Wednesday 21 December 2011

Rocky (or: are all films about sport rubbish?)

I'd never seen the film Rocky before yesterday. Generally speaking I've tended to avoid any film where Sylvester Stallone punches a cow and for preference I'd have wanted the cow to be alive. However, this Christmas I have decided to watch at least one film every day and Rocky was conveniently located on the television. So began the relentless pounding on a bovine and montages with steps in (not the pop group).

I knew an oddly large amount about Rocky considering I'd never seen it. I knew it was Sylvester Stallone's breakthrough film, the lead role in a self-penned script, written in the absence of any decent acting roles presenting themselves to him. It was very well-received, too, winning the Academy Award for best picture and Stallone nominations for both his performance and his original screenplay.

This is all very remarkable considering that it's a really dull film. And I mean dull. Duller than any film where Sly beats the crap out of a beef more than once has a right to be. Formulaic. Poundingly so. I began to emphathise with the meat. But it's not Rocky's fault. It is a film about sport, and films about sport are largely unsalvageable, even in cases where The Penguin from Batman makes a concerted effort to not be like The Penguin in Batman (which, in this instance, he does not).

Rocky Balboa, whomping ass on some beef yesterday
I like films and I like sport, so the absence of any good dramatised films about sport should irk me. But it really doesn't. What irks me is that people plough on trying to make them regardless.

I think that the problem is that sport is intrinsically more dramatic than narrative fiction. Everything that can be written and imagined has occurred in sport, but even less likely things have happened too. And sport is not always fair and friendly to narrative. Bad things happen and at unfortunate times, unpopular people win, popular people endure a career without. Films are fair. Life is not.

Of course, this is the reprieve for the sports documentary film. Without the responsibility of having to come up with its own story, the very best of both worlds can come out to play. Indeed, sports documentaries can often be among the most engaging and moving films one can ever see. In the last year I've been enthralled and captivated by both Senna and When We Were Kings. No-one could invent Ayrton Senna or Muhammad Ali, and if they did no-one would believe them.

All of this makes Raging Bull all the more remarkable for me. Of course, it is based on biography, which helps make the story ring true. But it is also impossibly dramatic and moving without ever sacrificing the power and impact of any of the in-ring action sequences. (Unlike Rocky, Raging Bull's fight sequences do stay entirely within the ring at all times, an inspired decision). Maybe therein lies the secret formula for all sports films: to combine biographical detail with good acting and memorable scenes.

It's a formula that Ron Howard is currently trying to replicate in his forthcoming film Rush, about the friendship and sporting rivalry of racing drivers James Hunt and Niki Lauda. Hunt and Lauda, both men of huge character and talent, shared a unique camaraderie for top line sporting rivals and a titanic 1976 season full of excitement, controversy and mortal peril. It's a story that would have been a great film. And now it will be.

But I'm not holding my breath. It'll be a film about sport, after all. And they're always rubbish.

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