1: Philadelphia Cheesesteak
We lost Stallone in the rain. Not easy, as this version of Sylvester is ten feet tall and weighs two tons. Cast from bronze by sculptor A. Thomas Schomberg, he stands in Rocky mode with arms victoriously aloft, just a few yards from the famous Philadelphia steps that now colloquially bear the character’s nickname—he was actually baptised Robert.
But my filmmaker/critic pal Scout Tafoya and I, on this very wet Saturday in early May 2016, had to do a full circuit of the nearby Philadelphia Museum of Art—up the 72 steps, around the courtyard, round the back, down into the gardens with their sculptures of real-life American greats, back around the front —before we tracked him down. Lack of advance research was our downfall. I knew that Rocky had originally been at the top of the 72 steps, but had been removed to a nearby perch after the somewhat snobby museum curators got uncomfortable about a movieland memento being so close to their properly-curated artworks, but that was about it.
Finally we managed a quick gawp, a rapid snap or two, nothing too touristy—there was certainly no chance of either of us doing the “Rocky Steps” pose, despite the famous escalier being considerably smaller and less testing that it appears on screen. Then we scuttled off under the steady downpour into the city centre, Scout pointing out locations from Brian DePalma’s Blow Out as we went. Come to think of it, the Rocky statue also stirs memories of De Palma, as the sculpture’s chiselled cheeks and centre-parted, lush bronze hair could plausibly have been modelled on Andrew Stevens from The Fury.
De Palma’s brand of physical cinema always appealed to me more than the Rocky series; I’ve never been much of a Stallone fan. Then again, I did find his ‘people’ a pleasure to deal with when, in my capacity of Director of the Bradford International Film Festival, I invited hardcore Chaplin nut Stallone to deliver a lecture on his idol at the National Media Museum, in 2014 (the year celebrated across Britain and beyond as the centenary of Chaplin’s screen debut). He passed on gracious gratitude that we knew about his not-well-chronicled Chaplinophilia, but had to demur as the dates of the film-festival clashed with the opening of (the ill-fated) Rocky: The Musical on Broadway. Such is show business.
To be fair, while I can’t pretend to have ever been much bothered about the Rocky series per se, I did find myself won over by the belated ‘final’ chapter in the saga, 2006’s Rocky Balboa. Indeed, I was inspired to crank out one of the longest reviews I’ve ever written, a 3,000-word essay (Gonna Fly Now) that was as much journalistic as film-critic analytical, noting with approval the appearance of Rocky’s faithful and resilient turtles, Cuff and Link.
When I knew I was spending a couple of days in Philadelphia, near the end of a two-month North American, I looked into the possibility of tracking the chelonians down—but in the end put it off, discouraged by the spotty information available online about their ownership and whereabouts, and the fact that we were in town for only a relatively brief spell. Just the two nights, arriving via cheap Friday-rush-hour coach from Manhattan’s Chinatown after a particularly unpleasant, hot, traffic-jam-delayed journey.
I did encounter a pet turtle in a tank, however, in the friendly form of Dexter—tank-bound pet in the rambling old mansion where we resided for both nights, down in the student Spruce Hill neighbourhood. We stayed local for the two evenings, but had a day of sightseeing in central Philadelphia including the requisite trip to the Liberty Bell (like the Rocky Steps, rather smaller than anticipated) and a cheesesteak in Jim’s restaurant on South Street, one of the most famous spots to buy the city’s most notoriously calorific delicacy. A rival joint, Max’s, is evidently more favoured by Stallone and his crowd when they’re in town—no sign of any of them on Jim’s walls, where the likes of Hall & Oates beam down on the perpetually lengthy (but fast-moving) line awaiting their concoction of chopped-up steak, processed cheese and garnish of choice (I went for provolone with mushrooms) in a long bun.
Scout and I repaired upstairs to munch at a table, and I demolished my unhealthy luncheon in less than ten minutes. The cheesesteak interlude was also a glancing homage to last year’s semi-official Rocky relaunch Creed, in which a key stage in the tentative courtship between our hero Adonis (Michael B Johnson) and his romantic interest Bianca (Tessa Thompson) involves out-of-towner ‘Donnie’ being initiated into the gastronomic speciality at Max’s. I dug Creed even more than Rocky Balboa—indeed, among boxing pictures I’d probably rank it only behind a monochrome duo: Fernando Lopes’ Portuguese (semi-)documentary Belarmino (1964), regrettably little-seen outside Lusophone countries, and the rather better-known Raging Bull. Intrigued by frothing reactions from US critics, I’d gone along to Creed at my local multiplex in Sunderland, at the first screening on opening day, 15th January of this year.
