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Rocky Balboa (2006) ****

December 31, 2006

written by: Sylvester Stallone
produced by: Kevin King, David Winkler, Charles Winkler, & Sylvester Stallone
directed by: Sylvester Stallone
rating: PG 
runtime: 101 min.
U.S. release date: December 20, 2006
DVD & Blu-ray release date: March 20, 2007
 
 

I’m gonna start out this review with an introduction involving some history, some stats, and a recap. Thirty years ago “Rocky” was introduced to the cinema world and Americans (especially Philadelphians) loved the movie and the characters. Critics loved it. Ebert gave it four stars. Sylvester Stallone was certainly not a hot young thing when at 30 years old, he wrote a film in three days about a two-bit boxer straddling the line between bum fighter and street thug.  Studios loved the script but he refused to sell the screenplay without getting cast as the lead. It was his script and he was the one who knew Rocky best. It was a gamble that paid off, and it made Sly a star. If he would’ve quit after that, he could’ve been an absolute legend, a contender if you will, but he didn’t. Stallone was never again as raw or vulnerable or intense as he was in that original film; there were shades of Brando (so they said) in that brief moment of time.

That year, Oscar night was Rocky’s night. The movie dominated as it was nominated for ten (that’s right) Academy Awards that year: Best Sound, Best Original Song (“Gonna Fly Now”), Best Supporting Actor (Burgess Meredith & Burt Young), Best Actress (Talia Shire), Best Actor (Stallone), and Best Original Screenplay (Stallone). It won for Best Picture, Best Director (John Avildsen) and Best Editing (Richard Halsey and Scott Conrad). That’s right, it won best picture beating out “Taxi Driver”, “Network” and “All The President’s Men”. All great movies in their own right by great directors. Still Rocky won. There’s nothing terribly unique about the underdog storyline. Still, there’s something about the movie that connected and involved the audience.

I’m inclined to think that it’s Stallone’s/Rocky’s indomitable will that moved viewers. Both of them had a goal and saw it through no matter what. Stallone even said that he locked himself in a room for three days to write the script cuz he wanted more than the roles that were coming his way at the time. He even painted the windows black so that there’d be no distractions. Like Stallone, the character of Rocky would never quit. He worked hard and went the distance. His will even showed outside the ring when he pursued a painfully shy Adrian Pennino. Sure, he wasn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer (unlike Stallone, who is actually pretty smart despite the public’s image of him) but he had courage, determination, a sense of humor, and heart.

Then there were the sequels which many seemed to make fun of more and more after each movie came out. Sequels just don’t work without a decent script and a great cast. The supporting characters in these films have always been solid but as the franchise progressed, the scripts seemed to have thrown in the towel (especially 1990’s “Rocky V”). Although Stallone was nominated for his writing in the first one and the writing wasn’t exactly horrible in the three that followed but the fourth sequel just didn’t feel right. I like all the sequels except for that one. I didn’t even bother seeing it all. Stallone knew it and that’s why there’s a final (yes, he even said this. is. it.) Rocky movie in theaters right now.

 

With this movie, we come full circle.

Rocky (Stallone) is once again retired and still living in Philadelphia, he now runs a small Italian restaurant decorated with boxing memorabilia called Adrian’s. The place is named in honor of his late wife who died of “woman cancer” (as he says), in 2002. Rocky’s there just about every night telling the same old boxing stories to all his guests. Spider Rico (Pedro Lovell), who Rocky beat in the beginning of the first movie, seems to be a permanent guest and fan of Rock. Even though he has the restaurant going for him and people passing him by on the street saying’, “Hey Rock!”, he still is alone when he wakes up in the morning. He misses Adrian (Talia Shire). His heart aches.

Their only son, Robert Jr. (Milo Ventimiglia), has entered the corporate world and works at a firm in downtown Philadelphia. The relationship between father and son is strained; Robert feels resentment about living in the shadow of his famous father.

He visits her grave often. He sits on a folding chair in front of her grave with fresh flowers on her stone, talking to her about what’s goin’ on. Her brother Paulie (Burt Young) still hangs around Rocky like his crotchety shadow. He often joins Rocky at the cemetery and reluctantly rides along with him as they visit all the old haunts. The pet store Adrian used to work at. The dinky apartment she lived in. The gym Micky ran. The lot where the skating rink used to be. In one of my favorite scenes, Paulie tales him he can’t take these tours down memory lane anymore cuz he knows he treated Adrian lousy. It’s these scenes that goes back to what the first film got so right….characterization, even the city is a character and Stallone knows it.  I connect to his loss and heartache cuz I care about these characters and that’s what makes this movie so much more than a machismo, superhero slugfest.

