As a self-contained work, Rocky Balboa is kinda terrible. If you were to watch it without knowledge of the previous Rocky films, I suspect it would play like a mournful, uneventful slice-of-life drama that strangely gives way to a ridiculous, amped-up third act. There's a lot of hokey dialogue, some questionable plot contrivances and a handful of middling performances. However, as the closing chapter of a long-running series, Rocky Balboa attains a certain beauty. It's less a new Rocky story than a reflection on Rocky's whole life – his victories, his losses, his still-unquenched desires.
This time around, we find Rocky (Sylvester Stallone, Rambo) running a small Philly restaurant and living a quiet, peaceful life. He lost his beloved wife Adrian a few years ago, and her absence has left a hole in his heart. He makes an effort to form a stronger connection with his son Robert (Milo Ventimiglia, Heroes), but his attempts are frequently thwarted by Robert's busy work schedule. He spends a lot of his spare time with his brother-in-law Paulie (Burt Young, Win Win), who has far less interest in getting sentimental about the past.
Rocky's boxing career faded long ago, but it becomes a popular topic of conversation again when ESPN stages a computer simulation of a match between Rocky and world champion Mason “The Line” Dixon (real-life boxer Antonio Tarver, who proves at least a little more charismatic than Tommy Morrison did in Rocky V). The computer suggests that Rocky would win the match – in his prime, anyway. The piece gives Dixon's promoters an idea: maybe they can stage an exhibition match between the Rocky and the world champ. Sure, it won't even be a contest - Rocky's an old man now - but it'll drum up some serious publicity. Thankfully for them, Rocky just so happens to be feeling an urge to get back in the ring again.
The final fight is the sort of tense, adrenaline-pumping scrap we've come to expect from the Rocky series, but this is easily the quietest, most introspective installment since the original. Most of the film's first hour is a thoughtful character study that draws a great deal of its power from the things we know about this character. Adrian's passing has been tough for Rocky to shake, and even the faintest reminders of her life have a way of overwhelming his thoughts. Paulie isn't crazy about Rocky's constant trips down memory lane, mostly because he knows that he was never the best brother to Adrian. “I treated her bad,” he weeps. “She always loved you, Paulie,” Rocky says. Simplistic? Yes. Obvious? Yes. Moving? Yes.
The film also details the early stages of a new romance between Rocky and Marie (Geraldine Hughes, Gran Torino), who was just a kid in the first Rocky film but is now a middle-aged woman with a teenage son named Steps (James Francis Kelly III, The Next Three Days). Rocky's relationships with Marie, Steps and Robert aren't particularly rich on their own terms, but collectively they help us better understand the kind of man Rocky has become at this stage in his life. We often see Rocky's fans stopping him on the street to say hey or ask for a photo, but he doesn't really seem to notice how much people care about him. He's a cultural hero who can't shake a certain sense of inadequacy – that he could have done a little bit better, that he gave up on certain things too soon, that his life ultimately hasn't really meant much. Once again – as always – he feels the answers can be found in the boxing ring.
Stallone's direction arguably contains too many unnecessary flourishes. He's fond of ending scenes with a little bit of slow-motion for dramatic effect, and the fight scene's tendency to cut back-and-forth between black-and-white and color seems like purposeless stylishness. His writing isn't consistent, veering between convincing dialogue and scenes so overwritten that you can almost see Stallone's fingers on the typewriter. Plus, accepting that the film's big fight would actually happen – let alone turn out the way it does – requires a serious suspension of disbelief. Still, Stallone write and directs like Rocky fights: without a whole lot of technical finesse, but with an abundance of heart. Also like Rocky, he's stealthily good at things you don't expect him to be good at. When an energetic workout montage accompanied by Bill Conti's “Gonna Fly Now” appears after 70 minutes of fairly muted filmmaking, the effect is nothing short of thrilling. Not until that moment do you realize just how much self-control Stallone has been demonstrating (particularly in contrast to an endlessly excessive film like Rocky IV).
There's a deep sense of loss that runs through Rocky Balboa, and it ultimately proves the film's most affecting element. Adrian is gone. Mickey is gone. Apollo is gone. Paulie may be a racist drunk, but Rocky treasures him more than ever because he's one of the few remaining connections to a world that has disappeared. “It's not about how hard you can hit,” Rocky says. “It's about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward.” That's what this movie is about: a man learning how to to live again after taking the lumps life has handed him. It's an inelegant but undeniably lovely swan song for one of cinema's most iconic characters.
Rating: ★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG
Running Time: 102 minutes
Release Year: 2006