The Set-Up

The Set-Up ★★★★

Prior to writing this entry for a new flick, got distracted, wanted to know the status of the director’s cut of Rocky IV and suddenly found myself on Sylvester Stallone’s Instagram page (as one usually finds himself on, of course). There, the newest post was a one minute clip of Stallone giving a bit of direction to Bill Conti and his orchestra as he composed a new revamped version of the classic Rocky fanfare for the final film Rocky Balboa (2006) after the theme had been absent from breathing through movie theater speakers for about 16 years. So upon seeing that clip, there was an immediate feeling of that long road taken to reach the big finish — at least what was supposed to be the big finish until Coogler revived Rocky for Creed. Stallone’s journey in hitting it big is paralleled in the Rocky franchise. Both the actor and character went the distance. Wise’s The Set-Up isn’t necessarily a film whose namesake is the standout. Rather, it’s the long road taken to hit that big finish. In other words, going the distance.

Bill “Stoker” Thompson (Robert Ryan) is a 35-year-old boxer who has not hit the big leagues yet. The mid-30s is old for an athlete. He was in his prime, but has devolved into losing every fight in his old age. As a result, his own manager has lost hope in his comeback and decided to take money from a mobster so as for Stoker to throw his next fight against a young boxer in his prime. Stoker himself is to earn some extra pay if he deliberately loses. Welp, a surprise is in store for this set-up.

The best part of the entire flick isn’t in the aging boxer’s slugfest against a fighter in his prime, it’s in the locker room talk with other boxers both young and old. It’s in this locker room where the timeline of an athlete’s career is seen so well and so poignantly... yet full of great hope — not just in going the distance in the ring, but going the distance in life itself. How much can one take to keep going? A young boxer gets the nerves as he’s about to fight for the first time. Another is past his prime like Stoker but he has not given up his dreams of hitting it big and consistently brings up the name of a boxer, Frankie Manila, who lost 21 times in the stadium they’re in. And yet Manila eventually became the champion of the world. Could Stoker keep going despite his age? All those fights lost, but the biggest mission he’s got is to prove how much of an honest man he is by winning a fight in which he is fixed to lose.

The sport of boxing is split into rounds. As each round progresses, the man takes a beating and the spectators witness how much he can take before he either gives up or pushes through to win. Boxing essentially is a representation of life itself — an individual will take beatings as he goes through the rounds of life, but a true mark of a man is in what he does to rise above those beatings. Dreams can be made, but sacrifices are necessary along the way.

So through exquisite cinematography with coordination in movement and timing — seemingly taken in style by Orson Welles, especially in Touch of Evil — fantastic use of character blocking, and a serene mix of beauty and grit, The Set-Up wasn’t just about the scheme for Stoker’s loss, but it was the set-up for the test of a man’s dream as well as his honesty. As Stallone’s Rocky Balboa said,

It ain’t about how hard you hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward.

In a way, Robert Wise’s noir and boxing drama is the godfather of Stallone’s hopeful and uplifting Rocky franchise. Robert Ryan’s performance as the innocent Stoker Thompson is excellent. Also something unique about the boxing choreography is that they feel real and sloppy like how a real boxing match generally is — lack of precision in some areas and unpredictability for the audience. Very well done. Scorsese’s Raging Bull, of course was inspired by this. But let’s talk Rocky instead.

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