Myth America
By Nick Pinkerton

Rocky Balboa
Dir. Sylvester Stallone, U.S., United Artists

Sylvester Stallone, whose path to celebrity was streamlined into the fairy tale of Seventies Hollywood, still remembers a thing or two about self-promotion. Rocky V was a relative box-office bust, his last significant hit was 1993’s Cliffhanger—so after the failed late-career makeover of 1997’s Copland, Stallone largely laid low, worked sparingly, kept fit, and patiently waited for the wheel of nostalgia to make another full rotation.

If the crowd I watched Rocky Balboa with the other night is any indication, he’s made the right move—audiences have had enough time to miss Sly, and he’s eager as ever to serve up one of his pablum-and-protein shakes. The Italian Stallion’s latest (last?) bout drops the roman numerical assignation of previous sequels, as though attempting to efface our memory that all of this is happening for the sixth time… As if asking us to forget, moreover, that in previous outings the never-say-die slugger from South Philly has engaged in some unpardonable ridiculousness, including stepping into the ring with two future WWF stars in a single film (Hulk Hogan as “Thunderlips”!); trained in Siberia by hand-pulling ox-carts, his preparations obsessively cross-cut with Dolph Lundgren’s Ivan Drago having mutagen goo injected into him, all scored by John Cafferty’s “Hearts on Fire”; and—never forget—bought Burt Young a robot butler for comic relief.

“Take it back to the old school,” promises the opening of Rocky Balboa, over dirty-lensed shots of a Philadelphia skyline that hadn’t yet been erected when the first movie was made. No more exotic opponents and pump-up-the-jam synths—now a widower, Rocky lives a gray, ascetic semi-retirement divided between contemplating Adrian’s tombstone, hamming for fan pictures in his little bistro, and getting sloughed off as a lumbering embarrassment by his aspirant yuppie son (Gilmore Girls vet Milo Ventimiglia). Conflict comes when—we have a new challenger!—current heavyweight belt-holder Mason “The Line” Dixon (Antonio Tarver) agrees to an exhibition fight with the old champ, a novelty match arranged to bring a spark of life into the moribund world of professional boxing—can Rocky’s crossover to UFC be far off?

The reason for Balboa’s endurance in the pop canon lies is in the genius of Stallone’s sustained characterization, so second-skin that it seems to have taken on a life outside of the actor: the lummox’s childlike guilelessness makes it impossible for people to blame ol’ Rock for the shitty movies he’s happened to wind up in—prominent Republican Stallone may have taught some administrations a thing or two about avoiding culpability with an act of naiveté. Even the questionable racial anachronism of the Rocky series seems generally forgiven by nonwhite moviegoers; Stallone’s underdog mythos flatters everyone equally, I guess (Jay-Z: “Cops wanna knock me, DA's wanna box me in/ But somehow I beat those charges like Rocky”).

The Rocky series has never acceded much to the reality of the sport at its center: the last American-born white to hold the heavyweight title was another Rocky, Marciano, who retired twenty years before audiences met Balboa. I’m not quite so willing to ignore how the race question bolsters these movies’ popularity—losing a grip on the ring has been an object of neurosis for white America since the countryside was scoured to find an opponent to dethrone Jack Johnson, and so Rocky corrects what actual pugilism couldn’t (remember Gerry Cooney?). Anyhow, as of 2006, Ivan Drago is more the face of professional boxing than a Balboa or even Apollo Creed, with the sons of former Soviet satellites presently holding three of four heavyweight titles (all this goes to prove that who’s boxing has everything to do with class mobility—given the choice, most people would rather make a living selling insurance than getting their brains whipped into pugistia dementia). And I’d be remiss not to mention the patent ridiculousness of Rocky’s actual in-the-ring burlesque, where K.O. blows are exchanged with Hearns vs. Hagler intensity for a full 15 rounds.

