Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Kris and Adam Discuss AFI’s Top 100: Rocky

Kris Jenson, with whom I've had the best discussions of my life, is an old friend of mine from Boston. We had been talking about the American Film Institute's Top 100 when he got a job at Dig Boston, writing about just that. Instead of letting the conversation end just because he's a big, fancy writer now, I'm going to write responses to his articles. I can't keep up with his movie watching, so I'm only responding to the ones I've seen.

Sylvester Stallone may be the single most confusing figure in Hollywood history. He has starred in, directed, and produced some of the most over-the-top, shlocky action films -- a fact of which he is very proud -- yet he is capable of telling these deeply personal, universally human stories. The guy who regrets making "Stop, Or My Mom Will Shoot" but not "Tango and Cash" is introspective, highly philosophical, and way smarter than anyone gives him credit for. That all brings us to "Rocky."

"Rocky" is a horrifically flawed movie that I have to give credit as being the best it could possibly be under the circumstances. Stallone was just a guy trying to make a movie no one wanted to make. Miramax wouldn't exist for a few decades, so no one was interested in a touchy-feely movie about a boxer, who would not be played by Robert Redford. He did it anyway because that's what Stallone does.

I recently watched "Inferno: The Making of The Expendables." In between the extended sequences of Stallone jerking off all over himself about how great and insightful he is, there are actual moments of greatness and insight. It either says a lot about them, or very little about us as a society, that the biggest action stars of the '80s and early '90s became a Governor and a respected film director. Stallone's years of experience have morphed him into a man who can really pull a project together. Everyone on set respects him, not just because he was Rambo, but because they know that if they follow him, a great film will emerge. Honestly, for what it was, "The Expendables" was a really fun movie that turned out way better than it had any right to.

Which brings us back to "Rocky." Before he had experience, he just had a spark. I want to make it clear that this is the lens through which I will say I don't like this movie. The pieces are clearly all there, but it's just so damned dull and uninteresting until the end. He starts off as some stock thug character and ends a hero. Although the ending is well earned, in between he's just sort of dicking around. I don't want to say too much else because hating on "Rocky" is like hating "The Beatles," while the opinion may be valid, voicing it only serves to make you seem arrogant and superior.

The film accomplishes Stallone's goal of turning him into a super star, and personal opinion aside, it's impossible to deny the film's impact. Even though the movie around him is clearly a debut effort, the character himself is about as heroic as they come. My favorite moment is the night before the fight when he tells Adrienne he has to go the distance with Apollo. American films turn on great moments like that. The moments we usually remember are the ones where the hero realizes he's beat, but he moves forward anyway. This beat is a requirement in Hollywood filmmaking, so to say this one is extra memorable is the highest of compliments.

That's something almost every one of the AFI films have in common. They feature an unforgettable hero or villain. It's that one character, if strong enough, can overcome even the most basic of film criticisms.

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