Rocky V was supposed to be the last Rocky movie. In it, Rocky is robbed of all his money by an accountant, and he has to retire from boxing due to brain damage. His final fight, and there is always a final fight in a Rocky flick, took place on the streets in front of Mickey’s gym, where it all began. It was meant to wrap the story of Rocky up with a nice little bow. In that, the film did its job, even though the mediocre quality of the film left some fans feeling a little let down. But, by the mid-2000s, Sylvester Stallone was feeling nostalgic, and along came another sequel, sixteen years after the last.
Rocky Balboa, from 2006, was written and directed by Sly, and he, of course, also returns to play the titular character. Rocky has settled down into his life as a retired boxer. He still lives in North Philly, alone and widowed (so long, Adrian), but he’s also the owner of an Italian restaurant in South Philly, where he acts as a charming host, regaling his patrons with stories from his fighting days. It’s not an unknown career path for an ex-boxer. He’s settled, but he doesn’t seem particularly content. Adrian has been dead for only a few years, and her loss has just added to the loss Rocky feels at not being a fighter anymore.
The current heavyweight champion of the world is Mason Dixon (real-life boxer Antonio Tarver). He has the unfortunate distinction of being champ in an era of decline for the sport. He has 33 wins against zero losses, but the sports press and boxing fans alike give him little credit for his achievements. The general feeling is that he doesn’t measure up to the boxers of any earlier era. This impossible to battle criticism finally gets to him after ESPN predicts, using some poorly rendered CGI graphics, that were Rocky in his prime today, he would knock Dixon out in a fight. It’s a stupid reason to get rattled, but even Rocky isn’t immune to it. He sees the same speculative nonsense, and in him, it brings to the fore a desire to fight that had probably been burning him up for years. Rocky is old, but presumably the irreversible and progressive brain damage with which he was diagnosed in the previous film has been miracled away, because no mention of it is made in this film. Rocky decides he wants to fight, and a jumbled speech about the rights of a man to choose his own path are enough to get his boxing license reinstated.
At this point, Rocky and Dixon have both been fired up, but aren’t on each other’s radar just yet. Rocky got his license because he had some ideas about fighting locally — not in the big time. Dixon may be annoyed, but not enough to think his legacy is being threatened by a boxer in his 50s. It takes promoters to bring the final fight together. A ten round exhibition fight is scheduled, only it ain’t no exhibition.
Rocky has always been Sly’s baby. There wasn’t a film in the series that he didn’t write, and only two he didn’t direct. His successes as a filmmaker and star are not down to talent. As is often stated by the characters he plays (as long as he’s the one writing the dialogue), hard work and perseverance are what breed success. The fact the Rocky movies exist at all are testament to this idea.
By 2006, Sly’s career as a star had passed its peak. But as a filmmaker, he was far better than the man who stumbled through Paradise Alley and almost ruined his own creation in Rocky II. Rocky Balboa does not have a promising start. Viewers are forced to sit through a depressing tour, literally, of all the well-known locations from the first Rocky film. Paulie (Burt Young), Rocky’s brother-in-law, is along for the ride, and even his character bails early. It’s an awful sequence. It’s also not the only tediousness a viewer is forced to endure. Rocky has a poor relationship with his son, Robert (Milo Ventimiglia), which the film has to address. And there’s also a character named Marie (Geraldine Hughes), who was find/replaced into the screenplay when Talia Shire became unavailable to play Adrian. The result of this is a film that doesn’t have a lot of runtime to spare for the meat of the story. Even so, these overwrought sequences are balanced out by the excellent portrayal of Rocky’s struggles with the latter days of his life.
When the final fight does come, it’s the most satisfying finale to a Rocky film since the first film. It’s an unlikely outcome, but one that feels real, and most importantly for the character, right. Sly set himself a high degree of difficulty in telling another Rocky story when the character has been aged out of so many possible scenarios. But in many ways, this is a more rousing narrative than any that came before.
Rocky Balboa is far from being a perfect film. The amount of filler and melodrama in the film does take away from its overall quality. In addition, I didn’t much care for the fight cinematography. The first couple rounds were presented as an HBO television broadcast, which went on one round too long. While during the rest of the fight, there was a far too liberal use of quick cuts and filters. The good news is, the percentage of phantom punches was at an acceptable low.
For a film that has so much in it I didn’t like, I still really like this film. Rocky was done. Finished. There was nowhere else for his story to go. Then Sly found a way to tell more without it being exploitative or unrealistic. That alone makes this yet another triumph in Sly’s career.