The idea seems like a
recipe for outright disaster. Bringing back
Rocky Balboa -- an iconic character that was long ago tarnished by multiple bad
sequels and crass marketing -- to fight one last heavyweight fight as a
60-ish year old man. Damned
if they didn't pull it off though -- making the best film in the series
since the original Best Picture winner thirty years ago.
This is particularly hard
to believe when you remember how badly deluded and just plain trashy the
last two films of the series were. Rocky IV (1985) is one of
only three films which I ever saw in a theater in which I literally felt
ashamed to be there when I walked out as the closing credits rolled.
(Just for the record, the other two were The Flintstones and
Halloween III: Season of the Witch). As impossible as it is to
believe, the last supposed farewell, Rocky V (1990),
was almost as bad -- although at least I had learned to just watch the
crappy thing on cable so if I missed any of it, no harm, no foul.
In the weeks leading up to
the release of Rocky Balboa, writer/director/star Sylvester Stallone
was on a massive mea culpa tour in which he openly acknowledged that
he had totally bungled the series' farewell with Rocky V and that he
hoped that the new film would be a more appropriate goodbye to a character
which millions of people had grown to love. Which sounded nice in
theory, but you couldn't help but think that the guy had once been a huge
movie star, but now his star was tarnished to the point that he was playing
supporting roles in films like Spy Kids 3-D, guest starring on Las
Vegas and hosting a reality TV show (The Contender). So was this really going to be a
graceful adieu to his most famous role, or just one last crass
attempt to grab the brass ring?
Turns out that Stallone was
completely sincere in his desire to close out his saga on a positive note.
(Ironically, because of that, the film is much more likely to become a big
hit -- and it also deserves that kind of recognition). For the first
time since the first film, Stallone remembers exactly what made the first
Rocky so great.
Rocky has moved out of his
Main Line mansion and is back in a tiny South Philly row house.
(Frankly, he undoubtedly could afford a nicer place, but this back-to-roots
move feels right for him.) Left in the dumper from the sequels are the
ham-handed political statements ("In
here there were two guys
killing each other. But I guess that's
better than twenty million," from Rocky IV) and the cheap
stunts (Rocky wrestling Hulk Hogan, having a statue erected in his honor,
the hundreds of people following him up the Philadelphia Art Museum steps,
the robot, etc.).
Most of all, Stallone
remembers that it really doesn't matter if Rocky wins or loses -- in fact,
the fight here with the current (and weirdly named) heavyweight champion
Mason "The Line" Dixon is merely an exhibition with no ramifications other
than proving that Rocky can still survive in the boxing world. The
whole point of the first movie was that Rocky was an underdog, not the
superhero he became in later films. He had no right to be at the first
Apollo Creed fight and no chance to win -- but at least he could prove that
he had the heart and determination to make the best of his chance.
The storyline for Rocky
Balboa is ridiculous -- but then again so was the plot of the first one.
A sixty-year-old Rocky comes out of retirement when a computer-simulated
fantasy fight on ESPN has the old Italian Stallion (in his prime) KOing the
current champ. That champ, who has become derided for beating all
cupcake opponents, gets pissed off when he is further mocked for losing the
fictional fight. Therefore as a publicity stunt, they decide to have
the current heavyweight champ take on a guy who is less than a decade away
from joining AARP.
What Rocky Balboa
really is about is how the fighter is coping with his life years after his
brush with stardom. While there is still a certain amount of celebrity
to him -- the guy is greeted and asked for photos and autographs wherever he
goes -- his life has definitely slowed down.
Rocky is back in the old
neighborhood. He runs a little Italian bistro named after his late
wife Adrian (Talia Shire -- who is only shown in photos and flashbacks from the
earlier films) where he entertains the patrons with well rehearsed stories
of his pugilistic exploits. Rocky still mourns Adrian's death --
actually, to a slightly excessive extent. Four years later he still
visits her grave weekly and drags his brother-in-law Paulie (Burt Young) on
a morose tour of the important milestones of their life.
Rocky is estranged from his
son (Milo Ventimiglia of Gilmore Girls and Heroes) because the
kid is uncomfortable with living in his famous dad's shadow. Of
course, this is Rocky world, so it just takes one impassioned pep talk from
the old man to get the son back on the right track.
We also get to see what
happened to lots of the bit parts in the original film, including fellow
small-time boxer Spider Rico (Pedro Lovell), the corner doo-wop guy
(played by Stallone's brother Frank) and even the turtles Cuff and Link. Most importantly, Rocky renews
his relationship with young-juvenile-to-be Little Marie as a grown woman
(well played here by Geraldine Hughes -- originally the role was played by
Jodi Letizia, who had also had some scenes as the character cut from
Rocky V.) Little Marie takes over the Adrian role of the shy,
bruised woman who finds her true self through Rocky's intervention and also
supports him through his fears (though thankfully, this relationship is not
made romantic in any way).
Boxing may be the hanger
that Rocky Balboa places itself on, but the movie is all about the
personalities and the characters -- as well as being a love letter to
Stallone's hometown of Philadelphia. (Yes, I know he was born in
Brooklyn, but he grew up in the City of Brotherly Love and went to Abraham
Lincoln High in Northeast Philly.) The city has always been a major
character in the Rocky films -- and the love Stallone feels for the
place -- both its beauty and its decrepit parts, shines through yet again.
I defy you not to get a little choked up when an aging Rocky reaches the top
of the Art Museum steps to the swelling horns and cascading vocals of "Gonna
Rocky Balboa has
more than its share of sappy moments, but in the long run it feels like a
fitting final round for the Italian Stallion. Much like the storyline it
tells, Rocky Balboa the film takes a broken-down, punch drunk series
and shows that the old guy still has one good fight left in him. I
just pray that Stallone stays true to his word and resists the urge to make
Rocky VII. (12/06)
Copyright ©2006 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved.
Posted: December 30, 2006.