First, a confession: When Sylvester Stallone first made known his intention to resurrect the “Rocky” franchise, I — like every other movie-minded life form on the planet — enjoyed a good snicker.
The serious, social-drama-style title, “Rocky Balboa,” struck me as particularly droll. Would a retirement-age Rocky be fighting the good fight AWAY from the boxing ring this time? Perhaps, in a courtroom? Against negligent hipreplacement surgeons?
No one is snickering now. While predictably predictable (spoiler: it ends with a bloody, hard-fought display of fisticuffs), Stallone’s “Rocky” swan song is also filled with soul, triumph and the sort of crisp, achingly observed pathos that propelled the 1976 original to a best picture Oscar and heaps of iconoclastic love. To herald the movie as the best “Rocky” since the original belabors the obvious; it’s a fine drama in its own right and one of the year’s great surprises.
As writer and director, Stallone reminds us that he’s a filmmaker of no small talent (remember, he scored an Oscar nomination for the original “Rocky” screenplay) and his prolonged decamp in Hollywood’s doghouse seems to have refreshed him artistically. Fittingly, we find Balboa (Stallone) much as we imagine the filmmaker himself: lonely, aging, dispirited. His money gone, his fame fleeting, Balboa runs a small Italian restaurant in south Philly, amusing patrons by listlessly intoning old boxing tales and posing for snapshots with his fist pressed against their chins.
His wife, Adrian (Talia Shire, glimpsed in a series of flashbacks and reveries), has passed on. On the anniversary of her death, Balboa visits her grave; a regular activity, judging from the fold-out lawn chair that he keeps tucked in a nearby tree. Leading his mooch of a brother-in-law, Paulie — played once again by the priceless Burt Young — on a glum tour of the family’s old south Philly haunting grounds, Balboa is a crusty old codger stuck in a moment. “The whole world’s falling apart, Paulie! Look at us!” he groans.
Finally, Balboa decides to snap out of his funk the only way he knows how: by inflicting and absorbing pain. Encouraged by an ESPN computer simulation that compares his former, svelte self favorably against the current champion (former light heavyweight superstar Antonio Tarver), Balboa decides to reapply for his license and do some George Foreman-style exhibition fights: “Just small things, like, local.”
“Is this because they took your statue down?” Paulie jabs back.
Even more incredulous is Balboa’s now-grown son, Rocky Jr. (Milo Ventimiglia), who wilts in his father’s “big shadow” and languishes in a dime-a-dozen white-collar job, unsure whether to exploit or hide from his famous name. The only person who lends Balboa encouragement is his love interest, Marie, a girl from the old neighborhood who now tends bar and raises a teenage son (James Francis Kelly) on her own. Played by newcomer Geraldine Hughes — who has the bright, open disposition and pleasant curves of Emily Watson — Marie proves an endearing surrogate for Adrian, shaking Balboa’s latent prejudices and validating his ambitions.
Ultimately, market forces and a pair of scheming promoters conspire to put the surly, unpopular champ, preposterously named Mason “The Line” Dixon, in the ring with Balboa, a contrivance that plays out much more plausibly in the movie than it does on paper. Moreover, the Stallone of today — a square, hulking mass of muscle and ruptured veins — looks more like something you’d see in the ring than the sleek, shaven, anabolic Stallion of yesteryear.
Dixon proves a bit flimsy as a nemesis, but that’s hardly a deal-breaker. Unlike previous Rocky outings, Stallone doesn’t hitch the story to a cartoonish, larger-than-life villain. This time, the rooting interest isn’t tied to cultural pride or Cold War anxiety. It’s simply about an old man, winding up for one last hit. And in landing it, Stallone has made his most personal film yet.
Plot: Rocky is a good-hearted, small-time boxer in Philadelphia making money at a meat factory and collecting for a loan shark when he gets a shot at the big time in a fight with heavyweight champ Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers). With his crusty trainer, Mickey (Burgess Meredith), urging him on, and the love of a good woman, the selfless Adrian (Talia Shire), he loses by decision but triumphs personally.
Nemesis: Apollo Creed
Is remembered for: Rocky boxing with meat carcasses, a victory dance on the
steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, “Gonna Fly Now” theme song, Yo Adrian.
‘Rocky II’ (1979)
Plot: Rocky squanders his winnings, falls on hard times and has to go back to work, first with Paulie as a meatpacker and then with Mickey at the gym. It’s also back to the pet store with the now-pregnant Adrian. Meanwhile, Apollo Creed demands a rematch, Adrian says no way, and then goes into a coma after Rocky Jr. is born. She wakes up in time to selflessly give Rocky the all-clear.
Nemesis: Again, Apollo Creed
Is remembered for: Rocky and Adrian get married
‘Rocky III’ (1982)
Plot: Rocky, rich and idolized once more, thinks about retiring but is provoked by boxing bully Clubber Lang to battle for the title — and gets pummeled. Former nemesis Apollo Creed nurses the Rock’s bruised ego and undisciplined bod back into shape for a rematch. Adrian says no way, then selflessly relents. Cue theme song.
Nemesis: Clubber Lang (Mr. T)
Is remembered for: Mickey dies. Also “Eye of the Tiger,” the theme song that launched mercifully short-lived career of ’80s rock band Survivor
‘Rocky IV’ (1985)
Plot: With Rocky as his trainer, nemesis-turned-best friend Apollo Creed takes on “The Siberian Express,” Soviet brute Ivan Drago. Drago ... well, kills him. Rocky’s sad. Destroying Drago would make him feel better. Adrian says no way. He goes to Siberia to train anyway. Adrian selflessly relents. Big fight, good times ensue.
Nemesis: Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren)
Is remembered for: James Brown’s rendition of “Living in America” just before Creed gets killed.
‘Rocky V’ (1990)
Plot: Brain-damaged after the Drago match, Rocky returns to Philly a hero to find he’s been ripped off by his accountant. He sells all to pay the IRS and moves back to his old neighborhood. Rocky is tempted to fight again. Adrian says no way. The newly straitened circumstances don’t suit Rocky Jr. (Stallone’s son Sage), who falls in with a bad crowd and is angry trainer dad is tending the career of arrogant young comer Tommy “Machine” Gunn. After he wins a few matches, Tommy ditches Rocky, who mends his relationship with Jr. Tommy decides he can only really be champ if he beats his ex-trainer in a street fight.
Nemesis: Tommy “Machine” Gunn (Tommy Morrison)
Is remembered for: Got seven Razzie Awards for worst actor, actress, director, picture, screenplay, supporting actor and original song.