Rocky Balboa Review
By Joe Lozito
"Rocky" Still Packs a Punch
It's hard to pinpoint exactly where the "Rocky" franchise jumped the shark. The original 1976 film was arguably the best underdog story of its time. The quiet, character-driven film about a lovable, small-time lug given a once-in-a-lifetime shot at the heavyweight title put Sylvester Stallone on the map and spawned four increasingly poor sequels. 1979's "Rocky II" essentially followed in the exact path of its predecessor, but with a tidier ending. Then with "III" and "IV", the franchise entered self-parody with opponents that were more like James Bond villains than boxers. And the less said about the 1990 debacle "Rocky V" the better. So I'm as surprised as anyone to hear myself say that this latest sequel, "Rocky Balboa", is one of the best of the bunch.
This sixth and, fingers crossed, last "Rocky" installment goes back to the roots of the franchise - the streets of South Philadelphia. Written and directed (as usual) by Mr. Stallone, "Balboa" finds Rock running a small Italian restaurant and - like a cuddly Jake La Motta - regaling his patrons with old fight stories. Loyal wife Adrian is dead from cancer and, with the exception of Paulie (the reliably gruff Burt Young), Rocky finds himself completely alone. I don't know if Talia Shire passed on reprising her role (she's seen only in flashbacks), but this event is the key to making the film work. Adrian's memory looms large over the film and Rocky's life. His relationship with his son (Milo Ventimiglia from "Heroes") strained, he reaches out to Marie, the now-grown kid from the first film who had the memorable line "Screw you, Creep-o".
When a computer simulation finds Rocky victorious against the current champ Mason "The Line" Dixon (real-life light heavyweight champion Antonio Tarver), Mason's promoters attempt to arrange an exhibition match. The actual fight between Rocky and "The Line" makes up the smallest part of the film.
The key to the Rocky character is that he could always take a pounding. The miracle was that he could keep coming back for more. Now with Rocky said to be "in his fifties", it's next to impossible to believe he could go toe to toe with a champ. But here Mr. Stallone's script makes a wise choice. He sets up the boxing profession as being on the wane. "The Line" is an untested champion; he's soft. He needs to learn and to be challenged and Rocky's just the contender to do it.
At 60, Mr. Stallone actually looks like an old boxer. His face is awkward and his signature "How you doin'" voice almost sounds like he's speaking in slow-motion. But maybe that's what makes the film work so well. Mr. Stallone doesn't appear to be acting; he inhabits the role - he is Rocky. And all these years later, free of the excesses of "III", the political baggage of "IV" and the desperation of "V", he has become that lovable underdog again.
If you love the Rocky character, it's almost impossible not to root for him in that final match. And once that music gets going, you're done. In fact, if one were to experience the "Rocky" saga (if I may call it that) by watching only the first two films and then this one, "Rocky Balboa" would seem a fitting, bittersweet bookend. For a series that seemed out of gas decades ago, "Rocky Balboa" is a knock-out.