Rocky Balboa (2006, Sylvester Stallone)

RockyBalboa

A series of reviews looking at Sylvester Stallone’s two most famous characters, Rocky Balboa and John Rambo, film by film…

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Now a widower in his late 50s, Rocky is tempted to get back into the ring for an exhibition bout with the current world champion…

What does Stallone do? After 16 years away, Rocky Balboa returned – and Sylvester Stallone returned to play him, write the script and direct the film. The actor hadn’t been happy with Rocky V, so wanted to tie the series off in a more appropriate way… When we check back in with Rocky, he’s a lonely, grieving widower (Adrian has died of ‘woman cancer’). After a day commemorating his wife’s passing in which he trawls round his old haunts and remembers events from previous Rocky films, he bumps into a woman he knew when she was a child 30 years earlier. Marie is now a single mother and works in a bar; they strike up a touching friendship of mutual support, and Rocky also acts as a mentor to her wayward son. Meanwhile, a TV show debates whether Rocky in his prime would have beaten the current world champ, Mason Dixon, and this gets Rocky thinking. When Mason’s agent suggests a non-title fight – from which everyone would earn a boatload – Rocky agrees and gets to training seriously. (He’s seemingly got over the debilitating brain damage he was diagnosed with in Rocky V.) When the two get into the ring at a glitzy, showbiz event at a Las Vegas hotel, Rocky knows he can’t win on speed or skill, so his tactic is to try brut force. Mason floors him a couple of times, but Rocky holds in there. He loses a split decision (the judges are 2-1), but walks away with his head held high… Across six films, Stallone has progressed from a kind of cut-price Robert De Niro to a middle-aged Joey Tribbiani. But here he’s recaptured the knockabout charm that typified the early movies.

Other main characters:
* Mason ‘The Line’ Dixon (Antonio Tarver) is the undisputed world heavyweight boxing champion, but is unpopular with public and press alike because it’s believed he’s won his belts by defeating no-hopers. Then an ESPN-style panel show discusses whether he could beat a 1980s Rocky Balboa, and a computer simulation reckons Rocky would win. Mason is angered by these slights, but his people just see dollar signs and plot to tempt Rocky out of his long retirement for a money-spinning exhibition fight… While still a bit cocky, Mason isn’t an arrogant, unfeeling thug like Rocky III’s Clubber Lang – before the fight, he assures Rocky that he won’t be trying to hurt him unnecessarily.
* Paulie Pennino (Burt Young) now works at a packing plant. He gets laid off just as Rocky is gearing up to fight Mason, so conveniently has lots of spare time to join his support team.
* Rocky’s son, Robert Balboa (Milo Ventimiglia), is now a grown-up with the kind of big-business job that means he hangs out with yuppies. He’s a bit embarrassed by his father (‘You throw a big shadow,’ he says) and is far from encouraging when Rocky says he’s going to fight again – he fears his dad will be humiliated and this will lead to endless teasing from his pals. Rocky, not unreasonably and not unkindly, tells him he’s being an arse; he needs to stop caring what morons think and just live his life. Robert eventually comes round to the idea so much that he joins Rocky’s support team.
* Marie (Geraldine Hughes) appeared in the first Rocky movie as a local teenage girl who Rocky protectively walked home one night and told to quit smoking and get her act together. Now she’s a bar-worker in her 40s with a son called Steps (short for Stephenson). When the manager at the restaurant Rocky owns takes maternity leave, he offers the job to Marie. She lacks confidence but Rock talks her round (the pair really are two downtrodden peas in a pod). She repays her pal’s belief in her when she gives him a pep-talk and encourages him to fight Mason… Hughes plays the role really well, treating the film like a low-budget drama rather than a Hollywood franchise film. Rocky and Marie’s poignant relationship – no sex, refreshingly; just a quiet understanding – is the highlight of the movie. (In 1976’s Rocky, Marie was played by Jodi Letizia.)
* Adrian Balboa (Talia Shire) appears in flashback clips from previous films when Rocky remembers his late wife.

Key scene: This half-decent film has a serious blight. It’s really ugly to look at. It offends a cineaste’s sensibilities. Dialogue scenes are shot harshly and coldly – they look cheap, to be honest – while the bizarre decision has been made to present Rocky and Dixon’s fight as if it were coverage on a pay-TV channel. (At least to begin with: it then goes all hyper-edited and tricksy.) The video look, too-fluid camerawork and chintzy lighting do nothing for the story or for the film as a whole. A shame.

