Director John G Avildsen died of pancreatic cancer on June 16th, 2017 at age 81. His last feature length picture was a Jean Claude Van Damme stinker called Inferno in 1999. Avildsen did not approve of Van Damme’s final cut and tried to have his name removed from the film. He died waiting for the call from Hollywood to make another of his iconic American films. So, who is he? I must shamefully report from movie nerd HQ that I didn’t know either.
John G. Avildsen directed, among other films, Rocky and The Karate Kid.
Derek Wayne Johnson’s documentary John G. Avildsen: King of the Underdogs is a love letter to a man we didn’t know we loved.
Avildsen made a career out of being openly emotional. Intentionally uncool. Being cool is a funny thing. Sometimes there’s a moment when something great happens and you’re with people you suspect might be part of your tribe, but you’re not 100% sure. Maybe you’re out somewhere and someone brings up something, or something happens that is just dorky as hell and the absolute pinnacle of uncool but you feel the urge to give that thing a high five because it’s an honest moment of authenticity and greatness. So maybe you do and maybe you don’t out yourself as a geek there, for fear of being uncool.
Hip humor is often just cruelty masquerading as fun. There’s a whole generation of willful cynics who’ve created their culture out of a fabric of irony and sarcasm. And that’s too bad. Philip Seymour Hoffman as Lester Bangs in Almost Famous said : “The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what you share with someone else when you’re uncool.”
“John G. Avildsen: King of the Underdogs is a love letter to a man we didn’t know we loved. “
Avildsen started off cool. Johnson gives us his early biography as a wealthy kid and his father even worried that he’d never be motivated to do anything great with his life and just be a player. Somewhere down the line he found the drive to tell stories through film and he did it without sarcasm or knowing winks with a raw vulnerability that got so lost when the world gave over to cynicism… right around 9/11, so yes, I get why the loss of innocence happened, the ceremony of innocence was drowned in that blood dimmed tide.
Avildsen’s simple sentimental approach to stories would induce eye rolls these days, but who didn’t love Rocky? Who didn’t love Karate Kid? (if you just said “me” under your breath, then go to another review, you’re outta this one, it’s not for you, Philistine.) He did it with such passion and sincerity that he made being uncool unassailably cool.
“This movie will wrap you up in nostalgia for those old films we love and admiration for the director we just met…”
Johnson’s approach to the doc is excellent: he presents the material and gets out of the way letting it speak for itself, in much the same way Avildsen did for his films and actors. Interviews with Avildsen illuminate his story in his own words and there’s plenty of behind the scenes “making of” footage from Rocky, Karate Kid, Joe, and other films and actors he loved. The documentarian has a lot of affection for the subject and it’s contagious, though you can watch just for the insights from Ralph Macchio, Sylvester Stallone, Talia Shire, William Zabka and others. He was respected and beloved of those who got to know him despite having a reputation for being a perfectionist and difficult to work with.
This movie will wrap you up in nostalgia for those old films we love and admiration for the director we just met. Avildsen showed love to the underdogs until eventually he worked himself into being one of them. One whose name many of us did not know.
John G. Avildsen: King of the Underdogs (2017) Written and Directed by Derek Wayne Johnson. Starring Matthew McConaughey, Sylvester Stallone, Martin Scorsese.
8 out of 10