In the sixth installment of the Rocky series¯which opens today¯a fifty-something-year-old Rocky Balboa sits nervously awaiting the call to enter the arena and take on the heavyweight champion of the world. It’s a spectacle rivaled only by his first shot at the title, thirty years ago.
This time, though, there’s no Mickey, no Adrian, no Apollo Creed. But there is Spider Rico, last seen in the original Rocky as little more than a gym goon, now reading a conflation of Scripture verses to bolster our hero’s spirit: “Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit. We have already claimed victory in our Lord Jesus Christ.”
A powerful left hook right under the ribs don’t hurt none neither. But it seems that Sylvester Stallone has taken a page out of Mel Gibson’s Passion playbook in marketing the latest iteration of Rocky to evangelicals. Pastors and religious leaders have been mailed “Faith-based Resource Guides,” along with DVDs and glossy inspirational tickets¯meant both to promote the opening of Rocky Balboa and to emphasize the extent to which the Italian Stallion’s story is Bible-based: “Jesus was the master storyteller! He used short, simple, everyday stories that packed a punch. Use these powerful Rocky Balboa resources in December and January to punctuate your sermons and talks!”
It’s not long before you begin to wonder if it’s the Bible that was inspired by Rocky and not the other way around.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
In was the fall of 1976, and although he had already appeared in several films—had in fact mugged Woody Allen in Bananas, been mugged by Jack Lemmon in Prisoner of Second Avenue, and provided Henry Winkler inspiration for The Fonz in The Lords of Flatbush—Sylvester Stallone was on no one’s radar.
That is, until he entered the ring and revived the boxing sub-genre—till then as dead as Gentleman Jim Corbett—in a low-budget yarn called Rocky, about a Philly southpaw given a shot at the greatest title in the world as a publicity stunt contrived by the undisputed heavyweight champion, a Muhammad Ali clone named Apollo Creed. A club fighter whose life consisted of talking to his turtles, Cuff and Link, in a dingy one-room apartment and attempting to romance a virtually catatonic pet-shop girl named Adrian, Rocky, as if handed a death sentence, says yes.
And so is born the training montage, and the race up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art—and the first use of the steadycam, by the way.
Yet, despite all the rah-rah fairy-tales-can-come-true build-up, our hero loses the big fight. And millions left theaters feeling elated—in no small measure due to Bill Conti’s rousing score, a strange marriage of John Philip Sousa, doo-wop, and the Fifth Dimension. Rocky had set his own narrow goals to go the distance, proving “he wasn’t just another bum from the neighborhood,” and to win the love of his girl. He achieved them both, and that was enough.
But, of course, it wasn’t.
In Rocky II (1979) he comes back to win the championship and sire a son. In Rocky III (1982) he finds the eye of the tiger, which he apparently misplaced while shooting Nighthawks. In Rocky IV (1985) he wins the Cold War (the same year, by the way, that he refought Vietnam). In Rocky V he struggles through trauma-induced brain damage to win a street fight against a protégé gone bad.
And then he had the sense to leave it alone, to retire the character the way he did John J. Rambo. Until now.
In Rocky Balboa, Adrian is dead (from “women’s cancer”), and Rocky is a world-weary, grieving restaurant owner. (Most of his money is inexplicably gone, along with his brain damage.) The only woman in Rocky’s life now is Marie, last seen in the very first film as a cigarette-smoking street urchin with a potty mouth. She’s all grown up with a son whose Jamaican father has abandoned them. Rocky takes the son into his restaurant business, a gracious attempt to do a good turn to someone from the old neighborhood.
When an ESPN-inspired computer simulation predicts that Rocky in his prime would have beaten the current heavyweight champion, the real Rocky gets ideas. “I still have a little somethin’ in the basement,” Rocky tells Paulie, his doofus brother-in-law. And so a publicity stunt of a fight is staged, and the underdog takes on the champ, Mason “The Line” Dixon (played by former light-heavyweight champion Antonio Tarver).
Sound familiar? Rocky Balboa is part trip-down-memory-lane, part remake. As much as I wanted the old magic, as much as I admire Stallone for sustaining the spirit of this character all these years, it’s tired. The set speeches about continuing to move forward no matter how hard you’re hit, and how “it doesn’t matter how this looks to other people” tired. This is Stallone talking to himself and talking to his critics. Yes, all the Rocky films have mirrored to some extent a particular phase of Stallone’s life and career, but it’s only the deep-down sweetness of the character that mitigates what by now comes across as self-pitying and self-justifying cant. Not that there’s anything wrong with a message about the value of perseverance, but who in his right mind wouldn’t counsel a 59-year-old with arthritis in his neck not to get in the ring with the heavyweight champion of the world? At some point common sense must trump sheer will. But, again, this is more about Stallone than it is about Rocky.
