A film review by Craig J. Koban
2006, PG, 102 mins.
Sylvester Stallone / Paulie: Burt
Young / Rocky Balboa Jr.:
Milo Ventimiglia / Mason Dixon:
Antonio Tarver Written and directed by Sylvester Stallone
Rocky Balboa: Sylvester Stallone / Paulie: Burt Young / Rocky Balboa Jr.: Milo Ventimiglia / Mason Dixon: Antonio Tarver
Written and directed by Sylvester Stallone
During the end credits of ROCKY BALBOA we see a montage of what appears to be "real" people running up the stairs of the Philadelphia Art Museum just as one particular Italian Stallion did countless times in the past. The people throw up their fists, shadow box, and mime the nuances of the character that Sylvester Stallone brought to the silver screen so earnestly 30 years ago. I think the inclusion of these little moments is crucial in illustrating one thing:
The character of Rocky Balboa has transcended beyond being just a movie persona.
The moment in the original ROCKY when the title character runs of the museum steps to Bill Conti’s strings of “Gonna Fly Now” still remains one of the most indelible scenes of the movies. Like Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp, Orson Welles’ Charles Foster Kane, Humphrey Bogart’s Rick Blaine, Jimmy Stewart’s George Bailey, and Peter O’ Toole’s Lawrence of Arabia, Stallone’s pugilist from the streets of Philly is a genuine cinematic icon.
ROCKY – one of the most surprising multiple Oscar winning films ever – was a film that worked less because of its superficial sports elements and more because it was about character interaction, and human emotion. It’s wrongfully labeled a “boxing picture.” The sport was always more of a tertiary element to the film. ROCKY was – at its truest – a tender and poignant love story that was about two people learning to love both each other and themselves. Moreover, the film centered on how downtrodden people develop respect for both themselves and by those in a world that considered them outcasts without hope. Because of this, ROCKY still remains the ultimate feel good story of inspiration and perseverance; it defined the underdog genre picture.
The dark side of ROCKY’s critical success was that most of its subsequent sequels lost the very key to what made the first one a definitive knock-out. ROCKY II had heart and solid performances, but the real persistent element in it was the climatic big fight itself. The first ROCKY worked because of the moral lessons characters learned before they made it the big final fight. After ROCKY successfully beat Apollo Creed, the successive ROCKY films became more about the fights and less about the characters. In essence, ROCKY III and up were more about the freakish menagerie of cartoonishly evil boxers that Rocky had to dispatch with. Yes, Mr.T’s Clubber Lang and Dolph Lundgren’s Ivan Drago were scary to my pre-pubescent eyes, but they are laughably one-dimensional to adult ones now. I mean, when Rocky addresses the Russian government and people after the match in Moscow in ROCKY IV and pleads with the Cold War powers to learn to just get along (followed by thunderous applause) then ya just knew that Stallone and the franchise were losing touch with what made the first ROCKY one of the best films of the 70’s. Not only that, but that sequel was so egotistical in its godlike hero worship of Balboa that it wanted us to believe that Russian spectators - at the heart of the Cold War - would turn on their own boxer and chant Rocky's name. Sure. Yup. Uh-huh.
The last ROCKY film – one that was noble minded, but mismanaged – came out in 1990 and was all but considered the kiss of death to Stallone’s populist franchise. When Internet rumors began blasting over the web about Sly returning to his creative well one last time to make a sixth ROCKY, to say that I and the public were enormously incredulous is an understatement. The thought of Stallone – who just turned 60 this year – stepping back into the ring for the semi-obligatory “last time” to regain his honor is hard not to laugh at with spite. The ROCKY heritage of wretched sequels made the possibility of a new film that much more difficult to swallow. I mean, who in the hell would Rocky fight next? An Al-Qaeda-trained terrorist in a 12 round bare knuckles match in the deserts of Afghanistan?