Review: We’re back to the earthy tone of the original Rocky, and genuinely so this time. Rocky Balboa feels authentic and confident in a way that the ersatz and artificial Rocky V never managed. (That film felt like what it was: millionaires playing at being poor.) Rocky may get stopped by the public wanting selfies, but he’s a faded star, past his prime. At his restaurant, he acts as host and trots out practised anecdotes about his glory days to customers who hardly seem enthralled. So it’s a plausible storyline when the carrot of a big-time bout with Mason Dixon is dangled in front of him. It’s not, it must be said, the most gripping drama. Mason is a vastly underdeveloped character and his sections of the film lack any real tension or interest. (He and Rocky barely meet outside the ring, let alone develop the kind of connection Rocky had with previous opponents Apollo, Lang and Drago.) But there’s an undeniable sweetness, especially when concerned with Marie and Rocky’s relationship.

Seven heavy-duty, cast-iron, pile-drivin’ punches that will have to hurt so much they’ll rattle his ancestors out of 10

Next: Rambo

Advertisements

Foreign Correspondent (1940, Alfred Hitchcock)

ForeignCorrespondent

An occasional series where I review a randomly selected movie directed by Alfred Hitchcock…

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

A reporter is sent to Europe to get a scoop on the upcoming war but soon becomes embroiled with a sinister plot

Alfred Hitchcock made several films with action set pieces, scenes of tension, suspense, double-crosses, and moments of both tragedy and absurdity. So Foreign Correspondent is going up against some hefty competition, movies such as The 39 Steps, The Lady Vanishes and North by Northwest. While no disaster, Foreign Correspondent is not in that class.

It’s August 1939. Europe is on what is almost always called in these cases the brink of war. Over in the US, the editor of the New York Globe newspaper is tired of the flat, drab coverage he’s been receiving from his reporters in the field so seeks out an employee who can bring a fresh perspective to the situation. A louche, carefree hack called Johnny Jones (Joel McCrea) is plucked from the newsroom, given the grand-sounding pen name Huntley Haverstock, and sent off across the Atlantic. Editor Powers (Harry Davenport) specifically wants an exclusive chat with an influential Dutch diplomat called Van Meer.

Having never been a foreign correspondent before, Jones shows both naivety – he moots trying to get an interview with Adolf Hitler – and hutzpah. When he arrives in a London full of bowler-hatted men, he meets a colleague who cynically tells him that all he needs do is forward on press releases and sign them ‘our foreign correspondent’. But Jones is wilier than that, and soon thinks he’s got a scoop when he bumps into Van Meer (Albert Bassermann) outside his hotel. However, soon after a polite but substance-light chat, Jones learns that the man was actually an imposter…

Meanwhile, our hero gains a love interest. Van Meer is supposed to be talking at a meeting of the Universal Peace Party, a multi-national anti-war movement. At the posh shindig, Jones meets a woman called Carol (Laraine Day) and accidentally offends her by ridiculing the party’s leader – who happens to be her father. As the story throws them together in the classic thriller style, they become a mismatched Hitchcock couple a la The 39 Steps or Young and Innocent: they bicker but are clearly attracted to each other.

After the London shindig, the action then moves to a political conference in Amsterdam. Jones sees the fake Van Meer outside the venue so confronts him, but then the man is shot on the street by an assassin. This audacious and cinematic sequence is the highlight of the whole film: we’re outdoors, it’s raining, the gunman poses as a photographer to get close to his prey, there are high-angle shots of umbrellas twitching as the assassin flees through the nearby crowd; and the scene then evolves into a car chase. Hitchcock shows a brilliant choreography of action, actors and background extras. It’s terrific stuff.

Just generally, the breakneck story plough ahead; the film has a real pace to it. The script also contains the kind of rat-a-tat dialogue you’d expect from a 1930s screwball comedy. However, the back-and-forth patter is not always played as fluently as you’d hope and, as the plot goes through some not-terribly-interesting twists, everything unfortunately starts to feel a bit samey and inconsequential. It doesn’t have the ante-raising moments you need in this kind of film.

There are still exciting episodes and individual images, however. The film begins with a cute model shot of the New York newspaper office building, complete with huge globe logo spinning atop. In the middle of the film, Jones is shadowed by a seemingly friendly man (played by Edmund Gwenn) who lures him to the heights of Westminster Cathedral’s tower intent on pushing him off. The plot climaxes with an enormously impressive action sequence as a flying boat stocked with passengers crashes into the Atlantic.

