Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Yo Sly! You did it!

December 27, 2006

Sylvester Stallone is selling himself way short.

I recently read a few stories about the film premier of “Rocky Balboa,” held in Philadelphia, of course, and about what a mob scene the screening had created. There were police escorts for the film’s star and a large group of frenzied fans wearing “Rocky” t-shirts, boxing gloves and even holding homemade signs.  But Stallone, in one of the stories, insisted it wasn’t him the crowd was waiting for.

“The character has transcended,” he said. “He’s a real living person in Philadelphia. I’m just along for the ride. I have no illusions that any of this is for me.”

It was a nice, humble comment – and maybe even partially true – but the fact is people know exactly who Sylvester Stallone is. And those cheers, more than anything, were indeed for him.   

Stallone is more than just a pretty good actor. He’s also a good writer and film director,  and though he’s taken his share of cheap shots from cranky critics over the years, some of which surely must have hurt his feelings, I’ve always hoped that he’s taken some solace not only in his bank account, but also in the fact that “Rocky” – based on his own screenplay -  won the Academy Award for “Best Picture” in 1976, and that by continuing the often heartwarming and inspiring stories for the past 30 years, he has given America a great gift: one of the most likeable and memorable characters in motion picture history.   

Weekender column published December, 2006.  

In reading some other stories about the release of “Rocky Balboa, I’ve also seen some revisionist history.  There’s been plenty of praise for the new film,  but some of it has come at the expense of the other “Rocky” sequels.  It seems some critics are saying, “Well, yes – this is a very good movie – unlike any of the others since the original.”

What a load of nonsense.

“Rocky II” was a terrific, very well done film and got plenty of good reviews at the time, and though “Rocky III” was a more slick and glossy production, it was one hell of an entertaining movie. Maybe the fourth installment seemed too formulaic and farfetched and even Stallone admits he was disappointed in “Rocky V,”  but he’s also admitted that was the main reason he felt somewhat compelled to do another. He felt he’d let fans and the character down, and for nearly 15 years, he felt badly about that.

And maybe that’s the thing that he and his most famous character both have in common. They both seem like good guys.

Stallone certainly didn’t need the money he’ll make from “Rocky Balboa” and reports say he wasn’t even paid that much by Hollywood standards to make it. He did it because he, like us, values the wonderful character he created and wanted to give him a proper sendoff.  And I can tell you that after seeing the new film, he has done just that. And he has reminded us why so many of us love “Rocky.”

It’s not just because he’s a great boxer and the fight scenes are exciting.  It’s because he’s got a big heart.  It’s because he is a very good guy, as so many of the scenes in this new film remind us.

Much has been made over the fact that Stallone is 60 years old and that 60 year-old men simply do not box, especially against the reigning heavy weight champion. It’s a more than fair point and one that Stallone is well aware. He says he knew going in that the critics would come out swinging just as hard in real life as Apollo Creed and Clubber Lang did in his films, but like “Rocky,” Stallone seems to have overcome the odds by delivering a very feasible script that’s getting great reviews and is again winning our hearts. Here, he was a real life underdog, trying to make a film that, initially, no studio wanted to make. But like the character, he has prevailed. And maybe, since so many of us grew up with him and that character, it’s part of the reason we were rooting for him and this movie.

I won’t ruin any of the details for you, but since it’s already pretty well known that Rocky’s beloved wife Adriane has passed away in the film, I will share one of my favorite scenes. On the anniversary of her death, after visiting her grave, he takes a sentimental stroll through the old neighborhood – past the pet shop where she once worked, the ice rink where they once skated, and the old apartment that they once shared together. While standing outside the place, his mind flashes back to their courtship and her image briefly appears on the screen.

“I can remember standing right here with her,” he says. “And I was asking her to trust me …

“And she did.”

The scene stuck with me all night. It was a different type of human emotion that Stallone had captured. Not one fueled by testosterone – which he is clearly great at – but one of fragility and vulnerability. And it was easy to imagine many men going home after seeing the film, pulling their wives close, and saying, “Don’t you go ever getting sick on me.”

And that, just as much as the glorious knockdown brawls, is why we love “Rocky” and why we also love Sylvester Stallone. He can get to us with these films. He makes us happy, he makes us sad, he gets us fired up, he makes us want to start jogging, or hit the gym. He makes us want to be better people, and he has given us a remarkable, iconic and lovable film character that we can all – without fear of sounding corny – be proud of and celebrate.

And for that, Sylvester Stallone – not Rocky – deserves some cheers.

“I have no illusions that any of this is for me,” he said.

Yes it is, Sly.

Yes it is.