Now prepare yourself for ROCKY VI – actually called ROCKY BALBOA – because it is a million miles removed from being the embarrassing train wreck that most of you (and myself) thought it would be. Perfectly matching the first film’s tone and pitch, ROCKY BALBOA is Stallone returning the character to his roots, so to speak, in a film that feels more attune with dealing with drama first and pulse-pounding, ringside action second. For most of the film’s running time, boxing is a non-entity. Instead, the film is a shockingly touching, funny, melancholic, and affecting character piece that examines a Rocky well beyond his prime trying to deal with the painful inevitabilities of getting older and being alone.
For what it’s worth, watching ROCKY BALBOA is a nostalgic experience, to say the least. Having grown up on countless viewings of the ROCKY films on home video as a child, it’s really heartrending to see the fragility and vulnerability of Rocky as he’s pushing 60. There’s a sincere level of sadness seeing my childhood movie hero moving on to the autumn of his life. That’s why the film ultimately works so well. It’s a remarkably satisfying bookend to the first film that it kind of dramatically clones without coming across as being plagiaristic. ROCKY BALBOA – like ROCKY – makes the title character more endearing by who he is outside of the ring. The big fights in both films (yes, as implausible as it sounds, there is one in the new film) are not what matters; what does is the arc of the characters and their personal journeys. Amazingly, the new film emerges of one of the great underdog surprises of 2006. The fact that ROCKY BALBOA trumps the series’ baggage and does not become something wholeheartedly humiliating to watch is astounding.
ROCKY BALBOA is kind of bittersweet in the way it shows Stallone’s character reminisce about the past. Much of the film is about Rocky back in his old haunts. He is in his late 50’s, long retired from boxing, and lives back in the streets of Philadelphia. Many of his friends have passed on and – worst of all – his wife Adrian has also died and left Rocky alone. Living a life of relative solitude, Rocky ekes through his days by running a nice little Italian restaurant named Adrian’s. The restaurant is every Rocky fan’s wet dream. The walls are plastered with oodles of images form Rocky’s greatest fights and the two-time champ himself comes over to your table and gives your all the inside dope on his greatest battles. I’d be there every night.
Rocky does have some company and companionship left in the world. That old loud mouthed Paulie (played very well by Burt Young) still bends Rock’s ears, and his twenty something son, Robert (played by Milo Ventimiglia of the TV hit HEROES, who does look a lot like a really young Stallone), but Robert is now a working man and has little time for dear old dad. In actuality, Robert has a really difficult time carving out his own identity seeing as he is always seen as “Rocky Jr.” to his buddies. Even worse is when he tries to have a heart-to-heart with his dad when endless onlookers approach Rocky and ask for his autograph or ask for a picture.
The entire arc of the Rocky character in the film is touching and bitter sweet. Rocky here is a character kind of beaten up by life. He feels that the world let him down – sort of as he felt in the first film. His efforts to reconnect with his son are awkward failures. If anything, the only real relationship he has is with his dead wife, who he pitifully visits at her grave all the time. Once a year Rocky drags Paulie to all of the places where he first grew to love Adrain: the old pet shop where she worked; his old apartment; the ice skating rink of their first date (now torn down); and so on. At one point Rocky goes to a pub that he and Paulie used to frequent 30 years ago and he meets a 40ish bartender who looks vaguely familiar. He soon learns that the woman – Marie (Geraldine Hughes) – is the same little teen girl that he tried to help in the first ROCKY film. The two of them forge a friendship that could have developed into a new love interest, but Stallone plays off of their relationship in unexpected and more satisfying ways. Rocky will forever love Adrian and no one else, and Marie is a bit too world weary for love herself. The frailty of their lives is what allows them to bond.
Of course, this is still a ROCKY movie, which still has the prerequisite climatic fight. As cataclysmically implausible as it appears for the aging Stallone to yet again bounce back in the ring, he nevertheless handles the material in such a manner where it all kind of preposterously works. Perhaps the best approach Stallone uses is to make the film self-aware that the concept of a washed out Rocky (and, let’s face it, a washed up Stallone) fighting in his late 50's is fairly ridiculous. As one fight commentator states, the “exhibition” that Rocky fights in is called just that so it would not be labeled an “execution.” Yet, one thing is not addressed in the film: How is Rocky able to get medical clearance to fight despite his advancing years, eye damage (as addressed in ROCKY II) and horrendous brain damage (as addressed in ROCKY V)? Oh well.
