Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
"LAST OF THE MONSTER KIDS" - Available Now on the Amazon Kindle Marketplace!

Monday, August 8, 2016


I devoted most of last August to THE SYLVESTER SEMESTER, a two and a half week marathon of the films of Mr. Sylvester Stallone. Considering Sly’s own tendency towards sequels, I thought it would be appropriate to, a year later, return to the same subject. While the first Sylvester Semester was intentionally devoted to the one-offs and more oddball corners of Stallone’s filmography, part two will focus primarily on his big franchises. What’s most interesting about this is it’s very easy to draw a parallel between the lives of Stallone’s most famous characters and his own career. It’ll be fun to watch how that progresses.

I’ll be retaining the same checklist from last time, of course. This should be a trip worth making. Welcome to THE SYLVESTER SEMESTER PART II.

Rocky” is the ultimate underdog story and that extends to the production as well. It’s a well known anecdote that you hardly need me to repeat. Sylvester Stallone, a bit actor with few notable credits to his name, wrote the script in a burst of creativity over three days. The studios were interested but they wanted to cast a big star like Robert Redford or Ryan O’Neal. Stallone, however, refused to sell the script unless he could play the lead role. The movie, and Sly, bested the odds. “Rocky” was a huge hit and won three Academy Awards, including Best Picture. Moreover, it became an immediately iconic film, making Stallone an A-lister. 40 years later, does the film still resonate?

Rocky Balboa is a small time boxer in Philadelphia, working hard to win fights that garner little attention and smaller crowds. In his day job, he’s hired muscle for a loan shark. Despite his mumbly speech and simple life, Rocky has big dreams. He woos Adrian, a shy employee at a pet store and the sister of a friend. Meanwhile, the challenger to boxing champ Apollo Creed’s title injuries himself. Creed has to choose someone to fight in the championship. Thinking it’ll make for an easy match, he chooses Balboa. Rocky, however, sees this as his chance to prove himself.

Considering its long legacy of increasingly outrageous sequels, it’s easy to forget that the original “Rocky” isn’t a big action film at all. Instead, it’s a small scale, naturalistic drama. The focus is on the characters and their lives, not extended pugilism. The opening credits don’t feature any inspirational music. Instead, it’s a quiet sequence devoted to Rocky walking through his town. Many scenes focus on the boxer as he ambles from place to place. He escorts a young girl home, telling her to stop hanging out with a bad crowd. There’s a major focus on Rocky’s corner of Philadelphia. It’s a poor neighborhood, bordering on a slum. “Rocky” is a movie rooted in realism, about people and the places they live.

Throughout his career, Stallone would specialize in outsiders and underdogs. It’s a habit that started here. Rocky Balboa is the original Stallone-ian outsider. Like many of those later characters, Rocky is somewhat eccentric. When alone in his dumpy apartment, he talks to his pet turtles and practices dialogue in the mirror. Balboa can also be pretty dopey and he’d be the first one to admit it. Unlike future Stallone heroes, who commit murder without a moment’s notice, Rocky is ultimately a gentle soul. He’s reluctant to rough up the people his boss tells him too. When Pauly pisses him off – which is often – he never hits the guy. Balboa may be a formidable opponent in the ring but in real life, he’s a quiet guy. Stallone’s performance is also naturalistic, making it clear he’s basically playing himself.

“Rocky,” of course, is also a love story. The relationship between Rocky and Adrian is another odd aspect of the movie. Balboa’s courting process with Adrian involves him telling her lame jokes several times a day. She, meanwhile, seems barely interested at first. She seemingly only goes out on a date with him as a way to escape another of her brother’s temper tantrums. However, Rocky wins her over with his persistence, showing that he may be a palooka but he’s a palooka with heart. The real reason Rocky and Adrian fall for each other is because they’re both outsiders. He’s a weirdo with failing dreams. She’s a plain, painfully shy girl. Rocky chooses Adrian, seeing something special in her. Their love story is the actual driving force in the film. By the end, Rocky doesn’t even care if he won the fight or not. He only cares that Adrian knows he loves her.

Despite the important role he would play in future entries in the series, Apollo Creed’s part in this original film is surprisingly small. Throughout most of the film, he mostly appears on television, giving interviews. During the scenes in his office, he comes off as all business, a champ assured of his abilities, becoming idle in his victory. A deliberate contrast is made between Creed and Balboa. Rocky trains tirelessly, during those widely parodied montages. Aside from the raw egg eating, meat beating, and running, this shows how hard Rocky is working. How much he wants this. Apollo, meanwhile, doesn’t take the challenger seriously. He sees the fight as a formality on the road towards reclaiming the championship.

Creed’s assumption is quickly challenged when, in the first round, Rocky knocks him down. After a punishing first round, Creed’s crew mentions that Rocky thinks this is a fight, not a show. Like the rest of the film, John G. Avildsen’s direction remains grounded during the fight. He emphasizes the punishment the fighters take and how long the match goes on. The moment that most zeroes in on this approach, another often referenced scene, occurs when Rocky has Mick cut his swollen eyelids, leading to a bright spurt of blood. Avildsen and Stallone’s realistic approach continues up until the end. No, the plucky underdog doesn’t win. But that’s not what Rocky is here to prove. He goes the distance, showing the world he’s not a bum.

“Rocky” is a fairly focused film, primarily concerned with Rocky and Adrian. However, there’s a few unforgettable supporting turns. Burgess Meredith as Mick reintroduced the veteran actor to a new audience. Mick’s gruff delivery and prickly exterior didn't make him a traditional mentor, at least at the time. However, the way Meredith croaks his dialogue makes Mick oddly lovable. Burt Young as Paulie is even rougher around the edges. The moments when he destroys Adrian’s Thanksgiving dinner or wrecks Rocky’s apartment are hard to forgive. However, Young proves that Paulie has real pain behind his asshole actions. One most also note Joe Spinell as Gazzo, who brings all his expected greasiness to the part of a two-bit gangster.

The number of contributions “Rocky” has made to wider pop culture are almost impossible to count. Beyond the most famous elements – Bill Conti’s still amazingly inspiring score, the training montages, Stallone’s incoherent shouting – the film’s underdog story line would spawn countless imitators. (Avildsen would revisit the formula himself, with “The Karate Kid.”) This wave of “Rocky” wannabes would make sure that the inspirational sports movie would never go out of fashion. Aside from its iconic elements, “Rocky” remains a well assembled drama, genuinely touching and filled with fine performances. [8/10]

[X] Frank Stallone or Frank Stallone-esque Inspirational Music
[X] Incapacitates or Kills Someone With His Body
[X] Shows Off Buffness
[X] Social Outcast [Underdog Boxer]
[X] Sweaty, Veiny Yelling

No comments: