Remembering The Real Rocky: Chuck (2017, directed by Philippe Falardeau)


In 1975, an unheralded boxer named Chuck Wepner shocked the world when he managed to go nearly 15 rounds with Muhammad Ali.  (He only fell short by 19 seconds.)  The fight not only made Wepner a temporary celebrity but it also inspired a down-on-his-luck actor to write a script about an aging boxer who just wants to show that he can go the distance.  The name of that script was Rocky and it made Sylvester Stallone a star.

As for Chuck Wepner, he initially enjoyed being known as “the Real Rocky,” but he soon learned that fame is often fleeting.  After Wepner retired from the ring (but not before one exhibition match against Andre the Giant), he attempted to reinvent himself as an actor but a combination of bad friends, bad decisions, and a bad cocaine habit conspired to derail his life and Wepner eventually ended up serving a 10-year prison sentence.  While he was incarcerated, Wepner did get to see a film being shot on location in the prison.  The name of the film was Lock-Up and the star was none other than Sylvester Stallone.

With Chuck, Chuck Wepner finally gets the movie that he deserves.  Wepner’s fight with Ali occurs early on in the film.  The rest of Chuck deals with Wepner’s attempts to deal the aftermath of the biggest night of his life.  Wepner may love his fame but secretly, he knows that it’s not going to last.  While Stallone makes millions playing the role of Rocky Balboa, Chuck struggles to make ends meet.  Even when given a chance to appear in Rocky II, Wepner falls victim to his insecurity and blows the audition.  Seeking escape though drugs, the real Rocky ends up in prison, watching the other Rocky shoot his latest movie.  Though the film suggests that Chuck finally found some peace with his third wife and a career as a liquor distributor, it’s still hard not to feel that Chuck Wepner deserved more.

Featuring a great lead performance from Liev Schreiber and outstanding supporting work from Naomi Watts, Jim Gaffigan, Michael Rapaport, Ron Perlman, and Morgan Spector (who plays Sylvester Stallone as being well-meaning but often insensitive), Chuck is a heartfelt, warts-and-all portrait of Chuck Wepner.  The film sets out to give Wepner the recognition that he deserves and it largely succeeds.  Watch it as a double feature with ESPN’s The Real Rocky.

Film Review: Creed (2015, directed by Ryan Coogler)


CreedOn Wednesday, I saw the movie Creed and what can I say?  Creed is exactly the film that we were hoping it would be.  Not only does it continue the story of Rocky Balboa but it proves that Ryan Coogler is a major directing talent and that Michael B. Jordan is a film star in the making.  Ever since Creed was first screened for critics, we’ve been hearing that “Creed is the best Rocky since the first one.”  I would go even further to say that Creed is one of the best boxing films to be released since the first Rocky.  Though the story may be formulaic, Creed is a film that will take you by surprise.  No one — not even the biggest Rocky fans — was expecting it to be this good.

When the movie opens, Adonis Johnson, the illegitimate son of the legendary boxer Apollo Creed, is just another kid in foster care.  His mother has recently died and Apollo was killed in the ring before Adonis was even born.  Adonis is adopted by Apollo’s widow, Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad).  Fifteen years later, Adonis is working in an office and has just gotten a big promotion but he spends his weekends boxing in cheap venues in Mexico.  Eventually, over Mary Anne’s objections, Adonis quits his job and moves to Philadelphia.  Adonis wants to box professionally and he wants his father’s greatest opponent and best friend, Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone), to train him.

But Rocky is no longer the man he used to be.  He stills owns his restaurant and he still goes out to the cemetery to visit the grave of his wife, Adrian.  Since the end of Rocky Balboa, Rocky’s best friend, Paulie, has died and his son has moved to Canada.  (Paulie still gets an affectionate shout out when Adonis comes across his old porn stash at Rocky’s house.)  Rocky is older, sadder, wiser, and more alone than he has ever been.  He is also still haunted by Apollo’s death in the ring.  At first, Rocky does not want to train Adonis but eventually, the younger man wins him over.  Under Rocky’s tutelage, Adonis wins his first professional fight.  When the news gets out that Adonis is Apollo’s son, he is given a chance to fight the reigning world champion, Ricky Conlan (Tony Bellew).

