Alpha to Omega: Rocky Balboa

Alpha to Omega

The film franchise is an inescapable part of the modern movie landscape. In this series I will address a series of films from the first to the last, looking at each film as a standalone and how it fits into the series.

Rocky Balboa

Have you ever screwed up with your girlfriend/boyfriend?

I mean really screwed up?

I mean really screwed up in a “this thing is over unless I do something substantial” kind of way?

If you answered no that means either...

a. You have never had a girlfriend/boyfriend.

b. You have, but are some kind of extra strength stupid that kept you from seeing it.

or

c. You are willfully lying to yourself.

I have. Boy, have I ever.

On one of my X’s birthday was the day before Valentine’s day, it was also the day after the birthday of someone in a very tight group of friends I had. I decided, in the infinite wisdom I had acquired in my then 26 years on the planet, to just let the celebration we had for that birthday count as hers. In my mind she was working on both her birthday and Valentine’s day (she was a restaurant manager, so that meant that she worked late and came home and went to bed), so it wouldn’t really make that much of a difference.

I was asleep when she got home on her birthday (in my defense, she didn’t get home until well after midnight), and the next night... well, I intended to just watch TV until she got home. What I did was watch TV and drink a whole lot of beer and eat nothing. So when she got home at 8:30, I was immobile drunk.

The honest, non delusional ones among us with any sort of romantic history know that such an error requires something major, a grand gesture if you will, to put things right.

To put this in a clearer perspective, in less than 48 hours I had dropped the ball in a major way and knew that I had some major work to do to repair that bridge.

Still, my transgression paled in comparison to the film that was “Rocky V.”

There are few film series as beloved as the Rocky movies. I almost wrote “as beloved to men,” but realized that was a stupid thing to say, as all that you need to love Rocky is a soul.

How significant are these movies?

There is a book about people running the “Rocky steps” in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Their reasons vary from “I lost 50 pounds,” to “I asked her to marry me and she said yes.” But for some reason, they find inspiration in running up these stairs and recreating this scene. As one of them said, “Doing this makes you feel like anything is possible.”

Somehow, this no budget little movie, written by and starring an unknown was able reach with Malcolm Gladwell calls “the tipping point.” It didn’t just connect, it worked its way into the public consciousness and became a part of, at the very least, the American identity. But it goes so much further than just America.

There was such a genuine earnestness to 1-4. They were all basically extensions of what Rocky said to Adrian in his dirty little apartment.

Rocky: I can't do it.

Adrian: What?

Rocky: I can't beat him.

Adrian: Apollo?

Rocky: Yeah. I been out there walkin' around, thinkin'. I mean, who am I kiddin'? I ain't even in the guy's league.

Adrian: What are we gonna do?

Rocky: I don't know.

Adrian: You worked so hard.

Rocky: Yeah, that don't matter. 'Cause I was nobody before.

Adrian: Don't say that.

Rocky: Ah come on, Adrian, it's true. I was nobody. But that don't matter either, you know? 'Cause I was thinkin', it really don't matter if I lose this fight. It really don't matter if this guy opens my head, either. 'Cause all I wanna do is go the distance. Nobody's ever gone the distance with Creed, and if I can go that distance, you see, and that bell rings and I'm still standin', I'm gonna know for the first time in my life, see, that I weren't just another bum from the neighborhood.

Five felt like fan fiction written by someone who hadn’t seen the first 4, but had talked to someone who had... a long time ago.

This was a “Batman and Robin,” “Superman IV: The Quest for Peace,” level franchise murdering misstep.

In the eyes of fans, Rocky may as well have died at the end, as originally planned, because nobody wanted any more from it.

But the years passed. Lots of years. 16 to be exact.

Think about that. Rocky to Rocky V took 14 years. V to Balboa... 16.

Somehow, during that near two decade break, Stallone figured out how to fix things.

This wasn’t some, “I’ll make you your favorite meal,” level amends. This was more like, “I’ll fly you to Paris for the weekend, and we’ll have your favorite meal there.” Stallone went to the mountain top and found the source of all Rocky.

Rocky is about the guy whose “whole life was a million to one shot.” A man who everyone counted out and who just wanted to be on his feet when the bell rang.

“Balboa” continues the “V” timeline. Rocky has rebuilt a solid, working class life after losing everything.

16 years after the Tommy Gun debauch, Rocky has a nice little neighborhood restaurant called “Adrian’s” after his late wife.

Ok, first off... OUCH!

If you are a fan of these movies, you know that losing Adrian is the absolute worst thing that could happen to Rocky. She was his heart, and in this series... that means everything.

Without Adrian his life has become routine. He gets up early to hit the market for the restaurant, he visits Adrian’s grave, and spends the rest of the day being the consummate restaurant owner. He was always a friendly guy who loves to talk and tell stories and be around people, and now he gets to do that professionally.  He even makes sure that guys from the old days, like Spider Rico (the first person we see him fight) has a place at his place. He’s turned into the kind of older guy you wanted him to. He may or may not be happy, but he is content even if he’s a little lonely.

When Adrian died he didn’t become single, he became a married man whose wife passed away. There is a difference. He is as loyal and dedicated to her as he was when she was alive. “The Tour” section of the film is one of the most beautifully heartbreaking sequences I’ve ever seen. It sets up what the film is really about. He lost his ehart when she died, and now he needs to get it back.

Adrian isn’t the only person he lost. His son, Robert, though still alive has grown estranged. Spending his life standing in the impossible shadow of his father, in a city where his father is revered with almost religious wonder ended up being too much for him, so he completely pulls back from him.

It’s unfortunate, but understandable. Could you imagine how difficult it must be to live in a city where you cannot be your own person? I don’t think I could handle living a life knowing that everything that came my way was because of who my father was.

