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Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Franchise Fallout - Rocky: the first three rounds

Rocky (1976) brought Sylvester Stallone to prominence and provided him with arguably his best known character - Stallone had written the script himself and although securing interest from several studios he refused to sell it unless he could play the character himself. Stallone was offered a considerable amount of money for the script but he held fast in his belief that he was the actor to make this script work. At one time Robert Redford was attached to the project, but Stallone wouldn't budge an inch.

Eventually Stallone was allowed to play the part and budgeted at less than $1 million the film went before the cameras - Stallone's made some dumb movies, several of them Rocky films, but this film alone proves that he is both  a talented actor and writer. His performance in this movie is pitch perfect and the script is observant, touching and funny. If you doubt that then give this movie a spin and look at the little details in his performance, watch how well he pulls off that awkward first kiss with Adrian, likely the most ugly first kiss in movie history, and appreciate the way he delivers his lines in his "past my best loser persona". His reaction at being turfed out of his locker at the gym is underplayed to the point of perfection.

The secondary cast are also excellent - Burt Young's Paulie is one of the most repugnant characters to ever hit the screen. He seems the perfect friend  for Rocky who is himself a down on his luck bum who makes a living (of sorts) by being an enforcer for a local loan shark. There is very little glamour in this movie and Talia Shire, Rocky's love interest, comes off as some kind of retard in her early courtship with Rocky. Of course she's incredibly shy and Rocky is awkward which makes for quite a combination. They do however get together in Rocky's slum apartment. There's no swooning orchestral music only stark and very grim realism.

Of course this is all leading to Rocky's incredible stroke of luck when he is picked to fight Apollo Creed, the heavyweight champion of the world in a fight that is nothing more than  a publicity stunt for America's bicentennial celebrations, but by this point in the movie we are altready in love with the characters who had been skilfully built up during the first half of the film. None of them may be perfect but they seem so real and the fact that Rocky, even as a mob enforcer, displays a heart of gold. endears him to the viewer.

Which leads us to the big fight - actually only eight minutes - and this is where the films scores its biggest punch. No matter how many times I see this movie I still find myself moved to tears as the underdog proves himself. It's incredibly well chereographed and exciting in a way that no real boxing match could ever see. It ends with Rocky still standing, but losing to a split decision but the judges decison doesn't matter because the viewers know in their hearts that it is Rocky, this nobody, who has won the fight.

Rocky II came in 1979 - the movie timeline itself though says that the film takes place ten months after the events in the first movie. Although the opening of this movie picks up directly where the previous movie ended, we are treated with far too long a scene watching an ambulence carrying the fighters to the hospital. After that  we're back to grim reality once again and although Rocky scored a good purse from his bout with Apollo, life is anything but easy.

This film is often criticies for not matching the original,but I disagree and I think the film is just as good as its predecesor and tells its story just as well. It may not be as tightly directed, this time it is Stallone behind the camera, and Talia Shire's character may have developed too quickly from ugly duckling to swan but the films still punches well and doesn't take too many cheap shots. I especially liked the way Rocky is unable to make lucrative TV commericials and then learns to read by reading western paperbacks to Adrian.  His oater of choice - why one from Edgar Rice Burroughs. He could have picked on by Jack Martin, but wait they hadn't been written yet.

Apollo wants to fight Rocky again because the press and fans are saying that it was Rocky who really won the first fight, but  the problem is that Rocky is unable to fight - for one thing his doctor has warned him he could go blind if he does, and for another Adrian, the love of his life, is adament that Rocky should never fight again. But soon with all the money spent, squandered mostly, from the first fight the lure of another big money fight is hard to resist. We find Rocky back in training - again by TV's penguin, Burgess Meredith who has him chasing chickens and learning to fight right handed. It's all a far cry from the plush gym Apollo trains in.

Maybe the films does get a little bogged down here as Rocky struggles with his training while his wife (yeah, he and Adrian got married) takes up most of his thoughts. Because of their money problems Adrian has gone back to work in the pet shop and goes into labour early .Whoops I forgot to say she is pregnant!  The baby is fine but Adrian's lost a lot of blood. It is at this point that the film does slow down perhaps a little too much and we are given scene after scene of Rocky praying, or sitting at his wife's bedside. He doesn't even go to see his new son,figuring that he wants to see him together with Adrian. Eventually Adrian comes out of her coma and in a touching scene tells Rocky to "WIN!"

