Can you believe that there have been six Rocky movies? The original was, of course, an Oscar-winning underdog story. The sequels tended to be more blatantly commercial ventures. Rocky IV was the most financially successful at the box office, but it’s also a clear relic of 80’s music video-driven cinema. By the time of Rocky V, it seemed as though the franchise had completely run out of steam. Amazingly, that impression was wrong. The sixth installment, Rocky Balboa, hews more closely to the tone of the original, proving that what goes around does indeed come around. To put it in boxing terms, the movie may not be a TKO, but it’s also a lot less punch-drunk than you might expect.
Sylvester Stallone (who also wrote and directed) returns as the Italian Stallion, who now runs a Philadelphia eatery and mourns the death of beloved wife Adrian. Although he’s retired from boxing, he hasn’t retired from talking about it. Rocky makes a habit of regaling his customers with accounts of his greatest fights. The crowd loves him; the same cannot totally be said of his son Robert (Milo Ventimiglia of TV’s “Heroes”). Having long tried to carve out his own identity, Robert nevertheless finds himself living in his father’s shadow. To say there is some resentment would be an understatement.
While taking a nostalgic tour of his old hangouts, Rocky meets a bartender named Marie (Geraldine Hughes) with whom he was acquainted long ago. They don’t really develop a romance so much as a friendship. Adrian’s absence creates a need for companionship, and this single mother provides it.
Rocky’s life changes when EPSN runs a computer simulation suggesting that he (in his prime) could have beaten the current heavyweight champion, Mason “The Line” Dixon (Antonio Tarver). The sim gives Rocky some ideas about getting back into the ring again. Robert, in particular, is opposed to this, but Marie is surprisingly supportive. She knows that Rocky isn’t concerned so much with winning; he just wants to do the thing he loves one last time. A challenge is issued and Dixon’s managers, knowing their fighter’s popularity is waning, talk him into an exhibition match with Rocky.
There is something undeniably sweet and disarming about “Rocky Balboa.” Some of the sequels got caught up in things like training montages and overdramatic speeches. This movie has those things too, but in a smaller quantity. It also has much more concentration on the character. Despite having some good things in his life, Rocky is generally feeling irrelevant. He misses his wife, his kid resents him, he only has old stories to tell his customers, and his passion for boxing is left with no real outlet. He’s the kind of guy who can’t help but lament that the good old days are gone. Getting back into the ring is a way to show everyone, especially himself, that he’s still vital.
Sylvester Stallone has, of course, made a movie about himself. Maybe part of the reason why the film works is because it’s clearly so personal. Years of making mostly horrible movies have earned him the label of “bad actor” and “has-been” but that’s not entirely fair. He has always understood this character from the inside out – and clearly still does.
Stallone and Rocky both seem to know that the only way to really embrace life is to do what you love, public opinion be damned. This is perhaps the most impressive aspect of the movie. The outcome of the fight doesn’t really matter, to him or to us. What counts is that he makes the choice to do something he loves, and the pleasure that comes with such a decision outweighs traditional ideas of success or failure. Similarly, I sense that Stallone has a similar attitude about the making of the film itself.
That said, Rocky Balboa pretty much blows it at the end. The Balboa/Dixon fight – which should be the most energetic part of the movie – is a total wash. Here’s Rocky, presumably somewhere in his late 50’s or early 60’s, stepping back into the ring for the first time. I wanted to be there in his corner. I wanted to know what he was thinking, feel what he was feeling. It’s a critical moment for the character, one that potentially defines him.
Unbelievably, the movie uses this opportunity not to bring us closer to Rocky, but to distance us from him. The first half of the big fight is filmed as though it were an HBO Sports presentation. There are slick, TV-style graphics cluttering up the screen, and a commentator yaps during the whole thing. What we see is exactly what you’d get watching a televised fight; there’s no intimacy with the character while he’s in his corner. There are no scenes showing how he feels as he steps back into the ring or fights a guy much younger than he. The second half is filmed Sin City style, with black and white photography punctuated by little bursts of color. Again, the style overshadows the human element that the rest of Rocky Balboa has so carefully cultivated. A lot of the air is suddenly let out of the movie, just like a balloon being let go.
In what amounts to one of the greatest cinematic Hail Mary passes of recent times, Stallone then manages to find an ending that is truly graceful. By suddenly reverting back to Rocky’s humanity – and identifying the real source of the character’s triumph – he pulled the movie back into my good graces (and back to a 3-star level after briefly dipping into “close but no cigar” territory). The last five minutes of Rocky Balboa salvage the misconceived boxing match by putting the focus back where it belongs: on this simple guy who consciously chooses to do what is right for him. Stallone promises that this is the last Rocky movie in the series. If so, he found the perfect note on which to send out his most famous creation.
( out of four)
Rocky Balboa is rated PG for boxing violence and some language. The running time is 1 hour and 42 minutes.
To learn more about this film, check out AskMen.com: Rocky Balboa
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