Creed 2Watching Creed, it is obvious that Ryan Coogler knows his Rocky films.  Creed features call backs to every entry in the series, even the ones that have not received the positive reviews of the first Rocky and Creed.   Of course, the entire film is haunted by Apollo’s death at the hands of Ivan Drago in Rocky IV.  The restaurant and Rocky’s visits to Adrian’s grave were first introduced in Rocky Balboa.  When Rocky shows Adonis a picture of him and his son, it is a still photo of Sylvester and Sage Stallone in Rocky V.  When Adonis first meets Rocky, he asks him who won the fight that ended Rocky III.   Adonis’s fight against Conlan is a call back to Rocky’s fights against Apollo in the first two Rocky films.  When Adonis thinks about his father, a clip of Carl Weathers flashes across the screen.  Finally, just as Rocky fell in love with Adrian, Adonis falls for a singer named Bianca (Tessa Thompson).

Even though Creed is steeped in the history of Rocky, it still manages to establish its own identity.  Creed is not just a film about boxing.  It is also about a son’s effort to escape the shadow of his famous father and establish his own identity.  Michael B. Jordan gives a performance that feels so real and so honest that it constantly takes us by surprise.

StalloneSpeaking of surprising performances, Sylvester Stallone has never been better.  This is not only his best performance in the role of Rocky Balboa but the best performance of his underrated career.  It is a performance that is totally devoid of ego and Stallone has never been this vulnerable on screen.  If Stallone is not, at the very least, nominated for an Oscar for his performance here, it will be an injustice.

Coogler does a good job of capturing the mean streets of Philadelphia and watching Adonis’s training montage is an inspiring experience.  (It would not be a Rocky film without an inspiring training montage.)  Coogler also does a good job filming the action inside the ring.  The second fight, which is shown in almost one entirely unbroken take, is especially exciting.

Creed is a stunningly effective film.  When I saw it, the audience broke out in applause at the film’s final shot.  Rocky Balboa’s story may be close to finished but Adonis Creed’s has just begun.  I can not wait to see where it goes.

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The Measure of a Man: The Life and Career of Rocky Balboa


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Have you heard the rumor?

Rocky Balboa, also know as the Italian Stallion and the former heavyweight champion of the world, is going to die.

2013Rocky_SylvesterStallone_PA-14110031250713At least that is what some people think after reading the official plot synopsis of the upcoming boxing film Creed.  Here is the press release from MGM and Warner Brothers:

From Warner Bros. Pictures and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures comes award-winning filmmaker Ryan Coogler’s “Creed.” The film explores a new chapter in the “Rocky” story and stars Academy Award nominee Sylvester Stallone in his iconic role. The film also reunites Coogler with his “Fruitvale Station” star Michael B. Jordan as the son of Apollo Creed.

Adonis Johnson (Jordan) never knew his famous father, world heavyweight champion Apollo Creed, who died before he was born. Still, there’s no denying that boxing is in his blood, so Adonis heads to Philadelphia, the site of Apollo Creed’s legendary match with a tough upstart named Rocky Balboa.

Once in the City of Brotherly Love, Adonis tracks Rocky (Stallone) down and asks him to be his trainer. Despite his insistence that he is out of the fight game for good, Rocky sees in Adonis the strength and determination he had known in Apollo—the fierce rival who became his closest friend. Agreeing to take him on, Rocky trains the young fighter, even as the former champ is battling an opponent more deadly than any he faced in the ring.

With Rocky in his corner, it isn’t long before Adonis gets his own shot at the title…but can he develop not only the drive but also the heart of a true fighter, in time to get into the ring?

