For most film lovers, the news that Sylvester Stallone was going to resurrect the "Rocky" franchise for a sixth installment, 30 long years after the original film, was laughable. 1990's "Rocky V" slit the throat of the series, blinded by both the greed of sequeldom and the thrill of having original director John Avildsen step back behind the camera. It was intended as the final ode to Rocky Balboa, but it was ultimately a muddled, desperate effort that disregarded many of the primal reasons audiences love this character.
With "Rocky Balboa," Stallone is setting out to right many of the wrongs.
After the tragic death of Adrian (Talia Shire, seen in brief flashbacks), Rocky (Stallone) has resigned himself to a life managing a restaurant and regaling the customers with stories of his boxing glory days. Estranged from his son (Milo Ventimiglia, in a spot-on bit of casting), Rocky sits uncomfortably with the knowledge that he still wants to matter to himself, and to his loved ones, like Paulie (Burt Young) and Marie (Geraldine Hughes), a young woman Rocky takes a shine to. When a computer-generated fight between Rocky and heavyweight champ Mason "The Line" Dixon (Antonio Tarver) shows that Rocky would still pack quite a punch if the two were matched today, Dixon's handlers offer the reluctant, but willing Italian Stallion the chance to prove himself in the ring for real.
Assuming writing and directing duties, Stallone treats "Balboa" like a baby kitten. He knows how much this will make or break the legacy of the character and his own career, and every last detail of the film has the sensation of careful, delicate deliberation – something this franchise hasn't seen in a very long time. Stallone wants to bend back the series to the more down-to-earth emotional standards of the 1976 original, before the excess of the 80s hurled the sequels away to admittedly entertaining cartoon levels.
It is a great pleasure to report that Stallone has found an ideal way to bring Rocky back to ground level, while also doling out the goosebump, fist-pumping moments that made the series an enduring legend. "Balboa" plays the audience like a fiddle; Stallone knows full well what audiences want and don't want to see from his iconic character, and he's generous with inspirational speeches and comedic moments with Rocky that play to known quantities without coming off as anything but sweetly heartfelt.
"Balboa" is formula with a capital F, but Stallone has made it work in his favor for this final round by adding gentle, reflective moments of Rocky dealing with age, loss, and personal inventory. Stallone the writer has given Stallone the actor some sincerely felt moments of pain, and even when they reach the shores of cheese, the performance marks the deepest Stallone has ever reached within himself to communicate passion and frustration. I just adored his work in all facets of production here, from recreating the tight, gritty sense of Philadelphia community for Rocky to interact with to a romantic, nuanced portrayal of Rocky himself; a punch-drunk role that has haunted Stallone his whole career. He not only makes peace with the legacy of Rocky in "Balboa," but finally seems to befriend the character. It's nice to have such a powerful reminder on how much of a charmer Stallone can be. It's been far too long.
Soon, "Balboa" sprints back into the land of training montages and "hurting bombs," as Rocky prepares for battle. These sequences are the diamonds of the series, and Stallone doesn't pull any trick punches here. After 70 minutes of character development and dramatic growth, it finally comes time for Bill Conti's globally-known "Gonna Fly Now" to flame on, and I defy almost any audience member to not find their senses roar to life watching Rocky huff it up the Philadelphia Museum of Art front steps again, this time older and wiser, with a difference perception of accomplishment. Stallone is shameless with callbacks to the earlier films here (sparring with slabs of frozen meat, the raw egg cocktail), but, by now, he's earned his right to leisurely backstroke in the warm, forgiving pool of nostalgia.
What's alternately magnificent and disappointing about "Rocky Balboa" is the final fight sequence between Dixon and Rocky. While still a suspenseful, hand-clapper of a closer, Rocky has quieted his demons by this time, and his journey is somewhat complete before we reach the end of the movie. Still, the ending acts a sweet bookend to the original film, and truthfully, should only be appreciated in a theater full of rowdy "Rocky" fans that can't get enough.
Fittingly finding release on the eve of Christmas, "Rocky Balboa" is a confidently-wrapped, wildly-pleasing present from Sylvester Stallone to his fans and supporters, as well as to himself.
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