Rocky Balboa (United States, 2006)
Looking back at the Sylvester Stallone pugilist franchise from the end of the line, one thing becomes clear: there were really only two Rocky movies. Everything else was filler, founded on formula and driven by testosterone and adrenaline. The two real films - those that used boxing as a metaphor rather than a means to an end and that focused on human drama - were the 1977 Oscar winner that started things off and, perhaps surprisingly, Rocky Balboa, the seeming afterthought that brings the saga to a fitting conclusion. These two features are solid bookends around a mess of a series that started going wrong when Rocky beat Apollo Creed in a re-match and got worse from there.
When I heard Stallone was going to make a sixth Rocky film, I was as skeptical as the next person. After Rocky 4 and 5, hadn't movie-goers undergone enough indignities? Why resurrect Rocky now when no one under the age of 35 could possibly care about him? It seemed like a bad idea from the beginning - a lame attempt by an aging action star to reclaim past glory. This turns out to have been an unfair characterization of Stallone and his movie. Rocky Balboa has something to say. It's about flawed human beings and how they relate to each other. It's about reclaiming self-respect and dignity. Before taking center stage during the final half-hour, boxing rarely encroaches upon the storyline.
It's 2006 and Rocky's career is long behind him. His beloved Adrian has died, yet he feels closer to her than to any of the living people around him. He and his son, Rocky Jr. (Milo Ventimiglia), are in a "Cat's in the Cradle" situation, with the son too busy for the father. So Rocky does the meet-and-greet at his restaurant and lets one meaningless day pass after another. When he re-connects with Marie (Geraldine Hughes), a girl he met during the first film, he finds another individual let down by life - someone he can bond with. His is a sad, lonely, unfulfilled life. Without Adrian, he has no anchor and he is seeking meaning.
Meanwhile, the current heavyweight champion, Mason "The Line" Dixon (Antonio Tarver) is struggling for respect. After defeating one chump after another, he has become reviled. (Dixon's unwillingness to fight a legitimate challenger allows Stallone to take a none-to-subtle jab at the state of real boxing these days.) His manager comes up with the ultimate publicity stunt: stage an exhibition between Dixon, in the prime of his career, against old Rocky, who is something of a folk hero. Rocky is installed as a prohibitive underdog, but as viewers of the series know, he's never better than when he's not expected to win. However, Rocky Balboa, like the original Rocky, isn't about winning. It's about giving everything and facing one's fears.
Over the years, the Rocky series has lost the majority of its cast members. With Talia Shire now gone, the only returnee (other than Stallone) is Burt Young, once again reprising his role as the irascible Paulie. Milo Ventimiglia and Geraldine Hughes are the only newcomers with significant screen time and, while both fill functions, neither impresses. Antonio Tarver's Mason Dixon isn't much of a character, although it is nice that the movie takes pains to make sure the audience doesn't view him as a villain. At heart, he's not a bad guy, although he has issues.
Rocky Balboa is not an action movie. During the first 70 minutes, the movie is primarily dialogue and reminiscences. It contains some of the best acting Stallone has ever done. This is the same Rocky we have gotten to know over the years, but here we see his vulnerability. He's not very smart, but he's generous, and he's not good at hiding his emotional pain. For him, it was always Adrian. She was the reason that losing the first fight was still a victory - because he got her. Now, she lies beneath a simple headstone. There are times when the drama threatens to become heavy-handed and the relationship with Marie never gels in a meaningful way. It feels unfinished. But Stallone, functioning as writer, director, and star, puts all his energy into peeling back 30 years. Rocky Balboa is not as good as Rocky, but it allows us to forget the other four sequels, none of which was memorable.
Admittedly, the moment the strains of "Gonna Fly" begin blaring from the theater speakers as Rocky starts his latest round of training, there is an urge to stand up and cheer. And the fight at the end still stirs the soul. Even the worst Rocky movies possessed a visceral power when it came to the in-ring sequences. The ending of Rocky Balboa echoes the ending of Rocky in more ways than one. Stallone has said this is it for Rocky - even if the film is major box office hit, there will be no seventh outing. If that's the case, it's hard to think of a better sendoff.
Rocky Balboa (United States, 2006)
Cast: Sylvester Stallone, Burt Young, Antonio Tarver, Geraldine Hughes, Milo Ventimiglia
Screenplay: Sylvester Stallone
Cinematography: J. Clark Mathis
Music: Bill Conti
U.S. Distributor: MGM