While sifting through nearly 3,500 e-mails relating to “Rocky Balboa” over the past few days, one thing slowly became clear: This was probably the most polarizing sports movie ever made. My readers were either delighted or mortified by the movie, with no middle ground, and the positive feedback outweighed the negative feedback by a 3-to-1 margin.
Does that mean I’m changing my review? Nope.
******* SPOILER ALERT! IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN THE MOVIE, STOP READING! *******
Seeing it on the big screen last weekend (and not in a critic’s screening room) made the movie a little more palatable, but I still couldn’t get past the creepy parallels between Stallone and Rocky (intentional or not), and the first 70 minutes just didn’t work for me (too slow, too redundant, too depressing). It’s like a poor man’s version of “Rocky II,” which was my least favorite Rocky movie before the calamitous fifth. The new movie doesn’t get going until Rocky agrees to fight Mason Dixon, right after the news conference in Vegas, when Duke suddenly shows up and gives the “We’re gonna build some hurtin’ bombs!” speech. After that, it’s just a nostalgic rehash of the first four movies — familiar training scenes, familiar fight scenes, familiar everything — that works because you could put Bill Conti’s music to just about anything and it would be entertaining.
Does this mean the movie should have been made? As you’ll read in the accompanying collection of “thumbs up” e-mails, there were five reasons why this movie worked, although none of them had to do with the actual quality of the movie:
1. Most people were expecting an epic train wreck and ended up being pleasantly surprised (and relieved) that it wasn’t an epic train wreck. That’s going to artificially skew any opinion, right? I just can’t shake the feeling that everyone who liked the movie was inadvertently grading it on a pronounced curve.
For instance, let’s say you have an uncle who became involved with a former stripper who cheated on him, became addicted to crystal meth, kept stealing from him and eventually bankrupted him before she was arrested for trying to run him over with a car. It was such a bad experience that he didn’t date anyone else for five years and he’s been in therapy the entire time. Then he announces to the family that he’s showing up for Christmas with his new girlfriend … and everyone in the family is completely terrified because he’s had such horrible taste with women. What happens? He shows up with a nice enough girl who’s friendly and really seems to like him. Maybe she’s a C-plus under normal circumstances, but given your uncle’s history, she feels like an A-minus and nobody can stop talking about how nice she is. And that’s what happened with this last Rocky movie. If “Rocky V” was the crystal meth stripper, then “Rocky Balboa” was the C-plus girlfriend who felt like an A-minus.
2. You can’t underestimate the nostalgia factor here. For many people, it was one more chance to see a “Rocky” movie in the theaters — either for the first time (if they were younger than 25) or the last time (if they were older than 25), and if they were seeing it with their kids for the first time, even better. They had low expectations heading in and cared only that it was a watchable family movie featuring a character they loved. The surprising thing (at least for me) was that so many of these people were out there, as witnessed by the favorable box office numbers, as well as the tracking numbers from audiences leaving the movie.
Now here’s where my own reaction to the movie confuses me, since I’m an exceedingly nostalgic guy, as witnessed by my columns about MJ’s comeback and Hulk Hogan’s comeback a few years ago, or the fact that I was on YouTube last weekend watching old clips of Scott Baio knocking down Charlene Tilton on the “Battle of the Network Stars” dunk tank, or even how I just watched an old Celtics-Hawks game from 1987 this week and found myself getting ticked off that the Celts weren’t getting any calls. (Note: I could list another 10,000 examples. Let’s just stop here.) I love reliving the good old days. In this case? Not really. I’m constantly reliving “Rocky” I-thru-IV on TNT, Spike and every other channel. I don’t get tired of the repeats. I just don’t. So maybe I didn’t need the nostalgia boost. As I have written many times, I feel like the franchise should have ended with Rocky absorbing 250,000 haymakers from Drago, turning the Russian crowd in his favor and ending the Cold War. You can’t top that.
