GONNA FLY NOW : Sylvester Stallone’s ‘Rocky Balboa’ [7/10]

                                                                                                                 for J.Meden and Vern H.

A piece of cinematic history is for sale, and the buyer might be able to snap up two movie-stars, too. Joseph Marks tells me he wants to sell the building at 2146 N. Front St. in Kensington, which housed J&M Tropical Fish and doubled as Adrian’s pet shop in four Rocky movies, including Rocky Balboa. Marks closed J&M three years ago after a 40-year run, and the building sits as it was, under the El, behind a steel grate. (Walk in, and it’s 1975 again.) Though Marks is touting its place as “a Hollywood set,” he acknowledges that “it’s in disrepair. I’ll sell it as a handyman’s special.” … He says he would consider a deal involving Cuff and Link, the turtles seen in Rocky and Rocky Balboa. Marks also still has a prop “J&M” sign created by a set designer. Since closing the store, he has worked as an assistant manager for GNC; his wife, Dorothy, is recovering from cancer surgery. “We’re not getting any younger,” says Marks, 61. “My wife and myself want to enjoy the last legs of our life.”
Michael Klein : Philadelphia Enquirer, 21st January 2007

“Walk in, and it’s 1975 again”… you could pretty much say the same for any cinema showing Rocky Balboa, so overwhelmingly retro is the film’s lovingly crafted back-in-the-day vibe. The film contains countless references (visual, verbal, musical) to all five previous Rocky movies, but writer-director-star Stallone takes John G Avildsen’s Oscar-winning 1976 original – even more than Avildsen’s back-to-basics Rocky V from 1990 – as his main template in terms of the script’s stripped-down storyline and rough-edged atmosphere.

J Clark Mathis’s cinematography evocatively captures the wintry, blue-collar ambience of the film’s down-at-heel Philadelphia exteriors, implicitly referencing the late James Crabe’s work on the first picture. Then there’s Bill Conti’s near-legendary score: Conti, still very much with us, homages – and extensively quotes from – his own work, with the rousing anthem ‘Gonna Fly Now’ popping up at a couple of judicious moments including the obligatory ‘training montage’ demanded by all Rocky die-hards.

This time the montage – which features Rocky once again using frozen sides of beef as heavy-bags – concludes in classic style, with Rocky nimbly scaling the 72 steps of Philadelphia’s Museum of Art (his bemused mongrel ‘Punchy‘ obediently keeping pace) and triumphantly socking the air when he reaches the top. His lung-busting ascent isn’t merely some old-times-sake nostalgia trip. Rocky – of coyly unspecified age, but seemingly in his mid-fifties (Stallone actually turned 60 on 6th July) – is back in training for what he promises everyone will be one last fight.

His opponent: cocky world heavyweight champion Mason ‘The Line’ Dixon, played by real-life pro boxer Antonio Tarver (a top-five-ranked light-heavyweight who reportedly bulked up from 175lb to 217lb for the role). Dixon is much younger (Tarver was 38 during filming), fitter and sharper than Balboa – but the heavyweight division has been in such decline for so long that he’s never been properly tested against an old-style puncher. The possibility of a Balboa-Tarver rematch becomes viable after a TV show’s computer simulation (a descendant of 1969’s proto-virtual-reality ‘superfight‘ between Rocky Marciano and Muhammad Ali) decides that, if both boxers could have met during their prime, Balboa would have won. Though Tarver dismisses the ‘verdict’ as a gimmick, his management – aware that their charge is becoming deeply unpopular with the public – sense a PR opportunity too good to miss, and contact Balboa at his south Philadelphia restaurant. Their proposition: a big-money, televised exhibition match in (where else?) Las Vegas.

A Tarver-Balboa bout, though seemingly far-fetched, isn’t as implausible as it first appears. In the mid-nineties George Foreman emerged from retirement to regain world heavyweight titles, and ten years later – at 55 – was reportedly “training for one comeback fight” before his wife intervened and vetoed the possibility. There’s no such spousal intervention possible for Balboa, however, his beloved Adrian (played in flashbacks by Talia Shire) having died of what Rocky calls “woman cancer” back in 2002 – the precise chronological setting for Rocky Balboa isn’t divulged, but one throwaway bit of dialogue suggests events are taking place in late 2003 or early 2004.

