Rocky Balboa Returns to the Ring - Eventually
Undersized and underrated, the character of Rocky Balboa has always triumphed simply because he put forth all the effort that could be mustered from his intensely trained physique.
The same can now be said of Sylvester Stallone himself, the star of the series who has written each of its six installments, and displays with "Rocky Balboa," if nothing else, a tremendous amount of effort. I can't help but think this finale to the saga would have been much more successful had it been made five years ago, but it employs, nonetheless, a promising and ultimately satisfying approach.
That being said, "Rocky Balboa" is, as I see it, redemption for the legions of Rocky fans who still needed closure after the disastrous "Rocky V" left them disappointed in 1990. Stallone apparently realized that both the all-American icon he created and the fans that adored him deserved better, so here we are, 16 years later, sending off the people's champion with the style and class that haven't appeared in a Rocky film since the original movie.
The film picks up in the midst of a midlife crisis for the heroic fighter, in which the road he's traveled upon thus far has been, appropriately, rocky. Balboa's wife Adrian, whose name has been immortalized in the series more than the character itself through Stallone's mumbled screaming of it, is dead and buried before the story begins. Several scenes in the movie take place in the graveyard where she lays, her headstone placed adjacent to a tree in which Rocky keeps a fold-out chair stashed at all times, representative of his frequent visits.
Rocky's relationship with his son has also deteriorated. Once the boxer's biggest admirer, Rocky Jr., played by Milo Ventimiglia, is now a twenty-something businessman whose life has become too busy to include the father whose shadow he feels trapped beneath. Paulie, Balboa's closest friend, who is thankfully played once again by Bert Young, is struggling as well, still working at the local meat plant and tired of sulking over the woes of the past. Unfortunately for Paulie, however, sulking has become Rocky's biggest, if not only, hobby these days, with the first 15 minutes of the film devoted to Rocky forcing Paulie to drive him around town, stopping to reminisce about happier times whenever a depressingly familiar location appears. The feeling that time is perhaps the only opponent Rocky cannot defeat is introduced early in the movie and drives it forward for most of the first hour, with the majority of the film highlighted by the slow, hopeless piano tune that seems to say, "Just throw in the towel already."
Everything dramatically changes after an ESPN segment comparing old boxers to new ones picks Rocky as the winner of a fictional bout between him and the current heavyweight champion of the world, Mason "The Line" Dixon. Played by actual boxer Antonio Tarver, Dixon is an underappreciated champion who boxing fans seem to dislike because the low quality of his competitors usually makes for a short, one-sided affair. When Rocky announces he is planning a small-scale return to the ring, only in order to relinquish "the beast" inside him, Dixon's managers see the star's comeback as a goldmine opportunity. Soon enough, a spectacular exhibition match between the two is in the works, set to take place under the bright lights of Las Vegas and aired worldwide on HBO.
Up until the match itself, "Rocky Balboa" is more like the first Rocky than any other in the series, and that's a good thing. Sure it's full of senseless Stallone rants imparting words of wisdom that tend to become overdone, but it tackles real and relatable issues just like the original, in a manner that makes this movie, dare I say, thought-provoking? I'm just as surprised as you are.
What makes this installment different than not only the first but every other Rocky movie is the line it crosses between, as I like to call them, "the real world" and "the Rocky world." In every other movie of the Rocky series, Balboa has always been a fictional character in, for the most part, a fictional setting, at least as far as the sport of boxing was concerned. This sequel suddenly treats the character like an actual athlete in the wide world of sports, mentioning other real boxers like Muhammad Ali, showing discussion of his career on real television programs, and portraying the eventual showdown between Balboa and Dixon just as it would occur if it were an actual pay-per-view event. The match has real HBO commentators calling the action, Michael Buffer introducing the fighters, and even features a ringside cameo by yet another real-life boxer, crazy Mike Tyson. It's very different than any match we've seen Rocky Balboa fight in to say the least, both impressive and confusing at the same time. If Mike Tyson is still Mike Tyson in "Rocky world," why is Antonio Tarver anyone but Antonio Tarver?
Overall, this film is definitely worth watching, just to see a fitting end to such a popular character. Whereas Superman, the other major 1980's series revived this year, is a character which lives on, there just isn't a Rocky Balboa without a Sylvester Stallone, so this is clearly the last hurrah for the Italian Stallion. He went out with a bang, too, and as long as you can accept the 60-year-old physique of Stallone for that of a boxer ten years younger, you should enjoy the final match too. The problem is you have to wait and wait through one sad, enlightening moment after another for so long that by the time the bell is ready to ring, everything related to the fight itself seems rushed.
My only advice? Don't get your hopes up for an extravagant sports training montage like in years past: aside from a few keg tosses and some chains being hurled around, the much-anticipated training sequence is a big letdown.