THE BACK PAGES

ROCKY RETURNS. BUT WHY?

In ‘Rocky Balboa,’ Sylvester Stallone seems to have lost the eye of the tiger

JAIME J. WEINMAN January 1 2007
THE BACK PAGES

ROCKY RETURNS. BUT WHY?

In ‘Rocky Balboa,’ Sylvester Stallone seems to have lost the eye of the tiger

JAIME J. WEINMAN January 1 2007

ROCKY RETURNS. BUT WHY?

THE BACK PAGES

film

In ‘Rocky Balboa,’ Sylvester Stallone seems to have lost the eye of the tiger

JAIME J. WEINMAN

® Mickey: This guy’s a complete change for you, Rock. He’s different

Rocky: He’s loud, he’s obnoxious, and he looks like he could kill me. All my opponents are like that. Mickey: Yeah, but this one’s white!

—Mad Magazine

Rocky Balboa is a washed-up fighter, lonely, neglected, with only the annoying Paulie (Burt Young) as a friend. Suddenly he gets one last shot to prove himself: a chance to take on the reigning world champion, in a fight no one but Rocky seems to take seriously.

That’s the plot of the original Rocky, the movie that won the Oscar for Best Picture 30 years ago. And it’s also the plot of writerdirector-star Stallone’s new movie, Rocky Balboa, the sixth movie in the series. But this time one thing has changed. Rocky, and most of its sequels, were about the hopes and dreams of Stallone’s audience. Rocky Balboa is more like Stallone’s personal justification for still making movies. And the strange thing about Stallone, now 60, is that the more personal he gets, the less of an impact his movies have.

Not that Stallone isn’t trying to create the same impact as the original movie. He’s brought back the same basic conflict: Rocky is the underdog against a big African American fighter. This time it’s heavyweight champ “Mason” Dixon (reallife boxer Antonio Tarver), who’s frequently introduced by scary-sounding hip-hop music. The dominance of African Americans in the world of boxing has always given rise to the “great white hope” phenomenon—the search for a white fighter who can win-and all but one of the Rocky movies feature Rocky in that role.

Stallone got this idea from a real-life fight with the same dynamic: a 1975 bout where Chuck Wepner, a little-known white heavyweight from Newjersey, got to go up against world champion Muhammad Ali in a match that not even Ali took seriously. Wepner, whose website bills him as “The Real Rocky,” recalls: “Don King said to me that Ali made little flags and buttons that they passed out around the ring, that said ‘Let’s give the white guy a break.’ ” Wepner shocked everyone by lasting almost the full 15 rounds with Ali, and soon Stallone had a movie script. He also eventually had a lawsuit from Wepner, miffed at not getting paid for the use of his story.

Some critics have been queasy about Stallone’s portrayal ofhissable African American

villains who need to be taken down a peg or two by a white fighter. When Rocky came out, Vincent Canby of the New York Times made the most blunt accusation about the meaning of Rocky’s battle with Apollo Creed, a thinly disguised Muhammad Ali surrogate: “by making the Ali-like fighter such a dope,” he wrote, “the film explores areas of latent racism that just may not be all that latent.” More recently, in his book Balsamic Dreams, humorist Joe Queenan fumed that it was a symbol of everything bad about the ’70s that America could embrace “a movie as virulently (albeit subliminally) racist as Rocky II.”

But the things that made some critics get huffy about Rocky were the same things that made it so timely. The film appeared at a time when there was a ton of controversy over the issue of affirmative action for African Americans. And it was in 1976 that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled, in University of California vs. Bakke, that some forms of affirmative action might be unconstitutional discrimination against white people. Even All in the Family, the most crusadingly liberal TV show of the

decade, did an episode that year where Michael (Rob Reiner) is turned down for a job that goes to a minority applicant. And Wepner acknowledges that some of the cheering he got from audiences may have had something to do with his colour: “I think that worked in my favour. I accepted that. I understood there might be a division. But I tell you what, I knew a lot of white people who were pulling for Muhammad Ali, including my wife.”

In an article in Jump Cut magazine in the late ’70s, writer Michael Gallantz pointed out that several scenes in Rocky were crafted to have a lot of resonance for what would nowadays be called the Angry White Male. In an early scene in the movie, the old trainer Mickey (Burgess Meredith) decides to give Rocky’s locker to a younger, more promising fighter—an African American fighter. Rocky’s anger at being displaced, Gallantz wrote,“might ring bells for white workers who fear that despite seniority, their jobs may be in jeopardy to the supposed threat of affirmative action.” If Stallone was bothered by these attacks, he didn’t show it. He’s never been too fond of critics, anyway. Writing at Aintitcoolnews.com earlier this month, he declared: “There are certain vindictive turds that have thinly disguised agendas against me; therefore, they put a cloud over the project and try to corrupt and manipulate people’s opinions.” And so, far from bowing to critical pressure, he even went a little further with the black-vs.-white scenario in Rocky III, where Rocky’s opponent is Clubber Lang (the character that introduced Mr. T and his catchphrase “I pity the fool”). Clubber gives no thought to strategy, and his main method of winning is to scare people into submission. He even goads Rocky into a fight by making advances on Rocky’s wife— “You want a real man?”