The film begins with a still-grieving Rocky laying flowers at Adrian’s grave – and it’s strongly implied that he takes up the Tarver challenge partly as a catharsis for his numbing grief (he mumbles something about having “stuff in the basement” he needs to clear out). Adrian may be gone, but Rocky still regards himself as a married man – as he informs ‘Little’ Marie (Geraldine Hughes), a character who was a child in the first film (when played by Jodie Letizia) and now has a son of her own – mixed-race teenager Stephenson, a.k.a. ‘Steps’ (James Francis Kelly III). Rocky meets Marie when he pays a visit to a dingy South Philadelphia bar he frequented during his days as a loan-shark’s henchman – the first half of the movie is full of scenes in which Rocky, either alone or with the ever-kvetching Paulie in attendance, poignantly seeks out his former haunts (despite his daunting bulk, there’s something faintly ghostly about this spectre from another time).

We half expect Rocky and Marie to become an item, but their relationship remains firmly peck-on-the-cheek platonic: recognising she’s in need of help, he provides her with a job at his restaurant (“Adrian’s”), where one of the regular ‘diners’ is none other than Rocky’s first opponent in the first movie: Spider Rico (Pedro Lovell recreating the role in what’s only his second-ever film appearance). Not that the proprietor ever charges Rico for his meals – the eponymous hero of Rocky Balboa is now a figure of boundless charity and (quietly faith-inspired) munificence, but perhaps his motivations aren’t entirely altruistic: this is a man who’s clearly most comfortable when surrounded by reminders of his superstar past, and is thus inspired by the presence of these ‘totems’ to try his luck in the ring one last time…

And as with Balboa, so with Stallone – hence the somewhat unlikely reappearance of Lovell, alongside ever-present ‘cast members’ Young and Tony Burton (as trainer Duke). And what about ‘Cuff’ and ‘Link,’ the tiny turtles from Rocky who now, grown to the size of small dinner-plates, cameo in their tank in Rocky’s unpretentious apartment – remarkably, these are the the actual turtles from 1975. Stallone (according to Philadelphia Magazine) even went out of his way to wear the same pork-pie hat he sported in the original: “I had to go back and get the original hat, which was a three-dollar hat. It had completely fallen apart. I took it to four hatmakers. Nobody knew how to fix this old, odd hat. It took three months to remake that hat.”

Just as “nobody knew” how to repair the hat, Stallone himself was always going to be the only person able to “fix” the “old, odd” Rocky franchise (for the record, 71-year-old Avildsen recently completed Dancing Into the Future – a video-shot documentary for Troma films.)  Stallone’s “fix” involved emerging from a ‘retirement’ almost as long as George Foreman’s: his last directorial gig before Rocky Balboa was Rocky IV in 1985 – a hiatus comparable with the 22 years Terrence Malick had “off” between Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line and the 20 years between George Lucas’s Star Wars and The Phantom Menace. A little ring-rustiness would have been eminently forgivable. But while Stallone the director has never threatened to match the Oscar-winner achievement of Stallone the writer (with Rocky, he was only the third screenplay winner to be nominated the same year for Best Actor, after Charlie Chaplin and Orson Welles) it’s hard to imagine any other film-maker investing this project with anything like the conviction and affection so evident in pretty much every frame.

By this stage, of course, it’s very hard to divorce Rocky Balboa from the actor who created him, who has written the scripts from all his movies and directed no less than four of his big-screen adventures. Just like Rocky, Stallone obviously feels he’s got one last good bout (i.e. film) inside him, and was able to persuade the bigwigs at MGM, Fox and Columbia to give him the chance. It must have seemed a risky proposition, considering Stallone hadn’t had a decent-sized hit since 1993’s Cliffhanger and has, in the intervening decade, become something of a figure of pop-culture fun. And the subject-matter probably appeared dicey, the decline in Stallone’s career having very closely mirrored that of heavyweight boxing.

