Monday, March 25, 2013

80s Revisited: Rocky Sequels

HBO Zone showed the first five Rocky movies yesterday morning, and I basically decreed that that's what my wife and I would spend the day watching. We've been watching miniseries on Encore every Sunday, but nothing we wanted to see was on this week so it was Rocky all day instead.

I love the Rocky movies, even though three of them are just not really very good. It's my love of the first movie that carries me through them, really. I'd never choose to watch Rocky V on its own, for example, but if it was an all-day project, like this, line 'em up.

Rocky is one of my favorite movies. Not because it's a triumphant feel-good fairy tale (although, let's face it, it is), but because it's about a guy who doesn't try hard enough. It's something that seemed even more pronounced to me watching it yesterday than it has in the last 20 years. Rocky is a guy who just isn't trying very hard; he's sort of resigned himself to not getting anywhere and just does the bare minimum to skate by. I think that's something very easy to relate to. Is he scared of succeeding? Or is he scared of trying and finding out that his best isn't good enough to succeed? It's a pulp masterpiece about two broken souls who are basically good people (Rocky and Adrian) but who have held themselves back and who finally take their chances in the world. I love it.

Rocky II I like very much, though it's not as good as the first. It bookends it nicely, but it isn't as singular as the first time. It deepens the characters and their dilemmas, and even manages some meta-commentary on the success of Rocky and Sylvester Stallone himself. It still has the genuine sincerity of the original, even if it isn't quite as entertaining.

But then... then...

Rocky III (1982)
Written and directed by Sylvester Stallone; produced by Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff

What I really like about Rocky III is Stallone's sense of the continuity of his characters, his themes, and even his music and structure. It's what makes these movies so easy to sit and watch in a day. But it also puts the earlier movies in sharper relief. My wife, who doesn't like even the original very much, said that this movie made her appreciate the first two more than she had, because this one made her see how they could have gone pretty wrong.

I think the real misstep with this one is that it still has the heart, but lacks the sincerity. That's probably natural. By this time, Sylvester Stallone was an internationally popular megastar. He didn't really have to struggle to get his projects greenlit anymore, and now that he's removed from the reality of struggle, so are his movies.

To his credit, he actually addresses that in the movie itself. Rocky Balboa is a megastar, too. He lives in a mansion and all of his and his family's needs are taken care of. He doesn't have to struggle anymore; he's on top. Hell, the movie even sort of addresses Stallone's plastic surgery; of course a fighter would have to get his face fixed, and Stallone looking different basically explains in itself why he doesn't have to deal with the drama of the second movie anymore. Remember how part of the plot hinged on how he couldn't see very well out of his right eye anymore because they had to cut him in his first fight with Apollo Creed? It doesn't come across like a dropped plot point; his face literally has a different structure now.

And it makes for a good plot twist that when a rival comes after him (Mr. T as Clubber Lang), he discovers that his trusted manager and father figure Mickey was handpicking guys that Rocky could beat to defend his title against in the intervening years. I think Mickey's death is a little overheated, though. It's like Stallone couldn't live with just having Rocky prove to himself that he could beat Clubber Lang, but needed that extra bit of motivation which feels kind of soapy. And for the third time, they basically go to that well of Rocky doesn't take his training seriously, then does some unconventional and/or old-timey training and then he wins. It's not as compelling a third time, no matter how awesome Carl Weathers is (and he's... he's pretty awesome).

Even the way the film is directed has changed. Stallone's direction is so much slicker now, like a music video advertising the most gay-friendly gym in America. So many close-ups of sweaty, rippling biceps and pumping thighs. Rocky and Apollo racing across the beach in half-shirts and short-shorts and then hugging in the surf in slow motion is basically the volleyball game in Top Gun. This is not a complaint, by the way, I'm just pointing that out. It's one of the many very 80s things about this movie. (You ever notice, by the way, how the 80s was so politically conservative, but so much of the entertainment seemed like just an outlet for straight boys to get to be a little gay without it being too weird or just, I don't know, outright fucking each other? Stallone movies--particularly Rambo: First Blood Part II, the most homoerotic movie ever--and the WWF and hair metal alone, man... Just saying.) There's so much glitz to it (though the movie doesn't overdose on it like Staying Alive, Stallone's next directorial effort). It's incredibly 80s. It even has Hulk Hogan and introduces "Eye of the Tiger," one of those delightfully moronic power pop hits that I just love.

