Monday, June 4, 2012

Liveblog: Rocky IV

Also known as Rocky IV: Jumping the Shark.

Opening rehash: Eye of the Tiger! In the first montage! The shiny hammer/sickle and stars/stripes gloves are a really 1980s idea, cold-war fuelled. Given that Rocky IV is notorious for it's overt propagandist direction, there's symbolism in the hammer and sickle glove exploding before the American one. I must admit to missing the brassy opening, despite an obvious love for Eye of the Tiger; you can tell this is the one Rocky movie not not scored by Bill Conti.

And we've got a Mr. T sighting! Mr. T is a hero of mine for everything from his mohawk/beard combination to his his quote-unquote “acting”. I've got a theory that when Mr. T appears, your day improves. It doesn't matter if your dog has died or your wife has left you, if you see Mr. T, you smile. That his mode of entry is usually utterly random only makes that smile goofier.

You've gotta admit that Mr. T, version 1983, has a seriously impressive physique.

The original Rocky was inspired by the Ali/Wepner fight of 1975, where Balboa was an unashamedly modeled on Wepner, a self-described moderate talent (listen to this 5Live podcast, it's fantastic). Only two sequels and six years on, Stallone ascends from willing, but limited, brawler to Ali himself; recreating here that most iconic fight, the "Rumble in the Jungle”.

04:19: Four minutes in, and you can't help noticing how well Rocky enunciates. He actually speaks in this film (and in Rocky III), rather the nearly-unintelligible mumbling of the first two. It's kind of true-to-form, as the more famous one gets the more media training one will receive ... oh dear.

05:19: We come to our first Shark Jump. A robot. In 1985. I smell product placement. Apparently it later toured with James Brown and was a member of the Screen Actors Guild.

6:37: … It's not just that Rocky enunciates better but that he doesn't slip into the roughhouse Philly accent when he's with people from his past, like Paulie and Adrienne. David Halberstam (who wrote Playing for Keeps, among others) wrote similarly of Isiah Thomas: after long exposure to the media he spoke like a statesman; when called out by his older brother, he spoke around family like a small-time basketball hustler. I can believe Rocky would vary between the two, but the entire patois of his speech is different, there seems to be less natural rhythm.

Here, he pronounces words like someone who has to think about getting all the letters in each syllable in the right order just to stop from sounding dumb. Maybe it's an incredible acting job by Stallone – especially given Rocky's a prime candidate for CTE – but I'm not nearly that generous. Far be it from me to impugn Stallone's acting ability – that's a job for more qualified viewers.

The brilliance of Rocky was the believability of his character when combined with perfect pacing and the inherent drama of a “puncher's chance”. Here, we see semi-sentient robots and Paulie getting whipped cream in the face. I'm all for accepting that everything changes with money, but ...

8:11: Drago!! Lundrgen's jaw is an acceptable answer to any geometry question. If the square of the hypoteneuse of one side of a triangle is equal to the sum of the squares of the two other sides, can the angle of Dolph Lundgren's jawline be used to stab a lion to death? I can get behind Samson using a jawbone to kill a thousand Philistines if said implement was Dolph Lundgren's.

11:00: Drago in lab: It's an apparent reference to the famous (and feared) genetically engineered Aryan supermen so feared by the West that half of Drago's press conference is held in a laboratory. The media brings up blood-doping and steroid use, only to turn straight away from it when provided with a one-liner about Popeye. If only they had the blogosphere in 1985 – which has perpetuated any rumour for all time, since the internet made it “big”.

12:50: Drago punches the meter: 1850 PSi. This seals it: we're dealing with a supervillain here, a generic Russkie superman because that's an astounding total. It's a wonder that Drago doesn't kill anyone. Hang about a bit ...

13:06: Apollo at the dinner table: Talia Shire, one of my all-time underrated deceptively-pretty actresses, is the epitome of 1985 – with a natty red sweater-vest and tan trousers combo. It's a nice touch from Carl Weathers when Apollo stands up as she leaves the table.

14:40: Rocky and Apollo watching Drago tape: Now's a good time to bring up how much Stallone has changed physically since Rocky. In the first film he was Wepner: a blunt instrument, a cast-iron chin. Of course, we can retcon part of this away due to Apollo's training for the Clubber Lang rematch, but the slimming down had already happened by the start of Rocky III. Did someone mention steroids and blood doping?

Apollo isn't coming back to the ring for the same reasons as most boxers. Especially in the '80s, where they blew their money, often straight up their collective broken noses. (Rocky's Philly slur suddenly becomes more pronounced as they watch tape, maybe Stallone has remembered his character). The lack of ready money always seems to drive boxers on to one more fight. Stallone gives Creed a fateful, quasi-heroic exit here: a more noble cause than the more probable “I need the money, Stallion”. Stallone could have sacrificed Creed on the alter of realism, yet chose not to.

