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Welcome to Rockyland: Sylvester Stallone’s Viagra Cinema

Welcome to Rockyland: Sylvester Stallone’s Viagra Cinema (photo)

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On July 6, 2011 Sylvester Stallone will turn 65 years old. At an age when most Americans are considering their Social Security benefits, Stallone’s career is the healthiest it’s been in decades. He recently revived his long dormant franchises, “Rocky” and “Rambo,” with new entries that were received to modest critical acclaim and less modest financial success. His latest film, “The Expendables,” was the first he’s headlined to gross over $100 million in the U.S. since “Rocky IV” back in 1985. Ten years ago, Stallone’s career was dead and he was a joke. Now he’s the world’s leading manufacturer of viagra cinema, movies designed to showcase the aging male frame as it performs unnatural but remarkable physical feats.

What Stallone’s done is basically without precedent. All of his former rivals for action film supremacy have faded away or moved on; all of his predecessors turned to moodier and more reflective work by the time they were his age. This is a situation that suits Stallone, since endurance was always the most important value of the “Rocky” movies. Rocky Balboa’s greatest strength as a boxer wasn’t his footwork or his punching power; on those fronts, he was mediocre fighter. What made Rocky extraordinary was his ability to take a punch and never go down. Though he has occasionally tried to distance himself from the character in his career (typically when he’s working on something other than blue-collar action films) it’s clear that Balboa is an extremely autobiographical character for Stallone. Rocky’s story is Stallone’s story: the dreams of an opportunity to prove your greatness, the struggle to remain hungry amidst the trappings of success and fame, the realization that you’ve lost your spark, the desire for one last chance.

12292010_rocky1.jpgAt the beginning of 2006’s “Rocky Balboa,” Rocky runs a restaurant named after his late wife Adrian (I guess “Planet Hollywood” would have been too on the nose) and spends his days there telling stories about his career. His old friend and brother-in-law Paulie (Burt Young, not so much anymore) is still around and they get together to commiserate about the state of world. Assessing the crumbling facade of the gym where Rocky used to train, Rocky remarks “Signs falling apart, Paulie.” “The whole world’s falling apart,” Paulie replies.

That in a nutshell is the world of Stallone’s viagra cinema: a place of physical and moral decay, the Philadelphia of “Rocky Balboa,” the Burma of “Rambo,” or the corrupt fictional island of Vilena in “The Expendables.” The heroes Stallone plays in these films refuse to concede to the decay around them or bend to the physical limitations of their age. The world may decay; Sylvester Stallone does not.

In “Rocky Balboa,” characters constantly harp on Balboa’s age. “Don’t you think you’re too, y’know, old?” his son asks him when he mentions that might want to start boxing again. He replies, “Yeah but you think you ought to stop trying things just because you had a few too many birthdays?” And so Rocky is offered an exhibition match against the current heavyweight champion, Mason “The Line” Dixon (Antonio Tarver). While everyone expects Balboa to embarrass himself — just as everyone expected Stallone to embarrass himself making another “Rocky” — he prevails. He loses the fight but he endures, proving his manhood and regaining his dignity. As Rocky refuses to go down, HBO boxing analyst Larry Merchant chuckles, “Welcome to Rockyland!”

“Rocky Balboa”‘s allusions to mortality — Adrian’s death from cancer, Rocky’s battle against public perception that believes him to be washed up — are the closest Stallone’s viagra cinema has gotten to acknowledging its creator’s age. The two films he’s made since revel in their defiance of their creator’s age. Nobody tells John Rambo he’s too old to kill Burmese militants. And he proves pretty definitively that he isn’t, by killing dozens upon dozens of them with ease.

12292010_rambo2.jpgThough he’s twenty years older than the last time we saw him, and he’s spent who knows how much of that time working in Thailand as a snake wrangler and river boat captain, by the start of “Rambo” Vietnam veteran John Rambo has inexplicably packed on twenty or more pounds of muscle since the last time we saw him in 1988’s “Rambo III.” In “Rocky Balboa,” Rocky’s trainer talks about his bad knees, the arthritis in his neck, the calcium deposits on his joints. But at 60, John Rambo appears to be in peak physical shape. He’s strong enough to rip a man’s throat out with his bare hands and spry enough to sneak around a military camp, leaving no trace except the flutter of an Asian flute on the soundtrack. Maybe snake wrangling will become the next big fitness craze.

Rambo was a combat shocked basket case in “First Blood,” but he grew steadily in stature through the older “Rambo” sequels until his killing skills took on near-mythic qualities. In “Rambo,” Stallone elevates the character again up to the level of a small deity. In the film’s action climax, the Burmese militants are about to execute Christian aids workers by the banks of a river when Rambo saves the day by firing hundreds of rounds from a jeep-mounted machine gun at the top of a hill. The blocking of the scene — Rambo at the top of the hill, the villainous Burmese below — gives it the feel of divine retribution, as if God himself is raining down hellfire to punish the wicked. And it’s Stallone who gets to do the punishing.

Somehow, Stallone’s physical feats grew even greater in “The Expendables.” There he plays Barney Ross, an expert marksman and the leader of the titular group of mercenaries. His closest buddy is Lee Christmas (Jason Statham), an expert in edge weapons. During their missions, the two hold friendly competitions to see who is quicker on the draw. “You’re not that fast anymore,” Christmas warns. “The only thing faster is light,” Ross responds.