Sylvester-Stallone-creedMany have interpreted that to mean that, while training Adonis, Rocky will be battling cancer.  With the exception of the first one and Rocky V, every installment in the Rocky franchise has featured a character either dying or coming close.  Since Paulie will apparently not be appearing in Creed, that leaves Rocky himself as the most likely candidate to tragically pass away before or after the big fight.  In death, Rocky would not only pass on his legacy Adonis Creed but Sylvester Stallone would pass on the Rocky franchise to Ryan Coogler and Michael B. Jordan.

With his days possibly numbered, I decided to take a look back at Rocky Balboa’s amazing career.

Rocky (1976)

Sylvester Stallone was just another out-of-work actor when, one night in 1975, he saw a little known boxer named Chuck Wepner go 15 rounds against the reigning heavyweight champion, Muhammad Ali.  Inspired by the fight, Stallone wrote the first draft of Rocky in three days.  When he sold his script, he did so with one condition: that he be allowed to play Rocky Balboa.  You know the rest of the story: Directed by John G. Avildsen, Rocky became a huge box office hitwon the Oscar for best picture of the year, and made Sylvester Stallone into an unlikely star.

618_movies_rocky_10Rocky Balboa is an aging boxer and a collector for Philadelphia loan shark, Tony Gazzo (Joe Spinell).  The current heavyweight champion, Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers), is scheduled to fight a match in Philadelphia in honor of America’s bicentennial.  When his opponent injures his hand, Apollo decides to give a local boy a chance and the unknown Rocky gets a once-in-a-lifetime shot at the title.  Nobody gives Rocky a chance, except for Rocky.  With the help of grizzled trainer Mickey (Burgess Meredith) and alcoholic best friend, Paulie (Burt Young), Rocky prepares for the fight.  After a training montage (the first of many) that ends with Rocky running up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Rocky shocks everyone by going the distance against Apollo.  Though he loses by a split decision, Rocky wins both his self-respect and the love of Paulie’s sister, Adrian (Talia Shire).

Rocky holds up as one of the best boxing movies ever made and it set the standard by which almost all future underdog sports movies have been judged.  Rocky may have ended with Rocky ready to take off his gloves and concentrate on his life with Adrian but the box office demanded that Rocky get another once-in-a-lifetime shot.

Rocky II (1979)

The first Rocky may have ended with Apollo saying there would be no rematch and Rocky replying that he did not want one but the film’s box office success said otherwise.  In Rocky II, Apollo is stung by criticism over how he nearly lost his first fight against Rocky and demands a rematch.  At first, Rocky refuses but, with no prospects and a wife, son, and alcoholic brother-in-law to support, Rocky finally agrees to a rematch.  What follows is largely a repeat of the first film, except this time Rocky has a lot more fans following him through the streets of Philadelphia during his training montage and Rocky actually wins the fight, becoming the heavyweight champion of the world.

rocky-ii-1979-01-gThe best thing about Rocky II is that it fleshes out the character of Apollo.  No longer is he just the cocky villain from the first film.  Instead, he is revealed to be a proud man, a fierce competitor, and a worthy opponent. Though he may lose the final fight, Apollo regains the respect that he sacrificed as the end of the first film.

Rocky II is also notable for being the first film in the franchise to be directed by Sylvester Stallone.  Stallone would direct all of the subsequent installments, with the exception of the John G. Avildsen-directed Rocky V.

Rocky III (1982)

mr-t-plays-clubber-in-rocky-iiiRocky III has the best opening of the franchise.  While Rocky does commercials and trades jokes with Kermit and Miss Piggy on The Muppet Show, Clubber Lang (Mr. T) relentlessly trains and savagely knocks out every opponent that he faces in the ring.  The premise of the first two films has been reversed.  Now, Rocky is the overconfident champion who does not take his latest fight seriously while Clubber Lang is the challenger who is hungry for victory.  Clubber has the “eye of the tiger” and is determined to win.  Rocky is busy doing charity events with Hulk Hogan and bailing alcoholic freeloader Paulie out of jail.

