, when Rocky takes down the enormous Russian in Russia in front of a crowd of Russians, what do you know, they start to chant Rocky’s name. It is, charitably speaking, a moment that strains credibility. From its obvious opening images to our hero’s comical closing speech, Rocky IV is the low point of the series, a film as hollow and synthesized as its soundtrack.

Stallone didn’t revisit the Rocky franchise for five years, and in that time, he saw his brand begin to falter; films like Rambo III and Cobra and Lock-Up made money, yes, but performed below expectations, while newer action stars like Mel Gibson and Bruce Willis appeared to be stealing Sly’s thunder. The studio slates were more and more reliant on sequels, on nostalgia, and a return to his most beloved character was looking like Stallone’s best option to reclaim his box-office throne. Rocky IV’s bad reviews appeared to have stung a bit; seldom has a film series’ desire to get back to its roots been more transparent. So for Rocky V, Stallone ceded the director’s chair back to Rocky director John Avildsen, and he concocted a story that busted Rocky and his family all the way back to the mean streets from whence they came.

The less said about the circumstances that put them there, the better (it’s some nonsense about Paulie signing over Rocky’s power of attorney to a crooked accountant). Rocky’s medical troubles make a convenient return; he’s apparently got some minor brain damage from the Drago bout, and it could be permanent (and even deadly) if he returns to the ring. So, as in Rocky II, our hero has to support his family (including his teenage son, played by Stallone’s own offspring, Sage) without doing what he does best. He ends up running Mickey’s old gym, where he takes a talented young fighter named Tommy Gunn (a mulletted Tommy Morrison) under his wing, managing him to success, all the while dodging George Washington Duke (Richard Gant), a Don King-style promoter who wants to lure Rocky back into the ring.

The good news about Rocky V is that the emphasis has returned to character and dialogue (with even a few flashes of the early films’ off-kilter humor). The excesses of the 80s films have been toned down considerably; the second act does get a little music-heavy (and is hampered by the desperate-to-be-hip decision to use a rap soundtrack, which both feels wrong and manages to date the film considerably), but there’s no new boxing action of note until the 80-minute mark. There are some nice callbacks to the first film, including its aping of the opening shot from the original film at the beginning of Tommy’s first club fight. And, thankfully, Stallone is bothering to act again; the father/son subplot is a dud overall (if for no other reason than for the younger Stallone’s dangly earring), but it winds up nicely, thanks mostly to Stallone’s earnest, honest performance.

The bad news is that most of the other performances are pretty bad. Morrison is a phony, overdoing his golly-gee character with line readings out of a high school play, and Gant’s broadly overdone character wrecks nearly every scene he’s in (particularly the ridiculous press conferences). In fact, his cutaways nearly sink the film’s otherwise shrewd climax, which shakes up the series’ rigid format by ending with a street fight instead of a pro bout. Rocky V has its problems, yes, but its heart is in the right place; it doesn’t recapture the magic of the inaugural outing, but it certainly tops Rocky III and Rocky IV.

It didn’t make much of an impression on audiences or critics, however. The problem could be that Stallone, in its writing, was still playing in fantasy—his career wasn’t exactly on the upswing, but he was still a rich guy imagining what it would be like to be poor and desperate, and his screenplay lacked the heart and authenticity that made Rocky so special. That would no longer be a problem when Stallone finally returned to the series 16 years later, for 2006’s Rocky Balboa. The intervening years had not been kind to Sly; there had been occasional bright spots (1993’s Cliffhanger and Demolition Man), and a full-on great performance in a well-reviewed indie (1996’s CopLand), but every comeback attempt sank without a trace, and by the beginning of the new millennium, Stallone was fronting straight-to-DVD efforts like D-Tox and Avenging Angelo. It took years to get anyone to take a chance on his sixth turn as Rocky; like his protagonist, he was perceived as a man past his prime. But by 2006, studios were so confused about what the American public wanted that they were willing to throw a few bucks at a one-time titan to see if he could get a few nostalgia bucks out of Christmas moviegoers.