But this is a lesser Hitchcock film, lacking the magic that powers the best of his thrillers. It was only his second movie made in America (after Rebecca), which may explain the lack of punch. As Hitchcock later said, in 1940 thrillers were ‘looked on as second-rate’ in Hollywood. In the UK, however, they were ‘part of the literature’ – thanks in part to the successful capers Hitchcock himself had directed. With Foreign Correspondent, the required tone – serious but playful – doesn’t quite hit home. It’s a film about serious subject matters such as war, assassination and betrayal, but the script is going for the kind of breezy action-and-suspense later used in, say, the James Bond series. Style and substance don’t mesh.

Seven men reading a newspaper out of 10

Rocky III (1982, Sylvester Stallone)

RockyIII

A series of reviews looking at Sylvester Stallone’s two most famous characters, Rocky Balboa and John Rambo, film by film…

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Now the world champion, Rocky Balboa faces a threat from a young new fighter…

What does Stallone do? Sly wrote the script, directed the film, and obviously reprised the role of Rocky Balboa. A few years after the events of Rocky II, our lead character is now world heavyweight boxing champ. We see a quickly cut montage of him easily beating various challengers in the ring, becoming a major celebrity (even appearing on The Muppet Show – the footage comes from when Stallone was in an episode for real), meeting presidents and raising a family. However, his world come crashing down when he loses his title to a young upstart from Chicago. Down and out, and having also lost his father figure, Rocky resolves to win the rematch… This film maybe sees Stallone’s acting talent stretched a bit thin. It’s a pretty docile performance and lacks the charm of the first two movies. Nevertheless, Rocky remains a compelling character because he’s a nice guy – unlike other famous boxer characters. He’s not a violent, quick-to-temper thug like Raging Bull’s Jake LaMotta, neither does he carry the anguish of On the Waterfront’s Terry Malloy. And that makes us root for him even more.

Other main characters:
* Up-and-coming boxer Clubber Lang (Mr T) watches on as Rocky fights a string of no-hopers. When the Italian Stallion then announces his retirement at a public event, Lang steps forward, confronts his rival and demands a shot at the championship. Affronted by the younger man’s arrogance and brashness, Rocky has little choice but to agree. Clubber wins the bout easily – his punches sound like shotgun blasts, his arms look like pneumatic pistons – which sets up the second half of the film as Rocky works towards a redemptive rematch… More a force of nature than an actor, Mr T plays Clubber with a snarling, fuck-you attitude at all times. And yes, at one point he says, ‘I pity the fool.’ This film is where the catchphrase comes from.
* Paulie Pennino (Burt Young) has not benefitted from his brother-in-law’s success; as the story begins, he’s still a bitter dullard stuck in a Mean Streets-style life. When he lashes out drunkenly and breaks a Rocky-branded pinball machine, Rock has to bail him out of jail. Rocky then agrees to give him a job, which involves Paulie standing around for the rest of the movie and doing a lot of moaning.
* Early on, Rocky takes part in an exhibition fight against Thunderlips, the reigning world wrestling champion played by real-life wrestler Hulk Hogan. Given all the razzmatazz and the fact the event is for charity, Rocky assumes it’s going to be a faux fight – a bit of fun for the punters – but Thunderlips then attacks him for real, forcing Rocky to respond in kind. Balboa wins eventually, and to his credit Thunderlips’s aggression drops instantly: it *was* just an act.
* Mickey Goldmill (Burgess Meredith) is still Rocky’s trainer, but suffers from severe chest pains a couple of times. When Rocky says he’ll take on Lang, Mickey doesn’t want anything to do with it because he reckons Rocky can’t win. Lang has the hunger that Rocky has long since lost (and, admits Mickey, Rocky has been fighting handpicked below-par boxers since film two). Rocky soon talks him round into helping, but just before the fight with Lang, Mickey has a heart attack. Soon after Rocky loses his championship belt, Mick dies in the locker room. (In the storytelling handbook, this is called the lowest ebb.)
* At Rocky’s first bout with Clubber, former champion Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) is ringside doing media work – and he takes an instant dislike to the disrespectful Lang. So after Rocky’s defeat and Mickey’s death, Apollo offers to train his old foe for the rematch. He takes Rocky to a rundown gym in LA, away from all the hype in Philadelphia, but Rocky struggles with Apollo’s techniques.
* Adrian Balboa (Talia Shire) mostly stays in the background of her husband’s story. Her only big moment is a scene on a Californian beach where she and Rocky spell out the subtext to each other: ‘You gotta [fight Lang] for the right reasons – not for the guilt over Mickey, not for the people, not for the title, not for the money or me. But for you.’
* The Balboas’ son, Rocky Jnr (Ian Fried), looks to be about six years old now, which kinda makes sense when you consider that Rocky II (1979) was only set a few months after Rocky (1976).