Not many patrons in: perhaps six altogther in this biggish screen—in retrospect, I should probably have waited for the bigger audiences of the evening screening (instead I caught another brand-new UK release, The Revenant, during that slot). I went in with a certain skepticism, not so much because of the franchise-revival aspect, more down to my lukewarm-at-best reaction to director Ryan Coogler’s only previous feature outing. The ripped-from-the-headlines, racially-charged Fruitvale Station (aka Fruitvale) had, like Creed, reaped a slew of raves from Stateside reviewers—but I’d found it clunky, manipulative and at times borderline risible, despite palpable good intentions and solid performances, including from Creed’s Johnson in the lead role.
And the early stretches of Creed had me seriously pondering a walk-out, so thuddingly conventional— even TV-movie-like—was Coogler’s style, every nuance underlined with unimaginative scoring. But once the action shifted to the ring for the first proper bout, about half an hour in, the picture suddenly found its feet — Coogler, cinematographer Maryse Alberti and camera-operator Steve Brooke Smith (from Bristol) handle this encounter in a single take, in a show-offy but rousingly exciting display of agile camerawork and clobberingly convincing fistic action.
After this, I was pretty much on side—and by the time the second, climactic bout came around, I found myself fully emotionally invested in the proceedings, to the extent that I made no attempt to stem the waterworks as the credits rolled. The injustice of Creed‘s near-shutout in the Oscar nominations now bit hard—with only Sylvester Stallone (the rapidly ageing Rocky now having made a graceful transition from pugilist to coach) having picked up a nomination in the supporting actor category. Johnson and Thompson wouldn’t have been out of place in the Actor and Supporting Actress shortlists—while real-life British boxing champ Tony “Bomber” Bellew, playing Adonis’ main opponent “Pretty” Ricky Conlon, more than held his own on his acting debut, acquitting himself creditably amid much more experienced company.
The story of how Bellew got the part—and got to fight his fictional bout at Goodison Park, home of his beloved Everton football club—is an odd one. Stallone, who gamely played a somewhat immobile goalie in John Huston’s footy-themed guilty-pleasure Escape To Victory (1981), has had well-chronicled links to Everton for some time, via his former business-partner in the Planet Hollywood chain, EFC board-member Robert Earl. But the Bellew suggestion was apparently made by the unlikely figure of Ross Barkley, Everton’s attacking midfielder.
Barkley might consider a future career as a casting-director if the Beautiful Game doesn’t work out, as it’s hard to imagine anyone coping with the sporting and thespian demands of such a role with the aplomb displayed by Bellew. Like his fellow “Scouser”, Manx cyclist Mark Cavendish, Bellew isn’t everyone’s cup of tea—a bit mouthy, a bit outspoken, a bit rough-edged, perhaps even a bit of an egomaniacal show-off. But, as with the much-maligned, ever-polarising “Cav”, I’ve always found Bellew’s brashness just the right side of likeable. And when I heard, shortly before the Philadelphia excursion, that he was planning to stage his next bout—a world championship decider against reigning belt-holder Ilunga Makabu—I took steps to ensure I would be there to see it.
I emailed another pal, Martin Hennin, asking him if he was interested in attending and, if so, to sort tickets for us. Sometime professional musician (was once in a band with Nico), a fiftyish MMA practitioner who had recently started doing a bit of boxing training himself, Martin is an Everton die-hard who’d actually been at the stadium for the evening-game after which the Goodison Park Creed climax had been filmed. This set-up explains the incongruous spectacle of thousands of boxing fans waving footy-scarves during the bout. The real Bellew fight was set for a Sunday night before a bank-holiday Monday: 29th May. I duly arrived at Martin’s house in Altrincham that afternoon, and as he explained the plans for the evening he handed over my ticket. Ringside. £100.
TO BE CONTINUED
15th October 2016