Director: Sylvester Stallone
Writers: Sylvester Stallone, Sylvester Stallone (characters)
Stars: Sylvester Stallone, Antonio Tarver, Milo Ventimiglia, Burt Young, Geraldine Hughes, Tony Burton, James Francis Kelly III
Back in 2006 it had been Thirty years since People’s Champion Rocky Balboa was introduced to the world and now Rocky Balboa comes out of retirement and dons his gloves for his final fight; against the reigning heavyweight champ Mason ‘The Line’ Dixon. My reaction in 2006? What the heck are you doing Sly? You’re past it. The last Rocky movie was terrible and it had been a long 16 years after that fifth instalment. In a way the character of Rocky at this point was mirroring Stallone’s career at this point. I’m not for one minute saying Sly was washed up or done but the early 2000’s wasn’t exactly kind to Stallone with his choice of film. The Get Carter (2000) remake was terrible, Avenging Angelo (2002) and D-Tox (2002) were straight to Video / DVD release. I think my judgement at this point was justified along with many of Stallone fans out there. The same can be said for the Rocky fans (character fanbase) in the film, he had his day and were quick to right him off.
Possibly the biggest decision in this project for Sylvester Stallone was writing the character of Rocky’s wife Adrianne out and having her passed away a few years earlier. A bold move for Sly. Talia Shire’s character was what grounded Rocky. Her strength and love for her husband is what drove Rocky in those early films. They would have disagreements on his health and state of mind and probably when you think about it she would have disagreed with Rocky stepping back in the ring one more time. The events of Rocky V seem to have been overlooked in some ways. After the gruelling battle in Moscow in Rocky IV, it had a mental effect on Rocky and the Doctors said he would be able to get back in the ring. It’s been a while since I subjected myself to the fifth film but I recall Rocky would have had his boxing license refused due to this. So clearly Rocky Balboa (2006) is retconning quite a few things from the 1990 and I’m glad. The passing of Adrianne also adds emotion and an emptiness in Rocky’s character early in the movie.
Sadly Sage Stallone wouldn’t return to the character of Robert Balboa. Sly wanted his real life son to return to the role but had other commitments in his schedule and the role was given to Milo Ventimiglia. Stallone chose wisely here in Ventimiglia. Not only did the actor have that sluggish snarl synonyms with Stallone but his characteristics were like a young version of the veteran actor. At this point, the emptiness in Rocky’s life without Adrienne is coupled with the fact that Robert distances himself from his Father who he regards as a large shadow casting over his own life. You can’t blame the son here. The Legend of Rocky Balboa looms large in most peoples lives in Philadelphia. Ventimiglia is good in the role and his relationship with Stallone would blossom into a great Friendship that is still strong today. The relationship between Rocky and Robert is almost the same as it was in Rocky V and they have certainly picked out the best part of this relationship for this film. There is love there but at a safe distance.
Thankfully Paulie (Burt Young) is still around and ensures that the series has the continuity. The sadness in this character is the regret he has for his treatment of his sister Adrianne. As much as Rocky reminisces over the past 30 years with great fondness. Paulie would rather forget the past and drown it out in booze and anger. You witness this in Rocky’s annual tour of his old haunts that remind him of his old life and you also see that his hometown has moved on. Not much is left of the places and buildings of yesteryear and this is relevant in the narration of Rocky ageing and everything around him moving on and leaving the past in the past. It was a nice touch to know that Rocky hadn’t lost everything in the years since we last saw him. his Restaurant “Adrianne’s” would of course be a shrine to his Wife and his past achievements were he could tell his stories to the customers who dined here.
