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Saturday, March 03, 2007

ROCKY BALBOA could be my favourite Rocky sequel (behind ROCKY 4)

Rocky Balboa punches Mason Dixon

Rocky Balboa, believe it or not, was a major childhood hero of mine, him, along with Spider-man, Raphael of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (the one turtle who seemed to rebel against everything the other three seemed to believe blindly in), and maybe er... Son Gohan of Dragon Ball Z (a person constantly living in his father's shadow). Even as a child, I related more to the underdogs, the rebels, or the social outcasts, and in some ways, these childhood heroes, with profound influence upon me as a child, shaped me into becoming what I am now.


But yes, I went through a ROCKY marathon back when I was really young, after I first played a ROCKY video game on the Sega Master System, and was swept away by the heroism portrayed in the movies, the underdogs facing the odds. I was too young to appreciate ROCKY 1, unhappy that it was so full of talking and that he lost the match in the end. I liked the sequels more and more, because I was young and stupid, and liked seeing Rocky win. Rocky finally beating Apollo Creed in ROCKY 2 made me happy. Then seeing Rocky take on the likes of Hulk Hogan and Mr. T in ROCKY 3 instantly turned me into a worshipper, and then, ROCKY 4, to me, back then, was one of the greatest films of all time, to see Rocky going against the Soviet killing machine Ivan Drago, that epic fight in the end where both traded powerhouse punches that could have decapitated any normal boxers, plastering the mat with blood, lots of intense reaction shots from the people at ringside: Rocky's wife, corner man, the loyal Paulie etc.

Wow, seeing Rocky draped in the American flag and celebrating his unlikely victory over the seemingly invincible Drago at the end of ROCKY 4 made me want to stand up and sing the 'Star-Spangled Banner', but I doubt I could speak properly back then, let alone sing. The much-reviled ROCKY 5 was released when I was around 5-6, went to see it with dad, obviously, I was easily impressed then, even though the fight didn't take place on the ring, I was happy enough to see Rocky beat the crap out of Tommy Gunn at the streets, those black and white flashbacks of dead Mickey asking Rocky to stand up giving me the chills.

The world hated ROCKY 5, but I was a kiddie, and thought it was okay, even though I didn't enjoy it as much as ROCKY 4.

16 years went by, Stallone's career went downhill, I became, well, what I am now. When Stallone announced ROCKY BALBOA, like most people, I was skeptical, yet somehow strangely excited about it. Knowing that Stallone's desperate for a comeback, it's unlikely that the film would suck like that GET CARTER remake. I accepted the news with an open mind, not expecting a masterpiece, but something campy and fun, like DEMOLITION MAN, or STOP! OR MY MOM WILL SHOOT! (... joking about the latter).

The film came out late last year at the States to generally favourable reviews, which helped fueled my excitement towards the film. Unfortunately, it wasn't going to show in Malaysia until now. Unsurprising, after all, who among casual Malaysian film fans can still remember Rocky?

So, things went to a full circle, I went to see the film with my dad again on Wednesday. Fuming silently that my dad had seen DREAMGIRLS without waiting for me. :(

(Unless you haven't noticed by now, I tend to go the cinema most of the time over here in Malaysia with my dad, it's an unconventional father-son bonding method that had been a subject of many newspaper interviews with my dad over the years, I think)

How's Rocky Balboa?

Unlike the ROCKY sequels, this one is pretty talky. More a character drama than a pure boxing movie. CINDERELLA MAN, but lower-budget, and less boxing, and different time period, and less stars, and... okay, maybe it's wrong to compare this with CINDERELLA MAN, since both are so different. But like the other film, ROCKY BALBOA is still about an underdog triumphing against the odds.

Recently-widowed after losing his beloved Adrian to ovarian cancer, Rocky Balboa starts to go through each meaningless day where he would just sit in front of his wife's grave for hours, and then go to the Italian restaurant he opened at night to regale customers with old stories of his time in the ring. His son, Robert, is too busy to visit him, tired of living under his father's big shadow by, he intends to escape by getting into the business world. Rocky's only companion is his perpetually grumpy brother-in-law Paulie, who accompanies him every year to visit old places where Rocky used to court Adrian. Rocky pretty much lives in the past, to Paulie's annoyance.

Meanwhile, reigning heavyweight champion Mason Dixon is getting increasingly reviled by everyone else since he has been reigning in an era without actual competitors (kinda like Lennox Lewis' career). Unlike the likes of Clubber Lung and Ivan Drago, Mason Dixon isn't really a bad guy, he's just surrounded by jerks who care more about money than anything else. So scenes that are given to him in the movie do make audiences concern not only about Rocky's honour during their last fight, but Mason's as well.

Then there's a computer-generated fantasy fight between Balboa and Mason Dixon (which has graphics more horrible than something from the PS2), where Rocky's predicted to destroy Mason easily. Everyone's interested in the fight, so boxing promoters set up a charity match between Rocky (who had just applied for a boxing license just so he can fight in some minor fights) and Mason Dixon, where both men have to prove themselves to the world.

Acting-wise, Stallone put up the most convincing and sincere dramatic performance I've ever seen in years. I remembered chuckling and snorting in disdain with my dad during a supposedly emotional uncle-niece bonding scene between Stallone and Rachel Leigh Cook in the GET CARTER remake. Yet somehow, during a few fiery, dramatic moments in Rocky Balboa, where Rocky lashes out against the Pennsylvania State Athletic Commission (for their refusal to grant him the boxing license) and his estranged son, Robert. I was enthralled, suddenly convinced that Stallone could actually ACT!

I sensed this feeling of wonder amongst the audiences who sat around me at the cinema as well.

There's nothing special about this movie, plot-wise, its pacing is languid, allowing you to immerse yourself completely into Rocky's life, and those around him, feeling his despair and loneliness since the death of his wife, and then enjoying the new friends he made with Little Marie, a woman from his past (a teenager he walked home back in part 1), and her son, Steps. But when the training montage begins, I had to suppress the urge to stand up and cheer. It is as if the entire film is building towards this explosive climax.

The fight between Rocky and Mason Dixon (which drew some cheers and applause from the audiences in the cinema), unlike those dramatized fights we see in previous Rocky films, or CINDERELLA MAN, or ALI, is as realistic as something we see in actual boxing matches on TV. And I enjoyed its freshness. Things become increasingly impressionistic as the match goes on, with stylish quick cuts and black and white shots (where the only colour we see is from the crimson blood) used, rapid cuts to ghosts of his past, moments from memories long ago. These moments worked for me, but not to my dad, who felt that they reeked of pretension, and are merely attempts to cover the aging Stallone's inability to really fight that long (of course).

Overall, I enjoyed this film. And I don't know, I think I might recommend it to people, but I guess it only works better if you grew up watching ROCKY films and enjoy the feeling of nostalgia from this film. It's a great way to end the series. I'm not that excited about RAMBO 4 (as a kid, the character never appeal to me like Rocky did), but ROCKY BALBOA makes me intrigued enough about Stallone's ability as a director.

Soooo... anyone else who grew up watching Rocky like I did?

Rocky Balboa trailer