Ignorance is no excuse; Stallone’s an avid sports fan, and he didn’t draw the Balboa archetype out of nowhere—he just borrowed a narrative hook that professional sportswriters have relied on for decades. Rocky is the apotheosis of a thousand “gritty” “fan favorites”—almost invariably white athletes of average Joe dimensions who, the line goes, make the plays by trying ten times harder than the other guy: a Lenny Dykstra, a Ryan Freel, a David Eckstein (how many times during his MVP World Series did we hear that this “sparkplug” was 5’7”?). For anyone with a chip on their shoulder over growing up white and coddled in a service economy, haunted by the specter of G.I. Generation hardhat he-men, these guys are invaluable vessels for projection. Michael Sokolove, in his exceptional book Hustle, deconstructs the process by which sports scribes sheared away inconvenient facts to fit Pete Rose into the archetype of a plucky lil’ player who overcame natural deficiencies with sheer gutsiness—despite the fact that he was a near-six-footer, three-sport High School star, and preternaturally gifted hitter.

Of course Charlie Hustle, baseball’s loudest advocate and biggest bullshitter, is just one proof that athletes can be as fucked up and complex as anyone (Chuck “The Bayonne Bleeder” Wepner, whose 15 rounds against Ali inspired Stallone’s first Rocky script, went to the can for cocaine possession—somehow this hasn’t worked itself into any of the Rocky sequels). If you need another reminder, dig Mike Tyson popping up in the crowd of the Balboa-Dixon match, jawing at the champ so he can deposit his walk-on paycheck and shuffle back to the sports memorabilia purgatory that broke ex-athletes are cast into. Tyson’s a picturesque character to gobble up Rocky’s soulful simpleton shtick, a Terry Malloy from the Brownsville ghetto, capable of issuing such quotes as: “One morning I woke up and found my favorite pigeon, Julius, had died. I was devastated and was gonna use his crate as my stickball bat to honor him. I left the crate on my stoop and went in to get something and I returned to see the sanitation man put the crate into the crusher. I rushed him and caught him flush on the temple with a titanic right hand he was out cold, convulsing on the floor like an infantile retard.” The Rocky mythos seems feeble in comparison.

This year the sports underdog template has already been applied in the Mark Wahlberg vehicle Invincible, a very effective I-think-I-can flick that dramatizes blue-collar schlemiel Vince Papale’s improbable rise, through the Philadelphia Eagles’ publicity-stunt open tryouts, to hometown hero. And though I think Invincible’s the better film (its cinematographer-turned-director, Ericson Core, shows visual panache that Stallone’s filmmaking lacks—Sly shoots his climactic fight as a Gatorade Rain commercial), it pulls the punches of bald mawkishness that Rocky has always relied on. Stallone’s combos still work, as well now as ever, right down to those inevitable, adrenaline-jacking training montages that have long ago been enshrined in the camp vernacular (and sent up in Wet Hot American Summer’s rummage sale of generational tropes).

The cynical opportunism and outright phoniness behind Stallone’s flagship character need not be overstated: while resolute Rocky stays faithful as a mutt to frowsy wife, colorful Runyon-esque buddies, and country, Sly’s sticking it to Teutonic trophy Brigitte Nielsen in his trailer (he gave himself his own best role, a Hell’s Kitchen hustler, in his directorial debut Paradise Alley). When Reagan-era “Evil Empire” jingoism injected the American action film with heretofore unknown amounts of malicious stupidity, Balboa wrapped himself in the flag, as he and his main bro John Rambo played obedient White House lapdogs.

But Rocky’s nature is to be everything to everyone, a handy template into which we can plug our individual obstacles. The film’s closing credits, which feature a flock of “average” folk (and the Philly Phanatic!) hustling up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art in imitation of Rocky’s iconic sprint, suggests the franchise as a participatory exercise. Working as a restaurateur, Rocky’s missed out on a more obvious second career phase: motivational speaker. Accordingly, Stallone’s written himself a few robust “You can do it” lessons to mumble off to his kid (“But it ain't how hard you hit; it's about how hard you can get hit, and keep moving forward”); it’s genuinely stirring life-is-a-locker-room stuff that sends you out of the theater with a pat on the ass. I myself felt a little violated.