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In defense of Sylvester Stallone

One columnist’s obsession with Rocky Balboa; the film still makes him want to run up the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum. By Adam Wahlberg
/ Source: contributor

OK, it was silly. I know it was. But I couldn’t resist. It was August 2005 and I was in downtown Philadelphia on a work trip. It was 4 p.m. My day was done. My Nikes were in my suitcase, next to my iPod. And the Philadelphia Art Museum was two miles away.

Screw it. I’m doing the “Rocky” run. While listening to “Gonna Fly Now.”

Fortified by Bill Conti’s irresistible string section — I had the track in my workout mix — I ran through the city faster than I’ve ever run (still not very fast). I shot past City Hall, down the Benjamin Franklin Parkway and, finally, up those famous steps. And, yes, when I got to the top, I jumped up and down like a crazy person. It was ridiculous and joyous and I’m sure I followed in the footsteps of thousands of others, although I’d like to think the musical accompaniment was my own touch.

Still, what was going on here? I was a 36-year-old man flailing around in tribute to a character who couldn’t spell iPod much less figure out how to use one. Why was Rocky still important to me? And why was I looking forward to seeing him again in “Rocky Balboa”?

Discovering the Italian StallionI saw “Rocky” for the first time in 1976 during a driving rainstorm in Colorado Springs.  I was seven and on vacation with my family. After enduring an excruciatingly dull drive up Pikes Peak, the view of which I mostly ignored by playing Electronic Football, my parents decided the best way to shut me up about wanting to see “Rocky” was to let me see “Rocky.” I was obsessed with it. The commercials made it seem like the greatest thing in the world — a movie about a regular Joe fighting for the title against a guy wearing flag shorts? C’mon.

I was fascinated from the first bell. Distractions that would have taken me out of any other moviegoing experience — hail crashing down on the ceiling; the projector temporarily breaking down; my sister getting up to go to the bathroom every 10 minutes — did nothing.  Kristy McNichol herself couldn’t have diverted my attention. I was smitten. Rocky’s five-egg cocktail. His one-armed push-ups. His ability to withstand an eyeball-cutting.  He had me at “hu-llo.”

That started me down an adolescent obsession with the film. I recorded it off TBS a few years later and watched it pretty much every week. It was cinematic heroin; I couldn’t get enough. And not only would I watch it, I would make my friends watch it. (You thought we were going to ride bikes that day, didn’t you, Derek Larson?).

Eventually I grew up and went off to college. Then, you know, job, house, girlfriend, hairline anxieties. The “Rocky” tape went into storage. I retained my adoration for the character; how can you not love a guy who says “flick” when he turns on a light? But the sequels got worse and worse. As the years went by I even began to wonder if the first was all that good. Was Sylvester Stallone really capable of something poetic and nuanced?  I mean, I remembered loving the movie as a kid, but there are a lot of things I loved as a kid that I cringe at today. I’m talking to you, Captain and Tennille.

I pondered all this at the art museum. After getting my leaping out of my system, and nearly knocking over a tourist, I decided to watch it again and see if it would mean as much to the adult me as it did to the Bay City Roller me. And man. Not only does the film hold up; it’s even better than I remembered.

I was nobody before“Rocky” is one of the best American films of the past 30 years yet it doesn’t get this type of respect because of everything it inspired: the half-baked sequels, the (insert sport here)knockoffs, Ralph Macchio’s entire career.  But take another look at it. You’ll find this is no sentimental fairy tale; it’s a character piece filled with intense longing and heightened self-awareness.

Now I know all the counterarguments.  The story isn’t very original — Rocky is David, Apollo is Goliath. The dialogue Stallone wrote can be campy (“I got gaps, she’s got gaps, we fill gaps”). Yes, you can make a case for the superiority of any of the other films up for best picture that year: “All The President’s Men,” “Network,” “Taxi Driver” and “Bound For Glory.” That was an insane year.

Still, I roll with “Rocky.” The film reaches an emotional transcendence the others don’t and few ever have. And it does so not just through the film’s legendary rousing scenes but its subtle moments.

OK, I know. Stallone and subtlety: about as logical a combination as Tango and Cash. But watch early in the film when Rocky returns to his remarkably disgusting apartment after his bout with Spider Rico, who really shouldn’t have head-butted him. He contemplates a snapshot of himself as a bright-faced youth then takes a hard, devastating look in the mirror. In that one disappointed gaze you learn everything you need to know about Rocky. Stallone conveys it all with his melancholy eyes.

There’s the scene where Rocky wakes up Adrian the night before the fight and tells her he can’t win. At first it’s a kick in the stomach; what do you mean you can’t win? That’s the whole point, right? It isn’t. It’s about Rocky accepting himself. Stallone’s acting is usually so big, so obvious, so, well, over the top. But here he is understated and soulful. It’s his Brando moment and the scene that makes the movie extraordinary and valuable.

Even the “Rocky! Adrian!” finale, which is lovely but contrived, has a nice, small touch. It’s in the first thing Rocky says to Adrian when she reaches him in the ring. He doesn’t say “I love you” right away, which is what I remembered, but, “Hey, where’s your hat?” I never noticed that before; he says it so quickly. It makes perfect sense: Rocky was the only one who ever paid any attention to Adrian, and here, during the biggest moment of his life, when all eyes were on him, he doesn’t blurt out,  “Oh my god, did you see that? I just beat the crap out of Apollo Creed!” He notices her missing hat, which had fallen off as she ran up the aisle. It’s a quiet character-revealing moment in a film filled with them, and an unerring choice by Stallone.

Learning from RockyIf only the rest of his career choices had been so good. He’s spent the past 30 years trying to match this achievement and hasn’t come close, which torments him. Here is what he said recently to Premiere magazine:

“I know I’ll be remembered as this left-handed boxer.  It doesn’t even matter if ‘Rocky Balboa’ is a hit or a flop. [Either way] it won’t do my career much good. People always say that’s all I can do. So I’ll retire. It’s almost a relief, ya know. To retire. Rocky was f—in’ killing me.”

Rocky was f—in killing him? Rocky f—in absolves him. I’m sure he realizes this but isn’t comfortable with it. He should be comfortable with it. Yet that would require the type of self-awareness he gave his character: the ability to recognize his limitations. Which hasn’t been one of Stallone’s strengths. He took a shot at comedy in “Stop Or My Mom Will Shoot!,” a futuristic thriller in “Judge Dredd,” a country-western musical for god’s sake in “Rhinestone.” Dude.

Regardless, he should feel proud.  Sure, he’s responsible for some of the most painful viewing since “Triumph of the Will.” But he wrote and starred in “Rocky.” If he wants to keep bringing the southpaw back that’s fine with me. He’s already shown he’s not just another bum from the neighborhood.

And that’s worth jumping up and down for.

Adam Wahlberg recently ran up the steps of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts and it just wasn’t the same. He’s the executive editor of Minnesota Law & Politics (“Only Our Name Is Boring”) He can reached at .