At the end of his yearly tour, he stops at the Lucky Seven tavern, which he would pass by on his way to Mickey’s gym during his boxing career. The bartender is Marie (Geraldine Hughes), a grown woman Rocky hadn’t seen in decades – then, she was a young kid who Rocky admonished her to quit smoking and clean up her act. Now, she is a down-on-her-luck bartender and single mother of a young man named Stephenson (or “Steps”). Partly out of a desire to help her, as he did before, and partly out of the need for a friend and confidant, Rocky befriends Marie and tries to provide a role model for Steps (James Francis Kelly III). When his assistant at the restaurant goes on maternity leave, he invites Marie to work there.

 
 
 
 
RockyBalboaicerink
 
 
 
 

The stagnation that has gripped Rocky since Adrian’s death begins to lift when ESPN televises a computer simulation of a fight pitting two pas t and present champs. The virtual fight pits Rocky (in his prime) against the current champ, Mason “The Line” Dixon (Antonio Tarver). The simulation (a nod to the computer “Superfight” between Rocky Marciano and Muhammad Ali) causes a change of heart in Rocky; though he has not fought professionally in years, he begins to believe he still has “some stuff in the basement,” and decides to start fighting again, but only on a small scale.

Dixon is an unpopular heavyweight champ, which as Stallone knows, is not unheard of. Former ’80s heavyweight champ Larry Holmes had to deal with that, and he too had to fight an old, popular champ, a broken, on-his-way-out Muhammad Ali. Is Balboa going to take the fight and rise up to the occasion? Of course he is. But, he’s confused as to why he wants to do it. It’s his friends and family that remind him that he’s a fighter and will always be and he shouldn’t let age stop him from doing something he’s great at.

Rocky goes to Robert and Paulie to ask them to be in his corner and to help him train. Robert feels that the whole notion is crazy and that the feelings his dad is having will soon pass. Paulie also thinks the idea is crazy and tells Rocky the reason for these feelings is because “Adrian left him.” Rocky sharply corrects Paulie by saying “She didn’t leave me, she died.” In an emotional  and real scene, Rocky breaks down and admits that he has found life without Adrian unbearable and much harder than he thought it would be. As a result of that, a “beast” has grown inside him and it is tearing him apart. Rocky needs an outlet to vent his anger and pain.

Rocky applies for his license to fight and although he passes all of his medical tests he is still refused a license. After an impassioned speech to the Pennsylvania Athletic Commission, in which he accuses them of acting in bad faith by knowing full well that they will deny him a license even if he passes, he is allowed back into the ring.

The simulation, and the news that Rocky has gotten his license, gets gears turning in Mason Dixon’s camp. Dixon is viewed as soft because he hasn’t had any “true” competition – all of his opponents have provided him little challenge, and generated scant interest from the public. HBO won’t televise any more of his fights because they don’t make any money; most of the available challengers have little marquee value. His people convince him to participate in an exhibition bout against Rocky, to take advantage of the buzz generated by the computer fight. At first, Dixon refuses: he has no desire to beat an old man. But he realizes that, if he is ever to respect himself as a fighter, he needs to test himself against a true challenger.

Dixon’s reps come to see Rocky in his restaurant and offer him the chance to face Dixon in the ring in a charity exhibition bout. At first, Rocky is unsure – this is far bigger than what he was planning to do – but Marie advises him to take this last shot. Paulie doesn’t believe it is possible, but when he is fired from the meat plant, he comes back to Rocky and, in a drunken rant, pledges to help him. Robert is harder to convince: though he is his own man, he has resented living in the shadow of his father, and though he knows his father doesn’t mean for it to happen, the notion of a new fight threatens to make it worse.

 
 
 
 
 
rockybalboastairs
 
 
 
 

For both their sakes, Robert begs Rocky to not fight. Rocky answers his son with one of the more inspiring lines of dialogue in the film:

“Let me tell you something you already know.The world ain’t all sunshine and rainbows. It’s a very mean and nasty place, and I don’t care how tough you are, it will beat you to your knees and keep you there permanently if you let it. You, me, or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life. But it ain’t about how hard you hit, it’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward. How much you can take and keep moving forward. That’s how winning is done!

Robert understands and quits his job to join Rocky in his corner. Tony “Duke” Evers (Tony Burton) is once again his head trainer, and gears his training specifically toward his ability to generate power. As Rocky’s age precludes him from training for speed, and sparring will not help him any, Duke implores him to start “buildin’ some hurtin’ bombs;” in other words, try to beat Dixon with brute strength. After a grueling training montage mirroring many elements of that seen in the first film, Rocky is ready for the ring.