Anyhoo’, it seems that Rocky will face off against current Heavyweight Champ Mason "The Line” Dixon (played by real fighter Antonio Tarver). Dixon is a paper champion who makes a living fighting bums. The fans hate him as a result and he gets no respect. ESPN decides to show the world a computer simulation of a fighter from a different era (you guessed it, Rocky) against him and good ol’ Rock comes out victorious. Soon, the promoters hatch out a sly scheme to get Dixon to fight in a “controlled” exhibition fight against Rocky. Rocky will re-live his glory years and Dixon will get some respect for allowing a has-been a chance to rekindled with his youth. However, Dixon does not understand that when Rocky appears to mean business, that he may have his work cut out for him. Dixon also does not have Duke (ROCKY character actor Tony Burton) to train him, nor does he have a sweet training montage that only Rocky fans crave. Duke has a brief monologue that is inspired in its language. Seeing as Rocky has arthritis and other aliments, Duke suggests in his speech that he trains Rocky for “blunt force trauma” and "hurt bombs" that will inflict so much damage that Dixon's "ancestors will feel them."
Again, the big fight is the more perfunctory aspect of ROCKY BALBOA, although it still inspires a lot of testosterone-induced excitement and awe. Stallone, also the director, films it to feel like the viewer is watching a real PPV, all with title cards and statistics. The approach here makes the fight a bit more interesting and visually fresh. Ironically, it is arguably the fight that works the least well in the film, as is Rocky’s willingness to so quickly agree to participate. His son’s equally quick reception to helping his father is also a bit too telegraphed. Tarver is also not developed into a really intriguing antagonist. He seems more misguided than he does a legitimate egomaniac that wants to make a mockery of Rocky. However, it’s hard not to get giddy goosebumps while seeing Rocky running up those Art Museum steps again to the thunderous Bill Conti score. Like hearing John William’s STAR WARS theme blast out in the cinema with the film’s title cards a few years ago in THE PHANTOM MENACE (and after not having seen a STAR WARS film in a theatre in a long time), seeing a Rocky training montage sure takes you back. As a result, ROCKY BALBOA is a really fun trip.
The best and most rewarding aspects of the film are the writing and the acting. Stallone gives his single best performance in this ROCKY. The character is punchy and not all too sharp witted, but he is street smart and is able to make cogent sense of the world and his feelings in simplistic manners. Behind his rough façade there is tenderness to Rocky. He never shies away from showing his pain over Adrian’s death, as he does in a remarkably sad moment in the film. Several small scenes with Paulie are masterfully acted and written, as is one scene where he lays his cards on the table with his son and tries to justify to Robert why he has to do what he needs to do. Certainly, Stallone’s dialogue could have approached an overbearingly saccharine tonality, but ROCKY BALBOA is done with such restraint and emotion that it’s hard not to be greatly moved at times. Stallone – as actor, writer and director – clearly has his heart in this one, and it shows. He really gives one of the best low-key performances of gentleness and compassion of the year.
Certainly, the very notion of a sixth ROCKY film could have very easily become odious punchline material for every late night comedian. There is little doubt that the series has more than worn out its welcome in terms of it being ravaged by witless formulas and even more inane storylines. I guess it is all of these initial fears that made me go into ROCKY BALBOA with very low expectations. To my genuine surprise, the film is an incredibly fitting tribute to one of the most popular film series ever and it faithfully and lovingly captures to subtle nuances of what made the original ROCKY so entertaining. The writing is refined and well realized, the characters are warm and engaging, and Stallone himself does his best work ever as an aging and lonely Rocky looking to find a path through the later years of his life. ROCKY BALBOA greatly mirrors its main star: It has taken more than its fair share of pre-release criticism and mockery and has instead bravely risen against those odds to go the distance and emerge triumphant. More than anything, watching ROCKY BALBOA is a sublime experience. Like this year’s CASINO ROYALE and last year’s BATMAN BEGINS, it genuinely has restored the luster and legacy of a once frowned upon and ridiculed franchise. To loosely paraphrase Rocky himself, “Yo, Stallone…ya did it!”