Rocky Balboa Review
For world heavyweight boxing champion Mason "The Line" Dixon (Antonio Tarver), holding the title hasn't been the satisfying experience he'd expected. The sport is in decline and there simply aren't any challengers capable of giving him a good fight. Dixon knocked his last opponent down so quickly, he was booed out of the ring. His fans are losing interest and fight promoters and cable companies have grown reluctant to underwrite his bouts.
Insult is added to injury when sports channel ESPN stages a computer-simulated fight between Dixon and legendary southpaw Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone), with the statistics of both men in their prime having been fed into the program. The verdict of the simulation, and of most boxing experts, is that Balboa would have demolished Dixon. Mason is angry and embarrassed but his managers see an opportunity. If Balboa could be persuaded to return to the ring for an exhibition match, the publicity might restore the public's interest in their client.
Rocky himself, now in his late fifties, has been out of the fight game for twenty years. He runs an Italian restaurant in which he tells boxing stories to nostalgic Philadelphian fight fans over meat and pasta. He's making a living but his personal life isn't so successful. Rocky's still recovering from the loss of his beloved wife Adrian four years ago and he's trying to salvage his relationship with his son, Rocky Jr (Milo Ventimiglia), who feels like he's living in his father's shadow.
On the outside, the Italian Stallion is as genial as ever - he's still tolerating the presence of the grumpy, insensitive Paulie (Burt Young) - but deep down he's nursing a lot of anger and unhappiness. Even his tentative relationship with local barmaid Marie (Geraldine Hughes) only helps so much. When Mason Dixon's people come to see Rocky and ask him if he'll consider picking up his gloves one last time, he's surprised to discover that the idea holds some appeal.
Rocky Balboa represents a comeback attempt not only for its title character but for his creator, Sylvester Stallone, the onetime box office champ who had himself disappeared off the radar after a series of career-crippling bombs like Get Carter, D-Tox and Driven. A lot of people groaned, myself included, when he announced he was making a sixth Rocky film. It seemed like desperation - his previous attempt to revive the character, 1990's Rocky V, had been a failure and the actor was fast approaching sixty.
Damned if Stallone hasn't pulled it off though. Rocky Balboa isn't just a return to form, it's a triumph. If it's not quite in the class of the original 1976 Oscar winner, it's certainly the best of the sequels and this is coming from a fan of the series who loves the first four movies. Against all odds, Stallone has recaptured everything that's great about Rocky and delivered a powerful, emotional conclusion to the saga.
Of course the movie's highlight, its reason for being is the climactic fight between Rocky and Mason and you'll be pleased to know that it's a cracker, just as thrilling as the pulverising Clubber Lang rematch in Rocky III. Stallone stages this one much more realistically than Rocky's previous fights, toning down the impact of the punches, shooting almost documentary style for the first couple of rounds and making heavy use of high-definition video footage. It works sensationally well.
The real surprise however is that Rocky Balboa comes so close to matching the intelligence, subtlety and quiet charm of the first film as well as the excitement. Stallone's writing and direction of the sequels was crude, if usually effective - Rocky III and IV are noisy, rousing crowd-pleasers, edited like music videos. Not so Rocky Balboa. This one is for the most part as low-key as the original. It's mature, thoughtful and bittersweet. This is as much a character drama as a sports picture and it works as both. Stallone hasn't written this well for decades and his direction is on a whole new level. That's not bad considering it's his first time behind the camera since 1985. Rocky Balboa is also a beautiful-looking film, courtesy of cinematographer J Clark Mathis.
The film's intelligence is most obvious in the treatment of Mason Dixon, who is the best written of all Rocky's opponents to date, far removed from the monstrous Clubber Lang and Ivan Drago. As played by real-life boxer Antonio Tarver, he isn't a bad guy, just a proud young man who's been mocked and humiliated and is now being forced to fight an old has-been. The scenes between Dixon and his former trainer add depth to the character and to the film. Rocky's budding romance with Marie is also very nicely handled. Fans of the series will smile when it's revealed how she knows him.
As well as writing and directing, Stallone also gives a great performance, on a par with his work in the first film. His best acting has always hinged on tweaking his hero persona. He played a corrupted hero in FIST, a mistreated hero in First Blood and a hero gone to seed in Cop Land. In Rocky Balboa he's a hero who thinks his time has passed, who's been wounded by life and who has all but lost his spirit. Watching him get back on his feet and put his life back together is what makes this film such a cathartic experience.
Older people will appreciate Rocky Balboa the most - not just because the film deals with ageing, but also because it's unabashedly aimed at the generation that grew up on Rocky. The history of the series is there in the actors (not just Stallone and Burt Young, there are some nice surprises too), the locations, the legendary music score by Bill Conti and of course the Rocky formula, modified here but respected all the same. Rocky Balboa works as nostalgia, it works as drama and it works superbly as entertainment. It's just about the best possible sequel that Stallone could have made.