17:00: Apollo/Drago presser: Ooh, it's bad. This is perhaps the worst press conference committed to celluloid. The boxing world now sees press conferences featuring the likes of Derek Chisoara slapping his opponent. Who's one of the Klitschkos who dominate the heavyweight division. Why would you try to piss off a Klitschko? That's like kicking a polar bear in the groin.

19:00: Oh, there's the weigh-ins we're used to. Suddenly this begins to look a whole hell of a lot more like the Klitschko/Chisoara debacle; only Drago probably has a good ten-to-twenty kilos on the Ukrainian and Vitali's not sleeping with Grace Jones. (Or at least, not as far as we know, otherwise … eeeeew).

20:16: I love that the return bout of a homecoming champ is listed well below Wayne Newton. Good to see where the Grand Hotel's priorities lie... I don't doubt this is true to life.

23:27: James Brown sighting!! The Godfather of Soul looked exactly the same from 1970 to 2000, like he was dipped in formalin on his thirty-fifth birthday. Open necked shirt, the beautiful pompadour … it's all awesome. It's a surprisingly touching moment when Drago, so long the amateur, looks around and sees all the trappings of US “professionalism”, the sheer amount of American throwaway income and, well, Vegas.

Are they serious, having Apollo flown in like this? It's a pity that Creed can't dance – especially as he's contrasted with James Brown. Let me in on a secret: I can't dance. Not a bit. And if I ever think “It's 1985, my comeback bout, and I'm going to dance as I'm helicoptered into a boxing ring”, who do I not want introducing me? Given that Usher was probably six years old when this was released, I'm going with James Brown.

26:28: Introductions: Not an encouraging start for Apollo – the man with the hilarious moustache introduces Rocky before him in his comeback bout. Apollo, 221lbs. Dolph, 261lbs (so he's got 8 kilos on Klitschko, but is still a massive 25 kegs lighter than Nikolai Valuev). And they've messed up his nickname – didn't you listen to the press conference? He's the Siberian Express, not the Siberian Bull.

28:35: "You will lose": Apparently this is the line which won Dolph Lundgren his award. He only gets like five in the entire film, and in retrospect this is the most impressive one. I love that the Napierville Cinema Festival recognised it as a breathtaking exhibition of deadpan comic timing.

29:00: You could land a plane on Dolph Lundgren's flattop.

30:00: Drago's doing an incredible job of brassing up Carl Weathers. And now, as the round closes, should have been disqualified - if a boxer threw that number of punches after the bell in today's boxing world, he'd be ... Dereck Chisoara.

31:49: It's strongly implied that Apollo retired after losing his heavyweight belt in Rocky II. If this is the case, he's never received a beating like this – he and “Stallion” went fifteen rounds, twice, which ended as (*cliche alert*) wars of attrition. (I'm sorry, I feel dirty, but it really does describe the fights). You don't get to be the champ by getting beaten up, but he's already shown (like Rocky, Lang and Drago) to be a momentum boxer, able to dominate certain rounds but only when momentum goes his way.

32:19: And right here, we can see Rocky is directly responsible for Apollo's death. It's the corner man's job to throw the towel in not when the boxer wants but when the boxer is in (serious) danger – a serious oxymoron, I know. As an aside, I've paused the Netflix stream and Ivan Drago has an expression on his face like Apollo's just farted heinously. Which is possible, I guess, considering men often lose control of their bowels when they die due to violence. *Spoiler*

32:49: It takes Rocky 30 seconds to try and throw the towel, despite Duke screaming at him to do so. That makes him culpable, and probably actionable.

33:53: "If he dies, he dies": Let's just take a moment to let those words sink in. Really, would anyone say that, even in a state of (cold) war? Give Rocky I and even II credit for their in-ring realism; Rocky III gets a pass because of Clubber Lang Mr. T, but this has no redeeming boxing features. In fact, it's now only (farcical) melodrama.

Interlude: Stallone's talent certainly isn't acting or writing realistic dialogue, but in combining the writer/directing roles to make enormous profit. He stuck paydirt with Rocky, went back to the well with Rocky II, but III (and IV, so far) have hardly inspired great lines or situations. What he does, however, is make super-blockbusters, cheap – IMDb estimates the entire Rocky franchise cost around $119 million to make, almost exactly the amount the lowest-grossing film of the series earned.

It's highly likely that he's going to keep making movies like Rocky, Rambo and The Expendables simply because they spin money. In ROI terms, Rocky is one of the most successful movies of all time (ROI estimated at 946%) , while Rambo as a franchise has a ROI of 426% and The Expendables raked in over three times it's $80 million budget.

