I was listening to this New York radio station this morning, just turning the little dial on my eight-dollar clock radio, looking for anything that would come in without static.
I stopped when I heard mention of Sylvester Stallone’s new movie, ROCKY BALBOA. The show sounded Nuyorican—the main personality a woman, with background sound effects and several men chiming in ala all those other morning radio shows.
She was interviewing the light heavyweight boxer, Antonio Tarver, who appears in the movie as the guy Rocky fights at middle-age (Stallone says he’s 60 but “Rocky” may be a few years younger).
She was talking like she admired Tarver, but wasn’t showing him a whole lot of respect, asking if he was scared in his recent loss to Bernard Hopkins, and when he said no, he had been in this game a long time and it wasn’t that, she responded by asking if he’d looked at the fight film because he sure looked scared to her.
When the boxer explained that the mistake he’d made was going from his defeat of Roy Jones Jr. to making the film to fighting Hopkins, and that he should have had a “tune-up” fight after the film—sounding like a thoughtful, practical, responsible businessman about it all—she cut him off to put down the movie, a film she HASN’T EVEN SEEN!
I’ve been guilty of that kind of pre-judgement myself, too many times. In fact when I made a reservation a few weeks ago for a screening of the film for this past Saturday evening, I wasn’t expecting to like it, I just wanted to bring my nine-year-old boy to see Stallone in person, because he’s impressed right now with “celebrities” and I wanted him to see they’re just people like the rest of us.
But I caught a trailer for ROCKY BALBOA when my grown son and I went to see CASINO ROYALE the Saturday before—where once again my pre-judging proved to be incorrect, as I actually liked the new Bond who I had thought wasn’t right for the role, was won over by his acting chops and screen presence, though I thought the shot of him emerging from the sea in a bathing suit that I’d read raves about in numerous reviews, made him look like an ape, with a way overdeveloped chest and shoulders, but maybe that’s just a skinny guy’s perspective—anyway, the ROCKY BALBOA preview looked promising.
When Tarver tried to say something about the movie, the woman on the radio with the Rosy Perez Nuyorican accent went into a rant about how she didn’t care about no Rocky movie, she was interviewing Antonio because of who he was not the movie, because according to her “Rocky” should have just sat his ass down and retired after the first one, and so on.
Her male lackies threw out their own disparaging remarks about “Rocky” and Stallone when Tarver tried to answer a question about giving Stallone a few black eyes, really hitting him during the filming. You could hardly hear Tarver’s comments about how Stallone had hit him hard too in their attempt to make the fight look real, he was shouted down by catcalls and put downs of Stallone as some kind of sicko into being beaten or whatever.
Does the whole Rocky franchise deserve put downs? Absolutely. But not the new one.
At the Directors Guild screening I took my little boy to, only members of that guild, the producers guild and the screen writers guild were allowed in. That’s a pretty tough crowd for a movie.
First of all, they’re usually envious of all the attention movie stars get, the fame and adulation. Plus they’ve been screwed enough by stars and studio executives that they have a jaundiced view of the whole business, but especially of movie stars who think they can direct and write, or want credit for it when their co-writers or co-directors or other helpers really deserve it. And Stallone wrote and directed this film, not just starred in it.
So to win over this audience was not an easy task.
My little boy had no idea who Stallone or “Rocky” was, so I rented the original ROCKY a few nights earlier and watched it with him. He was a little antsy during the slow parts, which there were more of than I remembered.
But I was still impressed with the original, despite it’s being as cartoony and manipulative as I remembered it being, with gaps in the story and character development that in a more subtle film would have mattered. And my underlying sense that there was always something racist, intentional or not, in the white “Rocky” standing up to, and eventually defeating, a series of black boxers. But it was still inspiring.
It was a good thing we watched the original, because ROCKY BALBOA is the real sequel to that first one. It refers back to it constantly, in old footage, music, plot points and relationships—even some of the characters from the original ROCKY reappear. So my son got all those references, which connected him to the new movie more completely, and me as well.
And along with this tough audience of cynical movie insiders, we were totally won over. Just as in the Manhattan theater where I saw the originally ROCKY in 1976, people were crying and cheering throughout the film, and gave it a standing ovation at the end.
I was taken completely by surprise by that standing ovation. I was the only one still sitting, and not because I wasn’t taken with the film, but because I hate knee jerk group reactions. But even I got up when Stallone walked out and took his seat to be interviewed.
He seemed not only bright and articulate, but nothing like the star I encountered a few times, back in his heyday. Because the main quality that came across this time was humility. He truly seemed to have been chastened by aging, by having become in many ways like Rocky Balboa in the new film, a has been.
He said the new flick was a valentine to the fans of the original ROCKY. He felt he had let them down with the other sequels, hadn’t been true to the spirit of the original and the reasons people had loved it so much, and he wanted to make up for that. He has.
It’s got the same old weaknesses that somehow Stallone turns into strengths, the cartoon aspects of the film, the missing plot points, the not so subtle racial problems of once again a white hope taking on a black champion, and in this case a much maligned one. The story addresses the latter straight on and in a pretty sophisticated way by the ending, but may be too overwhelmed by the build-up of the support-for-the-underdog crescendo at the end for audiences to really get the black champion’s equally inspiring transformation.
And it’s way sentimental. But so am I. As I suspect most people are, especially the older we get.
At one point in the film, “Rocky” is reconciled with his son, and my little nine-year-old, sitting on my lap so he could see better, grabbed my hand during that scene and kissed it, then held it tight, getting the sentiment, moved by it, connecting it to his own life and relationship with his own aging father. Man, talk about sentiment. Don’t get me started.