Rocky III features the first death of the franchise, when Clubber shoves Mickey so hard that Mickey ends up having a heart attack and dying almost immediately after Clubber defeats Rocky and becomes the new heavyweight champion of the world.  As if Rocky needed another reason to demand a rematch, Mickey’s death makes it personal.  Unfortunately, Rocky has lost his hunger.  He no longer has the eye of the tiger.

Fortunately, Rocky’s former rival, Apollo Creed, is there to help him get it back.  Taking over as Rocky’s trainer, Apollo gets the former champion back into fighting shape.  This means that it is time for a training montage!  This one ends with a great moment in bromance history as Rocky and Apollo embrace while jumping up and down in the ocean.

2009654-rocky_iii_l_oeil_du_tigre_1983_07_gRocky III ends with what may be the best fight in the history of the franchise.  It is also the only fight to be shown straight from beginning to end, without jumping to future rounds.  From the start of the fight, it is obvious that Clubber is stronger than Rocky but, taking a page from the rope-a-dope strategy that Muhammad Ali used on George Foreman in Zaire, Rocky knows that Clubber is so aggressive that he will tire himself out before the end of the fight.  Once Clubber has exhausted himself, Rocky sends him down to the canvas.

At the end of the film, Rocky and Apollo square off one last time to see who is truly the best boxer.  The film ends before the first punch is thrown and we never find out who won.  I like to think that it was Apollo, if just because I know what is going to happen to him in Rocky IV.

Rocky IV (1985)

Ivan_kills_ApolloHaving defeated every contender in the U.S., it only made sense that Rocky’s next opponent would come from the evil empire itself, the Soviet Union.  But before Rocky could battle Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren), someone had to die.  This installment’s sacrificial victim was none other than Apollo Creed.  Apollo dies in the ring, beaten to death by the robotic Russian.  Of all the deaths in the Rocky franchise, Apollo’s was the most shocking and the most traumatic.  After Apollo falls face forward onto the mat, his body is still twitching even as Ivan says, “If he dies, he dies.”

Knowing that he should have been in the ring instead of Apollo, Rocky challenges Drago to a rematch, to be held in Moscow on, of all days, Christmas.  Leaving behind his mansion, his son, and his robot (yes, Rocky owns a robot in this one), Rocky goes to Siberia and that means that it is time for a training montage!  While Drago trains with machines and shoots steroids, Rocky trains by chopping wood and running in the snow.

lXRPTbIt’s a tough fight.  At first, Drago does not even seem to feel Rocky’s punches.  The Soviet audience (including someone who looks a lot like Mikhail Gorbachev) chants Drago’s name.  Just like in Philadelphia, Rocky refuses to go down.  The crowd starts to chant Rocky’s name.  When Drago’s manager demands that he win the fight in the name of communism, Drago shouts that he does not fight for the Soviet Union, he fights for himself.  Finally, with seconds left in the final round, Rocky knocks Drago out.

Lundgren_Ivan_DragoAs a bloody Drago looks on, Rocky literally wraps himself in an American flag and gives a speech.  Rocky thanks the Americans and the Soviets for supporting him and then says, “”If I can change, and you can change, then everybody can change!”  Gorbachev stands and applauds.  Is it just a coincidence that, four years later, the Berlin Wall fell and the Cold War ended?

Rocky IV may be the best remembered of all of the Rocky films.  Ivan Drago was Rocky’s greatest and most imposing opponent and it is not surprising that, despite killing Apollo, he still has a strong fan base.  Unlike Clubber Lang, Ivan is a cold and methodical machine.  Rocky’s improbable win over him is not just a victory for America but a victory for humanity as well.