Now we have the training montage that would become so associated with Rocky movies, but it works really well here and it would be a total cynic who isn't moved by the scene of Rocky running across town with the neighbouthood kids running behind and chanting his name. And then we're into the big fight - and what an incredibly well filmed fight it is. It's brutal, exciting and tugs at the heart strings. The end is also incredibly tense with both fighters down on the canvas, the ref counting them out as they both struggle to get up. It ends though with Rocky now the heavyweight champion of the world.

Yo Adrian, he did it!

Rocky III (1982) is where all realism is thrown out of the window. The dynamic has changed here - the previous two movies were about the underdog triumphing, but this time Rocky has become rich and lazy, almost the character Apollo was in the first two films. It's as if Stallone doesn't know what to do with the story now and a major plot point, that Rocky could go blind if he contines to fight, is thrown to the wind and in the opening montage of this movie we do see Rocky defended his title, in montage, maybe as many as ten times. There is a throw away line about him having his face fixed but the problem with his bad eye is never properly explained. And it is small detail like this that hurts the film but for the failings the film grossed $16,015,408 in its opening weekend and earned $125,049,125 during its North American theatrical run, becoming the fourth highest grossing film of 1982; its worldwide box-office earnings stand at around $270 million.

Rocky III is far more of a boxing movie than the previous two and we get more fights but they are at the expense of the character moments which made the first two movies so compelling. The charity match between Rocky and the wrestler, Thunderlips (played by Hulk Hogan) is fun but comic book and stands a million miles apart from the grit of the first two films.

The main plot reverses that of the previous films - Rocky is now the successful champ and it is he who is facing off against the underdog.This time Clubber Lang played with relish by Mr T - you know, watching the film now surprised me in places because Mr T, a man not known for his acting chops, shows some great skill in playing several scenes - he comes across as Mike Tyson on steroids in the press conferance scene where is is taunting Rocky's wife Adrian - "you want a real man. I'll show you what a real man's like."

Stallone plays Rocky much the same way he's always done but this stands out because by this point in the franchise Rocky is a far different character than he was in that first low budget sleeper hit. Rocky loses the title to Clubber but then trains, this time with Apollo in his corner after the Penguin squawked his last during the first bout againts Clubber, to regain the belt in an incredibly well staged final fight. And of course we get the driving rock song, Eye of the Tiger which will always be associated with the Rocky franchise. It's an incredibly bombastic song which is perfectly suited to this bombastic movie.

The scene immeditaely prior to Rocky's first fight with Clubber, in which Mick collapses of a suspected heart attack is confusing in what it is meant to signify- Rocky doesn't want to fight but Mick tells him to do and do what must be done. From this scene I'm not sure if we are meant to believe that Rocky lost to Clubber because his mind wasn't on the fight. Or is it that Clubber the fitter and better fighter?  It's  at this point that Apollo Creed steps in and trains Rocky for a rematch with Clubber.

Yo Adrian, I've done it again!

Rocky III may not be as strong a film as the first two, but there is still much to enjoy - the franchise should have ended there, but there was more to come and we'll look at the final three movies in the second part of this franchise fallout feature.


Davieboy said...

I enjoyed the Rocky movies and once actually ran up the Rocky steps in Philadelphia!
I think you could also mention the music in the Rocky movies which certainly added to their impact.

Gary Dobbs/Jack Martin said...

Davie - I wonder how many people have run up those steps over the years. Is that statue there these days? I seem to remeber reading that it had been removed.

Davieboy said...

I don't remember seeing the statue - I was there in about 2004 I guess...
When in Pennsylvania I also visited Lancaster County, home of the Amish, as I'd enjoyed the movie "Witness". My fave movie trip was when I was in the Tetons, Wyoming - I spent the day with a chap named Wally Farmer who took me around all the Shane locations, it being my fave Western (and I like Westerns!).