Saturday, September 6, 2008

One Man Two Icons

"I just thought [the Muhammad Ali vs. George Wepner fight] was just another great win for Ali. I didn't give it much more thought. But that just goes to show the genius of Stallone."---Carl Weathers interview for the Rocky special edition DVD.

Muhammed Ali had a title fight with a no-name contender named George Wepner in 1975. It was predicted by many, including promoter Don King to be an easy win for Ali. This was underscored by the fact that Ali received $1.5 million for the fight, while Wepner received reportedly $100,000. From said reports, it's also said that this was the first time Wepener could train full time. George Wepner scored a knockdown of Ali in the ninth round, but later went on to lose the fight.

Like Carl Weathers, many people saw that fight and saw nothing more than another great win for Ali. Young actor and screenwriter Sylvester Stallone saw this fight, and something clicked in him. This night was nothing special for Ali, but for Wepner it would be the greatest night of his life, he scored a knockdown on the champ, a man who is considered by many to this day to be the greatest boxer ever.

Stallone began formulating an idea of a washed up never-was of a boxer nearing the end of his career who was given the chance of a lifetime when the contender backed out of an important title fight in his hometown. Over the course of a month he goes on to do everything he ever wanted to do, he asks out the girl he'd been obsessing over for years and he trained harder than he ever had. But the night before the fight he comes to a conclusion that he's doomed. He's not going to win, it's impossible for someone like him to beat someone as amazing as the champion Appollo Creed. Within this realization he has a bigger one, Creed has knocked out every opponent he's fought, and if he lasts until the end of the fight and it goes to decision he will still do something that has never been done. So he makes his goal to "go the distance" with Creed, and he reaches his goal.

An inspiring story that inspired countless sequels and imitators almost didn't get made. Stallone wrote a great story, and while the story itself was sought after, those who wanted it desired a big name star for it. Stallone however had written the film to star in himself, and refused to give in until that concession was made. The rest as they say is history. You'd think giving life to one such icon would be enough for any man, but not for Stallone.

The novel "First Blood" by David Morrell had been in development limbo for years until 1982. Almost every leading man in Hollywood turned it down. A big part of this comes from the fact that the book in many ways seemed unfilmable. In the book a great amount of time is spent in the characters' heads, those characters being decorated veterans Rambo, and Sherriff Will Teasle.

They act drastically and then spend a lot of time later thinking about if what they did really needed done ("Maybe if I'd just told him my sob story he wouldn't have arrested me", "Maybe if I'd just let him eat at the diner he wouldn’t have lost control") though this is often countered by the thoughts that guide their actions ("No, I'm a human being I deserve respect like everyone else" "He killed my friends, the men who worked for me, and the man I called father, I can't just let that go"). To capture any of this the film was required to be seen primarily from one of the combatant's eyes. If it would've been seen through Teasle's eyes, the film would've simply been a slasher movie where a green beret stalks law enforcement. But there was a chance to show some real pathos if you showed a man who gave far more to his country than it gave to him, who just wanted to be left alone.

You see the tragedy of a young man who likely never would've amounted to much, who had the chance to become excellent at a very limited skill. His skill in combat was second to none, yet he had to come home as a "loser." He had to come home to be criticized by people who had little understanding of what everything he did involved and how important men willing to do the things they feared and cringed away from were to their nice happy normal lives with normal marriages and normal children while working normal jobs. He had to deal with the fact that over in a place most men would call hell he could "Fly a gunship, drive a tank" but back home he "couldn't even hold a job parking cars." He was a man who thrived doing something most people don't even like to think of, which is highly necessary to the very concept of a peaceful society. But the thing that made him able to do that, also made sure he was never going to be a "normal person."

Stallone's screenwriting made John Rambo substantially more sympathetic, so much so that he is still viewed as a hero even when fighting the police and the National Guard. Because of the fact that the first film did so well, allowed Rambo to be seen in his natural element against truly evil opponents.

Stallone's career involved many other films of varying quality, but these two series stand alone as a mark of a great career, with the exclamation points coming in the form of the final installments of both series.

Rocky Balboa echoed Stallone's own sentiments, as it played on the theme of never just accepting the place where you happen to be in life as good enough and to always struggle for the next great thing you desire. Rambo manages to tackle big philosophical ideas about war and protection of the innocent, with a fast violent pace. This was the formula which led the series to its greatest moments.