Rocky V (1990)

Is Rocky V canonical?  A lot of fans consider this to be the weakest film in the franchise.  Despite writing the film’s screenplay, Sylvester Stallone reportedly hates Rocky V and ignored it when he made Rocky Balboa.

rocky-5Rocky V starts with Rocky retiring after being told that his battle with Drago has left him with permanent brain damage.  Paulie, proving once again that he’s the worst best friend that anyone could hope for, loses all of Rocky’s money.  Rocky, Adrian, and Rocky, Jr. (now played by Sage Stallone) move back to the old neighborhood.  Following in the footsteps of Mickey and Apollo, Rocky trains a mulletheaded young boxer named Tommy Gunn (Tommy Morrison).  Instead of a training montage, we get a fight montage as Tommy becomes a champion but rejects Rocky’s management and signs with Don King George Washington Duke (Richard Gant).  Tommy and Rocky eventually face off in a street fight.  Originally, the plan was for Rocky to die at the end of the fight but, fortunately, someone in production realized that nobody would want to see Rocky Balboa beaten to death by Tommy Morrison.

551-3Tommy Morrison was a real-life boxer.  Rocky V was his only film role and he’s almost too convincing as the dim-witted Tommy Gunn.  In the real world, Tommy Morrison was suspended from boxing in 1996 when he tested positive for HIV.  He spent the rest of his life loudly insisting that the test was a false positive and trying to make a comeback.  He was 44 years old when he died of AIDS in 2013.

Rocky V suffers because Tommy Gunn and George Washington Duke cannot begin to compare to great Rocky opponents like Clubber Lang and Ivan Drago.  However, Rocky V does feature one of the franchise’s best endings.  Rocky and Rocky, Jr. jog up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and, father and son together, they finally decide to enter the building and discover what’s inside.

Rocky Balboa (2006)

After the critical and box office failure of Rocky V, it seemed like Rocky Balboa had retired for good.  However, after 16 years of well-deserved retirement, Rocky followed the path of George Foreman, Larry Holmes, and Riddick Bowe and decided to make a comeback.

guide_cemeteryAs Rocky Balboa begins, Rocky is a widower and owns an Italian restaurant named Adrian’s, where he spends most of his time telling patrons stories about his fighting career.  He is estranged from his son, who now wants to be called Robert and is played by Milo Ventimiglia, but Rocky still has his best friend Paulie.  If not for Rocky, Paulie would probably be living in a cardboard box.  After a computer simulation suggests that Rocky, in his prime, could have defeated the reigning heavyweight champion, Mason Dixon (Antonio Tarver), Rocky comes out of retirement for one last fight.  With the help of Apollo’s former trainer, Duke (Tony Burton), Rocky proves that he can still go the distance, even though he ultimately loses the fight in a split decision.

At the start of the film, Adrian has been dead for four years.  However, her ghost haunts the film.  Rocky regularly visits her grave and the film ends with him at her grave and saying, one last time, “Yo Adrian, we did it.”  Stallone may be the battered face of the Rocky franchise but Talia Shire was the heart.  Though she’s only seen in flashback, Rocky Balboa is a tribute to the way that Talia Shire brought Adrian to life.

Sentimental and nostalgic, Rocky Balboa felt like the perfect way to end the franchise.  However, Rocky will be returning for at least one more fight when Creed is released on November 25th.

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What Lisa Watched Last Night: Rocky (dir. by John G. Avildsen)


A few days ago, I set the DVR to record the 1976 Best Picture winner Rocky off of TCM.  Last night, I finally got a chance to sit down and actually watch it.

Why Was I Watching It?

I’ll be honest here and admit that I wasn’t watching it because I’ve ever had any great desire to see this movie or, for that matter, any other Sylvester Stallone film.  (Though, for the record, I thought the Expendables was vaguely entertaining.)  However, this being Oscar season, my mind right now is pretty much dominated by 1) a mental list of all 493 best picture nominees and 2) an obsessive need to see every single one of those films. 