Given Stallone’s age, and the fact that he surrounded himself in “The Expendables” with fresh action stars like Statham and Terry Crews, it seemed reasonable to assume that he was making the film as a symbolic passing of the torch; that it would be about what it’s like to realize you’re not faster than light anymore. Nope. Ross is correct about his skills. He fires his handguns so fast that they sound like an automatic rifle. Stallone edits the action so that the camera is constantly struggling to keep up with him. We’ll see him pull his gun and fire, and by the time we cut to his victim, the poor schmo’s already on the ground, as if Ross really is faster than the light being projected onto the screen. Characters repeatedly refer to the fact that Ross never sleeps, and it seems to be true: we never see him sleep. Or eat. Or do anything other than get tattoos and murder people. “The Expendables” isn’t about making way for a new generation. It’s about putting that new generation in their place and showing them how it’s done. Casting Stallone’s old contemporaries like Dolph Lundgren and Mickey Rourke was good for some chuckles; it was also good for showing how good Stallone looks in comparison to them.

12292010_expend1.jpgAnd he does look good. But in viagra cinema there is a disconnect between the onscreen ease with which Stallone carries out his manly activities and the offscreen difficulties he encountered achieving them. In “Rocky Balboa,” it appears that a simple regimen of jogging and keg lifting gets Balboa into phenomenal shape. There’s no mention of the human growth hormone and steroids Stallone really needed to take to achieve that transformation. To see more of what I mean, take a look at “Inferno: The Making of ‘The Expendables'”, a behind-the-scenes documentary that is now available on Netflix Instant. In “The Expendables,” Stallone leaps from a dock to a moving sea plane, dives out of the way of exploding helicopters, gets tackled into a brick wall, and never stops moving. In “Inferno,” we see the grueling physical toll all those activities took: broken bones, torn tendons, and so on. He got more MRIs making “The Expendables” than most people will get in a lifetime. Doctors advised him to put the film on hold and get surgery to treat his injuries; Stallone refused. It’s as if he’s willing to kill himself to look invincible onscreen.

Look closely, though, and you’ll see the signs of strain. His total lack of grace in the boxing ring in “Rocky Balboa.” The uncomfortable way he lumbers around in “Rambo.” The fact that he never takes his shirt off in “Rambo” after spending 98.3% of the previous two “Rambo”s stripped to the waist and covered in baby oil. Cutting frames from shots in “The Expendables” to make his movements appear faster than they really are. Even that finale to “Rambo,” which sees Stallone basking in near omnipotence, suggests his physical limitations. Though he kills plenty of men, Rambo stands perfectly still for the entire climax. He just shoots people with his jeep-mounted machine gun. Meanwhile a bunch of much younger actors playing mercenaries provide the obligatory quota of heroic leaping, running, and punching. That tension, between the invulnerable image Stallone is projecting and the vulnerability we see bubbling below the superficial superheroics, is fascinating to watch. Rocky, Rambo, and Ross are sort of like really old Twinkies; they should have gone stale years ago but artificial preservatives have kept them fresh well past their sell-by date.

Regardless, these men refuse to acknowledge their limitations. Stallone began dealing with the hard truths of aging way back in the early 1990s. In “Demolition Man” he cast himself as an old-school cop and metaphorical neanderthal who’s outlived his usefulness to a society that has moved on. In “Rocky V,” when Rocky was forced into retirement (a first time), his constant refrain was “I didn’t hear no bell!” signifying that his life is not over and that he continues to endure. Twenty years later, Stallone is still fighting, still refusing to hear the bell. The longer he refuses, the deeper he gets into Rockyland, the more strangely compelling his viagra cinema gets.

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[Additional Photos: “Rocky Balboa,” MGM, 2006; “The Expendables,” Lionsgate, 2010.]

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Give Back

Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

It’s the final countdown to Christmas and thanks to IFC’s movie marathon all Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, you can revel in classic ’80s films AND find inspiration for your last-minute gifts. Here are our recommendations, if you need a head start:

Musical Instrument

Great analog entertainment substitute when you refuse to give your kid the Nintendo Switch they’ve been drooling over.

Breakfast In Bed

Any significant other or child would appreciate these Uncle Buck-approved flapjacks. Just make sure you’re not stuck on clean up duty.

Cocktail Supplies

You’ll need them to get through the holidays.

Dance Lessons

So you can learn to shake-shake-shake (unless you know ghosts willing to lend a hand).

Comfy Clothes

With all the holiday meals, there may be some…embigenning.



Get even more great inspiration all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC, and remember…

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A-O Rewind

Celebrating Portlandia One Sketch at a Time

The final season of Portlandia approaches.

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GIFs via Giphy

Most people measure time in minutes, hours, days, years…At IFC, we measure it in sketches. And nothing takes us way (waaaaaay) back like Portlandia sketches. Yes, there’s a Portlandia milepost from every season that changed the way we think, behave, and pickle things. In honor of Portlandia’s 8th and final season, Subaru presents a few of our favorites.

via GIPHY

Put A Bird On It

Portlandia enters the pop-culture lexicon and inspires us to put birds on literally everything.

Colin the Chicken

Who’s your chicken, really? Behold the emerging locavore trend captured perfectly to the nth degree.

Dream Of The ’90s

This treatise on Portland made it clear that “the dream” was alive and well.

No You Go

We Americans spend most of our lives in cars. Fortunately, there’s a Portlandia sketch for every automotive situation.

A-O River!

We learned all our outdoor survival skills from Kath and Dave.

One More Episode

The true birth of binge watching, pre-Netflix. And what you’ll do once Season 8 premieres.

Catch up on Portlandia’s best moments before the 8th season premieres January 18th on IFC.

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WTF Films

Artfully Off

Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…

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IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.

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IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).

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IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.

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IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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