Rocky Balboa Review
A composer, student of music or anyone who simply has a note in their head may prove me wrong but the first couple of notes of the fanfare that plays when the Queen enters the House Of Lords during the State Opening Of Parliament are exactly the same as those that open Gonna Fly Now. For no other reason do I watch the event each year, only for that moment when old Mrs Windsor might enter the Palace of Westminster to the tune better known as the Theme from Rocky. Now that - hear this HBO! - is something that I and many others would pay to see. Of course, on its own, it might seem out of place but add in a search of the cellars that actually ends with the finding of a bomb and the real taking of a Parliamentary hostage - and the sending of his severed ear to the House Of Commons, John Reid being my preferred choice - and HRH, having trained for the part all her life, would cut an impressive figure as she ascended the steps to Gonna Fly Now, raising her arms aloft before a sea of faces aghast at the unexpected turn of events. Her opening gambit of, "I'm packin' a couple of hurtin' bombs!" would be much more impressive than, "My Lords and Members of the House of Commons, my Government will continue to pursue economic policies which entrench stability and promote long-term growth and prosperity..."
It's probably fair to say that Bill Conti's Gonna Fly Now is as much the reason for the love still shown to Rocky as for Stallone's performance. So entwined is Conti's score with that image of Rocky, arms aloft, looking out over Philadelphia that even very young children probably put up their dukes on hearing that music. Hum it to yourself - if you're very good, you'll make it all the way to the guitar solo - and it's impossible not to think of playing the part of some budding pugilist, complete with Converse All-Stars running gear, miserable-looking girlfriend/wife - "Adrian!" - abusive brother-in-law and dog! Although, much in the same way that you don't hear Kung Fu Fighting or Joe Esposito's You're The Best (The Karate Kid), in many martial arts dojos, I'm assuming that much boxing training goes on without being soundtracked to Gonna Fly Now.
But it's here in Rocky Balboa and were it not for reading that Bill Conti did update some compositions in the Rocky musical canon, one would swear that it was exactly the same music as was in the 1978 original. And that's largely what Rocky Balboa is all about. Indeed, it's almost exactly the same film as Rocky. On the other hand, what it isn't is a film to bring Rocky to a new audience. Rocky Balboa is Stallone going back to his favourite character and giving him an ending worthy of the series. Making a living as the owner of an Italian restaurant, Rocky Balboa (Stallone) isn't very far from the neighbourhood in which he grew up. With Adrian dead and his son Robert Jr. (Milo Ventimiglia) now all but disowning him, Rocky spends his time working in Adrian's, hanging around on the streets and, on the night the film opens, being driven around all his old haunts on the anniversary of Adrian's death. Eventually, he ends up in a bar where Little Marie (Geraldine Hughes) serves him a short beer and, thanks to a few drunks at a table, he gets called a bum. Rocky isn't exactly ringing in the changes.
It's on a night like this that the sports network ESPN broadcasts an episode of Then Versus Now, a CG look at how boxers of the past fight fare against current champions. That night, it's Rocky Balboa against Mason 'the Line' Dixon (Antonio Tarver), the undisputed heavyweight champion. As the computer-generated boxers battle it out, the ESPN experts call it a win for Balboa, with the Italian Stallion's strength and power more than a match for The Line's speed. Balboa doesn't think much of it but Dixon has been having a hard time of late with the press saying that he lacks heart. His advisors tell him that he needs to put some soul into his boxing, to fight some real contenders and that he desperately needs to reverse the decline in the revenue from his pay-per-view fights. Watching ESPN on the same night as Rocky, Dixon's promoters LC (Tony Burton) and Lou (Himself) watch the stats and wonder if there might be something in an exhibition match between Balboa and Dixon. Together, they plan a trip to Adrian's...