The real pleasure of the film, though, is Mr. T's unhinged, bizarre, riveting performance as Clubber Lang, which is as quotable as it is intense. T plays Clubber like a bull that's gotten loose and only wants to kill people. Clubber's basically a homicidal maniac; like he only boxes so he can have an excuse to hurt people. Every one of his lines, no matter how awesome or stupid, is just another piece of wheat for Mr. T to spin into gold. I love Mr. T. I will always love Mr. T. And he's really what makes this movie, taking it from tired retread to stupid-fun flick with a fantastic villain.

So, basically, yeah, Rocky III is pretty bad, but it's at least bad in a fun way because of Mr. T and the sheer silliness of Stallone's attempts to still be earnest. There was no real need for this movie--the story from the first two films is told, and there's nothing else that needs to be said--but hey, it exists.

Rocky IV (1985)
Written and directed by Sylvester Stallone; produced by Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff

So many franchises and TV shows in the mid-eighties just couldn't stop themselves from going this route of trying to win the Cold War by proxy. In fact, this same year Stallone won us the Vietnam War (finally) in Rambo: First Blood Part II and the Cold War in Rocky IV, showing how our homegrown idealism and determination would ultimately overcome Soviet precision and science. Because Americans had more heart or something, and the Soviets were automatons.

A message of understanding might have been enough, but in the climax of the film, we have to have Rocky winning over the entire Soviet audience, then villain Ivan Drago rejecting his sovietism in favor of individual achievement (so of course he loses), and then Rocky making a barely coherent speech about understanding or something, and then a Gorbachev lookalike leading the politburo in a slow clap. Rocky has clearly demonstrated American superiority and won.

Otherwise, this film is pretty much distilled into the series' purest formula and nothing else. That's all there is to it. It's kind of amazing, like a masterclass in how to make a bare structure without adding anything of real substance to it. It's even more slick than its predecessor, too, at one point breaking for a music video so Rocky can do that most 80s of things: drive really fast to clear his head, having emotional flashbacks while his jaw sets in determination and power pop with generic lyrics about doing your best and winning and whatnot plays on the soundtrack. It proves that you can still senselessly pad the leanest of movies--so lean it doesn't even make it to a full 90 minutes.

But seriously, the whole thing is basically this: Rocky is a successful megastar, he enjoys time with his family, Paulie has a walk-on appearance, villain is introduced, villain kills trusted friend, Rocky agrees to fight, he has a hard time training, Adrian finally tells him it's okay to fight (her walk-on; she's basically a prop by this point), Rocky gets serious about training, training montage, final fight, villain defeated, Rocky and Adrian love each other, end at the moment of victory with a freeze frame. Also there's a James Brown music video and, because it's 1985, a robot. And that's pretty much it. It's like Rocky III, but with all of the fat trimmed off of it, if by fat you mean plot complications, character arcs, development and story--elements which, admittedly, Rocky III barely had. There's no character to relate to because Rocky's basically a superhero now instead of a person.

I'd say it wasn't really a good movie, but honestly, it's kind of barely a movie. But it made a shit-ton of money, so what do I know?

Three other observations, before I go on to the next flick: first, Brigitte Nielsen was tremendously hot in 1985; second, this is the first one that doesn't have a score by Bill Conti and which doesn't use "Gonna Fly Now," and I kind of miss those elements a lot, because they carried through and even though I like Vince DiCola's synth-heavy score, it's like literally the last vestige of sincerity these movies had is gone; and third, I never really noticed before that these are basically samurai movies now. You killed my master, and now I must have revenge. I think that's part of what made these two movies popular, honestly. The motivations were clear and direct.

Rocky V (1990)
Directed by John G. Avildsen; written by Sylvester Stallone; produced by Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff

Well, they tried. It was too late, but they tried.

In this installment, Rocky tries to recover from the damage Ivan Drago dealt him while he was winning the Cold War, loses all of his money, trains another fighter who is an ingrate, and strengthens his ties with his family. For the most part, it kind of breaks the formula rut of the earlier films, but in doing so it comes across as weirdly desperate to be liked. In this one, we say goodbye to the trappings of success and megastardom and go back to the streets of Philadelphia. Stallone even wears the cocked hat, fingerless leather gloves, and leather jacket he wore in the original movie, which comes across as a rather painful attempt to ingratiate himself with the audience, as though it's easier to identify with a Rocky who is so poverty-stricken that he can't even wear nice clothes anymore.

After Stallone's slick direction of the series, original director John G. Avildsen was brought back, as was composer Bill Conti, though neither of these things really help the film. In fact, Avildsen's direction is surprisingly cheesy and the fight scenes--especially the final fight--are hysterically overwrought. In the film's attempt to go back and rediscover the roots that made the original Rocky such a great, passionate film, everyone's trying way too hard and it just comes across as painful. It's not insincere so much as it's trying to find a genuine sincerity that it can't come close to. It's a failure, but I guess at least it's a genuine one. And it tries hard to be a definitive final cap to the series, but it's unsatisfying.

