Director: Sylvester Stallone
Cast: Sylvester Stallone, Burt Young, Antonio Tarver, Geraldine Hughes, Milo Ventimiglia, James Francis Kelly III
MPAA Rating: (for boxing violence and some language)
Running Time: 1:42
Release Date: 12/20/06
Review by Mark Dujsik
I'll admit the trailer for the new Rocky installment certainly makes the movie look almost as near a joke as most of the series' sequels. Let's face it: The Rocky series jumped the shark after Adrian went into a coma in Rocky II. Since then, the movies have taken genre clichés and made them Rocky clichés—montage after montage, characters that were so rich in the first film turning into pawns for whatever ridiculous situations turned up, and rivals each more bloated than the last (Rocky vs. Communism!). So it's an incredibly pleasant surprise that Rocky Balboa returns to the series' character-driven origins and is subsequently the best film in the series since the 1976 original. That doesn't mean the film is without its flaws, but is it ever refreshing to see a sports film that cares about its characters, sport, and even touching upon the human experience. It's been 16 years since Rocky V, and while the 60-year-old writer/director/star Sylvester Stallone might seem a bit old to literally get into the ring again, it hardly matters when a screen hero is finally given his due.
Rocky (Stallone) is done with his career and his life. His wife Adrian (flashbacks of Talia Shire) has died of cancer, and every year on the anniversary of her death, he and his brother-in-law Paulie (Burt Young) make their way to her grave and hit the old spots of their romantic past in Philadelphia. This year, Rocky tries to convince his son Robert (Milo Ventimiglia) to visit his mother's grave and meet him for dinner at Rocky's restaurant. He doesn't show, and on a happenstance trip to a bar he used to frequent, Rocky runs into Marie (Geraldine Hughes), who insulted the champ when she was a little girl and is now a bartender in the dump. The two have a connection, and Rocky starts to hang out with Marie's teenage son Steps (James Francis Kelly III). Meanwhile, the current heavyweight champion Mason "The Line" Dixon (Antonio Tarver) has become a hated figure in the world of boxing for his easy wins. When a computer simulation pairing Rocky in his prime against Dixon is televised, the artificial Rocky emerges victorious, giving Rocky reason to think about fighting again. Dixon's management sees it as an opportunity to get some better publicity for their boy by setting up an exhibition match with the former champ.
As important as the fight is, Stallone's script isn't all buildup to the match. The film is as much about loss and grieving as it is about boxing. The aged Rocky and Paulie bemoan getting old. Rocky ponders that time goes by too fast; Paulie doesn't see it going fast enough. There's a scene early on as Rocky and Paulie hit the now torn down ice rink from the first film, and as Rocky remembers his beloved wife, Paulie storms off, saying that, while Rock has only good memories, he treated her terribly and doesn't want to reminisce. Later on, Rocky breaks down to Paulie, telling his brother-in-law that life wasn't supposed to be like this, and it's clearly all about finishing out his life without his love. The film is full of, not really regret, but a deep longing. There might be some regret, perhaps, but then again, you can't regret what couldn't be in the first place. The important thing is that there's an emotional core to Rocky here. He's in pain, faced with the last phases of his life, seeing more but achieving less. As he continues to mourn his wife, there's also the potential loss of his son.
There's a great scene between father and son as Rocky tries to rationalize—in only the way Rocky can—why he accepts Dixon's challenge, and it's actually a bit inspirational in its simple honesty. "It's not about how hard you can hit," he tells him, "it's about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward." After this, the training for the fight begins, and I'll admit when "Gonna Fly Now" comes up to signal the training montage, I got chills. That's how well Stallone sets up his character here; this fight actually means something to him—something deeper than victory. It's a valediction. The fight itself is portrayed in the format of an HBO pay-per-view event, complete with the logo in the bottom right corner. The product placement is off-putting, but the first two rounds are presented in their entirety without any flourish. It works, and so do the rounds in between, done as a montage (of course) in black-and-white with smatterings of color. Stallone has set up the match to de-emphasize wining, and there's genuine suspense for the outcome, since the story could really go in any direction.
There are some problems, particularly with new, smaller characters like Marie and her son who get put to the sidelines once the script starts its road to the fight, but Stallone has gotten to the core of the Rocky myth for his curtain call. The film has a simple wisdom about life after loss, and it accomplishes a level of poignancy. With Rocky Balboa, Stallone gives the character he created on paper and on screen a fitting swan song.
Copyright © 2006 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.