Rocky Balboa (2006)
The idea of another Rocky movie, already 16 years since the last installment, sounded as good an idea as a punch to the face. Sylvester Stallone is an actor bottoming out after tons of high profile shit-for-hire jobs, and it looked like the industry was ready to yawn and put him to bed for a long winter?s nap. The idea of a Rocky 6 seemed like a thinly veiled vanity project for Stallone, going back to his bread and butter to try and resurrect some kind of acting pulse. Well, I reasoned, it couldn’t be any worse than Rocky V. I figured we were entering Godfather III territory and that is a scary place. But then I saw Rocky Balboa and realized what Stallone had in mind, and that is a proper sendoff to wipe the acid taste of Rocky V from the collective mouth of the populace. The great big lug can hang up his gloves and rest easy with a job well done.
Rocky (Stallone) has settled into a comfortable retirement. He owns a restaurant named after his deceased wife Adrian, and he regales diners with boxing tales and poses for pictures. His son (Milo Ventimiglia) is trying to make it as a businessman and distance himself from dad. Rocky rediscovers “Little Marie” (Geraldine Hughes), the same girl in 1976 he advised against smoking. She’s got a kid, a lousy job, and a weary perspective. Rocky reconnects with her and gets her to work in his own restaurant. She’s hesitant but he assures her that good ole Rock isn’t expecting anything in return for his kindness.
Then one day ESPN runs a computer simulation pitting fighters of different eras. Rocky in his prime is paired against the current heavyweight champ Mason “The Line” Dixon (real-life boxer Antonio Tarver). Computer simulation Rocky KO’s computer simulation Dixon and the debate starts. The knock on Dixon is that he has no heart and the current level of boxing competition is beyond barrel scraping. Could an aging fighter from the past last 10 rounds with the current untested champ? Boxing promoters visit Rocky’s restaurant to convince him to an exhibition bout. Rocky mulls over the decision, not wanting “to get mangled and embarrassed.” Ultimately, he feels that he still has something to prove and decides to step back into the ring one more time.
The story is much like past Rocky installments. He spends a lot of time mulling over whether to fight or not, then trains, then we get the fight, though usually it’s some rematch of a Rocky setback. Rocky Balboa doesn’t stray far from the well-worn formula. The character has actually benefited with time and become an underdog once more, one with all sorts of new issues like calcified joints and arthritis. I would have loved a longer training sequence to show how a, presumably, 60-year-old man gets back into shape and how he plans to utilize his strengths (“hurtin’ bombs”). I agree with my friend George Bailey, somewhere along the line Stallone perfected the montage, and Rocky Balboa has an excellent training montage set to the same bom-bom horn theme that will still get your blood pumping.
The film presents some interesting characters but doesn’t spend much time with them. Rocky’s son has to deal with the long shadow his father casts and the idea that, no matter what he accomplishes, he?ll still be seen more as scion than individual. There’s a lot of meat there but Rocky Jr. only gets to huff at dad and then joins the team. Once everyone officially joins the Rocky team they essentially blend into the background of various faces shouting things like, “Come on!” and “Go Rocky!” The biggest supporting player is Hughes who gives a stirring speech for Rocky to confirm that this old man still matters. She has a great sadness to her and the character is played with non-threatening sexuality. Rocky isn’t about to jump anyone’s bones just yet, even years after Adrian’s passing.
The only reasoning I have for why a so-so plot works as well as it does is because of our warm attachment to Rocky. Arguably the greatest movie figure in the last 30 years, Rocky could do it all, even get a Soviet crowd in Moscow to cheer for the American during the Cold War (don’t neglect to give Rocky his due for the breakup of the Soviet Union). Rocky Balboa, the character, is an old shoe that fits Stallone exceedingly well. Stallone has always been a mumble-heavy droopy dog of an actor, best described like Rocky’s new pet as a “cute ugly.” In short, the man never seemed to fit whatever character he played, and you don’t need to see Stop or My Mom Will Shoot for proof. But Rocky is his masterpiece, and after five sequels and 30 years, America loves its prized prizefighter. When you see the good soul trying to do right you forget all of Stallone’s many cinematic transgressions and you simply fall in love with the character all over again. Old feelings are reawakened and Stallone works his big-hearted, optimistic palooka charm. I watched Rocky Balboa and got swept up. Finally, the great American character can step away with the proper and fitting sendoff he deserves. In some ways, Rocky Balboa feels like a eulogy, as we reflect back on old times and how much these people have meant to us through the years, and the desire to see a lasting legacy intact.
It’s that sense of history that gives this new Rocky movie its heart. It is quite invigorating to see characters in new stations in life when we’ve seen glimpses of these characters for decades. It’s like a high school reunion that can include turtles. Stallone, who also wrote and directed this new movie, really has a strong shopworn affection for his blue-collar characters and a love of Philadelphia. It’s easy to feel the same warm and fuzzy feelings.
Rocky Balboa is a welcomed and surprisingly emotional end for one of American film’s greatest characters. Stallone puts the gloves back on and, like Rocky, still has “stuff in the basement” he needs to get done before he can rest. This is probably the best Rocky movie since the original and time has only made the characters more resonant and endearing. In 1976, Rocky defined the underdog and became well woven into our culture. Who would have guessed that 30 years and countless parodies later Rocky would still pack a punch? Stallone has earned his sendoff. Now about the idea for a Rambo 4.
Nate’s Grade: B