And yet, despite all the accusations, the Rocky movies weren’t just or even primarily a great white hope fantasy. Even Gallantz, a ferocious critic of the movie’s racial politics, was compelled to admit that “Creed himself defies traditional stereotypes.” Part of what was intriguing about the first two movies was the racial role reversal. In Apollo Creed, we had a black character who embodied many of the stereotypes the movies normally associated with white villains: he’s rich, cynical and uses hyper-patriotic kitsch to manipulate the public. He’s his own man and he’s nobody’s fool; in his own way, he’s kind of likeable, something Stallone acknowledged by bringing Creed back as

a good guy in Rocky III.

Even more importantly, Stallone was a good enough judge of his audience to know when all the black-vs.-white stuff had been played out. In 1985, the actionmovie audience was less worried about affirmative action and more worried about Communism. The concern was not that white males were being pushed aside but that all of America might suffer that fate. And so, in Rocky IV, Stallone battles a hulking blond Russian fighter, Ivan Drago (played by Dolph Lundgren).

Apparently genetically engineered by the Russians to take over the boxing world for the glory of Communism, Drago is the perfect metaphor for the way the Soviet Union was seen near the end of its existence: big, mean and apparently unstoppable—a nation of Apollo Creeds. Lundgren, who also ap-

peared in such ’80s anti-Communist cult classics as Jack Abramoff’s Red Scorpion, says: “I think he wanted to capitalize on the fact that Reagan was in office, and there was a big Cold War arms-race buildup.” And so, in 1985, Rocky came along to strike a blow for America the way he once struck a blow for lower-class white guys. “Whether it was a message about living together in peace, I don’t know,” Lundgren says, “but the competition worked.”

Flash forward to 2006. The Cold War is over, and the biggest fear—Islamic terrorism—isn’t really something Stallone can address in a boxing movie. So what does Stallone address in Rocky Balboa'? If Apollo Creed represented the rapidly rising African American, and Drago represented Communism, what does Mason Dixon represent? Well, nothing much. As played by Tarver, Dixon has no real distinguishing characteristics; he’s not even a terrifying figure, like Mike Tyson (who makes a cameo). Stallone tries to stir up some sympathy for Dixon by showing us that he’s being exploited by his greedy white man-

agers; they’re the real villains of the piece, not him. He’s not a villain, he’s a function: he shows up, fights Rocky, but he doesn’t stand in for anything bigger than himself.

Advance reaction to the movie has, of course, focused less on social issues than on the big issue: what is Stallone doing making another Rocky movie at his age? The project has been met with scorn, the likes of which we won’t see again until Harrison Ford does Indiana Jones IV. “Everyone in the theatre laughed and booed,” wrote TV writer and

THE THINGS THAT MADE SOME CRITICS GET HUFFY ABOUT ‘ROCKY’ WERE THE SAME THINGS THAT MADE IT SO TIMELY

blogger Ken Levine about reaction to the Rocky Balboa trailer. “When is Stallone going to give it up? It’s sad already. Like watching 80-year-old Paul Anka sing Puppy Love.”

But that’s exactly the point of Rocky Balboa, if it has any point at all. The Rocky of the new film is an old, washed-up fighter reduced to running a restaurant and telling stories about his glory days. He’s oddly like Stallone himself, whose glory days might also seem to be behind him: he hasn’t had a hit in years, and he hasn’t written a movie by himself since the flop Rocky V (“I didn’t care too much for that one,” Wepner comments). When Rocky decides to accept the invitation to fight the champ, all the other characters-including his own son-think he’s not only wrong but ridiculous. They accuse him of attempting a

comeback to satisfy his own ego, exactly what critics are saying about Stallone.

So Rocky has something to prove, just as Stallone does: that at his age, he’s still relevant. But that message has more resonance for Stallone himself than it does for a mass audience. Rocky was about the white guy in an affirmative-action world, and Rocky IV was about America in the Cold War, but Rocky Balboa is just about the struggle of one man.

That comes through even in the way the movie treats the supporting characters. In the original Rocky, the character’s triumph redeemed not only him but the people around him. At Aintitcoolnews.com, Stallone wrote: “I’ve always thought of Rocky as an individual that was chosen to take a journey that would bring together many ‘broken’ people, including himself.” But in Rocky Balboa, though we do see a few “broken people”— like Rocky’s son, who’s trying to get out of his

father’s shadow-the film spends little time on them or their journey; it’s too busy showing Stallone and Antonio Tarver slug it out.

That helps explain why Rocky Balboa, even though it has all the basic Rocky moments (including Bill Conti’s iconic musical theme for the inevitable training scene), has no more triumph of the human spirit, no more uplift. For all the controversy around its treatment of racial issues, Rocky spoke to a segment of society that felt pushed around, and showed how they could get back their self-respect; if a guy as dumb as Rocky could do it, anybody could. But Rocky Balboa has few messages for anybody under 60, and maybe no message for anybody except Stallone.

Still, if Stallone doesn’t get much respect from the critics, he’s got at least one admirer: Chuck Wepner, the guy who sued him. Wepner, like Stallone, is a sixtysomething who did his best work in the ’70s, but he thinks Stallone deserves more respect: “I think Stallone’s a brilliant writer and a terrific actor. He’s not a Robert De Niro or Al Pacino, but he’s an action actor.”

No wonder Stallone gave Wepner an outof-court settlement. M