Rocky Balboa (***)

Posted on December 27th, 2006 in Movie Reviews by EngineerBoy

When I first heard that Sylvester Stallone was making Yet Another Rocky Movie I cringed. How pitiful, I thought, that Sly would hang onto the lower rungs of Hollywood and exploit his purest achievement in a base attempt to recapture former glory.

Mea culpa. Boy, was I wrong, and I freely and joyfully admit it.

Rocky Balboa captures much (but not quite all) of the punch and emotion of the first Rocky film, and remains true to the original’s flashes of gritty realism mixed with slightly unbelievable heroic feats. However, if it were all believable then why would we go to the movies to see it? There’s nothing super-human and there’s no magical realism, and while the story is implausible it is not impossible. For those who don’t know, in the new film Rocky is an aging ex-champion boxer who runs a nice restaurant that traffics on his fame as a local Philly hero. Adrian, his wife, has been dead for several years and Rocky is going through the motions of trying to have a life after the loss of his soul-mate and in the face of his deepening estrangement from his son.

Rocky is still the kind, considerate palooka who speaks with simple wisdom and humor, and cares for those around him. Some guy he once knocked out eats free at his restaurant whenever he wants. A character from the first film, the young girl who Rocky walked home and admonished to stop smoking and quit hanging around with losers, is now a grown woman with a son of her own, and Rocky gives her a job and takes her son under his wing – with no romantic or lecherous undertones, just because he feels it’s the right thing to do.

But he misses Adrian. He spends a lot of time at her graveside visiting her. He takes a tour of old places from the first film – the pet store, ice skating rink, Mick’s boxing gym, his own old apartment, etc – and he drags his brother-in-law Paulie along with him, until Paulie can’t take it any more. You see, Rocky is living in the past and not moving on – he’s staying alive, but he’s festering.

In a parallel thread we learn about the current heavyweight champ, Mason “The Line” Dixon (great name!). He’s undefeated and undisputed, but he’s beaten all of his opponents so handily that nobody takes him seriously as he has yet to prove he has enough heart to go the distance against a worthy opponent.

And so one night ESPN airs a special in which a computer simulation of Rocky in his prime fights Dixon in his prime, and the computers say that Rocky would win. This gives Rocky the idea of getting back into boxing, even though he’s 60 years old. Nothing big, just local club fights, because as he tells Paulie, he’s still got some stuff in his emotional basement that he needs to deal with.

But Dixon’s handlers see this as an opportunity – set up an exhibition match between their guy and Rocky. They see it as no lose – their wunderkind will take it easy on the old coot, showing that he has heart and compassion, hopefully resulting in an expanded fan base and more dollars for the next pay-per-view against a *real* fighter.

But I guess they never saw the first Rocky film – Rocky *is* a real fighter. He starts training for the exhibition match and his trainer runs him through all of his physical limitations – no speed, arthritic legs, no stamina, etc – his only remaining boxing assets are his punch and his strength. So they work on those, because a puncher always has a chance if he can connect.

Finally, 3/4 of the way through the film, we get to the fight. The cocky young champ versus the aging warrior. The fight lives up to what you would expect, and in the end…well, I won’t spoil it by saying who wins. But suffice it to say that the fight ends on the correct note, as does the film, as does this film franchise.

Stallone has done something noble here – in a display of Rocky-like determination, he succeeded in the beginning against all the odds (the first Rocky film), slipped into complacency (Rocky’s II-IV), and then sunk into self-parody and pitiable self-exploitation with Rocky V. But with Rocky Balboa he has gotten up off the canvas one more time than he was knocked down, and that’s what it takes to go the distance. Not only go the distance, but win us over on points.

I have a small suggestion, which is to re-see the original Rocky before going to see this final chapter. Having the story of the original fresh in your mind will make this chapter even more poignant and hard-hitting. That’s what we did, sort of by dumb luck. I’ve had a TiVo Wish List for the original Rocky for quite some time, and it finally recorded on Turner Classic Movies last week. We watched it again and it was like visiting an old friend, and it prompted us to go see Rocky Balboa. We’re glad we did.

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