And since we’re focusing on reviewing best picture nominees this month, I figured why not take this opportunity to watch Rocky.  After all, I thought, this is the film that managed to win best picture over Network, Taxi Driver, and All The President’s Men.  How bad can it be?

What’s It About?

So, there’s this guy named Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) and he’s got to be the nicest Mafia goon alive.  He spends his time collecting debts for the local loan shark (played by the Maniac himself, Joe Spinell) but he refuses to break anyone’s thumbs while doing so and even offers up helpful advice like, “Yo, you got to start thinking.”  Spinell’s all like, “Rocky, why aren’t you breaking anyone’s thumbs?” and Rocky says he doesn’t want to and Spinell’s all like, “That’s okay,” because oddly enough, Joe Spinell is the only guy in the Mafia who is nicer than Rocky.

Anyway. Rocky is also a boxer who fights “bums” (as his trainer Burgess Meredith is fond of bellowing) and who is sweetly courting Adrian (Talia Shire), a shy girl who works in the local pet store.  Adrian’s brother (played by Burt Young) is named Paul but since everyone in the film is Italian, he’s called “Paulie” instead.  (I can say this because I’m a fourth Italian and if your name is Paul, I’m going to call you “Paulie” whether you like it or not.) 

Anyway, there’s another boxer (played by Carl Weathers) and he’s named Apollo Creed.  Apollo is the champ because when you’ve got a name like Apollo Creed, you better be the best or else you’re just going to look silly.  For publicity reasons, Apollo gives the unknown Rocky the chance to fight him for the championship.  Apollo is expecting an easy fight but he hasn’t taken into consideration that Rocky is not only willing to run every morning but he’s willing to run up steps as well!

What Worked?

(WARNING: SPOILERS BELOW.)

The love story between Rocky and Adrian was kinda sweet, largely because Talia Shire and Sylvester Stallone both had a very genuine chemistry and Shire gave such a good performance that Stallone (who spends most of the film coming across like a parody of a method actor) gives a better performance when he’s sharing the screen with her.  I spent a lot of this movie rolling my eyes at just how shamelessly manipulative it was but I have to admit that the final scene — with Adrian going “I love you, Rocky,” and a bloody and kinda gross-looking Rocky replying with a heartfelt, “I love you!” — brought tears to my multi-colored eyes.

What Didn’t Work?

Rocky has got to be one of the most shamelessly manipulative films ever made.  Director John G. Avildsen (who won best director while Martin Scorsese wasn’t even nominated for Taxi Driver) pushed every obvious button and used every technique at his disposal to force the audience to root for Rocky.  Hence, we get the famous training montage set to soaring music and the subtle appeals to racism that are inherent in the portrayals of Apollo Creed and his entourage.  Admittedly, one reason that a lot of these scenes fell flat is because I’ve seen them duplicated in thousands of other sports films.  I know its possible that the reason I’ve seen them duplicated is because of Rocky’s success but still, it doesn’t make those scenes feel any less obvious and vaguely silly.

Do you know how sometimes you just watch a movie and you go, “There is absolutely nothing in this movie for me to relate to and I really should be watching the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills right now?”  Well, my reaction to Rocky wasn’t that extreme but it was pretty close.  I watched this film — which I’ve seen described as one of the most emotional films ever made — feeling oddly detached from everything I was seeing on-screen, my attention only being held by a clinical fascination concerning just how shamelessly manipulative this film was.  Try as I might, I simply could not get emotionally invested in what I was watching.  Some of that, undoubtedly, has to do with the fact that I’m not into sports films in general.  However, I think most of it comes down to the fact that I have a vagina and, quite frankly, the appeal of Sylvester Stallone is lost on me.

Speaking of the appeal of Sylvester Stallone…

“Oh my God!  Just like me!” Moments:

None.  It’s rare that I say that because I can usually find a way to relate any movie I see to my life but Rocky was just too alien to me.

Lessons Learned:

Best is a subjective term.