With taglines like "It ain't over 'til it's over" and "Never give up...and never stop believing"---not to mention a less-than-stellar "final chapter" some fifteen years ago---many fans weren't expecting much out of Rocky Balboa (2006). Though some consider III and IV to be guilty pleasures, we hadn't seen a truly great Rocky movie in quite some time. In the eyes of most fans, the franchise peaked in 1976 and gradually emptied its gas tank. That's the bad news.
Here's the good news: Rocky Balboa is a solid, heartfelt, enjoyable film that offers a satisfying amount of closure to the series. It may be a bit unbelievable and a tad preachy at times, but that's something they've all been guilty of (to varying degrees, of course). Taking cues from the first two installments, the linear but deliberate path of our hero isn't quite set from the beginning. This time around, our title character (Sylvester Stallone, pushing 60) is generally out of the spotlight, wading through a much slower time in his life. He hasn't fought professionally for quite some time; his beloved wife, Adrian, fell victim to cancer several years ago; while her brother and Rocky's best friend, Paulie (Burt Young), isn't getting any younger either.
Rocky honors Adrian's memory in two ways: by working at the South Philly restaurant she opened years before her death...and by living in the past. He drags Paulie along for yearly "tours" of his old stomping grounds, including his old apartment and the ice rink where he and Adrian enjoyed their "first date". He tells old boxing stories to appreciative guests at his restaurant, while his son Robert (Milo Ventimiglia) attempts to stay out of dad's big shadow. He even meets a woman from his past, Marie (Geraldine Hughes) and her only son, "Steps" (James Kelly III), though he's not looking to replace Adrian. Through his laid-back but determined façade, Rocky seems restless, exactly the way a born athlete might feel when they're no longer able to compete. Since he's still "got some stuff in the basement", Rocky decides return to the ring in a limited capacity. Most of his friends and relatives aren't pleased.
A flicker of hope comes in the form of a computer-simulated boxing match, similar to the famous 1970 Rocky Marciano-Muhammad Ali "Super Fight". Our hero is projected to defeat current champ Mason "The Line" Dixon (boxer Antonio Tarver), a tough but generally unchallenged fighter. The champ's promoters contact Rocky in hopes of cooking up a pay-per-view, calling it "a glorified sparring match" while dreaming of a big payoff. Eventually, our hero agrees, despite the incredible age difference and his considerable ring rust. After all, it wouldn't be much of a Rocky movie if he didn't, right?
As its title suggests, Rocky Balboa is more of a character study than anything else, and a somewhat autobiographical one at that. It follows a realistic timeline, hinting at the events between Rocky V and the present without filling in all the gaps. There's a real sense of time passage here; though many will see Rocky Balboa as a slightly tweaked version of the first film, it represents the character himself living in the past, looking to recapture what made his younger self so happy. Paulie provides a grounded contrast, expressing regret for his past behavior and seeing his friend cling to traditions. Marie represents somewhat of a turning point in Rocky's introspection, providing the first words of support for his return to boxing. Eventually, he's got just about everyone in his corner.
As the formula slowly mixes together, Rocky Balboa starts to feel more and more like the better parts of earlier installments. The final bout is perhaps the greatest of the series, displaying a more refined, mature sense of realism and emotion than past installments. As a former light heavyweight champion, Tarver is perhaps the biggest reason for this---and for the first time, just about every punch you see is real. It's a perfect climax to the series, and one that's only believable because of Stallone's commitment to his character. Rocky Balboa is an honest, heartfelt film, ending on a poignant note without feeling mawkish. It just might be the best Rocky...since Rocky.
Presented on DVD by Sony Home Entertainment, Rocky Balboa arrives as a solid, well-rounded one-disc package that fans should enjoy. The technical presentation is easily up to par, while the extras are somewhat slim but highly enjoyable. All things considered, those that enjoyed it theatrically should certainly approve. Let's take a closer look, shall we?
