Friday, August 18, 2017

Side By Side: ROCKY (1976) vs. ROCKY BALBOA (2006)

Welcome to another installment of SIDE BY SIDE, where we dissect the differences and similarities between two films, be it a remake/reboot with its original, a sequel with its original, or two similar movies. This week we're comparing the first and final outings in the saga of Philadelphia's favorite son: 1976's ROCKY, and 2006's ROCKY BALBOA.

I don't like sports, but I like sports movies. When it's done right, you come away from a good sports movie feeling like you wanna take on the world and see what you're really made of. And for my money, the best of them all are the ones about the boxer from Philadelphia, PA. The Rocky movies are like someone took all those Cinderella stories from the history of sports, heaved out all the spin and promotional garbage, found the thing that makes those stories compelling, and then never lost sight of it, over thirty years and six movies. The Rocky saga isn't perfect, no movie or movie series is. But it is everything that made sports movies great, once upon a time.

Rocky opens in 1975, and Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) is getting by on small-time boxing by night, and working as a debt collector for a local loan shark by day. Already thirty years old, Rocky's past his prime as a boxer. His shot at a title never came, and it looks like his life has got nowhere to go but down. And then his chance comes.

The thing that makes the first Rocky movie so compelling is that Rocky's age, and how long he's been fighting for peanuts, is one of the main forces that drive this story. "Underdog gets a shot" is pretty much the plot of every sports movie ever. What we don't see nearly enough in these movies is the underdog played by a character who's been down so long, he's given up on being anything else. The best part of any Rocky movie is arguably when Rocky gets up again, and that's really all this first movie is: Rocky gets up again.

And its not just his years that hold him down. Rocky's chance at glory comes in the form of an invitation to fight the heavyweight champ, Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers), after Creed's original opponent has to withdraw due to injury. In the entire film, the climactic fight notwithstanding, Creed only appears in a handful of scenes. Yet he hangs over the story like a shadow as Rocky, a thirty-year-old never-was, prepares to climb into the ring with the greatest in the world.

What I like most about the Rocky series in general, and this first movie in particular, is that they're sports movies second. Yeah, Rocky's a boxer and does boxer-type stuff, but these are stories about the power of hard work and determination first. I can't deny that sounds really corny. Like you, I've grown up with years of cartoons and other inspirational candy floss that treat believing in yourself like a switch that can be flipped at will. Worse yet, these bromides tell us that once you flip that switch, everything will instantly start to go your way and you'll always win the day every time forever. Is there any sane person out there who denies what an egregious lie this is?

So I tip my hat to Rocky for showing that learning to believe in yourself, after a lifetime of failure, is hard, nigh-on impossible. Rocky starts by assuming that his fight with Creed is going to go down in humiliating failure, and his first reaction is to lash out at everyone else. Fortunately he soon realizes that, late or not, his chance has come, and he owes it to himself to make the most of it. So the fight at the end of the movie is really a narrative formality. Rocky isn't fighting Creed to try to win the title, he's fighting Creed to prove to himself he's not as worthless as he always thought he was. This is why, if you aren't listening closely, you might miss how the fight gets decided at all, because that isn't the point. The point is that a two-bit nobody got in the ring with a world-class athlete, and held his own for the full fifteen rounds. This is sports as metaphor, because Rocky represents all of us, whether we're athletes or not. We all have something that we allow to hold us back, and fighting past that thing takes will. But doing so is always a victory.

Thirty years and four sequels lie between Rocky and Rocky Balboa, the last installment in the story of this inspirational character. A lot has happened in between, but this final film brings Rocky's life full circle, telling very much the same story as the first. Once again, Rocky is the underdog. Once again, he's challenged by the reigning heavyweight champ. And once again, that fight will end in a judges' decision. The story is the same, but the world has changed greatly.

Balboa is the only one of the Rocky sequels to not pick up where the previous film left off. Years have passed since the events of 1990's Rocky 5, and Rocky has gone into his autumn years running a restaurant in south Philly, appropriately named "Adrian's", sharing stories with his guests, and posing for pictures. Meanwhile the heavyweight title has passed to a young fighter with the improbable name of Mason Dixon, unimaginatively nicknamed "The Line" and played by real-life boxer Antonio Tarver. Dixon represents sports in the 21st century, an age that has traded transcendent heroes for interchangeable, overexposed brands. He boasts a record of 33-0 in the ring, which would be impressive, if not for the fact that he's never fought an opponent with any real weight. He may be the champ officially, but the fans care nothing for him.

The two are set on their course to meet in the ring when ESPN runs a segment featuring a computer-generated fantasy bout between Dixon and Balboa. Based on the stats of the two fighters, the computer predicts that not only would Rocky have won, but he would have done so handily. Around this same time, word gets out that Rocky has applied for a boxing license, which is true. Rocky still wants to fight, though he realizes he's an old man now, and so only plans on doing small time, local events. Dixon's managers see an opportunity, and so set up an exhibition match: Mason Dixon vs Rocky Balboa.

As with the first movie, it's no secret that Rocky is heavily outclassed by Dixon, who is perhaps thirty-five years Rocky's junior. It's to this film's credit that we're never asked to ignore Rocky's age as the story progresses toward the fight. But still, as we watch Rocky train with will and passion for the upcoming match, it's easy to forget that this man is old enough to be an AARP member.

As with the first movie, this is a story about believing in yourself, and this time the story is more explicit in making its point. Several times characters give speeches about the importance of being willing to fight for what you want out of life. Rocky himself gives two of these, the second to his grown son, and it's a speech aimed at the heart of today.

The big difference between the two movies are the stakes of the fight at the climax of Rocky Balboa. There was a heavyweight title on the line during Rocky's fight with Apollo Creed, but Creed had nothing to fight for beyond that title, while Rocky was fighting for self-respect. This time, both men have something to prove. Rocky fights again to prove to himself that he's old, but not a has-been, while Dixon fights to prove that he's worthy of his heavyweight title. Because both competitors get a story this time, this movie's ending fight is the more compelling of the two.

Boxing and life lessons aside, it's hard for me to choose which of these movies I like more. The original may be decades old, but it doesn't feel old, sports underdog stories being timeless by nature. Balboa resonates more with me, thought that may be more due to the fact that I'm a product of the time it was made for, so I get where it's coming from. Balboa is the more sentimental of the two; this is the swan song of a beloved character (his supporting role in 2015's Creed notwithstanding), so the film spends its opening with Rocky reminiscing about his life. But it never comes off as sappy. Rocky Balboa feels more like a satisfying finale to a long-running series than a trite reunion. And it sends the character off with one last fight, which is how Rocky should be remembered. Both of these movies are great, along with the rest of the series. This is how inspiring an audience to believe in themselves should be done.

Rocky and Rocky Balboa are rated PG.

Robert's Scores:

ROCKY: 8/10

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