‘TIS THE SEASON TO WATCH “ROCKY” …PART VI
When Stallone announced that he was actually going through with a sixth Rocky movie, people rightfully laughed their asses off. After all, Rocky-as-an-old-man jokes had been around since the mid-80s (“I hear in the next one he fights Alzheimer’s! Har har har”) – and yet, twenty years on, it was actually happening. Critics and Rocky fans alike had every right to feel skeptical, not least of all because by 2006, Stallone’s career was in the direct-to-DVD shitter (Eye See You, anyone?) and bringing Rocky back after 16 years of hibernation just seemed like a last ditch effort for Stallone to stay relevant and on the big screen. As it turned out, 16 years was the right amount of time Stallone needed to bring his saga to the proper conclusion Rocky V just couldn’t provide.
Admittedly, Rocky Balboa stumbles a bit out of the gate. Rather than let age and retirement alone weather Rocky, writer/director Stallone saw fit to kill off Adrian in the interim. So now Rocky is a melancholy widower too, and he spends the first few scenes moping around and dragging brother-in-law Paulie on a tour of all their old haunts from the original (Mickey’s gym, the pet shop, the old apartment, etc.), complete with some flashbacks. It seems at first like a shameless attempt to immediately flood the viewer with nostalgia, but hey, it sorta works. When he’s not doing a sightseeing tour of Philly, Rocky runs a restaurant (fittingly called Adrian’s), where he plays host and entertains guests with stories of his past. He also has a strained relationship with his son, who’s now a twentysomething looking to gain a foothold in the corporate world, but somewhat resentful of his father for casting “a big shadow.” The movie finally kicks into gear when ESPN airs a simulated, hypothetical fight between a younger Rocky and the current heavyweight champion Mason Dixon, which has everyone wondering “what if?”
Only about a third of Rocky Balboa is boxing related; the movie is mostly concerned with Rocky’s fractured relationship with his son, his budding friendship with Marie (the young girl he walked home in the original) and her son, and the effects of aging and the refusal to give in to it. By the time the training montage and fight roll around, you’re inevitably getting antsy. Stallone doesn’t – excuse the pun – pull any punches when it comes to his age, though obviously this is all a bit far-fetched anyway. I like what he does with the fight, which is filmed like an actual HBO boxing match, without the over-exaggerated punches found in the previous movies. And Dixon (played by boxer Antonio Tarver) isn’t an over-the-top villain of the Clubber Lang/Ivan Drago mold; he’s a tough opponent, but basically a regular guy.
Unlike most years-later sequels, Rocky Balboa not only had a good excuse for happening, it practically needed to happen. It would’ve been a shame if the series really went out with Rocky V, which this movie largely ignores (including the whole brain damage thing, which has magically gone away). While it’s obviously not as good as the original or as entertaining and fun as Rocky III and IV, it’s arguably the second most well-made and thoughtful of the series, and it gives Rocky the fitting and dignified conclusion he deserves.
Least favorite part: Probably Rocky’s son’s whiny speech about not being able to make a name for himself. Though of course, Rocky’s rebuttal sweetens the pot.
Favorite (non-montage or fight) part: Gotta go with Duke’s little speech before Rocky starts “buildin’ some hurtin’ bombs.” With the exception of Rocky and Paulie, Duke’s the only other character to appear in all six movies, probably because he’s the motherfuckin’ man.