34:00ish: What does it mean that of the 30 people at Apollo's funeral, most are white. And, if you were Heavyweight Champion of the World, would you want Rocky Balboa as your eulogist? A guy you've known for five of your forty years, your greatest rival in a sport where opponents typically don't get along and, crucially, a man who struggles to string three words together?

36:31: Brigitte Nielsen on death threats: I think it's cute when couples get the same haircut, don't you?

37:30: Drago's manager derides US society as "pathetically weak". I'm not sure that Red Russia - or Kim Jong Il himself - could have come up with a more schmaltzy piece of propaganda than Stallone has here.

37:40: Stallone has been taking lessons from Shakespearean direction as he talks with Adrienne on the balcony above. Unfortunately his screenplay could use a touch of the Elizabethan as well:“I gotta do what I gotta do”.

“A lot of people live with hurt”. A pretty prescient statement from what amounts to a sports melodrama. Rocky and Rocky II were all about living with hurt – even parts of Rocky versus Mr. T Rocky III where Paulie gets jealous and you can see that theme emerging. However, Rocky (and Stallone) has now grown so “big” – he'd directed Staying Alive by now – that he doesn't have to live with it any more, he can do anything.

It's strange how his most poignant statement is basically “the house/money isn't important” when really the message would have been much more powerful ahd it been “Lots of people live with hurt”. But, to be fair, the film's pacing has been remarkably good (and an improvement over Rocky III). It doesn't feel half-over at the moment.

41:40: Montage!! There's no easy way out! Really highlights the amount Rocky's face has slimmed and how he's become much more taciturn; probably due to Stallone forcing drama into roles rather than let it evolve. The charismatic, musclebound arrogance is gone; in his place stands Sylvester Stallone the movie icon, star of Escape to Victory the guy we still see 30 years later. Rocky IV is where the cariacacture came to pass – where the antiestablishment hero became the brand.

I absolutely loved this montage.

46:32: “If a big giant man wanted to beat me up I'd be scared”: perhaps that's how 5'10 Floyd Mayweather feels about 5'9 Manny Pacquiao. As much as Mayweather is derided for avoiding a fight with Pacquiao, this may be a method of avoiding saying what many suggest: he's scared of losing to the Filipino. While his decision (who would probably make him look silly) is fair enough, the way he seems to grasp at straws for reasons makes him look scared.

He's used better judgement in not fighting, but wasted it by using poor judgement in obviously hiding the real reasons.

48:32: More Survivor – or at least it sounds like it! A quick glance at Rocsky IV's soundtrack listing and I'm right – Burning Heart by Survivor! (Love the fact that a Russian guy is chopping dry wood in a pile full of snow). The number of entities who owe their entire livelihood in fame to Stallone increases: Conti, Talia Shire, Burt Young, Carl Weathers, Survivor, Lundgren, Nielsen, Richard Crenna … the list goes on. Official montage count so far: 4.

53:15: In Russia, at night: And the American wins the chess game!! Matt wins this round of cliche-bingo! Just a brief aside – if I was given any Russian and any “Westerner” to play chess for my life, I'm taking the Russian. It doesn't matter if he's six years old, the American is a grand master or the competition is chessboxing. Russians are naturally better at chess than Westerners.

55:40: Rocky runs in a leather jacket lined with sheepskin, out in the country (if it's cold enough for that, it's cold enough to freeze that creek, too). Plus the Americans look as if they've never seen snow before, which I can assure you doesn't fit if they're from Philly.

The Russian runs in a superpowered gym, and it's hard not to miss the everpresent fear of Eastern European eugenicists. In some ways, this sequence has a real anti-technology bent. where natural is better – unfortunately this is counterbalanced by Stallone's obvious use of the gear. It harks back to a more innocent age where technological advancement brought with it fear; a quick look at 1960s Doctor Who suggests computers are always fallible, but human spirit somehow is not. How long ago – and luddite – does that feel?

Given the training montage, and the versatility of training between the two opponents, throwing blocks of stone about can't compare to specialised training. In every match not recorded to celluloid, Balboa gets his arse kicked.

Swinging an axe - really, Sylvester? I mean, I get the symbolism – the tree falls down and all … but, really? I love how Drago runs around a hall in a spotlight. Is it some Russian dude's job to point a spotlight at their champ as he runs? Kids, more than anything, this is communism.

60:10: That's some damn fine music!! (hums while typing) Heart's on Fire, strong desire … John Cafferty, everyone. Montage count: 5.

60:43: On the other hand, there is a school of thought which suggests that Rocky's training is superior to that of Drago's. The movement variability provided by real-world training could provide much greater stabiliser strength and control than the individual muscle training of the Russian. It's probably a training mistake for the Russian to focus on power when it's patently not a problem for him – 2150 psi! That's three times the punching power of your average heavyweight – or fifteen times the punching power of Aussie Joe Bugner.

