Politics & Policy

The Sixth Coming of Rocky

Stallone returns to his religious roots.

Watching all six rounds of the Rocky epic from start to finish — the first five are available in a new DVD anthology and the sixth reaches movie theaters today — takes more than ten hours. Those who go the distance may want to leap up and declare, as Rocky does at the end of Rocky II, “Yo, Adrian! I did it!”

The images of Sylvester Stallone’s character as he trains for his sport and battles the likes of Apollo Creed (played by Carl Weathers), Clubber Lang (Mr. T), and Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren) are instantly memorable. The scene of Rocky running up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, to the magnificent music of Bill Conti, must rank as one of the most stirring ever recorded on film.

Despite this familiarity, probably only a few die-hard movie buffs will remember that the very first person that viewers see in the very first Rocky movie isn’t anyone who wears golden gloves — but rather someone who explains the golden rule. That initial scene begins with a picture of Jesus on a wall in an old church that’s been converted into a gym. Then the camera pans down to Rocky and Spider Rico punching each other in a ring. In the background hangs a sign: “Resurrection A.C.,” as in “Resurrection Athletic Club.”

That’s called symbolism, folks, and in a series of interviews to promote Rocky Balboa, the new movie, Stallone has reminded listeners of this beginning and told them about his newfound Catholic faith. “I wanted to signal that this man will make a journey,” he said at a recent event in Washington, D.C. (Stallone not only has starred in each of the six Rocky movies, but he has written them as well — and that first screenplay has been ranked among the best ever.)

And now Rocky Balboa is being pitched specifically to religious audiences. Check out this website, for instance — or Stallone’s interview with Catholic Digest, or his dialogue with Focus on the Family and the Christian culture blog Thought Quotient.

“I really wanted to end the series on this note,” said Stallone in Washington. “I ended it badly in Rocky V. I was in a different place. I wasn’t feeling spiritual at the time. I wasn’t going to church. I was doing it all on my own. See how I do it on my own? Not very good!”

Rocky V, which was released in 1990, is widely considered the worst in the series. At the box office, it earned a pittance compared to earlier ones. “I felt so guilty that I had let everyone down and let my lifestyle ruin Rocky,” said Stallone. “I started to pray more.”

Stallone credits his faith with helping him get the Rocky series — and his life — back on track. “This thing is a spiritual journey,” he said, referring to the seven years it took for him to convince a studio to get behind Rocky Balboa. “I believed it was destined to have a final sendoff that would leave people with hope.”

He also wanted to film it before he grew much older: Stallone recently turned 60. In this sixth and presumably final installment, Rocky comes out of retirement for a final exhibition match. His determination recalls that of George Foreman, who got back in the ring and captured his second heavyweight title at the age of 45.

Stallone, the man of reborn faith, has a new slogan: “The church is the gym of the soul.” In this audio interview, Stallone explains that he knows a lot about exercise, and then expands: “You need help, you need a trainer, you need to go to a gym and you need guidance. You cannot train yourself. And I feel the same way about Christianity and I feel the same way about what the church is — the church is the gym of the soul. And the priests, the reverends, the ministers, and the pastors are the trainers. They are the ones that guide you.”

He continues: “People say ‘I can do it on my own. I can have a one-on-one relationship with god.’ Well, it isn’t quite the same, it isn’t the same. I found that out the hard way. … The more I go to church and the more I turn myself over to the process of believing in Jesus and listening to His word and having him guide my hand, I feel as though the pressure’s off me now. … You put in the time, you will reap the benefits.”

Want to put in the time for one more Rocky flick? Rocky Balboa is a solid piece of big-screen entertainment — not nearly as good as that first film and derivative in key ways, but a story that nevertheless holds its own.

The Rocky films are not religious movies. The new one, however, is clearly a movie made by a man of faith. You don’t have to be a churchgoer to appreciate it, though moviegoers who also attend church will find that parts of it resonate with them in agreeable ways. Crosses hang from necks and stand in cemeteries. Spider Rico returns, this time as a Bible-quoting hanger-on. (Before Balboa’s final match, Spider reads from Zechariah 4:6.) Then there’s Rocky, who crosses himself in the ring and, in one of his rough-hewn soliloquies, asks a question that Jesus might pose, if He were from the streets of working-class Philly and wanted to make a point about God’s love: “Why you gotta owe somethin’ to get somethin’?”

John J. Miller, the national correspondent for National Review and host of its Great Books podcast, is the director of the Dow Journalism Program at Hillsdale College. He is the author of A Gift of Freedom: How the John M. Olin Foundation Changed America.


The Latest

The Great Elucidator

The Great Elucidator

An inspiring one-hour documentary about the conservative public intellectual Thomas Sowell serves as a superb intro to his thinking.