The question on everybody's lips: does the old man still have it?
The answer: yeah, pretty much.
Sylvester Stallone has returned to his popular Rocky franchise for the sixth installment in the series. Its title lays some of the groundwork for the kind of movie he is trying to make. If the young man only went by his first name, then Rocky Balboa is about an older, more mature fighter, one who is attempting to be the whole man. In that regard, Stallone--who writes, directs, and stars--is also trying to make a more mature boxing movie.
For what should likely be the final round in this cinematic match, Stallone goes back to his roots, eschewing the glitz of the last couple of installments and returning to the sort of urban drama that characterized the original film. Balboa opens with gritty, hand-held shots of Philadelphia, the picture bobbing and weaving along with whatever vehicle the camera is riding in. We find Rocky alone in his home, waking up to start a new day. He does a few pull-ups and then heads out to visit his wife's grave. It's the anniversary of Adrian's death (she died between sequels), and it's here that Rocky begins his excavation of his past. He lives by himself, running a restaurant named for his spouse where he has to trot himself out like a show pony and tell stories that have been told so many times, the diners can say the punchlines along with him. He tries to reach out to his son, Robert (Milo Ventimiglia from TV's "Heroes"), but Robert is too busy for the old man. His longtime friend Paulie (Burt Young) has also moved on. It's only when he meets Marie (Geraldine Hughes) that Rocky begins to get an inkling of what is bothering him. Marie is bartending at Rocky's old watering hole, and it turns out she's Little Marie, the preteen girl the palooka walked home and told to stop smoking in the first movie. Seeing that her life hasn't turned out the way anyone expected it to, and that his beloved city is starting to fall apart, Rocky begins to realize he needs to prove that something still matters, that not everything has passed and there is still life left to be lived.
As this is all happening, the current heavyweight champion, Mason "The Line" Dixon (real boxer Antonio Tarver), finds himself in a career lull. The boxing world is fed up with his quick slaughter of unworthy opponents, and he's accused of purposely only getting in the ring with people he knows can't handle his punch. When a cable sports channel creates a computer simulation of a fight between the vintage Rocky and Mason Dixon, and they show Rocky as being the real champion, it stirs up a whirlwind of money and publicity that will ultimately push the two fighters in the ring.
Stallone doesn't play Rocky like he's superhuman. Rather than grandstand, he has crafted Rocky Balboa to be an honest portrayal of an athlete in his mid-50s who is trying to make a comeback. Much like how the original Rocky got its heat from a young filmmaker who had a lot to prove, so does the new installment gather plenty from the parallel of Stallone being an artist who is assumed to be past his prime. Like his famous character, he's going to show his fans that he still has what it takes to step out on the canvas. His performance is the most crucial element of the movie, and it's an impressive showing. Stallone looks natural in this skin, erasing any line between actor and action. He is Rocky. While the performer uses his age and physical presence to full advantage, the script is refreshingly frank about the drawbacks the character will face due to both of those factors. At the same time, it's equally as candid about the motivation to put it all on the line. For anyone wondering why a person in any profession keeps going long after they've been thought to have peaked, Rocky Balboa will clear up any questions you might have on the subject.
Though, it maybe does so in too much detail. Some of the early scenes in Rocky Balboa drag a little. The tone is melancholy, which isn't necessarily bad, but Stallone favors long sequences he can wring every drop of melodrama out of. Some of the emotional interactions are a little hokey, and he could have scaled back on some of the cast. Not everyone's life problems should be curable just by Rocky re-lacing his gloves. There are also a couple too many rousing speeches that overstate the case before Stallone finally unleashes the famous Rocky theme and the training montage gets underway. It's hard not to get a little rush of nostalgia as the director tweaks the strings of our memory by showing the Italian Stallion running over familiar Philadelphia ground. You can definitely tell it's an old man's movie when he reaches the top of the capitol steps for his characteristic leap of triumph, and instead of hoisting his arms in the air, he's holding his best pal, a mutt named Punchy. Us old farts love sure do love our pets.
It's also hard not to sit up in your seat and get excited once Rocky and Dixon start pummeling each other. Stallone hasn't forgotten how to make a boxing match look good, how to suck his audience in and make us sit up in our seats in nervous anticipation for our hero. Without revealing too much, I'll just say that the outcome of the battle is never a foregone conclusion. My only complaint about this portion of the film is that sometimes Stallone tries a little too hard to create a more flashy style, resulting in shots that look like they were culled from Gatorade commercials. Some of the cutaway shots--to in-house audience reactions, to bars back home where fans are watching--also push the cliché meter up several notches. What I did like, however, and what felt a lot less formulaic, was the mental place Rocky goes to summon up his courage. Here memory plays as strong a role for the character as it does the audience. Throughout the flick, quick snippets of flashbacks from the rest of the series are employed to remind us of the thirty years of history that have gotten us here.
Rocky Balboa is not a perfect film, but it is a good one, and it's a suitable send-off to the series. Just like his best-known character is worried about embarrassing himself by getting into the ring one more time, so I am sure was Sylvester Stallone when he stepped in front of the camera. I'm glad to say, his fears were unfounded.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joelle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent projects include the futuristic romance A Boy and a Girl with Natalie Nourigat; Archer Coe and the Thousand Natural Shocks, a loopy crime tale drawn by Dan Christensen; and the horror miniseries Madame Frankenstein, a collaboration with Megan Levens. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.