The key to Rocky is that, a world away from the violence of the boxing scenes, he's a feelgood character. This is most evident in the romancing of Adrian in Rocky, the success against Apollo Creed in Rocky II, the beating of Clubber Lang in Rocky III and the winning of the Cold War/defeat of Ivan Drago in Rocky IV. And there was the fight against Tommy Gunn in Rocky V but that film never offered the happiest moments for Rocky. In spite of the years that have passed between than and the release of Rocky Balboa, this still feels like a natural fit, with Rocky looking older, wiser, if not any smarter, and still walking the same streets as he did when we first met him. But unlike those earlier films, this Rocky opens with him content with his lot if saddened by the death of Adrian. He spends each day tending to the strays that gather around his home - people as well as the birds - sitting by Adrian's grave on a folding chair that he keeps tucked in the branches of a tree, talking to Paulie at the meat packing plant where he works and, in the evening, going to work at the restaurant he owns and telling stories about his boxing days to the diners there. If this sounds a little miserable, it's not, showing Rocky having a certain grace in retirement and with a positive look on life. But Rocky wouldn't mind doing a little boxing, local stuff amongst veterans.
In every sense, this feels like a homecoming. The music is there, the cast, or rather most of them, are back in place and Rocky is once again the underdog. Anyone coming fresh to the series might wonder what the fuss is all about and why the good reviews but the Rocky movies, the sequels in particular, have always been daftly entertaining nonsense about the slow-witted boxer overcoming incredible odds. In every film, he's faced a better opponent, who's stronger, faster, younger and, in the case of Ivan Drago, so pumped full of growth hormones that his urine was no doubt responsible for an 80:20 imbalance in the Russian ratio of male-to-female. This time, we get an opponent who feels like he's lost his way in the sport and is, at first, reluctant to box against Rocky, telling his advisors that he doesn't much see how punching an old man out in the ring might resuscitate his career. But come the night of the fight and in the quiet before the match with Rocky in his dressing room, the drama, which had pottered along in the background up to that point, creeps in and a right old time is promised. And it all works. Stallone looks good but he's old-man-looking-good, with his torso looking like sides of beef and his hands like rusty old shovels. His entrance to the ring to the sound of Sinatra's High Hopes - "Oops there goes another rubber tree plant!" - gets the crowd on his side, fireworks explode and against anybody's better judgement, Rocky comes out fighting. He's got a handful of waifs and strays in his corner, he's bloodied and he doesn't have Adrian ringside any longer but through his memories of past fights and those that once cheered him on, as well as a self-respect he's finding in the fight, Rocky makes for the fighter that Dixon need to find not only an audience but also some self-respect, something that he's missing in spite of the mansion and the millions.
It all sounds very hackneyed but it's hugely entertaining. There's some use of black-and-white in the fight, some deliberate effects scattered about it and some slow-motion, all of which add to the feeling that though Stallone does a reasonable job, Rocky Balboa is not about rewriting the cinematic rules on boxing. What it is, though, is a film capable of putting a big grin on the face of anyone who's followed the character to this point. On a single viewing, I watched the fight a couple of times but rewound the training sequence three times to watch it again. Then four more times when the film was over...and as many times since, all from when Duke tells Rocky, "Let's start building some hurtin' bombs!" to when Rocky runs up the steps at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Rocky Balboa, in spite of originally thinking it a bad idea, is nothing of the sort. Great fun, maybe even one of the best sequels and a lovely way to say goodbye to the character, who finally fades from the screen. And with a farewell like this, I am hoping this is really goodbye.
It starts well. In fact, it starts very well, with the 1.85:1 anamorphic image getting just the right amount of detail in the picture and, in its framing of the streets of Philadelphia, looking gritty, dirty and dark. Everything looks good with even the flashbacks to the past, such as the image of Adrian, spliced in from the 1978 film, not looking out of place in this film. But then Rocky Balboa goes to Las Vegas and Stallone obviously decided that the film ought to look like a HBO pay-per-view event. It's like your television finding that, in amongst the red, green and blue signals in the feed, it also has an orange and decides, against your better judgement, to turn it up. To really turn it up. On this side of the Atlantic, it's almost like finding an old episode of Dallas, with all the strange skin tones, colours and blurring that that suggests, was crosstalked its way into the film.