“Screw you Creepo” was one of those lines in the first Rocky movie that stands out from a lesser character that was almost an extras role in “Little Marie”. I found it interesting that Stallone would resurrect this character as one of the supporting characters and the role would go to Geraldine Hughes. I’m not entirely sure the reason for this choice. Did the story need a strong female character for Rocky to rely on now Adrianne wasn’t there for him? Marie would of course “care” for the Italian Stallion without the emotional baggage that came with Adrianne. Along with her son “Steps” (James Francis Kelly III) who would have purpose in Rocky’s life, rather than hanging around street corners. I think this character is used in the opposite way to Robert. Steps doesn’t have the shadow hanging over him and is quite in awe of Rocky’s achievements. Another resurrection all but smaller was of course the inclusion of Spider Rico, Rocky’s first opponent in the opening scenes of the original movie and it was nice to see they managed to get Pedro Lovell back to play the role. It’s a nothing role more than another token gesture to the past and Spider really just appears in those scenes in the Restaurant and Kitchen scenes as someone Rocky takes care of.
The first half of the movie is a trip down memory lane and being reintroduced to the characters of the past and where they are now. Thankfully after enough reminiscing we move forward with the storyline. During a drinking session with his friends, Robert is subjected to the Bar’s television news that using the latest computer generated imagery and statistical algorithms at the peak of their game, they are able to create a virtual bout between Rocky Balboa and the current champion Mason ‘The Line’ Dixon (Antonio Tarver) The surprising reaction from the bar dwellers and Robert watching this is that there is still plenty of love and respect for Rocky in 2006. The reaction from both Rocky and Dixon camps is of disbelieve as the algorithm awards the fight to Balboa. Rocky fans are in joy of this outcome and Dixon’s entourage are outraged at this decision. The main problem I have with the character Dixon is that he isn’t really the bad guy in the story. He comes across as a fighter who has surrounded himself with sycophants, ditched his old trainer and his matches are set up with no real challenge. It’s like a water down version of Apollo Creed. Tarver in his portrayal is fine, not menacing, more a frustrated fighter who is pushed over the edge by the CGI fight.
Rocky Balboa wouldn’t be a Rocky film without a quote or six and to be fair there is some quotable and memorable lines in there from Stallone and Young mostly. “But it ain’t about how hard you hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward.” I’ll not quote that whole speech but it is pretty impressive and relevant to the relationship between Father and Son. Also I think the “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.” line was more of a personal one for Sly. I truly believe he is talking about himself here and not Rocky. This goes back to what I was saying about What the heck are you doing Sly? You’re past it. He really did have to win over the fans, win them back….. Much like Rocky must do in this film. As a writer and in particular the character of Rocky is important to Stallone. He cares a great deal about him and you know this through his treating of the character. Stallone has always been a talented writer and director and here he is pouring his heart and soul into this project.
Clark Mathis’ cinematography has the look, feel and pacing of the original films. I loved the fact they knew of the forecast of snow for the running up the stairs scene and how important it was to capture the moment. It made it on to the poster that shot and it gives the film a gritty realistic look in its promotion. The cinematography switches from cinematic to television for the boxing match. At the time, I wasn’t sure if I would like this style and its presentation might take me out of it. Thankfully these sequences are inter sliced between both. For the boxing it’s television and for the acting portions we go back to cinematic. It doesn’t kill the pacing or feel either. Those final scenes after the match weren’t planned either. The eruption and spontaneous cheers for Rocky were from a real boxing crowd that were there for a real match as all of the movies scenes were captured before the real thing began. The chants of “Rocky” at the end weren’t rehearsed or planned. Shows you the love for the character and from the reaction of Stallone you can tell it meant a lot to him. Basically he was using his Rocky persona to milk it and rightly so.
Overall Rocky Balboa is surprisingly good. I appreciate the risk Stallone took in resurrecting the character after so long and let’s face it. Without this film we wouldn’t have got Creed and Creed 2. Sly should be proud of this work and I’m sure he is. After this release his film choices were once again box office draws in Rambo 4, The Expendables and as previously mentioned The Creed films. The film is possibly my 3rd best Rocky film after 1 and 2 and to quote the last line of the film, “Yo, Adrian, we did it… We did it.” Indeed you did. Recommended.