It’s a classic underdog story (and Smackdown) we have before us. Other than boxer George Foreman it almost never happens in real life but we love the very idea of an aging champ who gets up off the canvas (comes out of retirement) to claim his former glory in a final burst of passion and daring. A couple of years ago nearly everybody was shocked to see that there was even an ounce of life left in the Rocky franchise when, in its sixth installment, Rocky Balboa got off the cinematic mat and gave audiences the best experience with the boxer from Philly since the bicentennial. This year there’s all kinds of buzz about Mickey Rourke’s stellar performance in The Wrestler. Ladies and Gentlemen, let’s get ready to rumble because Randy (the Ram) Robinson has just stepped in the ring with Rocky Balboa!
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The hype over this film is split about 50/50 between the poignancy of the story and world of director Darren Aronofsky’s fourth feature and the fact that it mirrors in content a comeback story in real life featuring Mickey Rourke (who just nabbed the Golden Globe for his performance). There’s no question that Rourke has had an erratic career, built on bad choices and oddball behavior in public so there’s a dramatic resonance when he plays Randy (the Ram) Robinson, a battered hulk of a professional wrestler who should stay down but keeps getting up. The Wrestler actually won the Venice Film Festival this year in its depiction of the real, hard-edged world of pro wrestling. We all know it’s faked but that doesn’t mean that people don’t get hurt and feel pain, and that the pain can be emotional as much as physical. It’s twenty years after the Ram’s hey-day in this film and instead of Madison Square Garden, he’s playing some pretty awful venues. It’s so bad he can’t even make the rent on his trailer but the physical demands of getting in the ring make it a worse place to make a living with every passing day.
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The Defending Champion
One hardly thinks of Rocky Balboa as a “defending champion.” He’s our archetypal heroic underdog, something that this last (please, God) installment of the franchise makes clear. The plot of Rocky Balboa gives us a chance to live in nostalgia for some of those earlier bouts but it’s elevated by a true understanding of the character and the life he’s lived. Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky has settled into a real enough retirement in his beloved Philadelphia as the film opens. He has a restaurant with lots of regulars who love to hear his old war stories, a deceased wife (Adrian), a son, and even his old friend Paulie. He hasn’t been in the ring for quite a while but, as fate would have it, the new heavyweight champion has a PR problem that gets worse when a computer match-up says that Rocky would have defeated him had they fought when Rocky was fighting at his best. Naturally, this can only be solved by a real-world match, despite the fact that Rocky is in his 50s (Stallone’s in his 60s) and has no business in the ring. Who cares? Rocky probably had no business being in the championship ring in his prime but he made a pretty decent go of it.
After seeing The Wrestler, my son who’s more widely read in this area than I am pronounced the film the nihilistic version of Rocky Balboa. Both men are all used up, forced to use their bodies as their tools. The Wrestler lays it out with less implied comment than Rocky Balboa. Part of that is direction. Aronofsky seems intent on giving his viewers a sense of peeking in on his wrestler’s life like a documentary. Stallone, on the other hand, is making a movie, albeit a better one, just like the ones that came before. So while Aronofsky probably thinks he’s sending a message, he pretends he’s not and Stallone has no such pretense. He knows we like Rocky and why, and he serves it up as meaningfully as he knows how to.
Both of these films will surprise you with the heart and soul they bring with them. I suppose that since it follows a string of increasingly bad sequels that Rocky Balboa will shock you the most. I’d forgotten just how much I loved Rocky and seeing him in his end-game really brought it home.
Both actors, Stallone and Rourke, look like they’ve bulked up in real-life on steroids something awful. That’s a little sad but it works for their characters who, similarly at their ages, never could even compete at all without a little help from some chemicals. Between the steroids and the plastic surgery each man seems to have had, they sometimes seem unrecognizable compared to their former selves but, again, that works for the story.
Based on the hype and critical reaction, I know the easy choice is to say that The Wrestler is the winner here, but it’s a call I just can’t make. The truth is that Rocky Balboa felt so much more satisfying to me. Stallone’s direction and even his acting have matured in a way that gives great emotion to his picture. Rocky Balboa is an old friend who needed to say goodbye in a way that reminds his fans of how great he really was. Rocky Balboa lets him do just that.