Friday, December 22, 2006

Rocky Balboa-- A Christmas Movie to Grow Old To

It is hard to believe it has been thirty years that we have been being regaled with the saga of Rocky Balboa. Loosely based on figure and character of the real life boxer Rocky Marcioni, we have now had six installments of this story, with the last one being by far the best, with the possible exception of the first one. Somehow Sylvester Stallone has breathed new life into this tale and it is refreshing, to say the least after the debacle that was Rocky V. Fortunately enough that movie is over a decade and a half old and forgettable, so this new episode will in fact garner many new viewers for the series of films who do not know the legacy, both good and bad.

Christianity Today, on its website has an interesting interview with Stallone, now 60 and a professed Christian. Much of the interview is about how art imitates life, specifically Stallone's own life with its ups and downs. We see Rocky crossing himself before his last fight, we see him praying, we see his friend and fellow former fighter reciting a Bible verse about relying on the Spirit rather than his own might, but this movie is mostly about heart and human determination. But even though the Christianity is only a small element in the story, it rings true to the character of Rocky, who is indeed a stand up guy with an iron chin.

Unlike some of the earlier Rocky films, this one has some genuine pathos for those who know about the special relationship between Rocky and Adrian (remember "Yo Adrian"). Adrian unfortunately has died of cancer, and Rocky is haunted by her memory. He lives mostly in the past and he visits his former wife's grave regularly. They had one son, who is uncomfortable living in the shadow of his father the former boxing legend. Rocky now owns and operates a restaraunt named Adrian's (of course), where he hosts and tells stories and poses for pictures for those who want them. But there is a deep sadness in Rocky and a restlessness that goes beyond his loneliness and loss of his wife. He believes, even at sixty, that he could still fight. Now before you say--- No Way! Stallone is 60 and he did fight in this movie a real world champ, Antonio Tarver, and he took some serious punches. Tarver says he was told not to simply pull his punches, like this movie which pulls no punches.

America of course loves the story of an underdog made good, we were raised on fairy tales like "The Little Engine that Could" after all. But there is something really winsome and compelling about this episode of the story, which is not mainly about boxing (there is only one exhibition fight at the end of the movie). Its more about life and moving forward even when life knocks you down. In a sense it is a parable about what Paul says in 2 Corinthians 4.8-- "we are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed, perplexed but not in despair, persecuted but not abandoned, struck down but not destroyed." That's Rocky in a nutshell-- he is resilient and indefatigible, and many of us who are over 50 can identify especially well with this installment of the series. Rocky will not go quietly into that good night-- and we are glad he doesn't. He does not age gracefully, he ages vigorously grabbing for all the gusto he can get.

There are various subplots to the story which I will not spoil for you, but I will tell you that this is one of the better movies released this Christmas, and while it may not get an academy awards (unlike the first Rocky movie which beat out some superb films for best picture of the year in 1976), it certainly is a fitting conclusion to a heartwarming story and at less than two hours there is no filler, all substance.

What's next for Stallone? Well apparently since he has new cinematic life he is working on a conclusion to the Rambo series-- Rambo rescues Christian missionaries in a third world country, believe it or not. In the mean time, suspend your disbelief and go see this movie. It will make you smile quite a bit, and maybe even cheer as many did in the theater I saw it in, in Lexington. "We are but a little lower than the angels, crowned with glory and honor".

Merry Christmas Rocky, we hardly knew ye.

18 comments:

Joseph Ugoretz said...

Saw the movie today, and I agree that it's excellent.

But I did have a minor quibble about this:
"we see his friend and fellow former fighter reciting a Bible verse about relying on the Spirit rather than his own might"
That verse, of course, is Zechariah 4:6, and it's clearly identified in the film as being from Zechariah...but as I heard it in the film, Rocky's friend quotes the verse as saying "the Spirit of Jesus Christ." And that's not at all what the verse says. Obviously, it couldn't be what the verse says, since Zechariah pre-dated Jesus by hundreds of years.

Is this a common Christian interpretation of that verse? So common that the mis-translation or misquoting is acceptable (as being in the "spirit" of the verse, even if it's not in the words)?

Curious.

Frank Walton said...

I liked this movie. I think it's a worthy ending to the Rocky legacy. I haven't seen PURSUIT OF HAPPYNESS yet but ROCKY BALBOA is a great film for the holidays and especially Christmas.

Reel Fanatic said...

Great review .. I'm going to see this one later today, and am definitely looking forward to it .. I just hope, now that Sly is 60 years old, this really is the last time he climbs into the ring!

Ben Witherington said...