He has become, essentially, the opposite of his father. his heart and will have been stripped away, leaving a timid shell who is unwilling to risk anything because he has never been able to believe in himself.

So, you have two men. One is all heart and leads a contented life that has lost his compass. The other is lost, has never had a compass or a map of his own, who feels like the tide is pulling against him.

Then you have Marie, who we met in the first film.

She’s a girl from the neighborhood that Rocky tries to help and advise when she was younger. He runs into her and tries to help again. This really is the perfect expression of who Rocky is as a person. He meets a single mother from the neighborhood and helps her. he doesn’t want or expect anything in return. He does it to help because he is all heart.

That is where we find Rocky.

One night ESPN runs a report on a computer simulation pitting current champ Mason “The Line” Dixon (played by real life champion boxer Antonio Tarver) against Rocky, predicting a Rocky win by 10th round knockout. Rocky, feeling that he has some"stuff in the basement" he needs to deal with is inspired to get back in the ring (the brain damage from “Rocky V” is not even mentioned).

All Rocky wants is a few small, local fights for charity. However, Dixon’s management sees an opportunity to seize on all the publicity. You see, Dixon is a great fighter who has never had a really memorable fight or beaten a truly great opponent. He’s never proven himself the way Rocky has and has suffered some criticism because of it. He sees the fight as a way to end all the talk and prove that he’s a true champion.

Due to the fact that he is 59 and hasn’t fought is 16 years, the press dismisses Rocky’s chances. So, we find Rocky where we did at the beginning of the first film. A guy with something to prove that nobody thinks he can achieve.

This causes problems for Robert, who sees this as a way for his dad to expand his already massive shadow and make his live even more difficult. He asks his dad not to fight, and we get this...

Damn! Just... damn! This seals it and the fight is on.

Now we finally get to the staple of the Rocky movies. Not a boxing match, but a training montage. This montage is a little different. You see, Rocky is an old boxer. That means his body, though able to pass a physical, isn’t up to the rigors of training. As his trainer Duke says,

Duke: You know all there is to know about fighting, so there's no sense us going down that same old road again. To beat this guy, you need speed - you don't have it. And your knees can't take the pounding, so hard running is out. And you got arthritis in your neck, and you've got calcium deposits on most of your joints, so sparring is out.

Paulie: I had that problem.

Duke: So, what we'll be calling on is good ol' fashion blunt force trauma. Horsepower. Heavy-duty, cast-iron, pile-driving punches that will have to hurt so much they'll rattle his ancestors. Every time you hit him with a shot, it's gotta feel like he tried kissing the express train. Yeah! Let's start building some hurtin' bombs!

This montage, more than anything, shows what Stallone was trying to do with this movie. All of the insanely punishing weightlifting is not only real, meaning that yes, he actually did all of it, but it was done in a singe, 17 hour day of filming. Stallone was so dedicated to giving the best film he could that he put himself through a SEVENTEEN HOUR WORKOUT! I don’t know about you, but in my prime I could maybe manage 2 hours, and that was when I was doing an hour of cardio with it.

Rocky Balboa is part apology, part love letter to fans of this series. It’s mostly the latter though because, Rocky isn’t really fighting to win. He knows full well that him winning isn’t the million to one shot it was against Creed, but a hundred million to one shot. Winning isn’t what matters, much like the first film. But unlike the first film, he isn’t just proving himself with this fight. He’s giving Dixon a chance to do the same.

The final fight is just... it’s epic. For starters, it’s a new Rocky fight. The ESPN commentator puts it best. “Wow, Rocky Balboa said hi to me, I watched Rocky when I was a kid, I never thought that I would commentate one of his fights!” For people like me who grew up on the Rocky movies it was something I never thought I’d see again, especially after 5. But here it was, and it was different. It was classic.

Rocky started out as a person, morphed into a symbol, then grew into an icon that become almost a parody. But here... here is back to being a real person with motivations that make sense.

But it’s more than that. This fight feels real. Part of that is due to the fact that every punch sound effect in this movie is the actual sound of an actual punch. There’s nobody slapping a piece of meat with a ping pong paddle. But more than that, it feels like a real fight because it is a real fight. There were no punches pulled. You know the scene where Rocky gets knocked down for a 9 count and tries to get to his feet by taking hold of the rope? Yeah, that wasn’t acting. Tarver straight knocked him unconscious.

If you’re a Rocky fan, this is one of the most satisfying movie experiences you could have. If you’re not a Rocky fan, this movie should make you one. If you don’t like Rocky, well, you may not like this, and that is really on you. This film works on so many levels. It’s a sports movie, but it’s also about redemption, family, reconciliation, community, and believing in yourself. Basically, it’s about everything that makes this a great film series.

Touchingly enough, the last scene filmed for this was Stallone’s final run up the steps at the museum. Stallone knew that the emotion of that scene would be too overwhelming. I can’t disagree. The new version is different. He’s not as fast and his victory dance is far less enthusiastic (even though in a lot of ways it is far more powerful), but he does it with an adorable puppy dog and if the addition of an adorable puppy dog doesn’t make something better for you, then you an awful, awful human being.

If Stallone is to be believed, and I do believe him here, this is the last Rocky movie which is a really good thing. It felt almost blasphemous to have Rocky V be the last one. Even when it danced on the edge of silliness (not naming names, but Rocky IV, I am looking in your general direction) there was an undeniable sincerity to the film in the series. Five didn’t have that and had it been the final chapter... that would be like Bela Lugosi ending his career with Plan Nine From Outer Space. It just wouldn’t be right. Thank God that there was a studio that was willing to take a chance and let Stallone come back and end it right.

More than anything, thank you, Mr. Stallone for giving us the final chapter that people who love these movies so desperately wanted.



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