Tuesday, December 20, 2016

'Rocky Balboa' Bookended the Tale of a Life

"It ain't about how hard you hit. It's about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward. How much you can take and keep moving forward."

Rocky (Sylvester Stallone)

It was nearly 30 years ago to the day since "Rocky" premiered in U.S. theaters when "Rocky Balboa," ostensibly the final chapter in the "Rocky" story, made its theatrical debut.

I doubt that anyone who saw "Rocky" on the big screen in 1976 ever thought Sylvester Stallone would still be making movies about the Italian Stallion three decades later. Certainly I never dreamed I would be watching "Rocky" movies into the 21st century.

But I was, and I have to say I thought "Rocky Balboa," which premiered on this day in 2006, was a fitting finale for the movie series.

(And I say, with all sincerity, that I hoped it was the last movie in the series. It seemed to be — until "Creed" was in theaters a year ago, it had been almost 10 years since any additional films in the Rocky saga were in theaters. But that is another story.)

The first installment introduced audiences to a young Rocky Balboa, finally given the chance to succeed. Whether he succeeded depends upon one's definition of success, but there is no doubt the events in "Rocky" changed his life. The sequels that followed told the story of a life that often was swept along with the tide of human events. Seldom it seemed did Rocky ever have much control over the trajectory his life followed after his first fight with Apollo Creed.

The cast wasn't entirely the same as the cast in that first movie. Burgess Meredith, of course, was dead. Talia Shire was not dead — well, her character was, but that was a decision Stallone made. It was not Shire's decision; in fact, Shire was complimentary of the movie's handling of the grief process.

See, Stallone had decided that being without Adrian would be devastating for Rocky so it was decided that Adrian would be deceased, a victim of (presumably) breast or ovarian cancer, and that did add a dramatic punch to the story. It reinforced that sensation that life, as John Lennon said, is something that happens (or stops happening) while we're busy making other plans.

I am inclined to agree with Burt Young, who played Paulie, Adrian's brother. Young said Adrian had a greater influence on the story in her absence from that 2006 movie than she ever would have had by being there.

Rocky 30 years later was no longer the young man we came to know in 1976. Stallone was 60 years old, and it is fair to assume that his screen persona would have been about the same age. At that point in one's life, perspectives are different than they were. One has accumulated a lifetime's worth of experiences — and knowledge gained from those experiences.

The first movie was necessary to tell the story of that time in Rocky's life. "Rocky Balboa" was necessary to gain some perspective on that life.

And "Rocky Balboa" showed that Rocky really hadn't changed that much. He was still fundamentally the same guy we met in 1976, just three decades older and wiser and now widowed.

He had some issues with his son — which is the sort of thing that could be said of many fathers and sons — but they resolved them as Rocky prepared for an exhibition fight with the defending heavyweight champ.

Well, Rocky thought it was an exhibition — inspired by a televised computer simulation of a fight between Rocky and this reigning champ — but he discovered in the ring that the champ was taking it seriously. Folks who had been watching Rocky movies for 30 years must have instantly recognized the 180° difference between Rocky's fight with a disengaged Apollo Creed and a fully engaged Mason "The Line" Dixon.

Technically, Rocky didn't win that first fight. He didn't win the last one, either.

But that wasn't the point for Rocky — either time. The point was going the distance, and he did.

And, as always, Adrian was his inspiration. At the end of "Rocky Balboa," Rocky could be seen at Adrian's grave, saying "Yo, Adrian. We did it."