You are of course right Joseph, and this caught me off guard as well. It is a common way Christians would read that verse of course.

Ben

Marc Axelrod said...

Spider Rico was combining Zechariah 4:6 and 1 Corinthians 15:57.

Similarly, the street preacher in Jerusalem in "The Nativity Story" was quoting a mishmosh of Psalm 72:10 and Zechariah 9:10

These techniques are not too far afield from the combined quote in Mark 1:2-3

Marc

Marc Axelrod said...

An astute Amazon reviewer noted that there are a lot of shadows in this movie: Rocky is living in the shadow of his glory days, the son is living in the shadow of his father, Mason Dixon is living in Rocky's shadow, even Spider Rico is living in Rocky's shadow, and Little Marie is living in Adrian's shadow (there are also a lot of shadowy scenes in the film
(alleys and streetlight scenes).

In a sense, Rocky himself is living in Adrian's shadow, as he struggles to move on with his life without her.

mochajava said...

"Loosely based on figure and character of the real life boxer Rocky Marcioni"

Not to be persnickety, but Stallone has said in the past that the character is based on Chuck Wepner, who went the distance with Ali.

Wepner's site has details:

http://wepner.homestead.com/files/chuck.html

Ben Witherington said...

Hi MochaJava:

Yes that is another comparison but I remember Stallone in the 70s admitting that he had Marcioni in mind.

Ben

Brian said...

oh, when will stallone RETIRE and go away already??!!

Marc Axelrod said...

Rocky Marciano (the Brockton Blockbuster) is the only undefeated heavyweight champion of the world. He was 49-0 with 43 knockouts. He hit so hard that he used knock people down just by hitting them in the arm! The guy threw hurting bombs in the ring, and his one punch title winning knockout against Jersey Joe Walcott is still regarded as the most devastating punch in boxing history. Archie Moore once said that when Rocky hit you on the arms, it sounded like bombs exploding.

Although the original Rocky movie was inspired by Wepner's gutsy performance against Muhammad Ali in 1975, Rocky Balboa the fighter was modeled as a southpaw version of Marciano.

I love the Rocky movies, and yet it is too bad that the real Rocky has been overshadowed by the fictional Rocky. Marciano was a tremendous fighter, and he was a really nice guy. He died tragically in a 1969 plane crash, only three weeks after filming his computer fight with Ali.

There's an interesting story about that computer fight (which was referenced in the current Rocky movie). Marciano was overweight and balding in 1969, but he got himself into good shape for the exhibition with Ali.

He also wore a toupee into the ring, and Ali would hit Marciano with jabs on the top of the head so that the toupee would go flying. Ali and his entourage would hoot and holler and laugh every time. Finally, Marciano said that if he did it again, he would make Ali pay. Ali, ever the showman, did it again, and Rocky dug a huge body into Ali's side which made him bend over in pain, and that put an end to the toupee incident.

Marc

zok said...

Interesting...Didn't know Stallone was a Christian and that the films had all of these little allusions to Scripture. I'll have to keep my eyes open for them the next time I watch them.

I haven't seen Rocky Balboa yet, but I'm excited for it. I'm a huge fan of the Rocky series. I even like Rocky 4 but mainly for the training scenes and final fight. It's always good just to see Rocky's character, though. I have to admit, though, Rocky 5 was bad! I was skeptical about the sixth installment but I started watching some trailers a month or two ago and it looked to be really good. Can't wait; hopefully I'll see it this week.

---

Ok, get ready for something really dumb. But I'm tired. Hah. The Historical Rocky. It's obvious that Rocky I was the first film produced, as evidenced by the primitive quality of the technology used, much more realistic characters, simple story and the like. We can see, however, that legend has crept in and distorted some of the scenes, such as the dramatic and blood filled final fight. Rocky 2 is later but also contains a substantial amount of authentic material. It becomes obvious, though, that there are fabricated scenes in order to heighten the story. The beginning of the film, for example, has Rocky and Apllo Creed in the hospital as a result from their earlier fight, a scene most scholars dismiss as legendary. Other scenes contain inaccuracies and fabrications, but many have a historical core.

The majority of scholars believe that Rocky 3 and Rocky 4 contain much less authenticate material. Rocky's level of education seems to magically rise, his opponents become unrealistic and there seems to be much filler-material. But not all scholars agree. Rocky had a good deal of time to advance his education over the span of his career. In fact, this begins in Rocky 2. Early in the film we discover that Rocky can barely read, but he's determined to overcome his illiteracy. We see his literary progress throughout the film. When Adrian is in a coma Rocky reads to her, and even composes his own poem before she wakes. There's no reason to believe that Rocky didn't continue his efforts after his second bout with Apollo.

