Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Wednesday, August 10, 2016


Sylvester Stallone has clearly always been a man with a vision. John G. Avildsen might’ve directed “Rocky” but it was truly Sly’s baby. So Stallone directing one of his own movies was inevitable. “Paradise Alley” was a story he had actually been kicking around for years, before “Rocky,” and he initially planned it as a novel. In many ways, the two films heavily resemble each other. Both are stories of underdogs competing in a combative sport, set in a specific urban landscape. Both films are more concerned with the relationships of the characters then the outcome of the matches. While “Rocky” was a genuine pop culture phenomenon, “Paradise Alley” received tepid reviews and quickly faded from people’s memories.

The year is 1946 and the place is New York’s Hell’s Kitchen. The three Carboni brothers are just trying to survive. Cosmo is a wannabe conman, always looking for easy gimmicks with big paydays. Lenny, with his bum leg and weary world-view, wants to live in peace and quiet. Victor is a muscle-bound simpleton, who hauls huge blocks of ice up endless flights of stairs every day. When Cosmo stumbles upon a wrestling match, and Victor proves surprisingly good at the sport, the three see a possible way to fulfill their dreams. But complications soon arise, the brothers being torn apart by their ambitions.

The films may have similar outlines but Cosmo Carboni is a very different character then Rocky Balboa. Cosmo doesn’t have a steady job like his brothers. Instead, he’s on the look out for get rich quick scheme. In the beginning, he poses as a limbless veteran, panhandling for hand-outs. After winning a gangster’s pet monkey, he hopes to make money training the creature to dance. He initially treats his brother’s wrestling as another gimmick, another way to get a maximum pay-out with minimal effort. Yet there’s a secret, sensitive side to Cosmo. He has romantic feelings for Lenny’s ex-girlfriend Anne, who ultimately takes him back. This is despite Cosmo having a girl waiting in the wings, named Bunchie and played by the lovely Joyce Ingalls. It takes Cosmo a while to realize the value of those around him. Stallone is awfully good in the part of the hustling brother, who eventually shows an eccentric humanity under his macho bravado.

I like Sly but Lee Canalito as Victor is “Paradise Alley’s” secret weapon. Victor definitely faces some mental roadblocks and would probably be called “slow” back in the seventies. Despite his large frame and muscles, he’s a gentle guy. Unerringly sincere, he has two drives in life. First, he wants his brothers to be happy. Secondly, he hopes to make enough money so that he can buy a house boat for himself and his Chinese girlfriend. (Amusingly, the girl’s English is perfect. She is teaching Victor new words from the dictionary, which he peppers his speech with.) It would be an easy part to overplay but Canalito has the right balance. The audience likes Victor and wants to see him succeed.

Armand Assante, who gets an “introducing” credit despite this being his second feature, plays Lenny. It’s maybe the hardest part in the film. The character is cynical, due to his war injury, yet still cares for his family. He causes the most conflict in the film. First, with his romantic life. Later, after becoming Victor’s manager, he becomes greedy and cold. It’s a tricky balance and, several times, Lenny comes close to being an irredeemable asshole. However, Assante brings a decent amount of humor to the part. His often requested Charlie Chaplin impersonation is a nice touch. Assante is a little too believable as a sleazy jerk but he plays well off Stallone and Canalito. (This is, notable, not the last time Assante would play Sylvester Stallone’s brother.)

How does Stallone do on his first go-around as director? He’s fond of slow motion. The opening credits play over an extended foot race between Stallone and Assante, over the rooftops of Hell’s Kitchen. The wrestling matches, naturally, feature their fair share of slow-mo theatrics. Perhaps taking a lesson from Avildsen’s work on “Rocky,” the film also makes extensive use of montages. Sly, however, keeps the action scenes upbeat and energetic. The wrestling matches are acrobatic and fun to watch. This is especially true of the climatic brawl, which takes place in the falling rain while the lights overhead sputter. There are certainly lots of scenes of burly bodies diving into the water, making dramatic splashes. In addition to writing, directing, and starring in the film, Sly also sings the theme song which really has to be heard to be believed.

The movie also has an ace supporting cast. Joe Spinall reappears as the clownish owner of the bar, giving an enthusiastically silly performance. Frank McRae has a stand-out moment as the old wrestler who inspires Cosmo and Victor. A middle sequence devoted to the two tearing up the town concludes in a surprisingly touching – and funny – manner. Kevin Conway is memorable as the gangster who quickly becomes the film’s main antagonist. His performance is slightly ridiculous but is certainly entertaining to watch. I also have to mention Tom Waits, who plays the piano player in the bar. Naturally, his character’s name is Mumbles.

“Paradise Alley” is often overlooked in Stallone’s career. It certainly didn’t make the dent that his more popular and crowd-pleasing flicks did. Yet there’s something undeniably likable about the flick. It even has an extended sequence set at Christmas, featuring a drunk Sly dressed as Santa Claus. The film is overly sentimental but in an honest way, imbuing its simple story and characters with heart. It deserves a second look. [7/10]

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

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