Quality Control Department
Video & Audio Quality
Presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio and enhanced for widescreen displays, the visually stylized Rocky Balboa looks great. This gritty, color-tweaked transfer remains faithful to the theatrical presentation, boasting deep black levels and good image detail from start to finish. The more traditionally-hued boxing sequence looks excellent too, as it was shot in HD and attempts to emulate a modern PPV bout. Digital problems---including edge enhancement and pixellation---don't seem to be an issue at all, rounding out the visual presentation nicely.
Also impressive is the Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround mix (also available in French), which creates a suitable atmosphere for this dialogue-driven film. Though many scenes are weighted towards the front, the in-ring footage is obviously more enveloping. Bill Conti's durable score also sounds great, from the rousing main theme to quieter, more introspective pieces. English, French and Spanish subtitles, as well as Closed Captioning support, are included for the main feature only.
Menu Design, Presentation & Packaging
Seen above, the stark menu designs are basic and easy to navigate. The 102-minute main feature has been divided into 28 chapters, while no obvious layer change was detected during playback. This one-disc release is housed in a standard black keepcase and includes no inserts of any kind.
Leading things off is a feature-length Audio Commentary with Sylvester Stallone; as expected, the director, writer and star is well-spoken and candid. Rocky Balboa is obviously a very personal story to Stallone, so many of his heartfelt comments touch upon the 30-year journey since Rocky got the ball rolling. He overflows with respect for the franchise and those who helped make it a reality, often taking time to note the plethora of nostalgic locations seen along the way. We'll hear some overlap between this track and several other extras, but it's the best of the bunch and certainly worth listening to.
NOTE: During this audio commentary, Stallone hints that a director's cut of Rocky Balboa may eventually see the light of day. If nothing else, double-dip haters should consider themselves warned!
Up next is a trio of featurettes, beginning with "Skill vs. Will: The Making of Rocky Balboa" (17:46, below left). The behind-the-scenes formula applied here should be familiar, but the conviction of Stallone, the cast and the crew make this one enjoyable to watch. It's a well-rounded featurette with plenty of great footage, though more attention to the music would've been appreciated. Also here is "Reality in the Ring: Filming Rocky's Final Fight" (15:37), a more in-depth look at the carefully crafted final sequence. "Reality" is the key word here, as Stallone, Tarver and company emphasize just how many punches were actually landed. Closing out the featurettes is "Virtual Champion: Creating the Computer Fight" (5:08, below right), a brief look at the motion capture process used to construct the simulated ESPN bout; as a bonus, it ends by showing the completed sequence in its entirety.
We're also treated to a collection of Deleted Scenes (8 clips, 23:04 total), including "Paulie Paints", "Breakfast", "Andy's Bar (Original)", "Paulie's Girlfriend Moves His Things", "Rocky & Steps", "Paulie Breaks Down", "Rocky Spars" and an alternate ending. Most of these are minor character moments, but they're certainly worth watching; of special note are the original bar sequence and the alternate ending, both of which present notable differences from the theatrical cut. It's also worth mentioning that these scenes don't feature the color filtering as used in the actual film, so they almost look more like behind-the-scenes clips on several occasions.
Finishing things off is a brief but entertaining sequence of Boxing's Bloopers (1:31); so aside from the lack of a theatrical trailer, the bases are covered fairly well. All bonus features are presented in anamorphic widescreen and look excellent; unfortunately, none include optional subtitles or Closed Caption support.
Taking cues from the original and best, Rocky Balboa closes the uneven franchise with style and dignity. This is obviously Stallone's film from start to finish, as the aging actor delivers a strong performance in front of---and behind---the camera. Despite what some might call a far-fetched premise, Stallone's conviction makes it impossible not to root for Philly's favorite son; additionally, the cast of mostly new faces keeps everything from feeling too familiar. Sony's DVD treatment practices quality over quantity, pairing the main feature with an excellent technical presentation and a solid mix of extras. All things considered, it's a well-rounded disc and one that Rocky fans should enjoy. Highly Recommended.
Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey based in Harrisburg, PA. He also does freelance graphic design projects and works in a local gallery. When he's not doing that, he enjoys slacking off, second-guessing himself and writing things in third person.