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Category:    Home > Reviews > Drama > Boxing > Comedy > Urban > Sports > Rocky Balboa (Theatrical Film Review)

Rocky Balboa (Theatrical Film Review)


Stars: Sylvester Stallone, Burt Young, Antonio Tarver, Geraldine Hughes, Milo Ventimiglia

Director: Sylvester Stallone

Critics rating: 5 out of 10


Review by Chuck O'Leary


In 1982's Airplane II: The Sequel, there's a funny and somewhat prophetic sight gag in the background of one scene where a poster of Rocky XXXVIII hangs featuring a skinny, little old man with boxing gloves on wearing a championship belt around his waist.  When Airplane II was released in December of 1982, there were only three Rocky films up to that point, and while we're still a long way from, God forbid, Rocky 38, it seems almost surreal to be writing about a Rocky VI in 2006, 30 years after the first Rocky opened in theaters.


Stallone says this sixth entry in the series about the perpetual underdog boxer is the last one, and it better be.  What could possibly be next, Rocky vs. Michael Myers?


The latest one is called Rocky Balboa without a Roman numeral in the title because movie franchises now usually stop numbering the sequels when they've gotten to a shamelessly high number such as Rocky VI.  In any event, it's going to be very interesting to see how Rocky Balboa does at the box office for several reasons:



-  The character of Rocky and the star who plays him, Sylvester Stallone, both peaked in popularity 21 years ago in 1985, a year in which Stallone had two of his biggest hits, Rambo: First Blood Part 2, and the highest grossing film in the Rocky series, Rocky IV.


-  The last film in the series, Rocky V, opened 16 years ago to disappointing box office and was poorly received by most who saw it.


-  Stallone, who turned 60 in the summer of '06, and was 59 when the sixth Rocky was filmed last winter, hasn't had a bona-fide hit since Cliffhanger 13 and a half years ago, and not counting his supporting role in Spy Kids 3-D, hasn't appeared in a movie that made it into wide release in American theaters since Driven over five and a half years ago.  In the meantime, Stallone also had one of his films, Avenging Angelo, bypass theaters altogether and go directly to DVD, and had two others, Eye See You (aka D-Tox) and Shade, that were barely released in American theaters and went straight to DVD in 99 percent of the U.S.


-  Even though the first Rocky was a much-loved movie when it debuted in the midst of the cynical 1970s, its underdog-triumphs formula has been copied to death since then, especially lately with the likes of Invincible, The Gridiron Gang, We Are Marshall, etc.  Furthermore, Ron Howard made a very good film out of a real-life Rocky story in 2005's Cinderella Man, and Clint Eastwood's excellent Million Dollar Baby was sort of an anti-Rocky.



Stallone, who wrote and directed Rocky Balboa, obviously wants audiences to forget Rocky V as much as possible.  All the previous Rocky sequels began with the last few minutes of the final fight from the previous film, but the sixth one (and this didn't surprise me) doesn't open with that ridiculously staged street fight that ended V.


We were also informed at the beginning of V that Rocky suffered irreversible brain damage from his fight with Ivan Drago in IV and would risk becoming an "invalid" if he ever fought again.  Rocky Balboa conveniently ignores the brain damage thing from V and has Rocky unrealistically passing medical tests and being allowed back in the ring.  Are we to believe Rocky's brain just healed itself over time?


Rocky V also starred Stallone's real-life son, Sage Stallone, as a pre-teen Rocky Jr., but part six drops Sage like a hot potato, and has an actor named Milo Ventimiglia playing the now grown Rocky Jr. (aka Robert).


At the beginning of the new one, Rocky's beloved wife, Adrian (Talia Shire), has been dead for a few years, and Rocky is now the owner of an Italian restaurant called Adrian's, where's he's a constant presence telling old boxing stories to his customers.  Now a lonely man living in the past, Rocky regularly visits Adrian's grave, and every year, has his ne'er-do-well brother-in-law, Paulie (Burt Young), drive him around to places in the old neighborhood that remind him of Adrian and happier times.


Paulie's still the same ornery drunk, but Rocky Jr. now works in the white-collar world and has little time for his father, who remains a much-recognized celebrity on the streets of Philadelphia.


Other links to Rocky's past include Spider Rico (real-life former boxer Pedro Lovell), the "has-been" Rocky beat in the ring at the beginning of Rocky 1, who's now a down-and-out retired boxer the salt-of-the-earth Rocky always lets eat for free at Adrian's.  And he also reconnects with Marie, the little girl hanging out on the street corner that Rocky walked home in the first one only to have her call him a "Creep-o."  Marie (Geraldine Hughes) is also down on her luck, and along with Spider Rico, represents how Rocky might have ended up if he didn't get his a million to one shot back in '76.


Being the kind-hearted soul that he is, Rocky befriends Marie, and tries to help her and her biracial teen-age son (James Francis Kelly III).  Marie also represents the possibility of a second love for Rocky that might help ease the pain of Adrian's passing.  The relationship between Rocky and Marie is the strongest part of the movie, and you come away wishing more time were devoted to it.


One of the main problems with Rocky Balboa is that it scatters itself in too many different directions by introducing too many characters, most of whom end up getting the short shrift.  We certainly should see more of Rocky's relationship with Marie's teen-age son, and Tony Burton, who returns once again as Apollo Creed's former trainer who came over with Apollo to Rocky's side in III, isn't given any personal moments in the latest.


The early scenes of Rocky Balboa are surprisingly good, but the film really goes on automatic pilot once the training beings for the obligatory Big Fight -- this one has the now 50-something Rocky accepting the challenge to fight the current, much-younger heavyweight champ, Mason "The Line" Dixon (real-life former boxing champion Antonio Tarver), after a computerized "what if" fight has Rocky winning.  Once again Rocky will need to reclaim his self-respect by stepping back into the ring as an enormous underdog in a 10-round "exhibition" bout with the cocky Dixon.  Nobody gives Rocky a chance.  Will "The Italian Stallion" find enough courage within himself to go the distance one last time?  Does any of this sound familiar?


Rocky Balboa is every bit as average as III, IV and V, and often plays like a highlight reel of elements from the previous films.  There's the training montage set to Bill Conti's famous music, Rocky running up the steps of the museum and the expected lectures about self-respect and not being a loser.  But what was wonderful in 1976 is now about as fresh as a 30-year-old loaf of bread, and the sixth one again misses the humor that separated the first two from the rest.  Nevertheless, despite much of it being a by-the-numbers rehash, VI builds up a considerable amount of good will since enough time has passed since the last one to make the new one feel like a reunion with old friends.


Next month Stallone is scheduled to start filming Rambo IV, another belated sequel with Stallone starring and directing as his second most famous character.  The Rambo character is a more natural candidate for sequels than Rocky because Rambo is more of a "continuing adventures of" type of character.  Like a James Bond or an Indiana Jones, it's easier to put that type of action hero in exciting new situations than it is a Rocky.  After all, how many times can Rocky be cast as the underdog in the Big Fight before he eventually becomes the favorite?


If there's as much nostalgia towards the character as Stallone hopes, and Rocky Balboa becomes a big hit, it might give Hollywood the excuse to make other belated sequels with aging stars.  Why not Clint Eastwood in Dirtier Harry; Burt Reynolds in Smokey and the Bandit: The Golden Years and Cannonball Run 3; Eddie Murphy and Nick Nolte in Yet Another 48 HRS.; John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever III: Dancing the Pounds Away; Jack Nicholson in The Shining II: Jack's Back and He's Not Happy; and James Caan and Alan Arkin in Freebie and the Bean II?


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