REVIEW: Rocky Balboa [2006]

“Fighters fight”

I never thought I’d hear the horns play the Rocky theme song again on the big screen. When I heard that Sylvester Stallone was bringing back the character that made his career, I couldn’t help but laugh. After a great one, two punch with the first couple films in the saga, he hit a huge snag with the third, redeemed some respect with the fourth, and put a nail in the coffin with the fifth, (I try to forget that one was even made). One must wonder who thought there would be any interest in a new final chapter to the legendary underdog tale, let alone want to put up the money to back it. Although the new film, simply titled Rocky Balboa, is definitely not the best film by any means, it ends the story right, helps us forget Tommy Gunn, and, I’ll admit, gets the blood going with feelings of nostalgia and a long forgotten hope buried deep down in our own basement.

Stallone was a writer first and foremost. He saw a chance to break into the industry by writing a simple tale about a streetwise kid who turns his life around because of the desire to be true to himself. Young Rocky Balboa gets the girl, shows what he is made of, and wins the hearts of a nation. This script was picked up and Stallone was given the chance to bring his words to life. A phenomenon was born, and although he tried to do other things after, Sly was never going to be a great actor. The only way for him to succeed was to be himself and act the truest he could in the part that most closely mirrored who he really was. When we see Rocky onscreen we are really looking into the eyes of the man who created the whole thing. Yes there were some snags, some really bad snags, along the way, but thankfully we have been given the opportunity to finish the arc the way we started it, with a quiet dignity and compassion for our hero.

Rocky Balboa goes back to the roots of the first film and tells the story of a man who has no quit in him. This is not a fight film, but a character study about people who are looking deep inside themselves to find out who they truly are. Sure Rocky has pain inside him and a desire to let it all out, but the beauty of the first three quarters is in the small roles and how they are adjusting to life out of the limelight. Adrian has passed away, Paulie feels remorse for the past and a new found hobby of painting to deal with it, Rocky Jr is trying to cope with the shadow his father has cast on him, and Mason “the Line” Dixon is dealing with the glory of fame without the heart of a champion. Balboa is the glue that helps guide all these characters through the next month or so, to help them with their troubles and to finally lay rest the demons in his psyche.

Stallone once again shows heart and skill in deftly portraying someone not much different than his real life persona. A lug through and through, Rocky always has a golden nugget of advice or an anecdotal speech to motivate. It’s great to see Burt Young back as Paulie, everyone’s favorite cantankerous uncle who can be menacing, (loved the meat plant worker almost running away from him in fear), and than lovingly humorous at the blink of an eye. Tony Burton’s return as Duke is a nice addition too. Even Milo Ventimiglia brings a good performance to the table, as I have been disappointed with his acting in the show “Heroes.” The resemblance in expressions and attitude to Stallone really helps make the relationship work. Geraldine Hughes adds some welcome heart to the mix as well.

Unfortunately, while the beginning half of the film works nicely, both visually and script-wise, it’s the final act or so that brings it down. For one, Antonio Tarver has no charisma onscreen and looks uncomfortable throughout. There really is no malice setup for the guy and therefore no true villain to root against. Where, in the first film, Apollo Creed was also not an evil man to want to lose, he at least had a well-developed and acted character to add to the story and rivalry. Here, Mason Dixon is just a pawn cutout there to drive the plot. Also, the final fight sequence is badly directed. Stallone could have desperately used some help there to rein his vision. The dissolves and camera tricks are many and very distracting. Every change to black and white seemed to contain a close up of Rocky and always made me chuckle at how much it looked like the claymation Lipton Ice Tea commercials. When he tries to spice it up with flashes of color, mixed with the monotone, it just looks like a bad Gatorade spot. Despite everything though, I will say that I loved the get-in-shape montage, as no Rocky film can be made without one. The end doesn’t get too sappy or campy as one would think, and the many parallels throughout the movie to the first Rocky adds to the nostalgic feel and the childlike glee in seeing the Italian Stallion go out for a final curtain call.

Rocky Balboa 6/10 | ★ ★ ½

[1] Rocky Balboa (SYLVESTER STALLONE) steps out of retirement and back into the ring, pitting himself against a new rival in a dramatically different era. The final round of the Academy Award-winning Rocky franchise hits theatres Friday, December 22, 2006. Written and directed by SYLVESTER STALLONE. Photo by: John Bramley
[2] Rocky Balboa (SYLVESTER STALLONE), looking fit and cut, steps out of retirement and back into the ring to face a younger and more skilled rival in a dramatically different era. The final round of the Academy Award®-winning Rocky franchise hits theatres Friday, December 22, 2006. Written and directed by SYLVESTER STALLONE.


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