There is indeed much filler material in the third and fourth films, but filler material does not mean inauthentic material. It’s true that the primary purpose of the third, and especially the fourth, film is to show the training scenes and final fight, with a good deal of filler material in the meantime. But the fact that there are many filler scenes before these final scenes only shows that Rocky’s life was different, perhaps not as interesting, than before he won the Heavyweight Championship. There’s no denying that Rocky was now past many of the things the first two films sought to highlight –- his search for employment, courting Adrian, the desire to escape the grim realities of living in South Philadelphia, and so on. We ought not to label these scenes as inauthentic simply because they are not as interesting.

The problem of Rocky’s opponents in the third and fouth films are real ones; but this can be accounted by the advancement in the sport of boxing and the physical abilities of the athletes. There's no reason to believe that Rocky 4 is not faithfully reporting the scientific advancements in athletic training, which did indeed occur in the 80s, leading to superior boxers. Despite these arguments, most scholars do not hold these two films with much confidence.

This brings us to Rocky 5. Some scholars put Rocky 5 on equal footing as the original, drawing on common elements such as Rocky's low social status, dumbed down speech, residence in south Philly, and the like; but this evidence is weak. When the film is analyzed as a whole, it's obvious that it's a much later composition, influenced heavily by the first Rocky.

The initial conclusions of Rocky 6 are promising. Many believe that it very well may contain much authentic material. It may, in fact, be on par with the first two Rockys, but we'll have to wait for more indepth study before we can come to any firm conclusions.

Marc Axelrod said...

There are actually "scholars" who study these things? How cool would it be to get paid for studying the Rocky movies. I've seen Rocky 3 almost a hundred times, and I've NEVER been paid.

Ben Witherington said...

Rocky III a hundred times? Marc, I thought you had way more of a life than that :)

BW3

yuckabuck said...

re: the historical Rockey

C.S. Lewis actually did something similar as a joke on his friend J.R.R. Tolkien. Tolkien lent Lewis a draft of what would later be "The Silmarillion," in order to get Lewis' opinion. As a way of suggesting some changes for bad parts, while praising other parts, Lewis couched his reply as a scholarly monograph of source criticism. (It can be found in "The Lays of Beleriand.")

Merry Christmas!

(Since a copy of a social-rhetorical commentary on Acts showed up under the tree today, and it was three times larger than I had anticipated, I probably won't be commenting much for a few months. So, Happy New Year as well!) :-)

Singing Owl said...

As for me, I saw Charlottes Web, which made me cry, and then I saw Night at the Museum which made me laugh. :-)

Well, Dr. W., thanks to this review I will go see the movie. I LOVED the original Rocky, and I even had a "God encounter" while watching it again, years later, on video.

Perhaps I'll post about it after watching this latest installment. Maybe sometime this week I can make it to the theater.

Marc Axelrod said...

TV was my life circa 1983 :)
Marc

José Solano said...


As I read this post and all the very positive comments about this movie from Christians whom I highly respect, I thought I'd wait till after Christmas before commenting. I have not seen this movie nor any of the Rocky movies. I hardly ever go to the movies and we got rid of our TV. We carefully select videos to watch or go see something like Winged Migration.

The very thought of going to see a movie that in any way condones boxing, regardless of how well done, is beyond me.

I was going to put together a sort of parody about boxing but my wife advised against it. It would have been a depiction of St. Peter in the ring with John the Evangelist, Jesus Christ as the referee and St Luke as the radio announcer.

". . . And the Evangelist just delivered two left jabs followed with a right hook landing on St. Peter's head that left him staggering and holding on to the Evangelist. JC pulled them apart and though bleeding above his left eye, the 234 lb. St. Peter came back with a powerful upper cut that sent the Evangelist to the mat for the mandatory full count. . . ." In the audience would have been Mary Magdalene, Martha, Lazarus and the other Apostles among throngs of Pharisees, etc.

You get the picture. I would have developed the script in much more detail with perhaps some photos from Rocky Marciano's fights such as http://www.onlinesports.com/pages/I,SSG-URM-16a.html. How's that for "turning the other cheek?"

Now, I haven't seen the movie and there could be a moving repentance scene as in the old Victor Mature movie, The Gladiator, in which there is a full repentance at the Cross. So, this is not a direct critique of the movie itself, just a reflection on boxing from someone who also did some boxing as a youth in the Lower East Side where a local hero was another Rocky, Rocky Graziano.

Freudian Slip said...

I just saw it and loved it. I think this is such a better ending to the series, glad it didn't end with five.
Matt