Give Stallone credit for occasional goofy-funny lines, for his wry self-deprecation, and for glimpses of real pathos in the character of Marie, played by Geraldine Hughes with a naturalistic working-class integrity. Give him credit for still being able to gin up some excitement for the closing rounds of the big fight. (Give more credit to Mr. Conti, who’s back and louder than ever.) Give him credit for making sixty the new forty-five-ish and for simply refusing to go down for the count, despite straight-to-Jet-Blue fare such as D-Tox and Avenging Angelo.
But it’s tired.
In the interest of full disclosure, I should say that I used to work for Sylvester Stallone, in a manner of speaking. I was the entertainment editor for half the life of his now-defunct men’s lifestyle magazine, Sly. The first three issues of Sly contained a substantial portion of the Rocky Balboa screenplay. In fact, the magazine was where Stallone thought Rocky Balboa would go to die, its having compelled no takers among major studios. Then the magazine came out, as did Stallone’s Contender reality show, and suddenly Rocky was headed back to the big screen.
And so I already knew the end from the beginning, having even typed up last-minute tweaks to the dialogue sent me via fax from Stallone’s office. Unfortunately, a major problem with the script was never fixed in the filming: It has no “Win” moment.
In Rocky II, the best of the sequels, Adrian has fallen into a coma after giving birth to her son. Rocky cannot muster the enthusiasm to train properly for his rematch with Apollo Creed and will not even look at his newborn son until he can do so together with his wife. Finally, after much prayer and many tears on Rocky’s part, Adrian awakens. And despite the fact that she has been vehemently opposed to his returning to the ring, she whispers, still bed-ridden:
Adrian: Come here. Rocky: What? Adrian: Come here. I wanna tell you something. (Rocky leans toward her.) Adrian: There’s one thing I want you to do for me. Rocky: What’s that? Adrian: Win. (The bell rings. The theme music comes up and a bolt of electric energy shoots through the movie theater. The audience explodes into cheers and applause as that long-awaited training montage begins.)
That’s a “Win” moment.
The new film had an opportunity to provide just such juice to its sagging middle: It could have been integrated into the ancillary story of Rocky Jr.’s disgruntlement over never having been able to get out of his famous father’s shadow. A reconciliation is finally affected, but it’s too pat, too obvious an attempt to just get over it and on to the big fight. You don’t believe Rocky Jr. has put his grievances so easily behind him and just dropped everything to join up with dad, and so there’s no credible emotional spark to jump-start the film and get you revved for that inevitable training montage.
And then there is Jesus. Although Rocky had always been depicted as a faithful Catholic, the films were always more about faith in yourself than in God, about overcoming obstacles and never letting anyone convince you that you weren’t good enough. But in Rocky Balboa, at least as expressed by Spider Rico, to whom Jesus speaks directly, faith has taken a distinctly evangelical turn. Take, for example, “Idea 1” from “Round 3” of RockyResources.com’s “Leader's Resource Guide”: “With the popularity of Rick Warren’s book, The Purpose-Drive Life, focus on the ‘I have kept the faith’ theme and plan to use the ‘Purpose-in-Every-Step’ worksheet.” Is it too cynical to think this a cynical appeal to that strand of evangelicalism susceptible to a theology of glory—the market-driven, power-of-positive-thinking health-and-wealth gospel?
I always thought the more potent theme of the Rocky series was that of reconciliation: with Mickey, the gruff Bowery Boy of a trainer who once gave Rocky’s locker away. With Adrian, after repeatedly trying her patience with life-threatening returns to the ring. With a son who just wants to make it on his own in the WASP world of high finance. With Spider Rico to whom Rocky’s locker had been given. And finally, with Apollo Creed, his original nemesis. While some skeptics of the films’ charms have seen them as little more than a fantasy about a great white hope who wins one more boxing championship, Rocky never denigrates his African-American opponents, and Stallone has always invested his minority characters with their portion of dignity. He and Apollo Creed in fact become the best of friends, with Creed’s trainer finally becoming Rocky’s. It’s a great screen friendship¯a kind of Brian’s Song in reverse but little noted.
Rocky Balboa is by no means the disaster it could have been: As the Rock tells a couple of restaurant patrons who ask what’s good on the menu: “It’s all edible.” But the Italian Stallion—admittedly one of the great American screen characters of all time—has answered the bell one too many times now. So let’s hope that Sly has finally dealt with what was in the basement and put the past behind him.
But, of course, he hasn’t. Rambo IV: Pearl of the Cobra opens sometime in 2008.
Anthony Sacramone is the managing editor of First Things.