When Rocky V premiered in November 1990, Mike Tyson – though no longer a champion – was one of the most famous sportsmen in the world (he contributes a self-mocking cameo to Rocky Balboa, incidentally). The man who beat the man (Buster Douglas) who beat Tyson, Evander Holyfield was a recognisable celebrity – charismatic holder of the IBF, WBC and WBA heavyweight belts (only upstart organisation WBO’s Francesco Damiani prevented Holyfield from being able to call himself the undisputed champ). Spool forward to the day of Rocky Balboa‘s premiere in December 2006: it’s unlikely that many general sports fans worldwide would have been able to tell you much about ‘champions‘ Nikolai Valuev (WBA), Wladimir Klitschko (IBF), Oleg Maskaev (WBC) or Shannon Briggs (WBO) – the latter winning his title on November 4th, 2006 by defeating Sergei Liakhovich. Up to that point – in an irony that Rocky IV‘s Beast-from-the-East villain Ivan Drago would have appreciated – all four belts were held by men born in the Soviet Union.

As the heavyweight division – formerly the ‘blue riband’ section of the sport – has lost ground in the public consciousness, flashy new alternatives have risen: the banalities of the World Wrestling Federation and its descendants, and the brutalities of Mixed Martial Arts (aka ‘Ultimate Fighting’.) Then again, Clint Eastwood showed with 2004’s Million Dollar Baby that movies about boxing can still find plenty of favour with critics, awards bodies and the public – even if the harrowing ending of that picture was a world away from the aggressive uplift so closely associated with the Rocky series. There was clearly never much chance of Stallone delivering that kind of ‘downer’: it isn’t exactly a “spoiler” to say that the Balboa/Tarver fight which concludes the main action in suitably explosive and gripping style, adheres very closely to the encounter between Rocky and Carl Weathers’ Apollo Creed from the 1976 movie (and fulfils Rocky Balboa‘s opening line of dialogue, a sportscasters’ lament that “all of boxing is hoping for a warrior who thrills us with his passion”).

There’s then a touching coda at Adrian’s graveside… Rocky wanders off into the distance, sated and cleansed, at peace with himself… and, like they used to say about old soldiers, he just simply fades away, before our disbelieving eyes. It’s a disarmingly quiet and mature way to round off a franchise that’s known more than its fair share of blare and bluster (especially at some of the more histrionic moments during Rocky IV), and it would take a very hard heart not to be moved by how Stallone brings such an enduring cultural icon to his final bell.

Not that this graveyard fadeout is quite the end, however: the closing titles feature video footage of ordinary folk trotting up the “Rocky steps”. According to the Art Museum’s marketing director Charles Croce, “It happens constantly, all day long. I saw an older woman jogging up the stairs, and she looked around and saw me and said, ‘There’s still some juice left in this old coconut.’ ”

The iconic steps – the naming of Marie’s son clearly represents a sly in-joke – are a major draw in a city which is in dire need of tourist dollars. Philadelphia has an understandable soft spot for native New Yorker Stallone, who selected the location as the setting for his script less because of the city’s historical associations with the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights and more because, as he told Philadelphia Magazine‘s Andrew Corsello, “Rocky moves at a certain pace. Not a New York pace. A Philadelphia pace. A more soulful pace. I thought of him as much more conservative in his life. And I thought that he would belong to a smaller kind of infrastructure, where the neighborhoods were tighter. Where the world was more claustrophobic. I just thought,  ‘A Philadelphia fighter. Rocky’s a Philadelphia fighter.'”

It’s tempting to equate Philadelphia’s decline with that of heavyweight boxing and Stallone’s career – but it wouldn’t be entirely accurate. Philadelphia was a relatively poor city in 1975, when Rocky was filmed, and remains so today – indeed, it has the highest poverty rate of the ten most populous cities in the USA, with almost one in four living below the most widely agreed definition of the “poverty line”. But things have got worse in the last decade and a half: according to a study by the Brookings Institution, “as the economic strength of the urban core dissipated in the 1990s, Philadelphia’s residents struggled economically as well. Household incomes dropped dramatically, and the size of the city’s middle class declined… These economic challenges are rooted in the city’s low rates of higher educational attainment and adult labor force participation.”

