By: Garrett Collins
Starring: Sylvester Stallone, Burt Young, Geraldine Hughes, Milo Ventimiglia, A.J Benza and Antonio Tarver
To put the Rocky series into perspective, one has to only look at its age. When the first film came out in 1976, I was one year away from being born. So, by the time Rocky Balboa was released in 2006, the actual franchise had turned the big 3-0. That’s a long time to be in existence. Now, to have an even clearer perspective of the series, consider this: Sylvester Stallone himself was thirty years old at the time of the original’s production, and fifty-nine during this, the most recent (and final?) installment. Given the different animals that all five previous films were, Stallone knew that he had to make Rocky Balboa into something that could rightly be ushered into the 21st century. Because, all the hype leading up to this film was that the fifth film did not come off as well as Stallone had hoped (how long did it take him to figure this out?). For being the character’s so-called swan song, Rocky V was very poorly received. So, how well would Rocky Balboa come off?
The first thing that jumps out at you is that it is readily apparent from the outset that Stallone is back behind the camera. Rocky Balboa is more dimly lit than all the previous entries, and I feel that is to its advantage. Because, the story starts off just as dim as any in the series. The major thing Stallone decided to do in this film was kill Adrian off. Now, for a franchise that built itself as having the main title character’s wife be his backbone, this was a risky move. But, I think that as a story point, it comes off well. In fact, in a weird way, I feel this one plot point brought out a lot of what made the first Rocky so good to begin with. Rocky was once again down on his luck. And, unlike Rocky V where it was hard to identify with him given what kind of father he was, here he comes off charming as ever, once again talking to turtles and even feeding gum balls to birds. Stallone’s script is nice and tight, as he also outlines the sorry state of boxing at the time. Because, it can be argued that along with the uprising of Mike Tyson (who ironically cameos here), the Rocky films can be credited with helping spike the simultaneous popularity of boxing and pay per views throughout the late 80s and early 90s. Here, boxing’s reputation is bad, and its champion is who critics and fans point their finger to as its reason for being so.
As has been outlined in almost every single review I have done of the Rocky series, each film represents where Stallone was in his life at the time. Here, Stallone’s script includes the irony of having Balboa’s ensuing opponent, World Champion Mason ‘The Line’ Dixon (Tarver), representing Stallone himself. Dixon, much like Stallone at his peak, had made bad decisions based on bad advice from people whom he had wrongly trusted. It also must be said that Tarver does much better in this role of Rocky’s rival than that of his predecessor Tommy Morrison. Dixon comes off almost like Apollo in the second film, as he is on the brink of being sympathetic. His handlers are pushing for the fight, yet when Rocky starts to make his hard-hitting presence known, these same people are yelling that its ‘his ass’ if Dixon loses. It is a line that Tarver walks well, even if the plot point of him breaking his hand felt more convenient than plausible.
Stallone includes scenes of Rocky reliving his memory filled life with Adrian (mostly including flashbacks to the first film), which all leads to Paulie (a returning Young) yelling at him that he is living in the past. This was easy, but at the same time very well written, and to me, made Rocky Balboa feel like the best written Rocky film since at least Rocky II. However, Stallone’s script wasn’t perfect. I felt the inclusion of ‘Little Marie’ (Hughes) was a little too convenient and a poor piece of the film’s overall puzzle. See, Marie was the girl that Rocky walked home and, after lecturing her about the dangers of the streets, gets repaid by having her tell him ‘screw you creepo.’ This felt like a lazy piece of writing, as even if Marie was probably the only other girl in the entire series that would be recognizable besides Adrian, it would be a complete long shot that they would find each other again. I also did not agree with the casting of Ventimiglia as Rocky’s son, Robert Jr. Yes, his mouth is eerily similar to Stallone’s, but their chemistry came off more as two clashing business partners than father and son.
However, all of these bad plot points are put to rest during the final fight. This is hard to believe, but in his late fifties, Rocky’s final fight lives up to the Rocky standards of old. Of course, this may have something to do with decisions regarding the fight’s presentation. Real boxing pay per view announcers Jim Lampley, Larry Merchant, and Max Kellerman are in to call the match, and the presentation itself is in the form of a real life HBO pay per view fight. Highly stylized, I must say it was pretty interesting seeing clips of fights from Rocky’s past presented in this way. And, coupled with the punches sounding as real as ever, led to a more realistic and enjoyable fight, as well as the perfect way of going out.
Overall, I think that Rocky Balboa feels like the first genuine film in over two decades of Stallone’s career. Does it feel like a project of over indulgence and vanity? Absolutely. If you are not a fan of call backs & reminders of past films in the series, then this film will not be for you. And, some of the attempts to bring back feelings and memories of the first film feel a little flat. But, I must say, as a self-described fan of the series, it was great seeing Rocky eat egg yolks again. It was fun seeing him hit meat again. And, it was smile inducing seeing Duke (Burton) return. In a way, the dog Rocky rescues from a shelter can represent a great metaphor for Stallone’s own life. There are many more good years left in him. And, in my mind, he proved with Rocky Balboa that he still has the ability to entertain.
3.5 out of 5