The enduring appeal of Rocky

If you regularly read my essays and articles, you’ll know I despise cliches. Nevertheless, after lamentably being turned down for a job in Scotland, I went on watch Rocky Balboa to cheer myself up.

I’m no fan of boxing per se, but the Rocky series has a transcendental truth to it that reaches out to even the most bewildered of sports observers. It’s worth remembering that before Sylvester Stallone became as imitable a house name as Arnie, Caine and Connery, he won an Oscar for Rocky back in 1977 for Best Picture.

Since then the series and Stallone’s career morphed throughout the 1980s to become a happy paradise of hype, celebrity and quotable brashness. He wasn’t the only one. His rival-turned-friend, Arnold Schwarzenegger, had precisely the same experience before both found themselves lost relics in a movie market wanting a little more than punchlines.

By the 2000s, Stallone’s career had waned, and Schwarzenegger began a third career act in politics. The 80s action stars were living legends, but with little box office pulling power. By 2005, Stallone finally remembered what made him great – as a writer, not just an action-movie icon, and he returned to the root of his fame.

2006’s Rocky Balboa was the send-off the film franchise deserved. Stallone decided to write, direct and star in a sixth instalment, chiefly to ensure that he could rectify the mistakes of the ‘final’ fifth film (the less said, the better). To do that, he tapped into an original well of emotion that reflected the actor’s life, his career and precisely what he was to do over the next decade – fight back.

One of the most popular, but highly understated formulas in cinema and fiction is the monomyth. In narratology, it’s the hero’s journey from beginning to end. In his 1949 work The Hero with a Thousand Faces, literature professor Joseph Campbell articulated the basic narrative pattern as follows:

“A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered, and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”

Although Campbell was addressing classic mythology, the application of his ideas to cinema and comics is easy because they’re the enduring myths of our time. The sub-genre that readers and movie-goers love the most is where their hero, someone beloved and triumphant, is ground down to next to nothing and has to fight his way back one final time.

Everyone cheers when they see it in a film. It’s generally rooted in a decades-long affection for a person or character and requires consistency as well a genuine challenge. Consider the successes of The Dark Knight Rises, Rocky Balbo, Mr. HolmesSkyfall and Logan which all belong to the same crowd-pleasing style: back for one more defiant turn of pugnacious tenacity.

Equally, consider the failures of the idea – Star Wars: The Last Jedi never gave Luke Skylwaker the send-off he deserved because the characterisation was off-kilter. Ben Affleck’s interpretation of an ageing Dark Knight in Batman vs Superman – rooted in the seminal masterpiece and defining monomyth comic, The Dark Knight Returns – never stood a chance because his take hadn’t been seen on screen before.

What Stallone got right was to tap into a spring of pathos that naturally flows from beloved characters that have endured for decades. It’s also in chime with what his boxing magnum opus was always about – being the underdog, but this time in one final round.

Considering how cinema, and mainly superhero movies, are now severely fatigued by origin stories, Stallone should rightly be credited as normalising the idea of an ageing hero making a comeback without it sounding like a grubby money-making exercise. While the Die Hard films have tried to cash in on that neo-80s vibe, they’ve never had the emotional – excuse me – punch of the Rocky movies. Formulaic isn’t enough; audiences need to care.

And Rocky Balboa doesn’t hold its punches. It’s a sombré, sad story of a man whose beloved wife is dead, who is is growing old without purpose and is estranged from his son. There’s nothing in his life to look forward to, only back towards. There’s a lot of classic quotes in the film, but perhaps the scene most recalled, quite correctly so, is the one when Stallone the man and his purpose for the movie shines through:

“…it ain’t about how hard you hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward; how much you can take and keep moving forward. That’s how winning is done!

“Now if you know what you’re worth, then go out and get what you’re worth, but you gotta be willing to take the hits, and not pointing fingers saying you ain’t where you wanna be because of him, or her, or anybody. Cowards do that and that ain’t you. You’re better than that!

Defiance, the need to prove himself, makes for a film of classic and universal appeal. Rocky fights for himself because he just has to. “Fighters fight”. And so they do. Rocky cries as the crowd cheers, one last time, after he ‘goes the distance’ by the end and I’ll bet you a tenner there was a tear in your eye when he said “Yo Adrian, we did it” at his wife’s grave in the closing scene. It’s a powerful, unexpected, statement about the power of the comeback.

The film marked a turning point in the natural slump of Stallone’s career. Movies like The Expendables where Stallone crams in as many 80s and 90s action stars as he can are less serious, but fun – and respectable – because there’s an intelligent self-awareness from the cast as to how the public understand their old-school action star status.

As a case in point to the horsepower of the monomyth, look no further than the critically acclaimed quasi-sequel / spin-off, Creed. Equally dealing with legacy, loss and meaning, director and writer Ryan Coogler meshes decline with the next generation to produce a film of unexpected and respectful resonance to the franchise it belongs to. It’s precisely the fact that Stallone’s Rocky plays second fiddle to the fantastic Michael B. Jordon in the titular role that makes it all the more significant as a story of physical, mental, and career defiance and endurance against the odds.

If Rocky Balboa wasn’t directly responsible for some recent monomyths like Logan and Blade Runner 2049, it’s possible to say they’re related in spirit and inspiration. They go for the guts, and the feels, and have no shame in dragging their characters through the mud before giving them a grand send-off. For my money, that’s worth a cinema ticket much more than another origin story. Everyone knows the beginning, we’ve had enough of the middle – but what about the end?

So if Logan is anything to go by, films that gamble on the end, more than the beginning, might be something audiences can expect more of in the years ahead. They’re more emotionally compelling, and, for this writer, Rocky Balboa is the most compelling of them all.

 

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