Rocky Balboa doesn’t soft-pedal Philadelphia’s severe and worsening problems, but the only solutions it offers are classic Republican ones: it’s up to individuals to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, praising God during the process and giving charitable help to fellow-sufferers where possible. Rocky needs his family and friends around him, but once he’s in the ring against Mason Dixon it’s essentially a mano a mano, one-against-one combat in which the skill, power and endurance of the individual are the crucial factors. The Rocky cycle has always been touched at every stage by political concerns – most visibly (and risibly) with Rocky IV. And while Stallone has, in his time, funded both Democrat and Republican candidates (and hosted a fundraiser for President Clinton during the latter’s impeachment proceedings), he was present with Arnold Schwarzenegger at the first inauguration of George W Bush (who has has often named Stallone, along with Chuck Norris, as one of his two favourite actors – coincidentally, Bush and Stallone were born on exactly the same day.)

The harsh, market-centric, trickle-down policies of Bush (and before him Ronald Reagan) haven’t exactly been a boon for Philadelphia and its residents – such as the aforementioned Joseph Marks of J+M Tropical Fish (“I had to close the store because of economics,” he told the Philadelphia Enquirer). And one could argue that Stallone, via his Rocky and Rambo movies, helped push America that little bit further towards the right, leading more and more of his fellow citizens into the financial dire straits suffered at various stages by Mr Balboa and his South Philly pals.

But it’s hard to bear much of a grudge against Stallone while Rocky Balboa is actually playing up there on the screen. The picture is so persuasive and heartfelt that, by the end, even the most critical viewer will surely be minded to forgive him all manner of faults, self-indulgences and peccadillos – from the ‘fact,’ stated on-screen, that Rocky is 5’11 (Stallone is reckoned 5’9, perhaps 5’10 at most) to the general cheesiness of the film’s basic rage-against-the-dying-of-the-light story-arc, the sappiness of the father-son “home-team” subplot (Milo Ventimiglia replaces Sage Stallone as Robert Balboa Jr), the skirting-over of the brain-damage angle that played such a prominent role in Rocky V (Stallone has actually tackled this delicate matter rather plausibly in interview).

Like Rocky, Stallone now deserves – for all his previous indiscretions, errors and excesses – one last spell in the limelight. The actor has been for so long something of a target of mockery, a figure of fun – and while humour abounds amid the grief and seriousness of Rocky Balboa, it’s Stallone’s achievement that we’re now most definitely laughing with him rather than at him. The end of the Rocky series will be an emotional affair for many but, by using that larkish ‘Rocky steps’ footage alongside the end credits, Stallone (who says of the film, “I wanted it to be a final love letter to the people that have embraced the character”) signals that for him it’s very much a case of ‘exit smiling.’

Actually, the steps stuff isn’t quite the end. Stay in your seat and you’ll be rewarded with a brief but indelible sequence which shows Rocky alone at night at the top of the steps as snow falls and he surveys the Philadelphia skyline in eerie silence. “It was the saddest day of my life, in a way,” says Stallone. “We’d done the last shot of Rocky Balboa, and I was sitting there on the top of the steps, and the snow was coming down, and then I realized it. It’s over. My best friend, my alter ego, is gone.

“The reason I have everything I have is gone. I’ll never put on his clothes again. I’ll never run up these steps again. It killed me. It just fractured me. And then I said to myself,  ‘Now, turn around. Because this is also the most glorious day of your life. You did it. You completed your mission.'” One mission may be completed, but another remains unfinished – while it might have been nice for Stallone to ‘fade away’ with Rocky, production on John Rambo is now underway. The actor-writer-director has been revived: it’s apparently only the pugilist who’s at rest.

Neil Young
6th/8th March, 2007

ROCKY BALBOA : [7/10] : USA 2006 : Sylvester STALLONE : 102 mins (BBFC timing)
seen at Forum cinema, Hexham (UK), 1st March 2007 – public show (paid  £5.00)

Stallone grinned, signaled for silence, spoke: “Uh . . . these turtles, they’re named Cuff and Link, they may not speak dialogue too good but they crawl real nice. They’re two amphibians I picked up on a roadside in New Jersey, and now they’re immortalized.”
He pulled the cloth off the bowl, and there they were, Cuff and Link.
More cheers. “Hear that, Cuff and Link?” he said. “Sounds good, huh? Even a turtle should have his place in the sun.”