2006Director: Sylvester Stallone
Cast: Sylvester Stallone, Burt Young, Antonio Tarver
here were jokes and jeers at the sight of Rocky Balboa, a dumpy and sullen figure. But something stirred the moment the training began. When Bill Conti’s “Gonna Fly Now” piped up, several people blurted out “Yes!”—as if they had been waiting to believe again. The pure aspiration of Conti’s music and its link with the battered dreams of glory of Rocky Balboa are inseparable.
Ever since I can remember, I have had a deep affection for the character Rocky Balboa. In every sense he is one of the most iconic and era-defining creations of modern cinema—a symbol of heart, gut, and glory. He embodies an ethic that’s satisfying and hard not to value: work hard and you’ll get what you want—or at least reach a place where you can accept losing because you’ve given every last inch of yourself to the task.
So disregard this review’s rating. I am rating this movie for the way it made me feel. I’m not certain that’s the right thing to do, but it would be a betrayal of everything I have taken from the franchise if I weren’t to give back just a little. Rocky is romantic and that’s something worth preserving. When romance is dead or retired or too punchdrunk to shuffle into the ring, then what's left? Not much.
Sure. There are moments in the film that just shouldn’t work: laying a rose on Adrian’s grave, pounding that poor rack of beef again, a heart-to-heart with the brilliant but credulous Burt Young, Stallone transparently maudlin over the loss of youth. But the resurrection of Rocky, long after we had given up hope of his return, is just too mesmerizing to hack away at with petty criticism. Watching Rocky Balboa is simply a wonderful and emotionally manipulating experience.
The opening hour of the film is ponderous and has a great wit to it. The script is emotionally naked and at times awkwardly so. But that's how it is, isn't it? People don't move seamlessly from feeling to feeling. Sometimes it’s embarrassing to watch people cry or open themselves up, particularly those you admire. The script is peppered with gems of bruiser prose reminiscent of FX Toole and Ring Lardner. Rocky refers to the dissatisfaction that remains within him as “something going on in the basement.” The spiritual poverty of a sedentary life has created a beast within him that seeks violent release.
Rocky Balboa illustrates well what happens to the minds and bodies of retired sports stars, the feeling of uselessness and decline that overwhelms them. Defined by their physical prowess, age strikes them the hardest and longest. Boxing may be a crude and simplistic manner to find out what you're made of, but it’s also pretty clear-cut if you’re willing to accept its harsh terms. As Rocky says, “What’s wrong with standing toe-to-toe with someone and saying ‘I am?’”
When Balboa accepts the opportunity to prove himself against the young pretender—the wonderfully named Mason ‘The Line’ Dixon—and the training begins, the character—and Stallone—fight for a last chance and the closing of his narrative that both deserve. Has anything changed? Well, Balboa has lost his wife and he’s like a slumped, slurring shadow of his former self. There is the overriding sense of an impending tragedy. However, as he sheds the pounds and bulks up, it feels like the intervening years have been nothing more than time served. “The older I get the more things I've got to leave behind,” says Rocky, begging for a discretional license.
Stallone has been brave enough to leave in certain clumsy takes which betray the care and respect that he has approached the character this time round. The comic book villainy of Clubber Lang, Ivan Drago, and Tommy Gunn is nowhere to be seen. Mason ‘the Line’ Dixon is a good boxer with no one worth fighting. It’s a polished performance by Antonio Tarver, shyly believable. His character is also looking for a test, the key to his own basement. The fight is less spectacular and sensational than the masochistic contests of Rocky I and II, and Stallone / Balboa shows the sag of age. However, the naked aggression of Stallone to prove himself and his character is undeniable and can be felt in the physical pounding he is prepared to take as Balboa—and the critical mangling he will inevitably face as director.
And so the story of Rocky Balboa comes to an end neatly, almost as if a dead man has been allowed to choose the manner of his exit from beyond the grave. Stallone has obliterated the memory of the abysmal Rocky V and redrawn Balboa as a classic American character defined by his ability to take a battering without losing his feet or his head. It was an absolute pleasure to watch the film and wave farewell to such an inspirational force.
Rocky Balboa is currently playing in wide release.