So it’s called Rocky Balboa. As if we’d have thought the movie was about Rocky Marciano? Or Rocky the Flying Squirrel? It is probably fair to assume some viewers are expecting a Horror Picture Show.
Thus does writer-director-star-shameless-franchiser Sylvester Stallone position himself once again as an underdog. Sly, eh? Gambling that his meal ticket is still redeemable, Stallone pares down the trappings of excess, like roman numerals, and gets back to basics. And, yes, this might be the best Rocky movie since the first Rocky movie. But if that sounds like a rave, just think of all the others.
Anyway, it’s been 16 years since Rocky V officially put the Italian Stallion out to pasture. What’s become of the old lug? Well, he’s gotten older, luggier. His beloved Adrian is no longer with him, but, as he hastens to point out, she didn’t leave—she died. (“Woman cancer,” he ruefully explains.) Now Rocky runs a South Philly restaurant bearing her name, where his former adversary Spider Rico (Pedro Lovell) eats for free, other customers indulge Rocky’s dull nostalgia for the glory days, and composer Bill Conti whispers minor piano-and-strings inversions of familiar melodies into his ear.
And Rocky mopes. Unhelpfully, his son (Milo Ventimiglia) avoids him, confessing, “You cast a big shadow.” His brother-in-law and pal Paulie (Burt Young, as always) chastises him: “You’re living backward, Rocko. Yesterday wasn’t so great.” The idea, perhaps, is to convince us Rocky has become such a dreary bore that people need him back in the ring, where he might actually make himself useful. Or maybe everyone’s just so sick of his woebegone nonsense that they want an official reason for somebody else to beat the shit out of him.
After an ESPN virtual simulation pits him against current champ Mason “The Line” Dixon (Antonio Tarver), Rocky decides to try a real-life version of the bout. “I’m not interested in getting, like, mangled and embarrassed,” he says, as if making a promise directly to the audience. He has some trouble getting a license, but a heartfelt speech makes short work of that. Stallone would also like to suggest that, rather than having accrued wisdom and grace with age, the whole sport of boxing (read: entertainment) has degenerated. As one TV announcer narrates, “All of boxing is hoping for a warrior who thrills us with his passion.” Mr. Conti, trumpets please.
Rocky gathers what he needs: a pitiable, adorable, literal underdog, easily acquired from the pound; a pretty, no-nonsense, morally supportive young woman, in this case “Little Marie” (here taken up by Geraldine Hughes), whom he briefly chaperoned in the first movie; and of course a training montage, culminating as tradition demands in self-actualization on the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. He gets some other supplies, too, like a subplot involving his mentorship of Little Marie’s son, but decides that’s less essential and lets it go.
The clunky, corny truth is this: Rocky may be getting on, but he’s no palooka. His primary weapons are heart and self-effacement, and they remain powerful. He reads some wonderful ironic wit into a few of his lines. He enters the ring to Sinatra singing “High Hopes.” And after a couple of rounds, his startled opponent admits, “It’s like he’s got bricks in his gloves!”
In boxing, as a rule, that’s a good thing. In screenwriting, not so much. Rocky Balboa againshows Stallone as a shrewd, affecting portraitist, but only barely a dramatist. He doesn’t bother characterizing Dixon, for instance, presumably because the reigning champ isn’t Rocky’s real antagonist anyway. (That would be his aging self.) And, notwithstanding some formal fooling around during the fight—in patches of black-and-white with glints of color, more Gatorade commercial than Raging Bull homage—Stallone’s direction doesn’t transcend rudimentary. But does it need to?
Sometimes when a boxer is exhausted and desperate, and it’s all he can do to stay standing and catch his breath, he’ll wrap himself around his opponent and just hang there until the ref breaks them up. Stallone tries this tactic in filmmaking. When his movie runs low on inspiration, he lets it slowly coast. A second wind does come, eventually, and tenacity has its rewards. He’s not wrong that even split decisions may contain victories.