Seventeen years ago we all thought Rocky V (John G. Avildsen, 1990) had put the veteran screen fighter out for the count. A lame story about Rocky taking fighter Tommy “Machine” Gunn (Tommy Morrison) under his wing and culminating in a street fight climax was a knock out blow to the franchise. No one thought Rocky would be making a comeback. Yet, to many people’s amazement and the joy of many others, here he is back in the ring for what probably will be the last round.
In Rocky Balboa, penned and directed by Stallone, Rocky’s wife Adrian has passed away. The former boxer spends his time sitting at her grave, trying to get closer to a son (Milo Ventimiglia) who feels overshadowed by his dad’s fame and running a small but successful Italian restaurant where he tells old tales to guests. When the current but unpopular world champion heavyweight fighter Mason ‘The Line’ Dixon (played by real-life boxer Antonio Tarver) is pitted against Rocky in a virtual fight, the computer states Rocky would win. Soon Rocky is wondering whether to make the seemingly unreal duel into a reality.
This portrait of Rocky’s day-to-day life and troubles show a very human side to his character away from the glitz and glamour of the previous films.
I was concerned that the sixth in the Rocky series would be a cheap, crass and desperate return for Stallone who has been struggling ever since Cop Land (James Mangold, 1997). Yet, by mirroring his misfiring acting career with a Rocky reliant on past memories to see him through each day, there is something very personal going on here. Rocky is initially shown reflecting on his success with Adrian’s brother Paulie (Burt Young) and forging a new female friendship with old classmate Marie (Geraldine Hughes) and her son Steps (James Francis Kelly III) while his own son becomes more distant. This portrait of his day-to-day life and troubles show a very human side to his character away from the glitz and glamour of the previous films. Even when the virtual fight throws in the wild card, it is with some reluctance that Rocky agrees to the exhibition match with Dixon, and only with the backing of others. There is a level of sophistication here that I honestly was not expecting. You begin to see Rocky as a regular guy stripped of the skills he once had, yet unsure what he needs to start looking forward in life.
Rocky Balboa works because Stallone gives a sense of where Rocky is coming from in his return to the ring. We see his gentle side of now, but want to relive some of the excitement of the past. He does not make rash decisions, we see them come to fruition after much soul searching. Dixon does not give great support as you are never sure whether he is supposed to be a villainous figure or not, creating mixed signals in the fight build up. The training montage has a cheesy but pleasingly necessary feel to it — I would challenge anyone, Rocky fan or not, to fail to be excited by the classic music of old that accompanies it. The fight itself follows a well-worn path but by then you will feel so comfortable that Stallone knows exactly how to handle what amounts to an enjoyable send off for Rocky, it matters little. Rocky Balboa is both a tribute to the series and a fine conclusion. Thank you, Sly.