61:45: Ah, there it is – the first overt drug reference amidst all the innuendo as the syringe fills up. The lifting certainly shows up Stallone's extraordinary musculature. As with any training montage, it finishes with a triumphant fist-pump and scream. I once tried the fist-pump-and-scream after reaching my current state of physical perfection; I'm not welcome back at that gym any more.

Interlude: It's a speaks volumes to Ludgren's jobbing actor status that he does little else than grunt and groan. And he won awards for this “performance”! The role could have been played by anyone – even that robot that Paulie falls in love with – despite the fact it took him six months to win the role and launch his career.

I've just Googled “Drago” and found that the former representative for Seattle City Council (and 2009 Mayoral candidate) was Jan Drago! She would have had my vote (if eligible) simply because of the name! Think of the incredible campaign paraphernalia she could have come up with: posters that just said “You will lose”. Bumper stickers with “I must break you”. Or even just “If (s)he dies, (s)he dies”. Oh, the missed opportunities!

65:16: Mikael Gorbachev – now universally thought of as “the good communist” rather than “the politically expedient communist” – represented there sans birthmark. Perhaps Frank Drebin was in Russia earlier in the year. (Ed: this is only confirmed later in the film when he's shown applauding *spoilers* Rocky's highly political victory speech).

66:00: Rocky booed: Given that in 1985 you'd need to be a high-ranking party official to get a seat at an occasion like this, those booing probably aren't a steroid-induced scriptwriter's hallucination but actually communists, rather than subjects of communists. Thre's a fine distinction there, and therefore many here are probably invested in proving their dominance over the indolent Americans.

At least, that's what I hope Stallone was thinking.

Secondly, when has Rocky not been the popular favourite? With each fight, he's been – in order – the unknown underdog, the overachiever, the comeback King and people's champ…

68:27: It's ridiculous when they take off their gowns that Stallone, the good guy, looks so much more unnaturally juiced than Drago …

70:12: … but there's no question that Lundgren's good-and-proper-dosed as well. That six-pack is downright scary. And despite us being seventy minutes in, the commentators please with the first David & Goliath reference.

71:30: From a boxing strategy point of view, running straight at a guy who's bigger than you is perhaps the silliest strategy ever. Why go straight at a guy who's bigger, stronger, and probably quicker?

It's no wonder that Chuck Wepner later sued Stallone for infringing his life-rights. Drago is both nationalistically and physically ursine; they must've made Lundgren shave down to try and minimise any further resemblance to Wepner's life, who at one time fought Victor the Wrestling Bear.

Final Interlude: Did you know that Sylvester Stallone was inducted into the Boxing Hall of Fame on the same day as Clubber Lang Mike Tyson?  And that no-one has ever really objected to it?  That's because of the impact that the Rocky series of movies made on the sport.  They may have started realistically and turned into a superhero serial where the title character can do whatever he wants to - even flying in the face of all tactical boxing knowledge - but they, in concert with HBO Friday Night Fights, helped revitalise the sport.

76:48: … And Drago just lost: “He is not human – he is a piece of iron”. While I don't doubt Rocky's Balboa's ability to take punishment, the fact he started counterpunching and going so hard at Drago so early in the fight doesn't really fit type. But of course, we're dealing with Superhero Rocky now rather than Real Rocky.

Montage!! - Ladies and Gentlemen, your new record-holder for “Most montages in a movie” - Rocky IV. And the crowd is pro-Rocky!! The patriotic effects of montaging are well-documented: they can demonstrate the passage of time, monetise a film effectively, cure the common cold, unfreeze the Cold War and yet still solve the Global Warming crisis. Can someone get Stallone on this?

Final Round: Suddenly Drago's a much more sympathetic character than the man whose entire sum total of lines includes “You will lose”, “I must break you” and “If he dies, he dies”. Stallone must be feeling good about life, giving big Ivan some redemption.

Rocky's channelling his victory over Clubber Lang Mr. T, playing rope-a-dope. Here we go, into melodrama again. The last ten minutes have actually been quite good. And also, it's probably fair to suggest that at some stage during this fight someone's going to have to block a punch.

I hear the trumpets … which mean only one of two things. I don't see Horsemen out the window, so Rocky's going to win! A the cost of his future mental health and not looking nearly as messed up as when he went the distance with Creed in Rocky or Rocky II, he has done it! (Ed: what Matt doesn't know is that Rocky was forced to retire as a result of the injuries sustained in this fight. Perhaps that's why Stallone didn't play the “Apollo's out of money card” - not out of respect for Creed, but because he already had Rocky V lined up).

And, like all things should, this epic finishes with a montage. Final Montage Count: 7.

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