The actual DVD transfer does its best with this but it's not exactly pushed in the film's last half hour or so. However, in the first hour, Rocky Balboa has been given a very decent transfer and might well be, at least in that period, the best looking of the six films. There's plenty of rundown Philadelphia to look at and the DVD does well with the blacks that it's called on to handle. There is a small amount of edge enhancement and some halos around characters but it's otherwise fine and comes with a print entirely free of faults. However, in spite of there being a choice of DD5.1 and DTS surround tracks, neither one has the car-driving-into-elephant punching sounds of old. Indeed, the whole thing is subdued but Stallone makes clear that was his intention in the making-of that accompanies the film. However, both tracks are otherwise very good with the dialogue being clear and with that theme sounding terrific. Finally, there are English subtitles.
Commentary: The only problem with this is on first realising the gulf that exists between the Sylvester Stallone on the screen - slow, dim and lumbering - to the sharper voice that you hear on this track. Stallone is on his own for this commentary and he's a good listen, not for what technical knowledge he brings to the track but more for the warmth with which he talks about a character he's clearly very fond of. Again, this track doesn't offer any great insights into the story - it isn't that kind of film - but it's just a great listen to hear Stallone talk about a character that, no matter what life has thrown him, continues to take the high road. Not once does this offer very much on the making of the film but it's a very good track nonetheless.
Deleted Scenes (19m39s): Most of these wouldn't have added very much to the film had they been left in but there is the odd exception to that. The one that stands out most is a scene set in Andy's Bar that plays out slightly differently to the one in the film in which Rocky meets Little Marie. This time around the bar is crowded and Rocky meets Andy before getting chatting to Marie and being called a bum, which works better than the version that made it into the film. There is also an Alternate Ending (3m40s) but the less said about that the better. Finally, there's a set of Boxing Bloopers (1m33s), which, in the biggest surprise of the night, were actually funny, not least when Stallone loses hold of Punchy when running through the snow.
Making Of (17m48s): Though not long and certainly not keen on going into detail on anything connected with the production, this covers almost everything that one could ask of it. We see the cast and crew talk about the background to the film, hear Stallone discuss the character of Rocky and talk about how this was the film that he wanted to end the series with. But the best moments come when we see Stallone working behind the camera on the streets of Philadelphia. I've always liked Stallone and it's great to see him take the time, even standing in the sleet, to sign autographs and joke with those who've turned out to watch him work. Of course, these may have been set up to show Stallone in a good light but I prefer to think that he's actually a decent sort at heart, something that comes across in the character of Rocky.
Reality In The Ring (15m39s): As Stallone describes it, the eighties was a time of big hair, big rock and big punches. Look back at Rocky IV and it had all three, not least on Stallone, Living In America and punches that sounded like a herd of cows landing on tarmac. For Rocky Balboa, Stallone went for realism, or as much as the film could support with the casting of boxer Antonio Tarver - a first for the series - and in the two of them actually looking as though they were sparring in the ring, landing punches and, with Tarver, working very quickly off the much slower Stallone.
Finally, there are three Trailers, one for Rocky Balboa (2m23s), Rocky (1m40s) and Eragon (2m27s), which, you might have heard, I rather liked. And the trailer's not bad either.
At least, I'm hoping this is it. What with Rambo making a return next year, Stallone might be tempted to bring Balboa back once again but hopefully not. As a final chapter, this works better than I could have hoped for. As for this DVD, it's a good one. There could have been more bonus material on it and it could have been stretched to a second disc but the more three- and four-disc sets that I have, the more I enjoy a release like this, in which a good film does well and there's enough bonus material to occupy one night and no more. For Rocky fans - and I'm one! - there's no question, this is a much appreciated release.