Key scene: By this point in the series, training montages have become as much a part of the idiom as Stallone’s slurred delivery and fights with a thousand punches per round. Rocky III contains more than one. The best, which comes directly before Rocky and Lang’s rematch, is a whopping 205 seconds of Rocky running on beaches, hitting punching bags, sparring with Apollo and learning how to be nimble on his feet.

Review: The song Eye of the Tiger by Survivor is heard a few times in this movie, but it’s not just a catchy bit of soft rock to keep us entertained and flog the soundtrack album. Its title phrase becomes a mantra given to Rocky during prep for the rematch – ‘Eye of the tiger, Rock,’ calls out Apollo. ‘Eye of the tiger!’ – while the tune’s lyrics tie in directly to the film’s theme of celebrity. ‘You trade your passion for glory,’ counsels lead singer Dave Bickler. ‘Don’t lose your grip on the dreams of the past/You must fight just to keep them alive.’ Rocky III has several scenes that reflect this idea – while Rocky appears on TV and gets a taste of the showbiz word of pro-wrestling, his fame and money are making him soft. His training sessions for the first fight with Clubber are glitzy, open-to-the-public events with bunting and a house band. Clubber, meanwhile, trains hard and wins. Away from this thematic thread, there’s nothing much new to the Rocky format: it’s the third movie in a row with the same basic structure and a very similar finale. But it’s passable fun.

Six has-beens messin’ in my corner out of 10

Next: First Blood

Lifeboat (1944, Alfred Hitchcock)

Tallulah Bankhead In 'Lifeboat'

An occasional series where I review a randomly selected movie directed by Alfred Hitchcock…

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

After a ship is torpedoed by a U-boat, a group of survivors find shelter in a lifeboat – but they also take aboard a German…

Soon after its launch in 1944, Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat began to sink. Influential film critics objected to the even-handed depiction of a German character – a U-boat caption no less – and Twentieth Century Fox responded by limiting the number of prints in circulation and soft-pedalling the advertising. The movie actually ended up losing money at the box office.

It was released before the Normandy landings, so perhaps this reaction is understandable in the heightened context of the Second World War (even if, at the time, star Tallulah Bankhead called the critics moronic). But today it’s an unfair critique of a mostly excellent film. The first of Hitch’s single-location experiments (cf Rope, Dial M for Murder and Rear Window), Lifeboat presents an intriguing situation then populates it with memorable characters, plenty of drama and reversals of fortune. It’s a buoyant film, with themes that bubble to the surface. But there are also choppy waters along the way, as well as some dangerous undercurrents…

After an attack by a German U-boat, a passenger ship goes down in the Atlantic Ocean. A small group of survivors – a famous journalist, a couple of seaman, a nurse, a wealthy industrialist, a mother with her baby, a British radioman and a ship steward – find refuge in a lifeboat. They’re adrift, isolated and helpless. Their supplies are low and they have no means of contacting anyone.

The overall tone of the film is gallows humour mixed with a Blitz spirit. Despite the subtext of fear, there’s a real can-do attitude amongst this group. Whether it’s proactively fixing the boat’s damage or cataloguing supplies or playing cards – or working as a team to amputate a gangrenous leg! – these characters come together despite their differences. Every person in the story makes a contribution, even the character with the shortest screentime (Heather Angel’s Mrs Higley, whose baby dies but she’s too catatonic with shock to notice).

The nominal lead is journalist Connie Porter (Tallulah Bankhead), who appears at first to be a thoroughly awful woman, one so selfish that she boasts of the photographs she’s taken of the disaster rather than helping the victims. She starts off as an immaculately turned-out lady of society, but as she sheds clothes and accessories due to the heat and dehydration we get to know more and like her more. She even develops a cross-class flirtation with the rugged John Kovac (John Hodiak), a man who takes his shirt off at the earliest opportunity and flaunts his tattoos.

