Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Rocky (1976) & Rocky II (1979)

          In many respects, cinema history has not been kind to Rocky, the feel-good hit that turned Sylvester Stallone into a superstar and an Oscar-nominated screenwriter. The film’s detractors dismiss Rocky as pandering hokum, and Stallone has been dogged for years by rumors that he didn’t really write the script. Further resentment is fueled by the fact that Rocky won the Best Picture Oscar for 1976, defeating such acclaimed competitors as Network and Taxi Driver. And of course the film’s biggest impediments are the many gratuitous sequels that cheapen the Rocky brand. Yet when the muck is pushed aside, one quickly rediscovers a gem of a movie, which isn’t so much pandering as old-fashioned. The story follows low-rent boxer Rocky Balboa (Stallone), who supports his going-nowhere pugilistic career by working as a muscleman for a Philadelphia gangster, even though Rocky’s too inherently decent to inflict much damage on his employer’s enemies. A simple soul with zero self-esteem, Rocky’s in love with a meek pet-shop clerk, Adrian (Talia Shire), whose brother is foul-tempered drunk Paulie (Burt Young). The other key figure in Rocky’s life is a crusty manager, Mickey (Burgess Meredith), who doesn’t think Rocky will ever amount to anything. But when the reigning heavyweight champ, Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers), agrees to a publicity-stunt fight in which he’ll give a “nobody” a shot at the title, Rocky’s life changes overnight.
         Yet Rocky isn’t so much about boxing as it is about a small man learning his value in the world, so the filmmakers employ time-tested storytelling gimmicks to put viewers squarely in the underdog hero’s corner. The narrative’s pervasive optimism is leavened by a gritty visual style, courtesy of director John G. Avildsen, who uses working-class neighborhoods and other evocative locations to create a tangible sense of place, so in its best moments Rocky has a level of docudrama realism that sells the contrived storyline. Avildsen also created the definitive sports-training montage, often imitated but never matched—Rocky at the top of the steps! Stallone’s ambition infuses his performance, from the intensity of the boxing scenes to the sweetness of the romantic interludes, and the whole cast meshes perfectly, like the players in a well-oiled stage play. Bill Conti’s thrilling music, especially the horn-driven main theme and the exciting song “Gonna Fly Now,” kicks everything up to epic level, and Rocky boasts one of the all-time great movie endings.
          Three years after the first film became a blockbuster, Stallone starred in, wrote, and directed the first of many unnecessary sequels. Rocky II is the most irritating installment in the series, because shameless crowd-pleaser Stallone undercuts the impact of the original movie with a trite denouement that essentially erases the climax of the previous film. Rocky II features all of the principal players from the first movie, and it’s made with adequate skill, but it’s a hollow echo at best. What’s more, the next two sequels, both released in the ’80s, dispatched with credibility in favor of super-sized entertainment, so Rocky II represents the juncture at which the series enters guilty-pleasure territory.


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