There are good elements to it. I actually like all the stuff about Rocky and his son, played here by Stallone's real life son Sage, giving the movie a tinge of sadness due to Sage's recent death. He's not much of an actor, but it gives the movie much more urgency than the main plot about Rocky training another fighter and that fighter turning on him to sign with a Don King-alike manager. And there's a flashback scene in which Burgess Meredith reprises the role of Mickey that I thought was genuinely touching. And I actually like Richard Gant's silly, over the top performance as the Don King character (George Washington Duke), which is purposely hammy and crazed, even if the unreal energy of it basically damns the movie to cartoonishness. And hey, Talia Shire actually gets to act and be a character this time around.

But it really does try too hard to be crowd-pleasing, and gives into its most tasteless instincts in doing so. Doctors tell Rocky he can't fight anymore because he has brain damage, but then the movie ends in a long, tedious street brawl. Rocky punches out the Don King-alike in a moment meant to be satisfying but which comes across as smug because the character has been more of a cartoon annoyance than a real villain. And then the whole thing ends with this Alan Menken-written song performed by Elton John about the measure of a man, and the movie is just so sure we're saying goodbye to a beloved character, and instead of feeling fulfilled and satisfied, you just kind of wish the movie would shut up and stop being so cloying.

Frankly, I think the timing for this movie was just all wrong. It was too long after Rocky IV and its tremendous success for anyone to really give a shit anymore. Rocky IV is so marked by the trappings of the 1980s that it set itself too squarely in one time and place. It wasn't timeless, like the first movie. It was 1985 and only worked as 1985. After the superhero-wins-the-Cold-War formula of it, Rocky boxing an alien to save the planet from invasion or fighting the first robot boxer to save the future would have been more believable than Rocky V. There was nowhere to go; especially not back to the beginning. Rocky V is so obvious that I'm surprised Stallone had the restraint to not call it Rocky V: Back to tha Streets.

Catching up with Rocky five long years after Rocky IV and setting the film immediately after it just feels off. You can't sympathize with the megastar Rocky who lost all his money the way you could with the guy in the first two films: the loser who didn't want to be a loser all of his life. We want to see Rocky win, not lose. In this movie, he loses and keeps on losing, and they just can't make winning a street brawl and fixing his relationship with his son seem like a big enough victory after the places this series has gone. They're trying to turn Rocky back into a real character, but it's either too late or too early to do it. Who cared anymore? We know we're not watching a character, we're watching international movie star Sylvester Stallone in his latest vehicle, and it's cynical for this movie to pretend otherwise.

I'm glad Stallone just stopped and then didn't revisit this series for another 16 years. Rocky Balboa was a much better movie, a more sincere one that didn't exactly recapture the heart of the original, but did look back on it and grow out of it in a much more organic and satisfying way. Rocky Balboa does what Rocky V can't do because Rocky V isn't a story, it's a product.

I really wish HBO Zone had also showed that movie; it would have been a much better note to end the day on.


Roger Owen Green said...

Must say that I really hated Rocky IV; too jingoistic for me. And I never saw V. But I liked the first three to various (and diminishing) degrees.

SamuraiFrog said...

You're not missing much, especially where Rocky V is concerned.

My wife actually liked Rocky Balboa when we saw it on DVD back in 2007. When Rocky IV ended, she asked "Is Rocky Balboa Rocky V, or is it Rocky VI?" I said Rocky VI. "Well what the hell could he possibly be doing in Rocky V?"

Kal said...

Rocky was the first movie I saw on Video when we returned from living in Europe. It had just won the Oscar for Best Picture but I hadn't seen it. It surprised me how much I was affected by his situation. The rest of the series just couldn't live up to that experience.

Tallulah Morehead said...

An entire day spent looking at Stallone? Ew. I did that once, but I was paid to do so. I wouldn't do it for free. The day was the day I shot my scenes in Rocky II. I play "Person in the Crowd Watching the Fight" at the end of the picture. Did you love my work?

I've never seen my work in Rocky II. I checked my contract carefully, and it did not say I had to see it to get paid. (We shot that scene in the LA Sports Arena, the same room in which JFK got the nomination for president in 1960.) In fact, I've seen none of the Rocky films, and as little of Stallone's other work as humanly possible. In fact, I think The Out-Of-Towners is the only movie with Stallone in it I have ever subjected myself to. Life's too short. (Even without Stallone, I would avoid the Rocky films as I LOATHE boxing, which I find revolting and barbaraic.)

SamuraiFrog said...

Now that I know you're there, I'll have to look for you next time. See, you left the series and it started to go downhill.