Our two-part discussion of Rocky concludes with a look at the entire series of eight films, including the two Creed movies. It’s a series that’s deeply interested in its own history, regularly referring to it in montages of characters’ memories, journeys back to iconic locations, and the reintroduction of one particular character in Creed II. The series rewards its audience for its investment, although despite featuring a soap opera-like series of melodramatic plot developments over its many films, almost everything that refers to a previous film refers to the first one. Other than the events of 1976’s Rocky, which laid the foundation for the series, only Apollo Creed’s death and Ivan Drago’s defeat in Rocky IV have lasting impact on later films.
We discuss how, following his superhero-like physicality in the Eighties, the character of Rocky is brought back down to Earth in his old age, his body ravaged by time, his life broken by loss. And we think about how the milieu evolves over time, the music, for instance, changing from barbershop/a capella singing in the Seventies, through power ballads in the Eighties, to rap and hip-hop in the 2010s. And we discuss much more besides.
You can track significant changes in cinema and culture over the last fifty years through the Rocky films. Each one feels like a snapshot of American life at its time. We can’t recommend most of the films as examples of great film art, but the last three, Rocky Balboa, Creed and Creed II, stand above the first five, the Creeds especially feeling like a breath of fresh air with the directorial talent on display. But it’s a fascinating series to work through, earnest and open-hearted throughout, and immensely likeable.
The podcast can be listened to in the player above or on iTunes.
In this first of our two-part discussion of the Rocky films, we look at the film that began the series almost 50 years ago. There’s a lot about 1976’s Rocky that… isn’t that good. John G. Avildsen’s direction is drab, the story basic, the themes rudimentary – but with that comes a roughness and a sincerity to the whole affair that might be just what makes it work after all. Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky is a physical brute, softened by his unusual – and unusually pretty – features, his inability to avoid trying to befriend any animal that crosses his path, his demeanour that’s at once confident and shy, and his intellectual simplicity. José argues that the boxing is a diversion, a Trojan horse within which to sneak Rocky and Adrian’s love story. And we think about the character of Apollo Creed, his use as a substitute for Muhammad Ali, and why he couldn’t have been white.
Rocky was a phenomenon upon its release, an immediate cultural touchstone that contains images and scenes so iconic that, five decades on, we continue to attach the same emotions to them and draw the same pleasure from recalling them. Well, we say “we”, but, as is typical, Mike has never seen it before. So while José revisits, Mike joins the party for the first time, and we discuss the quality, significance and impact of this iconic film.
The podcast can be listened to in the player above or on iTunes.
Rocky IV is almost ten years after the original Rocky. But it could be world apart. The style of filmmaking is completely different. The High Concept pitch might well have been: Rocky IV High Concept pitch: America smashes the Soviet Union in five high-energy MTV montages plus lots of flesh on display, a little bit of heart, and lots and lots of room for product placement. There’s much to say, not least in relation to the nod to Gorbachov in the final bout. But I will here limit myself to noting that Sylvester Stallone is at least as narcissistic as any old-fashioned Hollywood diva, and since he directs himself, has more scope to reveal it. Certainly, as you can see below, he changes clothes or ‘looks’ more often than even Marlene Dietrich at her dressiest, though perhaps to lesser effect. The product placement is sometimes in your face, sometimes more subliminal:
Boxing might be mistaken for disco dancing:
Sly, full 80s, as if styled by Olivia Newton-John ,in full-on Let’s Get Physical gear, also from Rocky III
The second feature-length computer-animated film ever made, after Pixar’s groundbreaking Toy Story, Antz is an oddball. A public feud between Jeffrey Katzenberg and then-CEO of Disney, Michael Eisner, led to Katzenberg founding Dreamworks SKG and subsequently feuding with Pixar’s John Lasseter, who was making the suspiciously similar – and ultimately more successful – A Bug’s Life. Pixar is the historically more successful and well-regarded studio, and the direct comparison between these two films usually sees Antz considered inferior, but Mike’s long been fond of it, and in revisiting it we discuss both how far it shows us animation has come in the last twenty years, and its many qualities, including its rather grown-up tone and references, imaginative and expressive visual design and cinematography, and witty dialogue.
Oh, and we try to work out how children think.
Donald Trump’s vision of Mexico as America’s terrifying, criminal neighbour to the south finds a home in Rambo: Last Blood, a film in which a journey to Mexico is no less than a descent into Hell, and the comfort of the USA means a ranch, horses, sunsets, and a subterranean network of tunnels in which to viciously trap and slaughter Mexican rapists. You may be surprised to hear that we weren’t that keen on it.
Considering Sylvester Stallone’s age – a mighty 73 years old – Last Blood‘s action can’t ask as much of him physically as did the Rambo films of old, but through the use of traps and ambushes, Stallone’s limitations are smartly made irrelevant. But that’s about as positive as we can get. This is a film that cost $50m, if the production budget figure on Box Office Mojo is to be believed, and if Stallone hasn’t taken $40m of that for himself it’s impossible to tell where it’s been spent. This is cheap, nasty, acrid cinema, and it spurs José to look back on Stallone’s career and decry it for not simply having too few hits but moreover representing a betrayal of what Stallone meant to immigrant kids and underdogs back when he broke out with Rocky in 1976.
Avoid Rambo: Last Blood like the self-mythologising, racist bile it is.
The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.
My original review, which appeared in the very first issue of The Montreal Mirror, on 20th of June 1985, and which indicates the film showing in various cinemas which no longer function as such.
Sylvester Stallone has had so many facelifts he now looks like an unsexy version of the cartoons Mad Magazine used to do of him in the 70’s. Yet he’s now been starring in big-budget movies for close to 40 years. Bullet to the Head (James Bonomo, USA, 2012) also had a theatrical release earlier this year and is now out on DVD plus there are two more films currently in postproduction. The man’s career is unstoppable. Why that is so is a mystery: I can’t think of another star who’s sustained that kind of career for that long with barely two good films in his filmography — The Expendables 2 isn’t one of them. Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jean-Claude van Damme, Chuck Norris, Dolph Lundgren and other 80’s action stars parade through the film like a taxidermist’s prize exhibit. Jet Li and Jason Statham figure as more recent generations of action stars. Liam Hemsworth presumably wants to join the club. It was a hit.