The Balboa-Dixon exhibition match is shown on HBO Pay-per-view from the Mandalay Bay hotel/casino in Las Vegas. The two fighters enter the ring to their own respective themes – Rocky enters to the tune of Frank Sinatra singing “High Hopes” (Paulie’s selection) while Dixon enters to an aggressive number–“It’s a Fight” by Three 6 Mafia. Michael Buffer opens the event with his usual flair, “Let’s Get Ready to Rumble!” The fight itself starts slowly – Rocky is thrown off-balance by Dixon’s speed. He does land a few punches in the first round, but it is in the second round that Rocky starts to do some damage. After Rocky is knocked down twice by Dixon, a hook to Rocky’s body breaks Dixon’s left hand, and allows Rocky to charge in and throw some devastating punches.

 
 
 
 
ROCKY BALBOA
 
 
 
 

The fight is the first fight I feel in the franchise that is filmed like a real fight. No super heroics. Just fighting. Multiple camera angles. Close ups. Dizzying, tiring shots that match the feel of the fighters well. The fight is back and forth, until the tenth(and final) round when it appears that Dixon will outlast the tired Balboa. A hook sends Balboa to a knee where he has a flashback, and within his head he returns to what he said to his son when asked not to fight again. The tired stallion finds the strength to continue; he stands up and fights back, throwing punch after punch. Balboa taunts Dixon to get him to give everything he has, knowing this is the last round of his life. The fight ends with both fighters trading blows in the center of the ring, and it is Rocky that throws the last punch of the fight. The spectators cheer wildly. He tells Paulie that the “beast” that was living inside him is now gone. Rocky exits the arena as the decision is read; Dixon wins in a split decision. Rocky, who has already begun leaving the ring, turns back to the crowd, taking one more curtain call before finally leaving, as the crowd roars their approval.

The movie concludes as it began, with Rocky at Adrian’s grave. He leaves a flower for Adrian, saying, “Yo, Adrian, we did it.” Then he turns and walks away, stopping for a moment to turn once more to the grave site and wave, before fading from focus altogether, seeming as if he ascends. The last shot of the film, and of the saga as a whole, is of the flower on the headstone.

I can’t say enough about how much I enjoyed this genuinely moving movie about nobility, passion, character, and love.

I’ve always felt that at its core, the soul of “Rocky” was romance, not boxing. Stallone has revived that romance. Many have discounted these films and have blasted Stallone’s ability as an actor, forgetting that he was once nominated for an Oscar. Rocky fans will not be disappointed and for those who aren’t, you may just be pleasantly surprised. The Rock’s back. Bill Conti’s music’s back. (How can you not get excited by that fanfare?!) Philly’s back. “Rocky Balboa” is a knockout! If you saw just the first one and then this, you’d be set.

 
 
 
rockybalboaflashback
 
 
 

 

 

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. mATtHEw gRAmITh permalink
    July 6, 2010 9:38 pm

    Really? Four stars? Ugggh. I thought it was terrible, but I guess I’m not really a true fan. Go ahead and love it as a fan, but I have a hard time believing that other non-Rocky fans who are lovers of film would appreciate it as much. There probably are exceptions…like…people who watch Kirk Cameron or Mandy Moore movies. They might like it. :)’

    I watched it as soon as it came out on DVD. Most people I talked to thought it was just passible, at best, except the true ROCKY fans – (and they are legion!), the ones who often quote the movie and have seen every sequel multiple times.

    Loved the original when I saw it in the theatre back in the day and also the many times since. The first sequel was O.K. Nothing spectacular. Let’s face it, we all went back to see him have a second chance. Didn’t really need any more after that. Everything else has felt like nothing more than a Hollywood money grab, including this one. No originality. Nothing exceptional, nothing memorable. As a matter of fact, I’d go into the details but have already forgotten most of it. Stallone was cashing in and winding it all up – I hope! He did another Rambo about the same time. Coincidence? Naw, he did that movie for himself. Probably so that he could be done with it.

    The closest and best thing to the original Rocky I’ve ever seen, character and character-arc wise, and starring Stallone, is COP LAND, directed by James Mangold, who actually has a movie out right now – KNIGHT AND DAY. COP LAND, like most of Mangold’s films should be watched with the volume turned up, paying attention to the sound.

    • David J. Fowlie permalink*
      July 7, 2010 7:42 am

      Really.

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