Wednesday, December 20, 2006

His Whole Life Was a Million To One Shot

For a lot of people, like myself, who were born in the early seventies Rocky will always be a special moment. Notice I said moment for it goes beyond just a film for many of us. It was the first truly transformative movie that a lot of us ever experienced, we might not have understood at such an early age that the ring was a metaphor for life but we inherently understood that inside those ropes was something special.
I remember seeing each Rocky film growing up vividly, each one like it was yesterday. The first two at a drive in, the third at a packed small theatre in Henderson, Ky with seemingly everyone in the audience including my father cheering around me. By the time the forth one came around something was different, suddenly this character that we had loved and cared about so much had changed, for all of the excitement that film might have created their was something unfortunate and cartoon about it. Perhaps the clearest memory of all because of the disappointment was seeing the fifth with my high school girlfriend. She was a bit younger and couldn't really understand my fascination because at that point we had ten years of Sylvester Stallone pissing away his incredible talents and breaking the hearts of the people who had loved him so much originally. The fifth should have returned the series and Stallone to where he belonged but it failed and I'll never forget the look on some of the people's faces walking out of that theatre, this wasn't just a film that had lost but a special moment in our lives that had been taken away.
A year or so ago when I first heard that Stallone was returning to Rocky one last time I could think of nothing worse. Hadn't enough been done to this character that had meant so much to me? I knew the jokes would start and all of the brilliance contained in that first film would slip further away.
Earlier this year around the time that I was making some major life changes a teaser appeared for Rocky Balboa. A friend told me to watch it online and I nervously clicked on the link dreading what I might see. What greeted me was one of the most effective minutes I had ever seen, just a simple black and white close up of a pair of battered eyes and an astonishing moving monologue playing over it talking about life not being about hard you can hit, 'but it's about hard you can get hit.'
After that I began to build myself up into hoping that this might actually work and for the last few months I have wanted nothing more than to believe again.
If this sounds dramatic, good it is. There isn't anything funny about wasting the talents that God has granted, and I'm talking about myself here as much as Stallone just as a lot of people going to this film will remember the dreams they had in their youth that never came true. Sylvester Stallone is a great actor, writer and director who like a lot of us lost his way and he knows it. Watch or read any recent interview with the man and he knows he blew it and it's regret and the hope that there might be something left inside that fuels the new Rocky Balboa.
Rocky Balboa is everything that I hoped and needed it to be. It's the work of a man who has gotten back what he lost a long time ago, it's a pure emotional film that not only fulfills the promise of Stallone's early career but buries the mistakes he spent two decades making.
Stallone has delivered in 2006 a old school 70's style character study, it's the kind of film that his peers spent the decade making but that he never did. Stallone and his DP Clark Mathis hit on the essence of the original film's wintry desaturated look and the opening montage of Philadelphia sets the perfect tone the film keeps throughout. Everyone delivers, seasoned character actors Burt Young and Tony Burton really shine here as two guys who have also lived with a life that never gave them what they hoped. Real life boxer Antonio Tarver gives a splendid performance that makes the cartoon opponents of the later sequels seem embarrassing. Geraldine Hughes playing Marie from the first film is equalling strong but the film ultimately belongs to Stallone who gives one of the richest performances I've seen in a long time. It's a major piece of directing, acting and especially writing by a guy who's been holding back for a long time.
I realized watching this film that there are two different kinds of Rocky fans, people like me who grew up loving and understanding the characters of the first two films and perhaps people who are a little younger who like the more over the top aspects of the later ones. They will be disappointed, this is a subtle and at times extremely mournful piece of filmmaking. The fight, one of the most brutal and realistic ever captured on film, takes up a very small part of the film and a lot of people will probably consider that a weakness.
We all have moments in our lives that are special to us, moments that have slipped away that we wish we could go back to. I felt like for 102 minutes I got to do the impossible and relive one of those moments that I lost a long time ago. It really doesn't matter what Sylvester Stallone does from this point on, for the guy that Gene Siskel once called the best American screenwriter of his generation, he is pure again.....eternally.

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