Thursday, December 21, 2006

A TKO of Awesome

Last night, I was presented with a choice: go get a much-needed haircut, or go with my friend Will to see "Rocky Balboa."

Are you kidding me? That's a "choice"? Of COURSE I went to the movie.

(Briefly, here is my opinion of the previous Rocky movies, for context: Rocky--AWESOME; Rocky II--still pretty awesome; Rocky III--less awesome, but still pretty good; Rocky IV--realistically, it's just a pretty good film, but in terms of "awesomely cheesy," it's the Greatest Film Ever Made By Humans; Rocky V--up to the streetfight--lame; the streetfight--marginally awesome.)

So here's why the experience was three-times awesome:

1) Because we went to an AMC theater, I got to use my MovieWatcher card, a little "membership" card that tallies points for every movie you see, and gives you free stuff occasionally. Last night, I got the big prize, "A Night at the Movies." (Sounds like a Marx Bros. film!) That gets me a free ticket to a non-new-release film, a small popcorn, and a small drink.

2) About 30 minutes into the movie, when the reel changed, we lost the upper third of the picture. We watched about ten minutes of people walking around with their heads cut off by the top of the screen. It wasn't so bad--kinda funny, actually. And we could tell what was going on. It did kinda ruin one of the dramatic moments of the film (yes, moments plural--there were several). But finally, someone from Guest Services walked in and said we would all get free movie passes for the inconvenience. (The downside is I had to surrender my ticket stub. If you're a packrat like me, that kinda stinks.) So, free movie pass #2--score!

3) The movie itself. You want a review? You got it. I'll employ spoiler tags when necessary.

The movie itself takes place in present time, quite a few years after the last film's events. A few of the original cast, or at least, the previous cast, are still present. Starring along with Stallone is Burt Young, whose "Paulie" hasn't aged nearly as well as Stallone has (couldn't afford the plastic surgery, I guess!). Also in the film is Tony Burton, as Rocky's trainer "Duke," who replaced Apollo Creed as Rocky's trainer after Apollo ended up on the wrong end of the Drago fight. A surprising returning character is "Little Marie" from the first film (the girl Rocky walks home who responds to his suggestion to quit smoking with "Screw you, creepo!"). Marie turns out to be a major character in this final Rocky film. (Side note: This is not the original actress who played Little Marie in the 1976 "Rocky." But according to IMDB, she reprised the role of Marie in Rocky V, and the scenes were deleted from the film. Interesting.)

Thematically, the first half of the movie has a lot to say. It deals with issues of growing older, living in the past and in memory, feeling like you have nothing to give to the world, letting others define you instead deciding who you are and defining yourself. It addresses the idea of judging people based on their appearance (both in terms of cultural accoutrement and physical age and ability). The film touches on the issue of pushing yourself to your limits, to see what you're really made of; having self-respect; letting go of past hurts and looking ahead to life.

That's the first half of the movie. The second half's main theme is hittin' folks real good.

There's some great acting in this movie, and inexplicably, quite a bit of it is done by Stallone himself. It is probably easy for him, because this character is him in so many ways (or he is the character--it's hard to see where one ends and the next begins). But he has some really great moments in the film. And the dialogue overall is well-executed. Not perfect, but often funny and at times very poignant.

The way he deals with Rocky's grief over absence of Adrian since her death, and Paulie's pain and regret over how he treated her, are rather moving. These moments really took the movie from being a good sports movie to a pretty powerful meditation on dealing with loss. I mean, this isn't Oscar-fodder, but if the Oscars weren't so dadgum pretentious, it maybe could be.

But the real reason anyone would see this movie is the fight, right? Yeah. Me too. Rocky gets back in the ring (no big secret why, but I won't dwell on it, lest I spoil it), and trains to fight yet another impossible foe. The training montage is great, but is also more realistic. The fact that he's practically a senior citizen is laughed off. The gym air is filled with dust and powder, giving the sequence a gritty, realistic feel.

The fight itself is pretty impressive, because it seems so realistic. I joked with Will that every Rocky fight has "The Turn"--the point in the last or nearly-last round where Rocky's opponent hits him hard, and Rocky bends to the point you're almost convinced he'll fall for the last time. But then, the music swells, and Rocky spins back around with a devastating hook that stuns his opponent and opens the door for Rocky to pummel him and win the match.

The thing I liked about this fight--there wasn't "The Turn." There were a couple "Turn"-like moments for each competitor, but really, the fight was just a brutal slugfest. It was gruelling, punishing, and tough to watch. During the fight, Rocky had flashbacks to images of other fights. We get things like shots of Adrian covering her face from "Rocky IV," and Mickey in Rocky's corner screaming his head off.

There's a moment when we get to hear Rocky's internal voice, willing himself back to his feet, that gave me actual chills.

An interesting parallel--in the original "Rocky," the commentators wrote Rocky off because he was too young and inexperienced. In this film, they write him off because he's too old and brittle. At the beginning and end of his career, he's not taken seriously, and has to push himself for his own sake, to earn self-respect more than anything else.

One thing I'm kinda surprised people have not given the film credit for is the visual style. Quite a bit of the movie is filmed with hand-cameras, so it has more of a gritty, stripped-down feel to it. The scenes in Las Vegas for the fight look like they were filmed with TV cameras, and have the "live TV feed" quality to the image. But the coolest parts were during the fight, between rounds when the frame would go to black-and-white, with certain objects in the frame in bold color, like blood running down a face or the gold of the boxing trunks. Reminded me of Robert Rodriguez's "Sin City" in that regard (...not that I've ever seen that movie. ahem.).

So how does it end? How it began. Rocky goes to the very last round, toe to toe with the cocky current champ who didn't think Rocky had a chance, and then Rocky loses by split decision. In this film, he doesn't even wait around for the results. I think he knew he "lost" the fight, but it wasn't about the judges' vote. It was about Rocky digging deep into the "basement" and finding every last bit of heart he knew he had, to prove to himself more than anyone else that his best stuff wasn't all behind him. And that was worth watching.

Final judgment?

If you like Rocky at all, go see this film. If you like movies about heroes, go see the film. If you like movies about dealing with aging and finding meaning, go see this film. If you like movies where people are hittin' each other real good, go see this film. If you're looking for a story that will uplift you, inspire you, and leave you feeling generally pretty good, go see this film.

If you're cynical, heartless, negative, snobby, or just overall nasty, well, just go see Apocalypto or some crap.

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