Elsewhere, there’s the affable but badly injured Gus Smith (William Bendix), the sweet and stoic Alice MacKenzie (Mary Anderson), eccentric, cigar-chewing millionaire Charles J Rittenhouse Jr (Henry Hull), the friendly and resourceful Stanley ‘Sparks’ Garrett (Hume Cronyn, sadly putting on a pretty dire English accent) and the calming presence of ship steward Joe (Canada Lee). But thrown into this mix is an additional survivor, one who threatens to scuttle the sprightly group.

Floating through the wreckage of the passenger ship, they pull a stranger aboard. ‘Danke schoen,’ he says as he regains his breath, and the implication is immediately obvious. He’s from the U-boat, which itself has now sunk. But should our characters help stricken Willi (Walter Slezak)? Or should they just throw him overboard? He’s not an outwardly evil man, even offering help with poor Gus’s busted leg and suggesting the correct way to Bermuda. But he’s still the enemy. The dilemma of what to do with him drives much of the story, creates divisions within the lifeboat survivors, and has a shocking climax…

Based on an original idea by Hitchcock, the script was initially written by playwright John Steinbeck. (Ernest Hemingway had also been sounded out.) However, it was later tinkered with by a number of hands and Steinbeck disowned the project. In many ways, it’s a marvel. The dialogue is punchy yet meaningful and has a pleasing rhythm. The story never flags, despite the single setting. And you always want to know what’s going to happen next. But there is a problem. It’s one of the reasons Steinbeck turned his back on the movie. Lifeboat, regrettably, is lazily racist in its depiction of the story’s only black character.

Given the eras in which he produced movies it’s not surprising that Hitchcock’s diversity record is, by today’s standards, rather appalling. Other than Lifeboat’s Joe, his only other significant non-white character is charismatic spy Philippe Dubois (Roscoe Lee Brown) in Topaz. When black men (never women) are otherwise spotted in Hitchcock movies, they tend to be servile or docile. The plot resolution of Young and Innocent, meanwhile, has a white character hiding under blackface.

At least Joe is played by a conscientious actor who tweaked his dialogue to remove the worst of the clichés he’d been given to say (the yessirs and all the rest). But, sadly, the character still comes across like a second-class citizen who’s there to entertain the others with his flute and sort out their food supplies. He rarely has a voice of his own, he has to ask not to be called by the generic black servant name of Charlie, and other characters initially use the nickname Charcoal.

But if this blemish needs us to turn a blind eye, in its physical staging Lifeboat *excels*. The studio recreation of the rough desolation of the mid Atlantic Ocean is a wonder of filmmaking and gives the story so much texture. It was achieved via a number of methods. Four different boats were built for the production; two were complete, while two were cut in half so the camera could get closer to the actors. A water tank was used for certain shots where a boat could be held in place by wires; another vessel was on rollers to better control its pitch and yaw. Dump tanks and chutes allowed thousands of gallons of water to be sloshed around. Dry ice created hazes of ocean mist and fog. Footage of endless, barren seas off California and Florida was played behind the actors on enormous rear-projection screens. In the final cut, everything is then accompanied by smartly chosen and edited sound effects. It all creates a tremendous sense of place.

Filming might have come at a price. The cast were repeatedly soaked with water and had to contend with motion sickness; Tallulah Bankhead caught pneumonia twice; Mary Anderson fell ill; Hume Cronyn suffered broken ribs and nearly drowned. But their sacrifices were worth it. Lifeboat is worth clinging to.

Nine before and after pictures in a newspaper ad for Reduco weight-loss drug out of 10

NOTE: I cut the following paragraph from the above review because it didn’t really fit into the flow, but the gags are so good I thought I’d add it here as a kind of ‘deleted scene’ extra:

There were moments of levity along the way too. When actress Mary Anderson asked Hitchcock what he thought was her ‘best side’, he said, ‘You’re sitting on it, my dear.’ After being told that Tallulah Bankhead had a habit of not wearing underwear, and this may cause an issue if caught on camera, Hitch is said to have joked, ‘I don’t know if this is a matter for the costume department, make-up or hairdressing.’ And when the director argued that he didn’t want the film to have a score because the audience would be asking where the music is coming from, a caustic composer commented, ‘Ask Mr Hitchcock to explain where the camera came from and I’ll tell him where the music comes from.’