3. Along those same lines, the plot stayed faithful to the first two Rocky movies, heading back to most of the old Philly haunts and even bringing back Spider Rico and Little Marie. People enjoyed this twist for the same reason people enjoy watching those reunion shows on TV in which they bring back the actors from a famous show in the ’70s or ’80s, then they show old clips and everyone reminisces about the good old days. My problem was that they didn’t go far enough. If you’re playing the nostalgia angle, and you’re completely rehashing the whole “Rocky is down in the dumps and needs to fight again for personal redemption” angle from “Rocky II,” then why not go the whole way? Where was the scene with Rocky signing photos at a semi-depressing autograph show in Hackensack with Clubber Lang and Ivan Drago? Where was the scene when he went to visit Duke and asked to train with him one more time? Where was the scene where he’s hawking Rocky-related material on HSN, or selling some PS3 “Rocky vs. Apollo” video game with Apollo Creed’s widow? Where was the scene when he’s flicking channels, stumbles across an ESPN Classic showing of Balboa-Lang II and ends up watching a few seconds with a small smile on his face? These were EASY fixes.
4. There’s a legitimate message in here about growing old, grieving over a loss, losing hope and (eventually) finding the strength to move on and move forward. I know this because it was battered into our brains for the first 70 minutes, to the point that I wanted to stand up and scream, “All right, Sly, we get it, let’s go to Vegas already!” Still, it’s a good message, and it seemed to hit home with some people (you’ll see it in the e-mails).
5. A recurring theme in the e-mails: Since Sly brought us so much joy with this character over the years, and since he freely admits that he screwed up with “Rocky V,” he’s allowed one more crack at the Rocky franchise. In other words, he earned the mulligan.
And on this note … I can’t argue with you.
Look, I wish the movie had been better. I wish it had happened about 10 years sooner. I wish he spent more time developing the Mason Dixon character — who could have been really interesting, by the way — and less time pursuing the unfortunate story line with Little Marie and her son. I wish he had nailed every nuance (like the fact that Adrian’s grave should have had her born in 1946, or that Paulie’s last name was spelled wrong in Vegas, or that they counted the Drago fight as his 57th win even though it was an exhibition, or his skewed number of knockouts, etc., etc., etc.) and made the movie much more clever than it was. On the other hand, as many readers aptly pointed out, it’s a freaking Rocky movie. You have to throw all realism out the window going into it. And that was the mistake with my initial review: I spent too much time nitpicking and not enough time anticipating that this movie was going to hit everybody differently.
One other note: After seeing “Rocky Balboa” a second time, I caught “We Are Marshall” the following night and thought it was a superior movie in every way — better acting, better sports scenes, better message, better pacing, better everything. There’s been a relatively recent trend of Time Machine Sports Movies — “Miracle,” “Glory Road,” “Remember the Titans” — and this was the best one yet. The one monkey wrench is Matthew McConaughey, who plays the new Marshall coach like the bastard son of Wooderson and Carl Spackler, only if that character suffered a minor stroke … it’s a disorienting performance that takes some time to figure out (and ultimately works, for reasons I won’t give away yet). But it’s worth seeing.
By that same token, so is “Rocky Balboa.” If you liked the first four Rocky movies, and if that character meant anything to you at all, you need to see the movie for yourself and decide. You might like it, you might not. But you’ll definitely feel something. I thought this e-mail from Washington reader Jon Davidson summed it up:
“One of the reasons why there are wildly divergent opinions on the movie is that Rocky is so popular, everyone has a different idea about how the character should really go out. We never really wanted to see him down and out or continually whipped by Adrian (who was a welcome subtraction from the film). Maybe it’s as simple as those who were willing to accept — or at least come around to — Stallone’s idea of how Rocky should leave the stage liked the movie. Those who had something else in their own minds and didn’t come around to what Stallone did with the character were probably the ones who came away disappointed.”
Anyway, since so many of the mini-reviews from readers were redundant and made the same points, we tried to grab as many perspectives as possible and edit them in a way that none of the points overlapped.
• THUMBS UP E-MAILS
• THUMBS DOWN E-MAILS
As always, thanks so much to everyone who took the time to write in.
Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine. His book “Now I Can Die In Peace” is available in paperback.