Sunday, November 22, 2015

The Rocky Road: Rocky Balboa (2006)

Click here to read my retro review of Rocky V
When the lights came up on 1990's Rocky V, like most moviegoers and Rocky fans, I assumed that I'd just seen the last of Rocky Balboa. I mean, we'd gotten that great Elton John song and everything! Nonetheless, for years after its release, the film's critical and commercial failure nagged at star Sylvester Stallone. Given all that the series and the character had achieved over the years, it seemed somehow wrong to him that the franchise's final curtain be one that was so divisive -- both for the fans and himself.

And so, in 1999, Stallone put pen to paper once again and set about crafting a final round for the beloved boxer that measured up to the impressive path he'd already blazed. Of course, given Stallone's advancing age and the negative reception accorded the last one, it's an understatement to say another Rocky outing proved a bit of a hard sell to home studio MGM (which took over the property following the dissolution of United Artists). While they may not have laughed him out of the room when he pitched it, it was probably something close to that.

And from their point of view, you can't really blame them. After all, the '90s had been a difficult time in general for the star. Sure, there was the occasional blockbuster like Cliffhanger, but the shifting zeitgeist made it a challenge for him to play to his strengths in quite the same way he had previously. With a string of flops like Assassins, Judge Dredd, and Get Carter calling into question whether the once-indomitable action hero could still open a picture, the latest Rocky would prove just as autobiographical and personal for its creator as the series' earliest entries.

By the mid-2000s, with his biological clock ticking, it was now or never for Stallone. And after seven years of hustling and pitching, it took an eventual co-financing deal with Joe Roth's Revolution Studios before MGM and Sony finally gave a greenlight to the sixth installment, now titled Rocky Balboa to signify this as a finale rather than just another Roman numeral. The late night punchlines about a geriatric Rocky were flying freely by now, so Stallone had to know exactly how much was on the line as he again set about directing from his own script, once more drafting a game Burt Young into duty as Paulie.

However, one very notable absence from the cast for this last go-round was Talia Shire. While the notion of Rocky without Adrian at his side seems almost heretical, Stallone realized early on that in order for this story to have the necessary (sorry) punch -- in order to justify a senior citizen Balboa climbing back into the square circle -- he needed Rocky to be at his lowest ebb emotionally, and the only way to get there was to take away the one person he loved more than anything else.

And so, in Rocky Balboa, the two-time former champ is a lonely and solitary figure. His wife is gone (having succumbed to "the woman's cancer"), his son (Milo Ventimiglia, stepping in for Sage Stallone) is a largely-infrequent presence in his life trying to escape his father's shadow, and Rocky mostly spends time at his semi-successful Italian restaurant regaling customers with tales of his former glory. This is Rocky at the twilight of his career, largely pushed to the wayside by things shinier and newer. And yet, he still has something to offer. Something "in the basement."

When a computer simulation shows Rocky in his prime demolishing current heavyweight champ Mason "The Line" Dixon (real life boxer and former champion Antonio Tarver), Rocky is inspired to get back in the ring. Not for a anything like a heavyweight bout, mind you, just local stuff to keep himself active and busy. However, when Dixon's people get wind of this, and knowing how much conversation the simulation prompted, they reach out to Balboa with another million-to-one shot: An exhibition match between the current and former champ.

When you take a step back and actually take a look at it, the premise of Rocky Balboa is pretty preposterous, yet somehow it manages to work because Stallone imbues the proceedings with such heart and pathos. (There's an especially poignant moment when Rocky breaks down trying to convey the still-raw pain of losing his wife.) Also, for all the ways previous films conspired to make our hero the underdog again (he's lost his confidence, he's lost his money, he's fighting a Russian cyborg), the passage of time was all that was necessary to do the trick here.

I guess that's why, for me, there's a kind of bittersweetness to watching Rocky Balboa. It's a reminder that time only moves in one direction, no matter how much we might wish otherwise. Seeing it the first time, the whole experience had the feeling of being reunited with a friend you never thought you'd meet again, knowing that you have to say goodbye before too long. If that sounds a trifle maudlin, so be it. Bottom line, it's hard not to feel attached to the big lug, especially with moments like when he gives his kid a stern-yet-inspirational talking-to.

Tell me that doesn't make you want to rush out and do a bunch of pull-ups.

In many ways, Rocky Balboa is less a sequel and more a belated reunion. It's just nice to revisit some of the old haunts. It's nice see Paulie bickering with the ex-champ once again. It's nice to see Tony "Duke" Evers (Tony Burton -- the only actor other than Stallone and Young to appear in all six flicks) back to train him through one last "Gonna Fly Now" montage from Bill Conti. There's also a sweet relationship between Rocky and "li'l" Marie (Geraldine Hughes), who we first met as a little girl in the first movie, now working as a bartender. It's tender and affectionate without being romantic.

As far as the climactic fight, it's more realistic than any other in the series. Taking into account how much the boxing game had changed in the gap between movies, Stallone gave his all to shake things up visually interesting (he used HBO's cameras to shoot it like a real pay-per-view event). Still, there's no denying that Mason Dixon is probably the least compelling of all the fighters Rocky squared off against. That's not really a ding on Tarver, who's fine, nor is it even a ding on the script. The real opponent in this one is age, and the bout with Dixon is just a mechanism for that.

In the end, that final bell rings, and Rocky is still there. Still standing. Just as he did thirty years ago, he'd gone the distance. The same could be said for Stallone as well. He'd put his credibility on the line to give Rocky the final curtain he deserved, and he was rewarded. Released in December of 2006, Rocky Balboa earned a very healthy $156 million global return on a $25 million budget, with the majority of critics embracing its heart and can-do spirit. At film's close, Rocky visits the grave of his beloved Adrian, telling her, "We did it," and walks off-screen after a subtle goodbye to the camera. It's a perfect coda.

The Rocky story is a timeless myth for the ages. More than that, the entire cinematic cycle, from 1976's original through the five follow-ups, represents a singular achievement in movie lore: tracking the life and times of a single fictional character, essentially in real time, over the course of three decades. We'd seen the highs, we'd seen the lows, and now we'd seen him off. Or so we thought. But as it turned out, even the end of his series didn't mean the end of Rocky Balboa. For his next chapter, though, he'd take on a role that was entirely new to him: supporting player.

To Be Continued...

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