We find Rocky content with his lot in life, but a sad man; he has lost Adrian to cancer and longs for a meaningful relationship with his son (played this time by Milo Ventimiglia of Heroes). Rocky owns and operates an Italian eatery named after his lost love, greeting diners, posing for pictures, and telling fight stories. An ESPN program imagines a fight between Rocky and the current champ, Mason “The Line” Dixon (Antonio Tarver); it gets the bruiser thinking about how much he misses the ring, so he applies to fight again, which leads to Dixon’s promoters suggesting an exhibition match.

Rocky Balboa marked Stallone’s first directorial effort since Rocky IV over 20 years before; though his filmography was slim, Stallone was always a competent, occasionally inspired filmmaker, and the picture has a nicely meandering sense of atmosphere, seeming perfectly at home in its Philadelphia streets and gyms. There are some scenes here that are just plain good; Rocky’s tentative friendship with a neighborhood girl has a nice off-handed intimacy, and watch how well-written and well-played a brief confrontation with a neighborhood tough guy outside of her bar is. He also knows exactly how to use the series’ considerable iconography; it’s impossible to not get worked up when the “Gonna Fly Now” training montage rips, and when he trots out trademark visuals like the downing of eggs and the punching of beef.

When we get to the big climactic bout, Stallone chooses to play out the first two rounds in real time, with chyrons and announcers present, as if we’re watching it on TV. It’s a risky call; it amps up the “reality” of what we’re seeing (since this is how we’re used to seeing fights), but it’s cinematically dodgy. Thankfully, he gets more inventive, building us up and working us over until arriving at an honest-to-God poignant climax in the middle of the blistering bout. It might be trite, it might be hokey, but it works like a charm, delivering a moment of sheer electric emotion that gave this viewer chills.

No one’s ever considered Stallone to be a terribly personal filmmaker, but there is undoubtedly an element of autobiography in his Rocky scripts (or, at the very least, the good ones). In Rocky, it was perhaps more a case of artistic wishful thinking—the unknown looking for a shot, writing the story of another unknown who got his. Rocky II finds that out-of-nowhere star dealing with the pitfalls of sudden fame. But nearly every scene of Rocky Balboa feels straight from Stallone’s heart. It doesn’t take a literature professor to draw the parallels from Balboa’s past glory as an athlete to Stallone’s fallen stock in Hollywood; indeed, much of the criticism prompted by his character’s decision to return to the ring seems reminiscent of the hoots of derision that greeted the news that Stallone was taking another stab at this franchise. Rocky is told he’s too old to do what he used to do better than anyone else, and while it may be partially Stallone’s fault that he aged out of the roles he’d made himself famous playing (it wouldn’t have killed him to have slid a quality project somewhere in between Over the Top and Tango & Cash, just to remind us that he could act), we feel sympathy for both the character and the actor when he notes that “the older I get, the more things I gotta leave behind—that’s life.” When he rails to the licensing board about getting what you deserve after paying your dues, it feels real and personal. When his bartender friend notes, “It doesn’t matter how it looks to other people, it matters how it looks to you,” you can’t help but feel for the big lug—Rocky, and Sly. And his triumph at the picture’s end feels as much like Stallone’s as it does Rocky’s. It took him a while to find Rocky’s heart and soul again, to tell his story in a way so open and warmhearted, at risk of ridicule. But he pulled it off, and that, in its own way, in the Hollywood of 2006, was a minor miracle.

Whether you see the Rocky movies as a sampling of Hollywood trends, as Stallone’s professional autobiography, as a microcosm for America itself (from the beaten-down but hopeful late 1970s to the empty, go-go 80s to the no-frills recession-era early 90s and mid 2000s), or just as fun boxing pictures with a healthy slab of melodrama (which is, I know, the most probable choice), they stand as one of our most enduring and beloved film franchises. And the middle ones may be junk, but (taken in the right spirit) they can be trashily enjoyable junk; either way, they’re a part of Rocky and Stallone’s journey to a modest and unassuming final chapter. The series may be wildly uneven, but what the hell. That’s Hollywood for you.

"Rocky: The Undisputed Collection" is currently available on Blu-ray.

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