Racial politics and the Muhammad Ali-Apollo Creed dynamic
The timing of Rocky and its chief inspiration, Muhammad Ali’s victory over journeyman Chuck Wepner, made the presentation of African American characters a core issue through the first three movies. Apollo Creed, played by Carl Weathers, is heavily influenced by Ali. Through his dialogue and gesticulations, Creed reflected the heavyweight champion of the day.
Exceptional care is taken in ensuring that Creed is not presented as a villain in any way in the first film. He is an adversary but one presented as deserving of his status. The majority of African American roles in the film are in positions of respect and authority, not a common sight at the time. Sylvester Stallone and John G. Avildsen wanted the audience to root for Rocky but not against Creed.
In Rocky II, where Creed must adopt the role of villain in the fight in order to force a re-match, great care is taken to make this a sympathetic decision*. Even in Rocky III, where Mr. T’s Clubber Lang is unquestionably a bad guy, Apollo and his trainer Duke become out and out good guys. It is Apollo who brings Rocky back to the top.
*In II Creed gets agitated by the letters he receives criticising him for his performance in the first bout with Balboa. Heaven knows how badly he would have coped in the era of Twitter and Facebook.
There were a couple of nice touches to the Ali-Joe Frazier rivalry of the time. Smokin’ Joe has a cameo at the start of the championship bout but the really smart move came between the 14th and 15th rounds in the first championship fight. Rocky demands Mickey cut the swelling on his eye so he can see and go out for the final round. In the Thrilla in Manila, Frazier retired in the corner at the end of the 14th, his trainers fearing that his inability to see would be too great a risk for one more round.
Weathers it must be added does an exceptional job making Creed more than just an Ali clone. Ali was the most recognisable sportsman on the planet at the time but despite that large shadow Weathers gave Creed his own voice.
About the Boxing
If only the pugilism was as good as the subtle touches around the fights. Dave Neary described Rocky as not a boxing movie but as a drama with a little boxing in it. What little there is isn’t great. Likewise Creed-Balboa II is light on plausible fighting long before the famous double knock-down ending. The real turn for the worse comes in Rocky III.
The first fight in the film is against fictional wrestler Thunder Lips, played by Hulk Hogan. The two subsequent bouts with Clubber Lang contain moves even the WWE would disallow. In simple terms, you can’t throw a man into the corner or lift him up in boxing. Realism is not what I want but plausible drama in a fight would be nice. Instead Rocky IV features Balboa delivering a move on Ivan Drago that looked suspiciously like a spine-buster. Even Rocky V, which featured a real boxer in Tommy Morrison as Tommy Gunn, had diabolical fighting.
Morrison was a reasonably accomplished heavyweight in the real world, winning the then lightly regarded WBO* title. Unfortunately his acting in the ring was as limited as his ability to deliver dialogue. Morrison seems to have decided that Dolph Lundgren and Mr. T were too realistic when throwing Rocky into the corner and thusly proceeds to have the most implausible fight of the series against Union Kane.
*The Klitschko brothers have essentially given credibility to the WBO strap at the top weight. This may be a down era for the heavyweight division as a whole but the WBO has never been healthier at this level.
They finally got the mixture right in the last film. Antonio Tarver, playing heavyweight champion Mason ‘The Line’ Dixon, and Stallone deliver the most realistic bout of the series. The opening round and a half goes exactly as a match between men 30 years apart in age should, with Dixon dominating Rocky. The punching, defence, and movement look authentic. Tarver doesn’t look like he’s trying to act boxing, he looks like he’s boxing.
The smartest move comes when Dixon breaks his hand throwing a punch. By injuring Dixon in a plausible way (just ask Joe Calzaghe) they made a contest of the fight. The Sin City style black and white shots with red blood showing weren’t great but otherwise it was well edited into looking like a convincing fight.
The downward spiral
The Balboathon was inspired by a conversation I had with Paul Fennessy. I have long considered Rocky V to be one of the worst films ever made, he thought IV was worse. Then it turned out he hadn’t seen Rocky Balboa. Halfway there, we decided to go all out.
Rocky is a classic. Its victory over Network, Taxi Driver, and All the President’s Men for best picture may chafe with some but it’s a wonderful piece of film-making with engaging story-telling. Rocky II is a less coherent drama, possibly related to the switch in director from Avildsen to Stallone, but it’s still a decent film rounding out the story.
As with the fight scenes, the decline begins with Rocky III. The first two movies were chiefly dramas. This was an action movie, with every moment of dialogue keyed on bringing us to the next fight or training scene. Oh yes, the training scene. There is a masters thesis on homoeroticism in cinema based purely on this montage.
This shift to action movie took a much bolder turn in Rocky IV. While prescient for its time, Apollo is initially enraged with Ivan Drago purely because he’s Russian, this is a film trying to pad the clock early. This sequence exists purely to fit in a song. Apologists for Rocky IV tend to be those who forget the movie and only remember its signature moments. Shouting Drago and telling everyone they can change does not salvage a movie made up almost entirely of montages, even if montages are awesome.
Stallone’s effort to radically shift back towards drama with Rocky V however was an abject failure. This was a film where no-one involved seemed to care. The fundamental idea had merit, Rocky must struggle with losing everything. This thrown together mess, featuring a Don King knock-off that surely inspired Lucius Sweet even more than King himself, is boring above all else. No-one ever gives you a reason to care about them. Not Tommy Gunn, Rocky’s protege who betrays him. Not Rocky Jr, who has troubles with school and with Rocky. Not even Adrian, who has her whole world fall apart, does anything to make us care. The lone redeeming feature is the 90s remix of the Rocky theme. The less said about this line the better. Rocky IV may have been pointless but it had moments of fun, Rocky V was unforgivably dull.
Redemption has a polished tint
“This is the first acting Stallone’s done in like 7 hours,” said Dave. That was as much a compliment to Rocky Balboa as it was an indictment of the previous three instalments.
Over the 12 hours watching this saga, we live-tweeted with the hashtag Balboathon and many of you joined in. The frustration over Rocky V was felt and expressed from far beyond my living room. Fans of Rocky, both the original film and the series, hate V because of what it did to the story. A beautiful tale had lost its way. Rocky Balboa ensured it finished on the right track.
The last odyssey of the Italian Stallion is filled with beautiful little touches. Paulie’s frustration as Rocky mourns Adrian is typical of the character as he questions what Rocky is doing living in the past. The pain within Rocky is drawn out slowly. I loved how they used Tarver. Unlike Morrison’s Gunn, Dixon does not carry the story but the character is crucial to telling it. Even the decision to use High Hopes by Sinatra in lieu of Gonna Fly Now as Rocky’s entrance music makes perfect sense.
At its core however the character of Rocky is what makes this final chapter. Stallone really gives his all in this performance. The pain, both the character’s over Adrian’s death and Stallone’s over how his opus lost its way, gets laid out and dealt with.
We never stopped loving Rocky. This was the series that delivered the most inspiring piece of music ever written, Eye of the Tiger, and Hearts on Fire. It spawned a thousand homages. With Rocky Balboa, Rocky had the final bell he deserved.
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